UCSD Scientists Explain How They Spend NIH Funds

By: Neuro Transmissions

Hey there! Welcome back to Neuro Transmissions. I'm Alie Astrocyte and this week, we're talking about how government funding impacts neuroscience research at one research university. To help with this I'd like to introduce my friend Andrea Hartzell, a PhD candidate at UC San Diego and an avid science policy wonk. Thanks Alie. If you live in the United States, you've probably heard some of the news about the president's proposed budget.

Namely how many resources his budget proposal would eliminate. One of the things that stood out to the Neuro Transmissions team was the 5.8 billion dollar cut to the National Institutes of Health, or NIH. And then more recently another 1.2 billion dollar cut effective immediately. These cuts represent over twenty percent of the NIH's annual budget and has huge ramifications for America scientific and technological future. Government funding of science research is critically important. It provides jobs, leads to the creation of new technologies, helps us understand human biology, allows for the development of treatments and cures for hundreds of debilitating diseases and fuels economic growth as the discoveries lead to real world applications. A cut of this magnitude will damage American scientific research for generations to come.

But what might not be obvious is how government funding and NIH funding in particular lead directly to things that benefit our society. So if you're American taxpayer, you might wonder, "where does that money go?" Well, we talked to some scientists at UC San Diego to find out. I use NIH funding to turn human skin cells into brain cells that I can grow in the lab. This is important because it allows me to study horrible diseases like Alzheimer's disease using real samples from humans just like you. My laboratory uses NIH funds to understand the neural circuit level mechanisms of drug action. By distinguishing the neuronal targets of drugs that lead to their therapeutic benefits from those that produce unwanted side effects, we hope to develop non addictive painkillers and better treatments for Parkinson's disease. I study a group of proteins that cluster together and cause cell damage during diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease, as well as ALS. And in particular, I look at the genes that influence this protein clustering and how that damages cells in order to develop more effective therapies to treat these diseases.

I study the neural mechanisms responsible for the behavioral and perceptual effects of hallucinogens. In addition to being important for determining better approaches for combating some of the harms associated with drug abuse, these drugs also serve as an avenue for studying some of the more serious symptoms associated with psychiatric illness, such as hallucinations and delusions, and how we may better treat these in the future. We work on uncovering brand new mechanisms that underlie nerve cell death in the aging brain. Our lab, and our NIH money, strives to find the mechanisms that underlie these causes of neurodegeneration in the aging mammalian brain. I look at a particular type of brain cell in the visual system. And I also study how this type of brain cell receives and interprets information. And this is important because they are known to play a huge role in neurological and psychiatric diseases and disorders such as epilepsy and schizophrenia.

UCSD Scientists Explain How They Spend NIH Funds

My job as a computational researcher in this field to help every other scientists in the field understand whether or not their data is correct and also to build tools to help them understand what's going on with their results faster and cheaper than they could do by themselves. I study how people use visual information in attention and memory, and how that information is represented in the brain using signals measured with fMRI and EEG. Data from our lab can help us understand disorders of perception and attention, such as in schizophrenia or ADHD, but it also can help us understand how people see in the everyday world. So the core of my research is really a desire to understand how memories are formed, encoded, and stored within the brain.

These types of questions are very important to be asking in order to understand a variety of neurological conditions, but really even to understand typical cognitive processes, such as memory loss that happens with normal aging. We know now because of NIH funding that an extra copy of a gene on this chromosome is responsible for Alzheimer's disease in people with Down syndrome. We have this clue that we're going to be able to use that helps us treat, and ideally prevent Alzheimers disease in people with Down syndrome and we think that same clue is going to help all the rest of us avoid dementia. I study the blood vessels in the brain and spinal cord.

And those blood vessels are actually very different from those in the rest of your body, in that they really tightly control what can get from the bloodstream into your brain and spinal cord. Scientists don't know much about how the blood-brain barrier breaks down. And we think understanding this is really important because if we know how it breaks down, we might be able to help rescue some of the later symptoms of MS and stroke and epilepsy and TBI. In our lab, we study how animals perceive the world and we study specifically how different neurons are helping the animal perceive the world. I'm a graduate student studying how the visual system is wired up.

So understanding the principles of these wiring patterns has implications not only for understanding how vision and attention works, but also for understanding what goes wrong in disorders like autism and ADHD. I've been here for 45 years, continuously supported during that time by the National Institutes of Health. I study brain brain plasticity. Brain plasticity is the ability of the brain to change in response to the environment. We think that this kind of plasticity could underlie various mental health problems. So we're really focused on this to try to find ways to treat people with these difficulties.

In addition to funding individual research projects, the NIH also funds programs such as the Medical Scientist Training program, where students such as myself receive training as both a medical doctor, as well as a research PhD. This unique dual degree program provides us with training in both the clinic and in the lab in a wide variety of diseases. From mental illness, to ALS. My research studies a gene that actually turns on in the brain when we learn and remember new experiences. More importantly, this gene that I study is disrupted an autism spectrum disorder. So we think that by studying it, it might reveal therapeutic avenues that could help patients with autism spectrum disorder. I'm not a scientist but I have the privilege every day of working with graduate students and faculty who are doing amazing work on treating many disorders of the brain Our graduate program receives funding from the NIH to support medical research, and without it, early diagnosis, treatment, and potential cures for these diseases will be delayed and severely impacted.

My lab is mainly funded by the NIH and we study fundamental mechanisms of learning, which have implications in neural disorders such as Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease. We work on trying to understand how the function of our brain changes in response to our experiences. This is incredibly important biology because it's involving everything we do on a daily basis. And it's dysregulated in many neurological disorders and psychiatric disorders. My lab studies rare disorders that affect brain development. And we understand the genetic mechanisms and try to find genetic modifiers to change the outcome of this. Companies can't do this. The disorders are two rare, there's no market and the outcome is too uncertain.

For these families, NIH is their hope. All of this research is happening at just one public university. And as you can see, it's all pretty important in unique and fascinating ways. The work being done by NIH funded scientists here at UCSD has the potential to prevent Alzheimer's disease, understand autism, or prevent multiple sclerosis. It's hard to argue that those things wouldn't benefit our society. We need to come together as a society to tell the government that cutting NIH funding is absolutely unacceptable.

This research is critical to our nation's future and it must be protected. If you'd like to help, here are a few things you can do. First, call your representative or send them a letter and tell them not to approve any budget that cuts NIH funding. Then, share this video around your communities to help others learn about how important NIH funding is. Finally, if you can, consider donating to an organization like the Foundation for the National Institute of Health, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting the NIH's scientific mission. Check the description below for resources on how to contact your representative, an example calling script you can use, and a link to the foundation.

Andrea, thanks for joining us today to talk about this important topic. Thanks Alie! Thanks for watching. If you like this video, please hit that thumbs up button. And share it with others so we can protect science in the United States. And please subscribe if you want to see more videos about how NIH funding is supporting scientists everywhere. If you want to help us keep spreading science on YouTube, please consider supporting us on Patreon. We love making these videos and we couldn't do it without your support. Until our next transmission, I'm Alie Astrocyte.

Over and out.

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