$2.25 million NIH grant lights up CMU neuroscience research

Results could flip the switch on treatment for brain disorders
December 14, 2016

Brain research imageA $2.25 million National Institutes of Health grant is infusing more light into Central Michigan University-based research that could revolutionize how neurological and psychological disorders are treated.

CMU neuroscientist and College of Medicine faculty member Ute Hochgeschwender is leading the grant-funded project that will continue her team's investigation into using light to control and repair damaged cells in the brain. According to the World Health Organization, brain disorders affect more than one billion people worldwide.

"This has the potential to stimulate cells that have been damaged by diseases within the brain by keeping the neurons active."​

 Ute Hochgeschwender, CM​U neuroscientist and College of Medicine faculty

Ute HochgeschwenderThrough molecular engineering, Hochgeschwender and her research colleagues from Brown University in Rhode Island and Scintillon Institute for Biomedical and Bioenergy Research in California are controlling the activity of cells through a process called bioluminescent optogenetics — or BL-OG. With BL-OG, light-producing proteins activa​te light-sensing proteins that are placed into specific cells in the brain.

Depending on the type of protein used, the shining light either can activate or inhibit the firing of neurons.

"The molecules of light will open up channels within the cells to either turn on or turn off the neurons," Hochgeschwender said. "This has the potential to stimulate cells that have been damaged by diseases within the brain by keeping the neurons active."

This research will help develop and validate new technologies for targeted manipulation of brain cell activity. It also will define novel brain circuits and therapeutic strategies for treating diseases and conditions such as depression, autism and schizophrenia, as well as memory decline, addiction and epilepsy.

Neuroscience researchCurrently, Hochgeschwender is working with CMU undergraduate and graduate neuroscience program researchers to apply these methods in potentially treating neur​odegenerative diseases and spinal cord injuries.

The three-year project is funded through NIH grants that support the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative.

"For all of this research, when we find a molecular tool that works, we don't wait to publish the results in a research journal," Hochgeschwender said. "We make the information public right away because people can take that research and build on it to make advances in this key area related to the BRAIN Initiative."​


Central Michigan University takes neuroscience education to the next level
New faculty members bring expertise, enhance unique interdisciplinary cohort

June 6, 2015
Nearly 30 years ago, two Central Michigan University faculty members had a vision of establishing a neuroscience program. Starting with only a few students, very little space and limited resources, those faculty members grew what eventually became the first undergraduate neuroscience program in Michigan in 1999 and the top program in the country in 2013. 

The growth of the program has provided CMU opportunities to continuously improve the curriculum and student research opportunities, but also has driven necessary expansion in curriculum, physical space and faculty. Along with lab space expansion, new faculty members have recently been hired to help meet demand. 

Several of these new hires have joined existing faculty members in a unique interdisciplinary cohort, which brings together faculty from a variety of disciplines — including the Department of Psychology and the College of Medicine — to work as a team on teaching, research and scholarship. ​This hard-to-find team approach offers research opportunities that not only benefit students but also are making great strides in treatments for several neurodegenerative diseases, such as Huntington's and Alzheimer's. 

“The people we hired have a passion for involving students in research, a passion to work as a team and skills sets we didn’t have before,” Dunbar said. “Having that diversity within a cohesive group of colleagues is what we were trying to get, and hopefully we got it. The opportunities we’re going to be able to provide have multiplied tenfold.”

Dunbar says the cohort approach at CMU is unique because it is rare for institutions to have neuroscientists from a variety of disciplines working closely together. 

“Our new faculty all have different areas of expertise so collectively we can tackle a research question from all angles,” Dunbar said. “As we speak, we’re training the next generation of neuroscientists who will tackle diseases such as Huntington’s and Alzheimer's,” Dunbar said. 

New neuroscience faculty member Kevin Park said he was attracted to many things about CMU, particularly the faculty’s excitement and passion, as well as the collaborative approach to research.

“The goal is to build our program on collaborative research, tapping into the diverse research interests and skills of the program faculty,” Park said. “Our emphasis on hands-on undergraduate research experience immerses the students in cutting-edge science, helping to instill passion within them.”

Even with the growth and expansion of the program, Dunbar said CMU will not lose focus on the foundation of neuroscience education upon which the program was built.

“We offer inquiry-based, hands-on research experience for our students at a magnitude that is unprecedented,” Dunbar said. “That was our passion, our goal and is something we hope to sustain. We don’t want to lose what we can offer our undergraduate students.”​

Gary Dunbar named Michigan Distinguished Professor of the Year

Gary Dunbar named Michigan Distinguished Professor of the Year

March 19, 2015

Central Michigan University neuroscience professor Gary Dunbar's passion for teaching and mentoring has transformed the lives of hundreds of students throughout his 33-year career at CMU, all while ­guiding CMU's neuroscience program to national prominence.

