Empire Innovation Scholar comes to Upstate, by way of Harvard, to unlock mysteries of the brain

Upstate Medical University’s newest Empire Innovation Scholar, Wei-Dong Yao, PhD, is studying the fundamental underpinnings of how some of the world’s most vexing diseases, such as schizophrenia and autism, affect the brain.

Both schizophrenia and autism are neurodevelopmental diseases that affect the brain’s wiring in early years. Yao is looking at what molecules play a role in the brain wiring process and how they are harmed to cause these diseases.

Yao’s lab is also looking into how drug abuse can affect the brain by hijacking the brains circuitry and destroying neural communications at sites called synapses that can have a negative affect on the prefrontal cortex of the brain. That’s the part of the brain directly behind the forehead, where one’s abstract thinking, motivation and decision making take root. But it’s also the part of the brain that regulates reward related behavior. When looking for clues to the science behind drug addiction, it’s an important brain area to look into, he says.

Some of his groundbreaking research has furthered the understanding of how proteins in synapses signal dopamine, a chemical transmitter that senses and transmits pleasure signals in the brain, which also renders addictive drugs reinforcing.

Vice President for Research David C. Amberg, PhD, said Upstate has benefited greatly from Yao’s appointment. “Dr Yao helps knit together expertise in psychiatric genetics in our department of psychiatry and expertise in neurodevelopment within our department of neuroscience and physiology.

“Since joining upstate Dr. Yao has continued to expand his research program by pursuing new funding opportunities and has established powerful collaborations with several faculty on campus. He has proven himself to be a valuable member of our community and a force multiplier within our growing neuroscience research programs,” Amberg noted.

Yao was recruited from Harvard to Upstate last October as part of SUNY’s Empire Innovation Program, which brings top-flight researchers from across the country to New York to continue their research on SUNY campuses. Other Empire Innovation Scholars at Upstate are George Holz, PhD, William Kerr, PhD, and Francesca Pignoni, PhD.

At Harvard, Yao served as an assistant professor of psychiatry at the medical school and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center; he also headed Harvard’s Cellular Molecular Neuroscience and served as an adjunct faculty at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Yao has numerous faculty appointments at Upstate, including in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Neuroscience and Physiology and the Neuroscience Graduate Program. He also heads the Upstate’s Molecular Cellular Neuropsychiatry Laboratory.

Yao’s current research has received more than $3.9 million in NIH funding, which has supported his work since 2007.

His research has been published in a number of top scientific journals, including Neuron, PNAS, Nature Medicine, the Journal of Neuroscience and the Journal of Biochemistry, among others.

Yao is a recipient of the NARSAD Young Investigator Award, the William F. Milton Fund for Career Development at Harvard, a NIH instrumentation grant award for a Leica SP5 confocal microscope.

Yao received his doctorate in biology from the University of Iowa and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Duke University Medical Center with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

When Yao was being introduced to Upstate, he was impressed with the emphasis the academic medical center placed on neuroscience research, which was underscored by the research infrastructure Upstate offered him such as the lab space in the Neuroscience Research Building, which opened in fall 2013.

“One of the good things about coming to Upstate is the very collegial environment and relationships among researchers that exists here,” Yao said.  “The support from the faculty and administration has been positive and they have been very supportive of my work.”

Caption: Wei-Dong Yao, PhD, is Upstate’s newest Empire Innovation Scholar.

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