Southern Research Lab Awarded $3.9M for Neurological Disorders Study

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by Vanda Pinto, PhD |

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The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has awarded a Southern Research neuroscience lab $3.3 million to advance research in Parkinson’s disease.

Rita Cowell, PhD, the funding recipient, was also granted $594,000 for the study of frontotemporal dementia, a disorder that is similar to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Cowell is fellow and chair of the department of neuroscience in Southern Research’s drug discovery division.

“These grants are a reflection of the excellence and dedication of our neuroscience team,” said Josh Carpenter, PhD, president and CEO at Southern Research, in a press release from the organization. “They work every day to fight diseases that have devastated the lives of so many families. They are an asset to Southern Research and to our community.”

In Parkinson’s, the loss of dopamine-producing neurons in a brain region called the substantia nigra leads to a deficiency in the chemical messenger dopamine and subsequent development of symptoms such as tremors, slowness of movement, rigidity, and balance problems.

Cowell’s lab specializes in the study of the cellular processes that underlie cell death and that cause neurological diseases. These include the dysfunction of mitochondria — which provide energy to cells — and dysregulation of cellular transcription, the initial process by which information contained in genes is translated into proteins.

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The team received a five-year grant for its studies on a molecule that may promote brain cell survival in people with Parkinson’s.

“If we can understand why these cells die, then we may be able to find drugs to interfere with that and stop the progression of these diseases,” Cowell said.

The amount and length of the grants were based on previous positive data compiled by Southern Research through the support of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, the Southern Research Change Campaign, and the Meyer Foundation.

In collaboration with Kazutoshi Nakazawa, also at Southern Research, the group will also investigate how neurons cease functioning in frontotemporal dementia with the support of a two-year grant.

The exploratory grant follows previous research conducted at Southern Research that had received support from the Alabama Power Foundation.

“That investment from our own community created the base that is allowing us to go to the next level,” Cowell stated.

Both grants will be led by Southern Research. Co-investigators are located at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Virginia Tech, and the University of Michigan.

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