Dr. Ryohei Yasuda

Dr. Ryohei Yasuda of The Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience has been awarded a $2.4 million, five-year research grant by the National Institute of Mental Health at the National Institutes for Health (NIH).

Dr. Yasuda is a scientific director at the Max Planck Florida Institute and leads the Neuronal Signal Translation research group focusing on the biochemical reactions that occur around neuronal signaling. His group looks at behaviors of proteins involved in synaptic plasticity within dendritic spines – small bristles on the surface of neurons that receive synaptic signals. Synaptic plasticity is the ability of the connection, or synapse, between two neurons to change in strength in response to either use or disuse of transmission over synaptic pathways. In dendritic spines, a number of proteins play roles in triggering the chain of biochemical reactions necessary for changing the strength of the synaptic connections.

Dr. Yasuda describes the work in simple terms, “We are trying to understand the basic mechanism of memory formation.”

In the NIH grant, he said, the focus is on a protein molecule, Ras, important for memory formation. Abnormal Ras signaling has been implicated in a lot of diseases and conditions, including mental retardation and Alzheimer’s. “There are a lot of reasons to believe the molecule is important,” said Dr. Yasuda. “And understanding the mechanism of how it works should provide us insights into new therapeutics for these diseases.”

An enabling key to the research, he said, are the advancements in imaging technologies. Some of those advances, including the technology to visualize and record biochemical reactions during actual memory formation, were developed by Yasuda and his group. “Before that technology, we didn’t have any idea about how the molecule was activated, the timing of the activation or where the molecule was activated. Now we can monitor the location and timing of biochemical reactions.”

Although the NIH grant is focused on the Ras molecule, Dr. Yasuda is studying it as part of a larger context. “There are a lot of molecules around Ras that are important for brain function,” he said. “We are developing biosensors for a number of these different molecules, and we are trying to understand how these molecules behave before and after memory formation.”

“The insights to be gained from a better understanding of these biochemical reactions should be directly applicable to therapeutic research and development because most drugs we know of are targeted to biochemical reactions.”

This grant is the latest in a series of scientific grants announced by the Max Planck Florida Institute. Over the past six months, researchers have been awarded more than $8.1 million by NIH institutes and other grant making organizations, including Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy (CURE) and the Michael J. Fox Foundation.

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