UVA Launches $75M Neuroscience Challenge With Alzheimer’s, Autism, Other Brain Research

June 8, 2022
An engraving of a brain on an abstract background of circles, diagonal lines, and old paper

Illustration by Alexandra Angelich, University Communications

The University of Virginia announced Friday it will invest more than $75 million in an interdisciplinary effort to pioneer life-changing advances in neuroscience while simultaneously mapping the workings of the human brain.

One of UVA’s ambitious Grand Challenge Research Initiatives, the neuroscience push will help scientists better understand perplexing conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and autism, as well as how the brain functions over a lifespan.

Provost Ian Baucom, Vice President for Research Melur K. “Ram” Ramasubramanian and Vice Provost for Academic Initiatives Megan Barnett are spearheading the Grand Challenges, which are part of the University’s 2030 “Great and Good” Plan, a set of strategic initiatives focused on service through collaboration.

Ian Baucom and Melur Ramasubramanian look at the camera
Provost Ian Baucom and Vice President for Research Melur K. “Ram” Ramasubramanian discussed neuroscience’s role in the Grand Challenges. (Photos by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“Our expectation of Grand Challenges funding is that it will lead to great field-changing research – and that our research will change human lives, patient outcomes and childhood education,” Baucom said in a statement following Friday’s announcement of the initiative at the Board of Visitors’ June meeting.

“We are making these investments with the clear intention to see results that we can scale up and share widely for the public good,” he said. “That is a crucial expression of our mission as a public research university, and of the 2030 Plan’s emphasis on being great and good.”

Ramasubramanian added, “Grand Challenges will help build a critical mass at UVA and grow research through the generation of large-scale extramural funding, while addressing some of our most pressing global problems.”

The Grand Challenge in neuroscience’s initial studies will:

  • Investigate why caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients are more likely to develop dementia than their peers who don’t serve as caregivers.
  • Test the capacity for focused ultrasound to help deliver immunological therapies across the brain’s protective barrier.
  • Catalog neurodiversity among the many forms of autism to develop enhanced interventions and educational approaches for students from early childhood onward.
  • Deploy multiple technologies to better understand the brain’s overall circuitry and development.

Jaideep Kapur, a professor of neurology and director of the UVA Brain Institute, and Sarah Kucenas, a professor of biology and director of the Program in Fundamental Neuroscience, said the research slate was chosen through a yearlong process that included online meetings, opportunities for collective idea generation, and a University-wide conference that involved more than 100 faculty, staff and students.

“This is an investment in the UVA neuroscience community writ large,” Kapur said. “All the ideas people gave us, we captured. We had something like a 40- to 50-page document at the end, and we sought to find the common threads throughout.”

Though there are specific areas of emphasis, the Grand Challenges are all about “encouraging wide interdisciplinary connections,” Kucenas said.

In partnership with deans and other academic leadership, Kapur and the Brain Institute will play a key role in coordinating and administering the work of faculty members, students and staff in the schools of Medicine, Engineering, Arts & Sciences, Nursing, Data Science, Leadership and Public Policy, and Education and Human Development.

Jaideep Kapur in a lab coat smiles at the camera, and Sarah Kucenas, in a laboratory, looks at the camera
Jaideep Kapur, director of the UVA Brain Institute, and Sarah Kucenas, director of the Program in Fundamental Neuroscience, elaborated on the research focus. (Photos by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“A further advantage of making these investments is that it will put us in position to develop a world-leading comprehensive neuroscience institute, along the lines of a comprehensive cancer center,” Baucom said.

The University will make more than 20 strategic faculty hires to help with the research, and initiate the Next Generation Scholars program, which will recruit and train 15 outstanding post-doctoral researchers, with an emphasis on diversifying the field.  

The University Grand Challenges Fund is providing $50 million of the total investment, with UVA Health and the partnering schools collectively contributing another $25 million. Some investments, such as a data analytics center and additional library resources, will benefit researchers in many areas across Grounds. About $10 million will go toward equipment and research cores, including a clinical trials unit.

“We want to take what we learn all the way to the clinic, where our patients can share in advances,” Kapur said.

The neuroscience investment was one of two Grand Challenges announced Friday at the Board of Visitors’ meeting, along with one focused on climate change and environmental resilience, for a combined infusion of about $140 million.

Overall, the University identified five priorities that its Grand Challenges research initiatives should address as part of the 2030 Plan. In addition to the brain and neuroscience, they are democracy, environmental resilience and sustainability, precision medicine and health, and digital technology and society.

The challenges kicked off in June of last year with the $100 million investment that created the Karsh Institute of Democracy at UVA. Enhanced by donations from philanthropic alumni Martha and Bruce Karsh, the institute builds on UVA’s strength in democracy and facilitates democracy-related collaborations across Grounds and beyond.

In August, then-Provost Liz Magill and Ramasubramanian partnered with the UVA Brain Institute, as well as with the Environmental Resilience Institute, to begin seeking input from the UVA community about new research they’d like to see become a reality.

Administrators hope the emerging nexus focused on neuroscience will draw outside funding that will continue to increase researchers’ capacity to make transformative discoveries, and to use those discoveries to improve health and wellbeing.

The leaders also noted that the neuroscience challenge will be an opportunity to showcase UVA for its breadth of expertise at all stages of life.

“Here at UVA, we have strengths in brain-related research areas across the lifespan,” Kucenas said. “We’ll be using this funding to create links between these areas of excellence. It will allow UVA to be unique in addressing the brain from birth to late age.”

For those seeking more information about Grand Challenge collaborations, contact provost@virginia.edu or visit the webpages for the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, the Office of the Vice President for Research or the UVA Brain Institute.

Media Contact

Alexandra Rebhorn

Office of the Provost