Brandeis scientists awarded $1 million Keck Foundation grant

Photos of researchers

Sacha Nelson, Susan Birren, Eve Marder and Gina Turrigiano

A team of Brandeis scientists have been awarded $1 million in funding from the W.M. Keck Foundation to study how the human brain interfaces with the sympathetic nervous system.

The research could lead to new understandings of how the sympathetic nervous system, which exists outside the brain and spinal cord and controls the fight or flight response, is disrupted in disorders like hypertension and Postural Orthostatic Tachychardia Syndrome (POTS) — a condition that affects heart function and can cause fainting. 

The labs headed by Susan Birren, the Zalman Abraham Kekst Professor in Neuroscience; Sacha Nelson, the Gyula and Katica Tauber Professor of Life Science; Gina Turrigiano, the Joseph Levitan Professor of Vision Science; and Eve Marder, the Victor and Gwendolyn Beinfield Professor of Biology will collaborate on the three-year study. Led by Birren and Nelson, the research will be conducted in their laboratories, with intellectual and technical contributions from Turrigiano and Marder.  

“The nervous system is a key regulator of all bodily functions, yet we have so much to learn about how the sympathetic system bridges the gap between the brain and the heart,” Birren said. “We are grateful to the Keck Foundation for their help in pushing the boundaries of knowledge in this area.”

An array of tools will be used to study a stabilizing mechanism that may act in the sympathetic ganglia,  clusters of nerve cells that run along either side of  the spinal cord. This mechanism, known as homeostatic plasticity, adjusts the activity of nerve cells downward when it is too high, and upward when it is too low. The scientists believe that these adjustments are key to understanding how balance is maintained in the function of peripheral organs, including the heart.

Homeostatic plasticity has come to be seen — thanks in part to major contributions from Brandeis investigators — as an essential property of the brain, but little is known about its function in the peripheral nervous system. The team of researchers on this project have extensive experience on plasticity in multiple organisms and systems.

Established in 1954 by William Myron Keck, founder of The Superior Oil Company, the W. M. Keck Foundation of Los Angeles is one of the nation’s largest philanthropic organizations and a pre-eminent funder of basic research in science, engineering and medicine. At Brandeis, the foundation has previously supported research into the origins of life in far-from-equilibrium chemistry, the development of model systems of active matter, and transformative innovations in electron microscopy.

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