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Researchers find breastfeeding linked to higher neurocognitive testing scores

Monday, April 26, 2021

New research finds that children who were breastfed scored higher on neurocognitive tests. Researchers in the Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience at the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) analyzed thousands of cognitive tests taken by nine and ten-year-olds whose mothers reported they were breastfed, and compared those results to scores of children who were not.

“Our findings suggest that any amount of breastfeeding has a positive cognitive impact, even after just a few months.” Daniel Adan Lopez, Ph.D. candidate in the Epidemiology program who is first author on the study recently published in the journal Frontiers in Public Health. “That's what's exciting about these results. Hopefully from a policy standpoint, this can help improve the motivation to breastfeed.”

Hayley Martin, Ph.D., a fourth year medical student in the Medical Scientist Training Program and co-author of the study, focuses her research on breastfeeding. “There’s already established research showing the numerous benefits breastfeeding has for both mother and child. This study’s findings are important for families particularly before and soon after birth when breastfeeding decisions are made. It may encourage breastfeeding goals of one year or more. It also highlights the critical importance of continued work to provide equity focused access to breastfeeding support, prenatal education, and practices to eliminate structural barriers to breastfeeding.”

Researchers reviewed the test results of more than 9,000 nine and ten-year-old participants in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study. Variations were found in the cumulative cognitive test scores of breastfed and non-breastfed children. There was also evidence that the longer a child was breastfed, the higher they scored.

“The strongest association was in children who were breastfed more than 12 months,” said Lopez. “The scores of children breastfed until they were seven to 12 months were slightly less, and then the one to six month-old scores dips a little more. But all scores were higher when compared to children who didn’t breastfeed at all.” Previous studies found breastfeeding does not impact executive function or memory, findings in this study made similar findings.

“This supports the foundation of work already being done around lactation and breastfeeding and its impact on a child’s health,” said Ed Freedman, Ph.D., the principal investigator of the ABCD study in Rochester and lead author of the study. “These are findings that would have not been possible without the ABCD Study and the expansive data set it provides.”

Read More: Researchers find breastfeeding linked to higher neurocognitive testing scores

Research Funded to Study Efficacy of Early Visual Training after Occipital Stroke

Friday, April 16, 2021

Up to half-a-million people each year suffer occipital strokes that cause loss to some portion of their vision, permanently affecting how they navigate through life.

A team at the University of Rochester recently showed that visual rehabilitation can more effectively reverse some of this blindness if patients are treated in the first few months after their stroke. Such patients will now have the opportunity to become part of a research study at the Flaum Eye Institute of the University of Rochester, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.

“In occipital strokes, there is a loss of conscious vision opposite the side of the brain where the stroke occurred,” said James V. Aquavella Professor of Ophthalmology Krystel Huxlin, Ph.D. The occipital lobe of the brain contains the primary visual cortex, the first cerebral region responsible for complex visual processing and interpretation of signals received from the eye via the optic nerve.

“After two decades of discovery in our lab, we believe we have arrived at a critical point in our understanding of how to maximize vision restoration for cortically-blinded patients,” she said. “Within the first few months of having an occipital stroke, retinal ganglion cells, which transmit signals from the eye to the brain, are still largely intact. After six months, these cells show signs of degeneration, making later-onset rehabilitation more difficult to achieve. And any vision recovered at later stages is grainy and limited to the border of the patients’ blind fields. It’s as if we are looking at a window of opportunity slowly closing.”

The $2.5 million National Eye Institute-sponsored R01 grant, which includes funding for a small clinical trial, will support a collaborative team under Huxlin’s leadership, which brings together cross-campus expertise from Duje Tadin, Ph.D. (Department of Brain & Cognitive Sciences, UR) and Brent Johnson, Ph.D. (Department of Biostatistics, UR). NYU’s Dr. Marisa Carrasco (Department of Psychology and Neural Science) will also contribute to the research.

Patients who have recently suffered a visual stroke--within zero to five months--will be divided into groups to receive vision rehabilitation training. Their first week will be spent in Huxlin’s laboratories at the Flaum Eye Institute and Center for Visual Science. Here, a team of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and ophthalmic imaging specialists will measure each participant’s baseline visual functions, and ocular and brain structures, before teaching them the complex rehabilitation routine they must perform. Each patient will then receive equipment to take home, where their therapy will be performed with remote monitoring. They will return to the Flaum laboratory at 6 and 12 months post-stroke for assessments of training efficacy, as well as to measure changes in their ocular and brain structures.