On this foundation, Dunbar has earned recognition as 2015 Michigan Distinguished Professor of the Year, sponsored by the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan.

Dunbar, a CMU alumnus, is a nationally recognized leader in neuroscience education. He developed and has nurtured CMU's undergraduate neuroscience program, leading it to be named the country's top program in 2013.

 Dunbar has attained national recognition for his program of student-centered research and actively garners experiential learning opportunities for his students. Working alongside him, Dunbar's students have conducted hands-on research, primarily using stem cells, that has resulted in significant findings related to the stroke, as well as diseases such as Alzheimer's and Huntington's.

 "Dunbar's passion for developing strong, independent thinkers is evidenced in the way he structures his classes and his research laboratory and also in the leaders who have emerged from his mentorship," CMU Provost Michael Gealt said. " All of the students who have the opportunity to work with Dunbar comment on his commitment, the amount of time he devotes to them and his accessibility."​

To Dunbar, this award is very special.

"This award recognizes what attracted me to this profession, which is to help provide a nurturing learning environment for undergraduates," Dunbar said. 

One example of Dunbar's life-changing influence is the story of CMU alumnus Charles Weaver. As an undergraduate student at CMU, Weaver was struggling as a student and as an athlete on CMU's baseball team. Dunbar encouraged Weaver to keep working in his lab. That encouragement, along with the experience in the lab, helped Weaver to not only graduate but also go on and get his doctorate in neuroscience. He currently teaches at Saginaw Valley State University. Hear​ more about Weaver's story in the video below.

"I was fortunate to have many role models and outstanding mentors throughout my life," Dunbar said. "However, it is during the undergraduate years when many students, including me, have the greatest need for the care, empathy and guidance that will help them set the courses of their lives."

The Michigan Distinguished Professor of the Year award program recognizes the outstanding contributions made by faculty from Michigan's public universities to the education of undergraduate students. Each of Michigan's 15 public universities were invited by the Presidents Council to nominate a faculty member who has had a significant impact on student learning through various media, including teaching excellence and student advising.

Dunbar is one of three in the state to receive the award. He and the other awardees were recognized during a ceremony April 10th at the Lansing Convention Center.​


U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow tours the Central Michigan University neuroscience facilities with Dr. Gary Dunbar.

Senator Stabenow tours neuroscience labs

October 13, 2014

U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow visited the Central Michigan University neuroscience laboratories today to learn about major breakthroughs in the animal research being conducted here and to congratulate the neuroscience program on being named the 2013 Undergraduate Program of the Year by the Society for Neuroscience, the world’s largest organization of scientists and physicians devoted to understanding the brain and nervous system. 

CMU’s neuroscience program integrates the academic disciplines of biology, chemistry, rehabilitation and medical sciences, and psychology. The laboratories are located in the Health Professions Building. 

To view the full image gallery on Facebook, visit: http://on.fb.me/1w4Gq5Z​.

CMU's neuroscience program named top in nation

November 11, 2013

Central Michigan University's undergraduate neuroscience program has been selected as the 2013 Undergraduate Program of the Year by the Society for Neuroscience, the world’s largest organization of scientists and physicians devoted to understanding the brain and nervous system.

The award recognizes the accomplishments of a neuroscience department or program for excellence in educating neuroscientists and providing an innovative model other programs can follow. The award was presented at the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting on Nov. 10 in San Diego.

CMU’s undergraduate program is very deserving of this award, says Gary Dunbar, director of the neuroscience program.

“This award speaks highly of our program,” said Dunbar.  “Our collective efforts of more than 30 years have been recognized by the international neuroscience community.”

Award recipients are selected for excellence in teaching and positively influencing the lives and careers of their students.

Dunbar works with a team of approximately 50 undergraduate and graduate students every year in CMU’s neuroscience research program. Many of Dunbar’s students receive state and national recognition for their work in the field.

“Research is a critical part of the education we provide, and a lot of young students in our program take advantage of it,” Dunbar said. “I think that’s what we offer that undergraduates can’t get as readily at other major research universities. We’re very proud of integrating students into research.”

In the last five years, CMU students have won nine out of 10 of the awards given to Michigan’s outstanding undergraduate neuroscientists from the Society for Neuroscience. Earlier this year, CMU graduate student Kyle Fink from Lovell, Wyo., received the prestigious Founders Award from the society’s Michigan chapter.

