About the Training Programs

In 2005, the NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research, announced the availability of institutional training grants in three multidisciplinary areas of neuroscience where the need and potential impact were considered high.

The recipient institutions custom-designed their own programs to take advantage of their strengths, as well the interests and expertise of their participating faculty. Awards were made to 10 institutions across the country. Although the details vary, all programs provide trainees with stipend support, specialized coursework, mentorship, seminars by leading researchers and support for travel to scientific meetings.

Tales from the Blueprint Training Programs

Photo of Patrick Fisher
Spotlight on: Patrick Fisher
University of Pittsburgh

As a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, Patrick Fisher uses neuroimaging to study a brain structure called the amygdala and its role in psychiatric disorders.

Fisher made an early alliance in his academic career that jump-started his work in this area. In 2002, while still a college student, he did a summer internship with a leader in the use of neuroimaging to study schizophrenia – Daniel Weinberger, M.D., chief of the Clinical Brain Disorders Branch and director of the Genes, Cognition and Psychosis Program at NIMH. The internship hooked Fisher on neuroimaging, and introduced him to Ahmad Hariri, Ph.D., who was a postdoc with Weinberger at the time and later joined the neuroscience faculty at Pitt. In 2006, Fisher entered the neuroscience Ph.D. program at Pitt to work with Hariri.

Fisher has received two years of support from the Blueprint-funded Multimodal Neuroimaging Training Program (MNTP), which is run jointly by Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University. The MNTP “encourages students like me to learn multiple brain imaging modalities, and enables us to ask research questions about brain structure and function that can’t be addressed by any one imaging modality alone,” he says.

Fisher’s research involves the combined use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) to study how the neurotransmitter serotonin affects the amygdala. Serotonin signaling in the amygdala may be one target of the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI’s) that are used to treat anxiety and depression.

In one study, Fisher and Hariri investigated serotonin signaling (by PET) and amygdala activity (by fMRI) in human subjects as they responded to pictures of fearful and angry faces. The study showed that amygdala activity is strongly tied to serotonin autoreceptors – which are present on brainstem neurons and regulate the release of serotonin through negative feedback, much like a thermostat. Amygdala activity was lower in subjects with a higher density of serotonin autoreceptors.

Studies like these are helping tease apart how different aspects of serotonin signaling affect the circuitry of the amygdala, and may shed light on more effective strategies to treat anxiety and depression.

For more information, see the Blueprint web page Training in Neuroscience Imaging.

Photo of Alice Chen-Plotkin
Spotlight on: Alice Chen-Plotkin, M.D.
University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia

Alice Chen-Plotkin describes herself as a physician-scientist and uses the term literally.  Although she devotes most of her professional life to neuroscience research, she was a physician first and a scientist second.  The Blueprint Translational Research in Neurobiology of Disease training program at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) helped her make the transition.  “I had an intense residency and used that time to focus on becoming a good doctor,” Chen-Plotkin says.  “[Afterward], the training program gave me a year of support so that I could get back into the lab, generate results, publish, and win grant support on my own.”

Chen-Plotkin received her M.D. from Harvard University in 2003, and completed her residency in neurology at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital in 2007.  During that time, she developed an interest – and a rare skill set – in genomic studies of neurological disease.

When she became a postdoc at UPenn in mid-2007, the Blueprint training program allowed her to focus her studies on frontotemporal lobar degeneration (FTLD), a type of early-onset dementia.  The predominant form of this disorder, called FTLD-TDP, is associated with a buildup of the protein TDP-43 inside brain cells.  By 2007, despite the discovery of several genetic causes of FTLD-TDP, much of the heritability associated with the disorder remained unexplained.  Chen-Plotkin worked with Virginia Lee, Ph.D., and John Trojanowski, M.D., Ph.D., co-directors of UPenn’s Center for Neurodegenerative Disease Research, to identify other genetic risk factors for FTLD-TDP.

In a recent study published in Nature Genetics, the team reported that FTLD-TDP is strongly associated with variations in the sequence and expression of the TMEM106B gene, whose functions are unknown.  This year, Chen-Plotkin will start her own laboratory as an assistant professor of neurology at UPenn.

For more information, see the Blueprint web page Training in Translational Research and the Neurobiology of Disease.

Photo of Andrew Saxe
Spotlight on: Andrew Saxe
Princeton University

On paper, Andrew Saxe is an electrical engineer, but at heart, he's a computational neuroscientist. He describes computational neuroscience as an exciting field, but one that "easily falls through the cracks" because it bridges many disciplines including engineering, neuroscience and psychology.