This study is designed to assess how visual restoration potential changes with time after occipital stroke in humans. It will first measure structural and mechanistic aspects of progressive degeneration along the early visual pathways induced by the stroke, correlating them with changes in visual performance in the blind field. It will then contrast the impact of visual training administered at different stages of degeneration, both on the magnitude of recovery and on the process of degeneration itself. These findings will be key to ascertain the degree to which visual training interventions administered early after stroke can prevent or slow retrograde degeneration, preserve the vision that is still present, and help recover some of the vision already lost.

In addition, knowing how long blind-field visual abilities are preserved after stroke and how this relates to the rate of structural degeneration of early visual pathways is critical to assess if interventions that promote neuronal survival and regeneration could be beneficial for this condition. The project is designed to advance scientific knowledge, technical capability and, ultimately, clinical practices for restoring vision and quality of life for people suffering from occipital strokes.

MRIs from Study by John Foxe & Ed Freedman Reveal More Incidental Findings in Children

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Photo of Ed FreedmanPhoto of John FoxePublished in JAMA Neurology, scan results from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study revealed one in 25 children needed further medical evaluation. The findings by the Del Monte faculty members and their colleagues could change our understanding of the prevalence of neurological problems in children and how neuroimaging is used to screen for these problems.

Read More: MRIs from Study by John Foxe & Ed Freedman Reveal More Incidental Findings in Children

An experimental neurofeedback imaging treatment has emerged for psychiatric patients. Does it work?

Monday, March 22, 2021

Does neurofeedback imaging work for psychiatric patients?

University of Rochester psychologists have found that real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging neurofeedback (rtfMRI-NF) can help a person regulate neural activity in a way that might improve psychiatric illness.

Photo of David Dodell-FederDavid Dodell-Feder, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience, together with Emily Dudek, who after graduating from Rochester became Dodell-Feder’s full-time lab manager, looked at 17 relevant studies that included a total of 410 participants. The findings of their meta-analysis have been published in the journal Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews.

According to lead author Dudek, their review found that when people were shown their own brain patterns in real time, they were able to regulate activity in specific regions of the brain. “This training, known as neurofeedback, offers an exciting and novel treatment method for psychiatric illness.”

Coauthor Dodell-Feder agrees that the findings are “very promising,” especially because there are very few treatments, psychopharmacological included, that specifically target neural circuits known to contribute to psychopathology.

Yet, there are caveats: the data show less clear evidence that volitional control over the brain regions targeted by neurofeedback translates to an improvement in a person’s symptoms or cognitive impairments. For example, when analyzing the impact of rtfMRI-NF on symptoms, the team found an approximately 60 percent chance that a randomly selected person who received rtfMRI-NF showed improvement in symptoms compared to a randomly selected person who received a placebo procedure.

Read More: An experimental neurofeedback imaging treatment has emerged for psychiatric patients. Does it work?

Andrew Anderson & Edmund Lalor Explore How Brain Comprehends Sentences

Monday, March 22, 2021

Photo of Andrew AndersonPhoto of Edmund LalorThe Del Monte Institute faculty members and their colleagues studied and described the complex network within the brain that comprehends the meaning of a spoken sentence. The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, is an example of how the application of artificial neural networks, or A.I., is enabling researchers to unlock the extremely complex signaling in the brain that underlies functions such as processing language.

Read More: Andrew Anderson & Edmund Lalor Explore How Brain Comprehends Sentences

Drs. Ania Majewska and Monique Mendes in a podcast for NINDS on F applications

Monday, March 1, 2021

Icon for NINDS Building up the Nerve PodcastDr. Ania Majewska and NGP alum, Dr. Monique Mendes, will be featured in The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke’s Building Up the Nerve podcast on 3/5/2021. In this episode, our grantee guests discuss how they involved their mentor(s)/sponsor(s) in the application process to ensure the training plan reflects their individual needs and the mentor is able to provide the appropriate level of support and expertise to achieve those training goals.

The podcast features Jaroslaw Aronowski, PhD, Professor, UTHealth McGovern Med School; Alexis S. Mobley, MS, PhD Candidate, UTHealth McGovern Med School; Ania Majewska, PhD, Professor, University of Rochester; Monique Mendes, PhD, Postdoctoral Researcher, Stanford University; Mark Wu, MD, PhD, Professor, Johns Hopkins University; Margaret Ho, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Spread the word.

