Neurochemist Receives Young Investigator Award from Eli Lilly

Jill Venton's research could lead to new medications for neurological diseases and injuries

January 11, 2008 — Jill Venton, a University of Virginia assistant professor of chemistry, recently received the 2007 Eli Lilly and Company Young Investigator Award in Analytical Chemistry for her pioneering efforts to design tools to measure neurotransmission in real time.

The award consists of an unsolicited and unrestricted $50,000 grant that may be renewed in 2009 and is based on an investigator's research interests, publication record and impact in the field.

"The Eli Lilly & Co. Young Investigator Award is bestowed, rather than applied for, and so it is a particularly great honor for Dr. Venton to be recognized as a rising young star in analytical chemistry by this leading chemical firm," says Ian Harrison, chairman of U.Va.'s Department of Chemistry. "Dr. Venton's development of new analytical tools to detect brain signaling agents has the potential to be transformative for our understanding of brain function and thought."

Venton's research is significant because current methods to detect neurochemical changes allow researchers to make measurements and observations in the brain only about once every five minutes. Since brain activity and thinking occur on a much faster level, new methods are critical to understanding, for instance, how brain chemistry is altered when someone has a stroke or experiences a seizure. Such research could lead to new medications for neurological injuries and diseases.

Venton has a number of research projects in progress. With U.Va. and National Science Foundation funding, her laboratory developed in vivo microelectrodes that sense the presence of different molecules in the brains of fruit flies. According to Venton, the fruit fly is a model organism because of the ease and speed with which it is both produced and genetically altered. "We can use the fruit fly to study very quickly how genetic mutations affect neurochemistry," she says. "We are developing a fast model to allow for experimentation with genetics and drug studies."

Venton and Barry Condron, associate professor of biology, are using the sensors to study levels of serotonin—a chemical that is known to influence mood and appetite.

Venton also received a two-year exploratory grant from the National Institutes for Health last year to develop sensors that can detect the concentration of the molecule adenosine in the brains or rats. In general, adenosine has an inhibitory effect on the central nervous system. Adenosine may be able to protect the brain from stroke, but until now researchers have been unable to explore its concentrations in real time.

"The advantage to measuring adenosine in real time is that we can see when it is released," says Venton. "If we can study how it is released, we can look at whether its concentration can be manipulated with drugs in order to prevent stroke."

— Written by Melissa Maki, research communications coordinator for the Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies.