January 19, 2011 — The McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience has selected psychology assistant professor Brian Wiltgen of the University of Virginia's College of Arts & Sciences to receive a 2012 Memory and Cognitive Disorders Award. He is among four scientists – and the only assistant professor – chosen nationally this year. The awards provide $1.2 million over three years – $300,000 to each scientist – for research on the biology of brain diseases.
The Memory and Cognitive Disorders Awards support innovative research by U.S. scientists who are exploring new ways to diagnose, prevent and treat memory and cognitive disorders. The awards encourage collaboration between basic and clinical neuroscientists, with the ultimate goal of helping to translate laboratory discoveries into diagnoses and therapies for brain disorders.
Additionally, Wiltgen recently won a three-year, $225,000 research grant from the Whitehall Foundation, a not-for-profit corporation focused on assisting basic research in non-clinical vertebrate and invertebrate neurobiology; and a two-year, $100,000 New Investigator Research Grant from the Alzheimer's Association.
An expert on learning, Wiltgen is studying how new memories are encoded by the hippocampus, a part of the brain that involves the forming and organizing of memories which are, over time, permanently stored in regions of the neocortex, where they have potential to last a lifetime. Wiltgen is exploring the biological mechanisms that underlie this storage process.
His lab is developing new techniques to control the activity of memory circuits in the hippocampus and neocortex. He will use these techniques to reactivate hippocampal memory traces and identify interactions with the neocortex that are necessary to store information permanently.
The work has implications for the treatment of Alzheimer's and other diseases that affect memory.
"Prevention and treatment of memory and cognitive disorders will require our detailed understanding of the complexities of the brain," said neuroscientist Dr. Eric Nestler, who chairs the McKnight awards committee and directs the Friedman Brain Institute at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. "In seeding innovative, translational brain research, we look forward to the day when these disorders no longer have power over so many lives."
The McKnight awards reflect the interests of William L. McKnight, who founded The McKnight Foundation in 1953 and wanted to support research on brain biology and diseases affecting memory.
Wiltgen will receive $100,000 annually through 2014.
With 109 letters of intent received this year, the awards are highly competitive. A committee of distinguished scientists reviews the letters and invites a select few researchers to submit full proposals.