A strong neuroscience program is about to get stronger—meet leaders and researchers at the forefront

CROET head
Photo by Aaron Bieleck

Today, neuroscience at OHSU is poised for dramatic growth, driven by emerging areas of research strength in the fields of neurodevelopment and neurodegeneration and a planned investment of at least $100 million.

Led by long-time campus leaders and new luminaries, the university is doubling down on its quest: contribute in a major way to understanding the mystery between our ears and, above all, improve brain health.

On the faculty since 1982, Dennis Bourdette, M.D., F.A.A.N., chairs neurology in the OHSU School of Medicine. He is nationally recognized for important discoveries in multiple sclerosis, directing a team dedicated to curing and treating M.S.

Last year, OHSU selected neurobiologist Marc Freeman, Ph.D., to serve as the latest director of the Vollum Institute. A former Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, Dr. Freeman’s lab first described the gene responsible for driving the degeneration of axons after brain injury.

On the faculty since 1981, George Keepers, M.D., chairs psychiatry in the OHSU School of Medicine. He was instrumental in establishing Oregon’s first dedicated emergency psychiatric facility, the Unity Center for Behavioral Health.

The school recruited Bita Moghaddam, Ph.D., from the University of Pittsburgh last year to chair behavioral neuroscience. Dr. Moghaddam has made significant contributions to the study of the cellular basis of cognitive constructs critical to psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia.

On the faculty since 2000, Nathan Selden, M.D., Ph.D., chairs neurological surgery in the OHSU School of Medicine. He performed the first transplantation of neuronal stem cells in a human patient and built neurosurgery’s graduate medical education program into a national model.

This group of five will guide OHSU’s growth and investment in neuroscience. First up, an example of promising research in neurodevelopment.

Dr. Bonnie Nagel in the control room at OHSU’s Advanced Imaging Research Center. (Photo by Michael McDermott)

Adolescent ABC’s
Can you understand the mind of a teenager? That rhetorical question posed by exasperated adults across the ages may actually get answered, thanks to a large, groundbreaking study dubbed ABCD or Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development. Established in 2015, it’s an NIH-led examination of more than 10,000 adolescents across the U.S. The unprecedented 10-year effort is tracking the biological and behavioral development of youth ages 9 through young adulthood.

Hundreds of scientists applied to run the study. NIH tapped OHSU to be one of 21 research sites nationally. The OHSU site is co-led by Bonnie Nagel, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience, OHSU School of Medicine.

Teenagers, science tells us, are prone to depression and high-risk, sensation-seeking behaviors. Why do some develop poor outcomes while others don’t? What is a normal teenage brain?

Since her earliest days in science, Dr. Nagel has studied adolescent brain development. “It’s stunning how little we know about this time of extraordinary growth,” she said. “It’s difficult to understand pathology if we don’t know a baseline for normal development. The size and scope of this study will change that.”

Dr. Nagel’s own 8-year-old daughter will be well into her teens by the time the study concludes. By then, Dr. Nagel hopes answers about risk and resilience can transform treatments, helping adolescents chart a positive path to adulthood. It’s just one example of OHSU researchers pushing the frontier of neurodevelopment knowledge.

“A very open question”
On the other side of the spectrum is neurodegeneration. Here, too, a growing body of OHSU research is making its mark on the field.

In the Jungers Center for Neurosciences Research, scientists pursue translational research with a laser focus on disease. Over the last decade, the center has hired promising new faculty like clinician-scientist Vivek Unni, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of neurology, OHSU School of Medicine.

Ever since his medical school days at Columbia University, Dr. Unni has enjoyed caring for older people. When he’s not in clinic seeing patients with Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders, he’s studying neurons in his Jungers lab.

Dr. Unni and his team have already made a name for themselves developing a one-of-a-kind method that allows scientists to longitudinally study individual neurons in a Parkinson’s disease mouse model, greatly condensing the time it takes to observe the disease.

Now, he and his team are boring into a key question: Why does a certain protein called alpha-synuclein clump or aggregate during the onset of Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative disorders?

“Is it damaging or protecting the cell? Is it neutral?” asked Dr. Unni. “It might be critical to the disease, but we don’t know. It’s still a very open question.”

Any new treatment strategy, he says, could easily make people worse rather than better if the basic biology isn’t understood. So although he wishes for a quickie drug to help his patients, Dr. Unni devotes the time it takes to test emerging knowledge at the bench, in order to maximize the chances of a new drug actually working.

“I love thinking about the brain,” said Dr. Unni. “And I love the opportunity to use that knowledge to make things better for people.”


Written by Rachel Shafer, OHSU School of Medicine


This article was originally published in Bridges, a magazine of people, connections and community for alumni of the OHSU School of Medicine.