Dunbar and his research team are involved in a new study poised to help reduce cognitive deficits after a stroke. He believes their research may promote recovery from brain damage caused by stroke, traumatic brain injury and neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s.

New study at CMU could help reduce cognitive deficits after a stroke

September 23, 2013


Gary Dunbar, director of the neuroscience program at Central Michigan University, believes his research team may have taken a step in the right direction toward furthering research to promote the recovery of the brain after damage caused by stroke, traumatic brain injury, and neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s.

Dunbar, who was quoted in a feature by Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience, says the method used in his research is innovative to the field.

“Our research uses a relatively new way of assessing cognitive problems after a stroke, a fairly recent technique to create a stroke in a mouse, and it uses adult stem cells to treat the stroke,” Dunbar said. “The combination of those three relatively new techniques combined makes it a fairly interesting and novel study.”

As part of the research, rats are injected in the brain with a hormone that temporarily constricts blood vessels that carry oxygen. By depriving the brain tissue of oxygen, the cells begin to die out, mimicking a stroke. This allows the team to assess cognitive learning problems that follow a stroke, such as memory difficulties.

To treat the stroke, the team injects bone-marrow-derived stem cells into the brain that produce proteins to reduce brain swelling and help damaged cells survive, function better or return to normal function faster.

In evaluating the experiment, Dunbar and his team discovered stroke rats that were injected with stem cells could perform tasks with significantly fewer mistakes than rats with strokes that did not receive the stem cell injections. In fact, Dunbar reports that stem cell-treated stroke rats could perform nearly as well as rats that did not have a stroke.

“The stem cells are producing proteins to help the brain work better,” Dunbar said. “The question we’re asking is if these stem cells can produce proteins to help the brain remember and reduce cognitive deficits. We believe these stem cells can do that.”

Dunbar credits lead author and CMU alumnus Steven Lowrance, ’13, for the success of this project. Dunbar works with a team of approximately 50 students every year in his neuroscience research. Many of Dunbar’s graduate and undergraduate students receive state and national recognition for their work in the field.

“It speaks highly of our program,” Dunbar said. “It’s a critical part of their education and a lot of young students in our program take advantage of it. I think that’s what we offer that undergraduates can’t get as readily at other major research universities. We’re very proud of integrating students into research.”

CMU students win top awards at state neuroscience conference
​CMU has won nine out of 10 undergraduate awards in past five years

June 19, 2013 —

Central Michigan University’s Kyle Fink of Lovell, Wyo. is this year’s recipient of the state’s most coveted award for outstanding neuroscience research by a graduate student. The Michigan Chapter of the Society of Neuroscience honored Fink with the Founders Award.

In addition, seniors Phillip Starski of Goodrich and Tia Hall from Inkster both received top honors for their undergraduate neuroscience research. They competed with 33 other undergraduate neuroscientists from around the state. In the last five years, CMU has won nine out of 10 awards given to Michigan’s outstanding undergraduate neuroscientists.

“This award is a tremendous honor for me,” said Fink. “I am the first awardee from CMU and one of the first outside of UM, MSU or Wayne State to win the award. This truly reflects the growth of the lab and is a validation of the research that is being conducted at CMU.”

Fink’s research involves the use of adult stem cell therapies for Huntington's disease. He has been working with a new type of adult stem cells, called induced pluripotent stem cells, which can be isolated from non-embryonic tissue, such as skin cells, and transformed into any cell in the body, including brain cells. This technology has tremendous potential for diseases associated with aging.

“Kyle, Phil and Tia are great examples of the many outstanding students we have in our neuroscience program who have taken full advantage of the student-centered, cutting-edge research opportunities here at CMU,” said Gary Dunbar, psychology and neuroscience faculty member. “The magnitude of their research has the potential to positively impact treatments for some of the major neurological diseases that affect millions of people throughout the world.”

Starski is exploring stem cells taken from fat tissue. He’s researching whether stem cells taken from fat are as good as stem cells from bone marrow. He has found the cells reduce some of the symptoms of Huntington’s disease in mice.

Hall is researching a possible therapeutic treatment for Alzheimer’s disease using an experimental drug, examining its effectiveness in alleviating some of the symptoms. With no cure or effective treatment for Alzheimer’s, this type of study is crucial in helping scientists better understand the neurodegenerative disorder.

“Receiving an honor of this caliber would not have been possible without the phenomenal undergraduate research experience I received at the Field Neurosciences Research Laboratory at CMU,” said Hall. “The training and support given by my adviser, Gary Dunbar, the graduate students and my peers that aided me in conducting this research project. I couldn't have asked for a better group of people to be surrounded by, doing what I love — research.”