Read More: Drs. Ania Majewska and Monique Mendes in a podcast for NINDS on F applications

Two faculty members received Sloan Awards for research on how the brain perceives the world.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Two University of Rochester researchers in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences are being honored with a celebrated award for their contributions to and leadership in the scientific community.

Martina Poletti and Manuel Gomez-Ramirez, both assistant professors of brain and cognitive sciences and of neuroscience, are among this year’s recipients of Sloan Research Fellowships. Awarded annually by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation since 1955, the fellowships recognize young scientists for their independent research accomplishments, creativity, and potential to become leaders in the scientific community. Each fellowship carries a $75,000, two-year award. This year, 128 scientists across the US and Canada were awarded fellowships. Gomez-Ramirez and Poletti are the University’s fourth and filth Sloan fellows in the last three years.

Read More: Two faculty members received Sloan Awards for research on how the brain perceives the world.

Deborah Cory-Slechta Receives the 2021 SOT Distinguished Toxicology Scholar Award

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Deborah Cory-Slechta, PhD, has been awarded the 2021 SOT Distinguished Toxicology Scholar Award in honor of her scientific achievements and contributions to public health in the fields of environmental health sciences and toxicology.

Dr. Cory-Slechta is currently a Professor of environmental medicine, pediatrics, and public health sciences at the University of Rochester Medical Center, where she trains and mentors a number of scholastically recognized students via hands-on, project-oriented teaching, as well as offering support and mentorship to junior faculty members. She also is the Deputy Director of the Environmental Health Sciences Center at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

Dr. Cory-Slechta is a world-renowned behavioral psychologist and neurotoxicologist, and her work has provided mechanistic support for understanding the consequences of lead exposure in developing animals and humans. Her studies combine powerful hypothesis-generating screening tools with rigorous hypothesis-driven research questions to systematically test xenobiotic-induced neurotoxicity. Dr. Cory-Slechta has championed behavioral batteries for the assessment of neurotoxicity, developing new methodologies and asserting the importance of early changes in behavior as markers of aberrant neurodevelopment and neurotoxicity. She developed sensitive behavioral tasks to enable translation and validation of her animal work to human populations, which has significantly contributed to the recognition that levels of lead exposure previously thought of as safe are likely causing damage to children, particularly those that have additional risk factors. Dr. Cory-Slechta’s studies have led to a paradigm shift and recognition by federal agencies of the necessity to include developmental neurotoxicity studies in the assessment of ill effects of xenobiotics, particularly as they pertain to the nervous system.

Dr. Cory-Slechta’s scientific influence is demonstrated by an enormous number of invited research presentations worldwide as well as her sustained publication repertoire, which includes over 190 published manuscripts in high-impact journals. In addition, her laboratory since its establishment has received continual funding by the National Institutes of Health, a testament to her outstanding leadership and research.

Since joining SOT in 1983, Dr. Cory-Slechta has served as Chair of the SOT Awards Committee; as a member of the Education and Nominating Committees; as Councilor of the Metals Specialty Section; and as Councilor and President of the Neurotoxicology Specialty Section. Her efforts were recognized through her receipt of the 2017 Neurotoxicology Specialty Section Distinguished Neurotoxicologist Award. In addition to service to SOT, Dr. Cory-Slechta is on the Editorial Boards of Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, Toxicology, and NeuroToxicology and is a reviewer for a multitude of study sections for the National Institutes of Health, US Environmental Protection Agency, and other granting bodies, among numerous other institutional commitments.

Congratulations, Debbie!

Read More: Deborah Cory-Slechta Receives the 2021 SOT Distinguished Toxicology Scholar Award

New Research Sheds Light on Vision Loss in Batten Disease

Friday, February 5, 2021

eyeProgressive vision loss, and eventually blindness, are the hallmarks of juvenile neuronal ceroid lipofuscinosis (JNCL) or CLN3-Batten disease.  New research shows how the mutation associated with the disease could potentially lead to degeneration of light sensing photoreceptor cells in the retina, and subsequent vision loss.

 “The prominence and early onset of retinal degeneration in JNCL makes it likely that cellular processes that are compromised in JNCL are critical for health and function of the retina,” said Ruchira Singh, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Ophthalmology and Center for Visual Science and lead author of the study which appears in the journal Communications Biology. “It is important to understand how vision loss is triggered in this disease, what is primary and what is secondary, and this will allow us to develop new therapeutic strategies.”

