Buck faculty Jennifer Garrison, PhD, Named 2014 Sloan Research Fellow by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

February 18, 2014/Novato, California: Buck Assistant Professor Jennifer Garrison, PhD, has been awarded a prestigious Sloan Research Fellowship. The two-year, highly-competitive fellowships are awarded yearly to 126 early-career researchers in recognition of their unique potential to make substantial contributions to their field.

Dr. Garrison’s research is focused on understanding how neuropeptides impact behavior in normal and aging animals. Neuropeptides are small bioactive molecules which are secreted from neurons and transmit messages within the brain and across the entire nervous system. While neuropeptides have been shown to control a wide range of behaviors ranging from food intake to social behaviors and reproduction, scientists still don’t understand many of the basic principles surrounding their function.

Jennifer Garrison, PhDIn particular, Dr. Garrison wants to understand how neurons communicate with each other outside of synapses, the structures which facilitate the transfer of chemical and electrical signals between individual neurons.  Her current focus is on understanding how and when neuropeptides are released from sites in the cell that are distant from synapses.  “These neuropeptides are not restricted spatially by the anatomy of synaptic wiring, nor temporally by rapid degradation, so they might be able to travel over relatively long distances to coordinate groups of neurons,” said Dr. Garrison. “Almost nothing is known about how and when neuropeptides are released extrasynaptically.”

This arm of Dr. Garrison’s research is conducted using the nematode C. elegans. She says that even though the anatomical neuronal wiring of this simple animal was delineated 26 years ago, researchers still do not understand how the 302 neurons in its simple brain impact worm behavior because bioactive peptides can alter the functional connectivity of neural circuits, something that cannot be predicted from simple anatomy.  She is developing a series of tools that will be used to perturb and analyze this process from the subcellular level of gene expression up to behavior in a whole animal. “Understanding neuropeptide signaling in the worm should give us valuable insights for understanding similar processes in mammals and even humans,” said Garrison. “There are striking similarities in these signaling systems between the two species.”   

Dr. Garrison also wants to study the potential impact of neuropeptides on aging. Her lab will focus on how global neuropeptide levels change in individual neurons and circuits between young and old animals.  She will also map whether the neurons that respond to neuropeptides change over an animal’s lifetime.  “We think that alterations in neuropeptide signaling may underlie some of the changes that we see in the brain as an animal ages,” Garrison said. 

Dr. Garrison, who is an adjunct faculty at the University of Southern California,  says the tools have not been available to explore the basic biology of neuropeptides at the cellular level and the $50,000 Sloan Fellowship Award will help her develop the technology.  “It is a huge honor to receive this Fellowship. I thank the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for supporting my individual research as well as supporting other scientists who are in the early stages of their careers.” 

About the Buck Institute for Research on Aging

The Buck Institute is the U.S.’s first independent research organization devoted to Geroscience – focused on the connection between normal aging and chronic disease. Based in Novato, CA, The Buck is dedicated to extending “Healthspan”, the healthy years of human life and does so utilizing a unique interdisciplinary approach involving laboratories studying the mechanisms of aging and those focused on specific diseases. Buck scientists strive to discover new ways of detecting, preventing and treating age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, cancer, cardiovascular disease, macular degeneration, osteoporosis, diabetes and stroke.  In their collaborative research, they are supported by the most recent developments in genomics, proteomics, bioinformatics and stem cell technologies. For more information: www.thebuck.org

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