Three Upstate studies receive SUNY Brain Network of Excellence funding

Three Upstate Medical University research studies are among eight projects to share $800,000 from the State University of New York (SUNY) and the Research Foundation (RF) for SUNY.

The first round of funding, supported through the SUNY Brain Network of Excellence program, was awarded to seven SUNY campuses and their partners in the private sector to advance research into the causes, treatments, and cures for neurological-based diseases and disorders.

“On SUNY campuses across the state, our students and faculty are making major medical breakthroughs, discovering with each new venture a more effective way to understand, diagnose, or treat diseases that affect brain and eye function in people of all ages,” said SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher.

“These awards are a perfect example of how the power of SUNY, through the Networks of Excellence, can move forward important and innovative biomedical research through cross-campus collaboration,” said David C. Amberg, PhD, interim vice president of research and professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Upstate. “In these awards, there is a clear recognition of the strength of Upstate Medical University’s vision research group as SUNY leaders in eye research. The remarkable results achieved by the Zuber and Viczian labs in reprogramming cells to a retinal specific fates holds great promise for the treatment of eye diseases and we are equally pleased at the recognition of Dr. Solessio’s and Dr. Tso’s groundbreaking research in the areas of myopia and image perception and processing.”

Upstate is participating in the following funded projects:

Mapping Neural Transformations For Context Based Perceptual Adjustments
This study received $98,600 in funding to explore the neural mechanism of color vision. Serving as Upstate’s principal investigator is Daniel Tso, PhD, associate professor of neurosurgery, neuroscience and physiology, and ophthalmology. Adjusting perception to context is an important dynamic function of the brain. However, little is understood of how this is done, so understanding the neural transformations underlying perceptual adjustments and how they are driven by environmental properties is a big challenge in neuroscience. The team will combine human behavioral measurements, with intrinsic and multi-photon imaging and electrophysiological recordings to study V1, V2 and V4 of primate cortex, the areas of the brain in which color is represented by spatially organized hue maps. This is done to resolve the neural mechanisms of one important example, the change in perceived color and brightness as a function of surround properties.  The team will build on psychophysical methods, stimuli, results and models in brightness and color induction to develop a dynamic computational model based on measurements of color-sensitive neurons and their connectivity.  “We will use these methods with multi-electrode recordings of functional cortical compartments, identified by intrinsic imaging, to do the first critical tests of the locus of color and brightness induction, and use the stimuli to critically tests components of the model,” said Tso.  The team will then perform novel psychophysical experiments to test the hypotheses about the role of image blur, spatial frequency masking, and image junctions that signal 3-D configurations.  “Based on the results, we will elaborate the model to predict appearance under these ethologically relevant conditions.  The elaborated model will then be tested with multi-electrode recordings and finally, we will test combined dynamic and spatial aspects of the model with high resolution multi-photon imaging of neuronal populations.” Conducting the study with Tso are Youping Xiao, PhD, associate professor of ophthalmology, SUNY Downstate Medical Center; and Qasim Zaidi, PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor, Perceptural Neuroscience Laboratory, SUNY College of Optometry.

Membrane-permeable Transcriptional Regulators for Retinal Repair
Generating eye cells that can be used to cure blinding diseases is the focus of this study that received $93,700 in funding. Michael E. Zuber, PhD, associate professor of ophthalmology, biochemistry and molecular biology and neuroscience and physiology, serves as the study’s principal investigator. Zuber says that understanding and curing neurological diseases will require new technologies designed to generate neural-specific cell types for study and replacement therapies.  “Pluripotent cells (embryonic and induced pluripotent stem cells) are the obvious starting materials for these efforts,” says Zuber,  “however, there are a bewildering number of neural cell types and current approaches are hindered by an inability to direct cultured pluripotent cells efficiently and reliably to the desired neural subtypes.” Zuber’s team will use transcription factors to drive stem cells to neural cell-specific fates.  Specifically, they will use membrane permeable versions of transcription factors to direct mouse and human embryonic stem cells to retinal progenitor cells and identify the conditions required to maintain retinal progenitor cells in a proliferative, yet multipotent, state.  Zuber says that this technology could generate other neural cell classes to provide a powerful new and broadly applicable tool for neuroscience research. Joining Zuber in the study are co-investigators Andrea Viczian, PhD, assistant professor of ophthalmology, biochemistry and molecular biology, cell and developmental biology and neuroscience and physiology, Upstate Medical University; Steven Fliesler, PhD, professor, vice-chair, and director of research at the University at Buffalo; Jun Qu, PhD, associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences and biochemistry, University at Buffalo; and Gail M. Seigel, PhD, research assistant professor, University at Buffalo.

A Multidisciplinary Approach to the Prevention and Treatment of Myopia
This study received $85,000 in funding to develop novel approaches to determine the environmental risk factors and genetic components that lead to myopia or nearsightedness. Eduardo Solessio, PhD, assistant professor of ophthalmology and neuroscience and physiology, serves as Upstate’s principal investigator.
Myopia, or nearsightedness, is a leading cause of visual impairment and dramatically increases the risk of other eye diseases that threaten vision.  Solessio says that although myopia is associated with changes to eye structure, it likely reflects developmental dysfunction of the nervous system that results in significant changes in retinal function. “Past myopia research has not elucidated the underlying neural mechanisms of myopia,” says Solessio, “as a result, most current therapies have proved ineffective.” The team will develop novel animal models of myopia in zebrafish and mice that, unlike traditional animal models, will allow for the study of multiple environmental and genetic risk factors.  The team’s long-term goal is to combine effective treatments with wearable electronics that can monitor risk and modify visual behavior to prevent or limit the progression of myopia.  Conducting the study with Solessio are Steward Bloomfield, PhD, associate dean for Graduate Studies and Research, SUNY College of Optometry, who is leading the investigation; Jose Manuel Alonso, MD, PhD, professor of biological and vision sciences, SUNY College of Optometry; and Gary Matthews, PhD, professor of neurobiology and behavior, Stony Brook University.

Funded projects from other campuses include:

* Manufacturing and testing ultra-thin implants to effectively record brain function. SUNY Optometry, College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering.

* Exploring the relationship between glaucoma and waste removal system dysfunction around the optic nerve and eye. Stony Brook University, Downstate Medical Center, University of Rochester Medical Center.

* Implementing new technology for high-resolution recording and visualization of brain activity associated with urinary tract function. Stony Brook University, University at Albany.

* Illuminating the brain mechanisms responsible for generating purposeful eye movements in naturalistic environments. SUNY Optometry, Stony Brook University.

* Relying on images of the anatomy and function of the brain to detect rare genetic disorders that affect the central nervous system in infants. University at Buffalo, Stony Brook University, Jacobs Neurological Institute.

Visit Awardees for detailed abstracts for each project.

The SUNY Brain Network of Excellence, one of five networks throughout SUNY, was created to maximize interdisciplinary and collaborative neuroscience research across SUNY campuses and facilitate partnerships with academia, industry, and the community. The others are SUNY 4E (Energy, Environment, Education, Economics), SUNY Health, SUNY Materials and Advanced Manufacturing, and SUNY Arts and Humanities.

Caption: Michael Zuber, PhD, and Andrea Viczian, PhD, are conducting a study to generate eye cells that can be used to cure blinding diseases.

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