National Organizations Announce Funding to Support UC San Diego Neurobiologists

Matthew Banghart and Yimin Zou recognized for leading innovative research

July 17, 2019

By Mario Aguilera

Headshot of Matthew Banghart

Matthew Banghart

Matthew Banghart and Yimin Zou, scientists in UC San Diego’s Division of Biological Sciences Section of Neurobiology, have been selected for prestigious awards by national organizations.

Banghart, an assistant professor whose research aims to understand how the brain controls the perception of pain, has been selected as a 2019 Rita Allen Foundation Scholar. The foundation selected “10 young leaders in the biomedical sciences whose research holds exceptional promise for revealing new pathways to advance human health.” Five of this year’s scholars conduct research relating to the biology of pain—a complex neurobiological function with widespread societal impact.

Banghart’s lab studies neural mechanisms that support the pharmacological analgesia produced by opioid painkillers, as well as “top-down” pain modulation, wherein pain suppression is driven purely by cognitive processes (as with placebo analgesia). By understanding the similarities and differences between the neural circuits and neurochemical processes that underlie these forms of pain modulation, this work may lead to the development of new pain treatments, both pharmacological and behavioral. 

Rita Allen Foundation Scholars receive funding for up to five years. In 2018 Biological Sciences PhD alumna Lindsay Schwarz was named a Rita Allen Scholar. Since 1976, the Rita Allen Foundation has invested in more than 175 biomedical scientists at the early stages of their careers, enabling them to pursue research directions with above-average risk and promise.

Zou, a neurobiology professor who conducts research on nervous system wiring, has received a Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).

Headshot of Yimin Zou

Yimin Zou

The Javits Award provides up to seven years of funding and is “given to scientists for their superior competence and outstanding productivity. Javits Awards provide long-term support to investigators with a history of exceptional talent, imagination and preeminent scientific achievement.”

Zou’s research pioneered the finding that proteins in the Wnt family provide key directional information along the major axes of the nervous system for axon pathfinding and topographic projections during embryonic development. His lab also demonstrated that the axon guidance cues, such as the Wnt family proteins, regulate axon rewiring and repair after traumatic injury of the central nervous system in adulthood.

During the assembly of neural circuits, neurons send out long processes to connect with other neurons to form functional networks. These processes are called axons, which are tipped by cone-like structures called growth cones. Growth cones detect guidance molecules and navigate the nervous system, laying down axons along their trajectory. Growth cones have been known for a century. But how they detect guidance cues and signal to convey directionality of axon growth is still not well understood. Understanding these mechanisms will not only help understand how the brain wires itself but also allow us to design strategies to repair neuronal connections after injury or in neurodegenerative disorders.

The lab is currently studying how these guidance cues are laid out in concentration gradients and how growth cones recognize and respond to these gradients.

The Javits Award was established in 1983 to honor Jacob Javits, the late New York Senator who was a victim of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the neurogenerative disorder also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Javits was a strong advocate for research support in a wide variety of disorders of the brain and nervous system.