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Neuroscience Research Funding

The National Institutes of Health awarded a University of Dayton researcher $148,077 to study the role of a novel calcium-handling protein in the brain that could be involved in mental conditions such as autism, schizophrenia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Preliminary data from Pothitos “Takis” Pitychoutis’ research laboratory indicates this protein is selectively expressed in a critical brain region that influences vital neurobiological processes including attention and the generation of sleep rhythms. Based on his research, the loss of this protein’s function results in hyperactivity and cognitive defects in mice.

“In the context of this project we try to decipher the role of a novel calcium regulator in the central nervous system,” said Pitychoutis, an assistant professor of biology and researcher in the Center for Tissue Regeneration and Engineering at Dayton (TREND). “This is an exciting, discovery-based project since virtually nothing is known about the function of this calcium-handling protein in the brain.”

His work could lead to the discovery of safer and more effective drug therapies to prevent and treat these devastating brain disorders.

Pitychoutis’ research was largely supported by a University of Dayton STEM Catalyst grant awarded in 2017. Offered through the College of Arts and Sciences, School of Engineering and Office of the Provost, the internal grant program is intended to advance new and existing research programs that have potential to rise to national prominence.

Pitychoutis used the grant to engineer a cutting-edge genetic mouse model that lacks the calcium-handling protein in specific regions of the brain. Now, this model will be used to assess how the loss of this gene may lead to ADHD-like pathology.

“Our research will deepen our understanding on the molecular mechanisms implicated in the neurobiology of ADHD,” he said.

Pitychoutis is the first STEM Catalyst grant recipient to successfully transition his research program to external funding.

Doug Daniels, who administers that program, hopes additional faculty researchers follow suit.

“In the first STEM Catalyst funding cycle, Takis made an excellent case for how a Catalyst grant could dramatically improve his competitiveness for NIH funding. He has adeptly realized that vision,” said Daniels, executive director of the University’s Integrative Science and Engineering Center.

“I am impressed, but not surprised, that his subsequent NIH application was not only funded, but scored in the top 6 percent of proposals,” Daniels said.

Pitychoutis joined the University faculty in 2013. He holds a doctoral degree in neurobiology; a master’s in molecular medicine/neurobiology; and a bachelor’s in biology, all from National & Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece.

His research focuses on the behavioral, neurochemical and molecular
mechanisms underlying neuropsychiatric disorders and their treatment. Other research interests of the Pitychoutis lab revolve around sex differences in the neurobiology of depression and response to the rapid-acting antidepressant drug ketamine, and the role of serotonin in major depression and schizophrenia.

Pitychoutis has trained four graduate and more than 23 undergraduate student researchers. Two students from his lab, alumnus Jonathan Sens ’16 and current senior Joseph Saurine, both received Goldwater Scholarships — a nationally competitive, merit-based award that supports the next generation’s research leaders in the natural sciences, mathematics and engineering.

In fall 2017, Pitychoutis piloted a new neurobiology laboratory class to accompany his neurobiology lecture course. This fall, he is teaching a second cohort of students, who learn neuroscience lab techniques and then apply their knowledge and skills to answer a novel neuroscience research question.

Neuroscience is a growing field, with employment projected to increase at 13 percent between 2012 and 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But, for Pitychoutis, the discipline’s importance is more existential in nature.

“Neuroscience strives to give us answers to burning questions associated with our existence, from how we perceive the world and communicate with one another to how we fall in love, what dreams are made of, and how we form memories as we grow up and then lose these memories as we grow older,” he said.

“Neuroscience is associated with the core of our existence and, in my eyes, it represents the last frontier in human science.

"If we discover how our brain works, then we have unlocked one of the biggest mysteries in life.”

- Dave Larsen, communication coordinator, College of Arts and Sciences

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