Batten disease is caused by a mutation in the CLN3 gene, which is found on chromosome 16.  Most children suffering from JNCL have a missing part in the gene which inhibits the production of certain proteins.  Rapidly progressive vision loss can start in children as young as 4, who eventually go on to develop learning and behavior problems, slow cognitive decline, seizures, and loss of motor control.  Most patients with the disease die between the ages of 15 and 30.

It has been well established that vision loss in JNCL is due to degeneration of the light-sensing tissue in the retina. The vision loss associated with JNCL can precede other neurological symptoms by many years in some instances, which often leads to patients being misdiagnosed with other more common retinal degenerations. However, one of the barriers to studying vision loss in Batten disease is that mouse models of CLN3 gene mutation do not produce the retinal degeneration or vision loss found in humans.  Additionally, examination of eye tissue after death reveals extensive degeneration of retinal cells which does not allow researchers to understand the precise mechanisms that lead to vision loss.

URMC is a hub for Batten disease research.  The Medical Center is home to the University of Rochester Batten Center (URBC), one of the nation’s premier centers dedicated to the study and treatment of this condition. The URBC is led by pediatric neurologist Jonathan Mink, M.D., Ph.D., who is a co-author of the study.  Batten disease is also one of the key research projects that will be undertaken by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development-supported University of Rochester Intellectual and Development Diseases Research Center

To study Batten disease in patient’s own cells, the research team reengineered skin cells from patients and unaffected family members to create human-induced pluripotent stem cells.  These cells, in turn, were used to create retinal cells which possessed the CLN3 mutation. Using this new human cell model of the disease, the new study shows for the first time that proper function of CLN3 is necessary for retinal pigment epithelium cell structure, the cell layer in the retina that nourishes light sensing photoreceptor cells in the retina and is critical for their survival and function and thereby vision.

Singh points out that understanding how RPE cell dysfunction contributes to photoreceptor cell loss in Batten disease is important first step, and it will enable researchers to target specific cell type in the eye using potential future gene therapies, cell transplantation, and drug-based interventions.

Additional co-authors of the study include Cynthia Tang, Jimin Han, Sonal Dalvi, Kannan Marian, Lauren Winschel, Celia Soto, Chad Galloway, Whitney Spencer, Michael Roll, Lisa Latchney, Erika Augustine, Vamsi Gullapalli, and Mina Chung with URMC, David Williams and Stephanie Volland with the University of California, Los Angeles, Vera Boniha with the Cleveland Clinic, and Tyler Johnson with Sanford Research.  The research was supported with funding from the National Eye Institute BrightFocus Foundation, the David Bryant Trust, the Foundation of Fighting Blindness, the Knights Templar Eye Foundation, the Retina Research Foundation, and Research to Prevent Blindness.

Read More: New Research Sheds Light on Vision Loss in Batten Disease

Brain changed by caffeine in utero, study finds

Thursday, February 4, 2021

New research finds caffeine consumed during pregnancy can change important brain pathways in baby.

New research finds caffeine consumed during pregnancy can change important brain pathways that could lead to behavioral problems later in life. Researchers in the Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience at the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) analyzed thousands of brain scans of nine and ten-year-olds, and revealed changes in the brain structure in children who were exposed to caffeine in utero.

“These are sort of small effects and it’s not causing horrendous psychiatric conditions, but it is causing minimal but noticeable behavioral issues that should make us consider long term effects of caffeine intake during pregnancy,” said John Foxe, Ph.D., director of the Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience, and principal investigator of the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development or ABCD Study at the University of Rochester. “I suppose the outcome of this study will be a recommendation that any caffeine during pregnancy is probably not such a good idea.”

Elevated behavioral issues, attention difficulties, and hyperactivity are all symptoms that researchers observed in these children. “What makes this unique is that we have a biological pathway that looks different when you consume caffeine through pregnancy,” said Zachary Christensen, a M.D/Ph.D. candidate in the Medical Science Training Program and first author on the paper published in the journal Neuropharmacology. “Previous studies have shown that children perform differently on IQ tests, or they have different psychopathology, but that could also be related to demographics, so it's hard to parse that out until you have something like a biomarker. This gives us a place to start future research to try to learn exactly when the change is occurring in the brain.”

