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Salk scientists receive $3 million for BRAIN Initiative grant

Joseph Ecker, a Salk professor and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, and Margarita Behrens, a Salk staff scientist, have been named recipients in the 2014 round of grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) through the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative for leading-edge work in neuroscience. The grant, announced September 30, provides more than $3 million in funding to the Salk scientists over three years.

Margarita Behrens and Joseph Ecker

Margarita Behrens and Joseph Ecker

The BRAIN Initiative, launched last year, is a Presidential effort to support high-priority research that advances basic neuroscience, with the goal of better understanding the brain, as well as preventing and treating neurological disorders. Four federal agencies–the NIH, National Science Foundation (NSF), Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)–have committed to contributing more than $100 million in the 2014 fiscal year to support the initiative.

The brain has several cell types, many of which are still not well understood. The new grant will support Ecker and Behrens’ labs in constructing a map of the brain that identifies each cell type and how they are connected. In particular, Ecker and Behrens will examine how brain cell formation is influenced by the epigenome, an array of molecules or chemical tags that dot the DNA and regulate the activity of genes. The epigenome, together with the genome, determine the growth and function of all organs, including the brain.

“We are very excited by this additional support from the National Institute of Mental Health to participate in the BRAIN Initiative,” says Ecker, who is also a Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation Investigator and the Salk International Council Chair in Genetics. “We believe our new approach–which utilizes epigenetic differences in brain cell types–will complement existing mapping approaches, ultimately leading to deeper understanding of neurons’ identity and functional differences, as well as providing a possible window into brain development and disease.”