UNR Med brain researcher receives $1 million in National Science Foundation funding to study brain synapses

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Robert Renden, Ph.D., assistant professor in the department of physiology and cell biology at UNR Med in his lab.

Robert Renden, Ph.D., assistant professor in the department of physiology and cell biology at UNR Med and the UNR Neuroscience Institute is exploring how brain cells maintain the energy needed to communicate at contact sites, called synapses. UNR Med photo by Brin Reynolds.

Robert Renden, Ph.D., assistant professor in the department of physiology and cell biology at the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine (UNR Med), and the UNR Neuroscience Institute, was recently awarded a five-year, $1.1 million CAREER grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to explore how brain cells maintain the energy needed to communicate at contact sites, called synapses.

The brain is responsible for every thought, feeling, and action. Billions of cells in the brain communicate through a process called neurotransmission. The bulk of those communications occur at a site called the synapse. The synapse plays a critical role in a variety of cognitive processes, learning and memory. Synapses also play a crucial role in many brain diseases and disorders.

Findings generated through Renden's study aim to advance new approaches in the study of some diseases.

"Many neurodegenerative diseases of the brain, such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, depression, and even normal aging, are rooted in abnormalities of synapse populations and result in loss of synaptic function - but the underlying causes are not clear. Synapses have been historically challenging to study due to their tiny size and highly complex nature, and have made related diseases difficult to diagnose and treat," says Renden.

Renden says the award is unique in that it has both a research and an outreach objective. The research objective is to better understand how synapses maintain the energy they need to function. "By understanding how healthy synapses work, we can then determine what is going wrong in disease states." The award will also fund a postdoctoral researcher and a graduate student in the Renden lab.

As part of the outreach objective, Renden says "we will design a game with various levels of complexity to teach the steps underlying chemical transmission at synapses. The plan is to make the game accessible for elementary education students at the most basic level, and a more complex level will be developed for graduate and medical school students. Since synapses facilitate basic cellular interactions that make the brain work, and dysfunction results in impaired brain function, it is important that everyone understand how synapses work."

"We're very proud that Dr. Renden's unique scientific approach in neuroscience research is being recognized as having transformative potential by the NSF," said UNR Med Dean Thomas L. Schwenk, M.D. "Renden's synapse research is poised to make important contributions in how we think about the brain's function in both health and disease."

The NSF funds research to academic institutions for basic research and is an independent federal agency that promotes the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and to secure the national defense.

The University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine's biomedical scientists are internationally recognized in the fields of neuroscience, infectious diseases, reproductive endocrinology, muscular dystrophy, cardiovascular physiology and gastrointestinal diseases, among other fields. UNR Med researchers have generated nearly $240 million in research funding over the past decade, supporting research that is changing science and enhancing the quality of life for many.


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The University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine, Nevada's first public medical school, is a community-based, research-intensive medical school with a statewide vision for a healthy Nevada. Established in 1969, UNR Med is improving the health and well-being of all Nevadans and their communities through excellence in student education, postgraduate training and clinical care, research with local, national and global impact and a culture of diversity and inclusion.

Released: Tuesday June 30, 2020 @ 6:00 AM