Researchers at the Saban Research Institute at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles are moving closer to understanding the complex interaction between genetic and environmental factors that impact the development of brain architecture.
Their work is the result of a collaboration between USC and affiliate Childrens Hospital to recruit faculty researchers and develop a multidisciplinary developmental neuroscience program.
The implications of the research are profound. One in five children suffer from some form of neurodevelopmental disorders — including autism and a variety of learning disabilities — more than all other chronic childhood diseases combined, noted Richard Simerly, professor of pediatrics at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and director of the Saban Neuroscience Program.
“Mood, personality, learning disorders all have their origins early in development,” Simerly said. “The problem right now is that we do not know enough about the basic rules of brain development. This information is vital for design of effective therapies to treat these diseases, but recent advances in molecular genetics are providing renewed hope. Another promising area is that enhanced early assessment procedures are enabling improved intervention and promoting better outcomes.”
Since 2004, a total of four researchers, including Simerly, have been recruited to the Saban Neuroscience Program, with a fifth position likely to be filled in 2010.
The program’s development is a result of a commitment made several years ago by Executive Vice President and Provost C. L. Max Nikias on the recommendation of the Provost Neuroscience Advisory Group, said Randolph Hall, vice provost for research advancement.
University leaders on both the University Park and Health Sciences campuses recognized the need for a research program at Childrens Hospital that would be integrated into the broader USC neuroscience program.
“The cluster recruitment demonstrates the university’s commitment to synergistic neuroscience research where innovation is driven by collaboration,” Hall said. “USC and Childrens Hospital have invested in a partnership for research that helps us understand the development of the human brain, so that we can develop therapies and eventually cures for the neurological disorders that afflict both children and adults.”
The program is funded through a $1.5 million commitment from the Office of the Provost combined with $3 million from the Childrens Hospital Los Angeles Associates endowment for neuroscience, as well as a $3 million endowment provided by the Saban Family Foundation.
In addition to Simerly, three research faculty members in developmental neuroscience have been recruited:
� Sebastien Bouret, assistant professor of pediatrics. His research is focused on how the prenatal environment impacts development of brain regions involved in obesity and diabetes.
� Aaron McGee, assistant professor of pediatrics. His research uses genetics and imaging to study how developmental critical periods are specified in cortical circuitry.
� Takako Makita, assistant professor of pediatrics. She uses molecular genetics to study cellular signaling events that direct development of the peripheral neural system.
A fifth investigator is expected to join the program in 2010. Recruitment efforts will likely focus on a candidate with a research interest in cellular physiology and development of brain architecture related to autism, Simerly said.
Simerly came to Childrens Hospital and USC from the Oregon National Research Center and the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland.
His research focuses on the connection between brain development and obesity with a focus on how development of neural circuits controlling energy balance are influenced by early nutrition.
He works with colleagues at the Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute, headed by director Pat Levitt, and the Childhood Obesity Research Center, directed by Michael Goran, both based at the Keck School of Medicine.
“The partnership between Childrens Hospital and USC to expand developmental neuroscience in the Saban Research Institute demonstrates the advantage of integrating basic science research into clinical environments,” Simerly said. “The rate of progress in this field has exploded and our position here allows us to direct new findings toward the clinical population that will benefit most. As our appreciation of the developmental origins of disease continues to evolve, the importance of understanding the relationship between brain development and a wide array of childhood disorders will continue to expand.”