Investigators analyzed brain scans of more than 9,000 nine and ten-year-old participants in the ABCD study. They found clear changes in how the white matter tracks – which form connections between brain regions – were organized in children whose mothers reported they consumed caffeine during pregnancy.

Pregnant woman standing at window holding mug.

Researchers analyzed the brain scans of more then 9,000 nine and ten-year-olds and found a change in important brain pathways in those whose mothers retrospectively reported consuming caffeine while pregnant.

URMC is one of 21-sites across the country collecting data for the ABCD study, the largest long-term study of brain development and child health. The study is funded by the National Institutes of Health. Ed Freedman, Ph.D., is the principal investigator of the ABCD study in Rochester and a co-author of the study.

“It is important to point out this is a retrospective study,” said Foxe. “We are relying on mothers to remember how much caffeine they took in while they were pregnant.”

Previous studies have found caffeine can have a negative effect on pregnancy. It is also known that a fetus does not have the enzyme necessary to breakdown caffeine when it crosses the placenta. This new study reveals that caffeine could also leave a lasting impact on neurodevelopment.

The researchers point out that it is unclear if the impact of the caffeine on the fetal brain varies from one trimester to the next, or when during gestation these structural changes occur.

“Current clinical guidelines already suggest limiting caffeine intake during pregnancy – no more than two normal cups of coffee a day,” Christensen said. “In the long term, we hope to develop better guidance for mothers, but in the meantime, they should ask their doctor as concerns arise.”

Inhaled paraquat enters brain, impairs sense of smell in male mice

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Researchers funded by NIEHS reported that inhalation of the widely used pesticide paraquat reduced the sense of smell in male mice for several months after exposure. Moreover, the chemical entered the brain and other tissues. These results underscore the importance of studying the effects of inhalation of neurotoxicants, to protect public health.

Loss of sense of smell, or olfactory impairment, is an early sign of Parkinson's disease. The findings, published Dec. 29, 2020, in the journal Toxicological Sciences, suggest paraquat may contribute to such neurodegenerative diseases.

Researchers at the University of Rochester modeled an inhalation of low concentrations of paraquat. Using the university's Inhalation Core facility, they exposed mice to aerosolized paraquat. The team then measured levels of the pesticide in lung, kidney, and four regions of the brain — olfactory bulb, striatum, midbrain, and cerebellum.

"Inhalation can provide a direct route of entry to the brain," explained first author Timothy Anderson. "If you inhale something and it goes into your nose, it can actually enter the neurons responsible for sense of smell, and travel into the brain." Anderson is a graduate student at the University of Rochester lab of Deborah Cory-Slechta, Ph.D.,where the study was conducted. Cory-Slechta is deputy director of the university's NIEHS-funded Environmental Health Sciences Center.

Co-author Kevin Welle measured the highest brain levels in the olfactory bulb, suggesting paraquat entered the brain through nasal-olfactory neurons.

"The sex-dependent olfactory impairment observed after paraquat [PQ] inhalation exposure is intriguing and parallels important features of Parkinson's disease [PD], including early loss of sense of smell and greater prevalence in males," said Jonathan Hollander, Ph.D.,health scientist administrator in the NIEHS Genes, Environment, and Health Branch. Hollander oversees research grants for neurodegenerative diseases and other areas.

"Given that paraquat is a known risk factor for PD, and inhalation is a prevalent source of exposure, this study may lead to a more useful animal model of PQ-induced neurodegeneration," he added.

Read More: Inhaled paraquat enters brain, impairs sense of smell in male mice

Motion got you feeling queasy? It may be all in your head... or your ears

Friday, January 29, 2021

New research from the University of Rochester Medical Center has detailed a part of the nervous system by which the brain can modify our sense of balance. The current study expands our understanding of how balance stimuli are received by the brain while also offering insights into potential drug targets in the ear, which may be leveraged for treating motion sickness and balance disorders.

“In my opinion, these data are one of the first steps in beginning to unravel the functional significance of the efferent vestibular system,” Joseph C. Holt, Ph.D., senior author of the study published in the journal Scientific Reports said. The efferent vestibular system (EVS) begins as a small collection of neurons that travel from the brainstem out to the ear where our sense of balance begins. While there is still little known about the function of the EVS, URMC researchers are uncovering more about the role these neurons may play in processing motion stimuli and maintaining our balance.

Read More: Motion got you feeling queasy? It may be all in your head... or your ears