Fortunately, Saxe gained a foothold in the field early in his career, thanks in part to the Blueprint-supported Program in Quantitative and Computational Neuroscience at Princeton University.

As an undergraduate at Princeton, Saxe was an electrical engineering major and a member of a student group that participates in the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) Grand Challenge, a prize competition to design driverless vehicles.  That led to curiosity about how humans and other animals navigate through space, and inspired him to pursue coursework and research in neuroscience.

As a junior, Saxe began a research project with Ken Norman, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology who uses neural network models to explore how the brain forms and retrieves memories.  Princeton’s computational neuroscience training program enabled Saxe “to try the research intensively” during his last summer at Princeton, he says.

Saxe has just begun pursuing another electrical engineering degree – this time, a Ph.D. at Stanford University – but he plans to continue focusing on computational neuroscience.  Although he has not settled on a Ph.D. project yet, “there is no shortage of exciting problems to work on,” he says.

For more information, see the Blueprint web page Training in Computational Neuroscience: From Biology to Model and Back Again.

Photo of Nathan Hageman
Spotlight on: Nathan Hageman
University of California, Los Angeles

When Nathan Hageman joined UCLA’s Interdepartmental Program in Neuroscience as an M.D.-Ph.D. student, he quickly gravitated toward brain imaging research.  “To me, the brain is the last great frontier as far as the human body goes, and there is no other tool that allows us to probe the brain in the same way as in vivo imaging” Hageman says.

Hageman is now a member of UCLA’s Laboratory of Neuroimaging, led by Arthur Toga, Ph.D., and since 2004, he has co-authored more than a half dozen studies in the neuroimaging field.  He credits his success to a solid undergraduate education – a triple major in biology, chemistry and physics at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore – and to the Blueprint-sponsored Neuroimaging Training Program at UCLA.

“The [UCLA] interdepartmental neuroscience program covers a wide range of areas,” Hageman says.  “For students like me, the Blueprint training program provides classes and seminars that are focused on neuroimaging, and gives us a solid foundation in the field.”

Hageman’s research focuses on diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), a type of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that allows visualization of the white matter tracts connecting different parts of the brain.  He specializes in tractography – the use of computational methods to turn the data points acquired through DTI into a 3-D map of white matter tracts.

Hageman has worked with established researchers at UCLA to apply these methods and investigate changes in brain connectivity associated with psychiatric and neurological disorders. For example, working with Katherine Narr, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurology at UCLA, he has reported that DTI is sensitive for detecting white matter atrophy in the temporal lobe of individuals with schizophrenia.

Hageman plans to continue to pursue a career in neuroimaging research following completion of his Ph.D. and a return to medical school to finish his M.D.

For more information, see the Blueprint web page Training in Neuroscience Imaging.

Photo of Gabrielle Curinga, Ph.D.
Spotlight on: Gabrielle Curinga, Ph.D. 
University of Kentucky, Lexington

Gabrielle Curinga began her scientific career as a muscle cell biologist, but when a close friend in graduate school had an accident that left him paralyzed, she shifted her focus to neuroscience.

In her work as a postdoc at the University of Kentucky’s Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Research Center (ScoBIRC), Curinga investigated therapies to break down scar tissue and promote regeneration after a spinal cord injury.  As a researcher in the lab of Professor Diane Snow, Ph.D., Curinga analyzed the biochemistry of chondroitin sulfate proteoglycans (CSPGs) – proteins that factor strongly in scar tissue formation in the damaged spinal cord – and how they inhibit neuronal growth.

The Blueprint Translational Research in Neurobiology of Disease training program (administered by the Department of Surgery at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine) allowed her to attack the problem from multiple angles and to form productive collaborations to expand her research.  For example, working in the lab of professor George Smith, Ph.D., Curinga focused on developing gene therapy based on a bacterial enzyme that degrades CSPGs.  She also collaborated with assistant professor Stephen Onifer, Ph.D., to investigate the possibility that oxidative stress, frequently seen in damaged spinal tissue, might actually make CSPGs hardier and more resistant to degradation.

In Curinga’s words, “the training program allowed me to maximize my learning experience at SCoBIRC and to explore multiple research projects in different labs.  Because of this flexibility, I developed a strong interest in gene therapy."

Curinga continues to pursue that interest as a postdoc at Seattle Children’s Research Institute.  As part of the NIH Roadmap-funded Northwest Genome Engineering Consortium, she’s helping to develop DNA repair strategies to treat genetic disorders.

For more information, see the Blueprint web page Training in Translational Research and the Neurobiology of Disease.