The Johns Hopkins Gazette: May 27, 2003
May 27, 2003
VOL. 32, NO. 36


Johns Hopkins Brain Researcher Receives $500,000 Grant

By Michael Purdy

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

The Bristol-Myers Squibb Company has awarded Michela Gallagher, professor of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins, a prestigious unrestricted neuroscience research grant.

The grant will give Gallagher $500,000 over five years in support of her research into aging's effects on the brain and into various aspects of learning, memory and emotion. The Unrestricted Biomedical Research Grants Program has been administered by the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation since its inception in 1977. Award recipients, who are all distinguished scientific investigators at the world's premier research institutions, are free to use the money to support any aspect of their research program.

"In awarding this unrestricted grant to Dr. Gallagher, we are recognizing her very significant scientific accomplishments and her multifaceted approach to exploring the mechanisms underlying learning and memory," said Frank D. Yocca, executive director of Neuroscience Biology at Bristol-Myers Squibb Pharmaceutical Research Institute in Princeton, N.J. Yocca presented the first installment of the five-year grant at a reception on May 22, in Baltimore.

Gallagher, who chairs the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, said, "This award is a real honor. Unrestricted funds of this type are rare and different from more conventional research grants. The support can be used to explore a new idea where the outcome is uncertain, but the potential to a new path of discovery is high."

Gallagher is widely recognized as one of the leaders of a reversal in the mid-1990s of a commonly held belief about the aging brain. Prior to that point, scientists had been convinced by a variety of factors that even healthy aging brains suffered a widespread die-off of significant numbers of brain cells. The most prominent of these factors, which emerged as average lifespan increased significantly during the last century, was an increase in the number of the elderly afflicted by memory problems even in the absence of discernible pathological conditions.

Using a model of aging's effects on the brain that she developed in rats, Gallagher was able to show that nonpathological cognitive declines were not linked to significant loss of brain cells. Further study in the rat model, still ongoing, has instead revealed age-related problems in several of the biochemical mechanisms that nerve cells use to communicate with each other.

"This is terrific, because if neurodegeneration is not a primary cause of the impairment that we see in the elderly, and if we don't have to find ways to replace missing nerve cells [through] nerve cell transplants and so forth, then the challenge of maximizing the potential of the elderly suddenly becomes much more tractable," Gallagher has previously noted.

Another line of Gallagher's research has shown that specific circuits and neurochemical systems in the brain underlie emotional learning and affective processes that guide what are known to psychologists as goal-directed actions.

Gallagher helped establish and is co-director of Johns Hopkins' Center for Neurogenetics and Behavior, which is dedicated to bringing together cognitive scientists like herself who are experienced in behavioral research and scientists who study basic molecular mechanisms in the brain via transgenic animals.

Gallagher begins a yearlong sabbatical on July 1; Greg Ball, professor, will serve as acting department chair during that time.

In addition to neuroscience, the Bristol-Myers Squibb Unrestricted Grants Program supports research in cancer; nutrition; and cardiovascular, metabolic and infectious diseases. Through this program, the foundation has committed more than $100 million to research through 240 grants at 150 academic institutions worldwide.