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UTHealth neuroscientist wins prominent NIH Director's Pioneer Award

Valentin Dragoi, Ph.D., an associate professor of neurobiology and anatomy at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth), is one of 17 researchers to win a 2010 National Institutes of Health Director's Pioneer Award. The award supports scientists who propose revolutionary, high-impact approaches to major challenges in biomedical and behavioral research.

Dragoi, who is proposing a new way to study how the brain processes information, will receive a total award of approximately $3.5 million over the next five years. "To have been selected for this award is fantastic news for me. The Pioneer competition was extremely intense," Dragoi said.

The 2010 Pioneer Awardees will be introduced at the Sixth Annual NIH Director's Pioneer Award Symposium in Bethesda, Md., Sept. 30 Oct. 1.

"Scientists are trying to understand the fundamental way in which the brain operates," said John Byrne, Ph.D., holder of the June and Virgil Waggoner Chair and chairman of the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the UTHealth Medical School. "There are many diseases of the brain. In many cases, we do not know what causes them."

Learning more about the causes of Alzheimer's disease, depression and other brain diseases could aid in the development of treatments, Byrne said. "If your car sputters and you don't know how it works, it is hard to fix," he said.

While some people think of the brain as a computer, it is more like a complex network of computers. "Neuroscientists know how individual neurons (nerve cells) work. The big challenge is understanding how the neurons work together," Dragoi said. The brain contains more than 100 billion neurons, each linked to as many as 10,000 other neurons.

Much of Dragoi's research is focused on how neural networks process information to influence behavior. "Nerve cells may form a network to process one piece of sensory information. Another combination of these cells can reform to process something else," he said.

With the Pioneer Award, Dragoi plans to develop advanced technologies that will allow him to observe neural activity in naturalistic environments. The technology will also allow Dragoi to monitor brain activity during sleep. "We all know sleep is critical to enhance learning. You can't perform well without it. But, we are not really sure why," Dragoi said. NIH review panelists described his approach as "the future of neuroscience," he said.

"This is one of the top honors a biomedical researcher can receive," said Peter Davies, M.D., Ph.D., provost and executive vice president of research at UTHealth.

In 2009, Dragoi won a $1.2 million grant through an NIH initiative called Exceptional, Unconventional Research Enabling Knowledge Acceleration (EUREKA). He is also the recipient of the James S. McDonnell Award, the Pew Scholar Award, the Merck Award and other awards. Dragoi received his doctorate at Duke University and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Dragoi is the second Pioneer Award recipient from UTHealth. Cheng Chi Lee, Ph.D., a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the UTHealth Medical School, earned a Pioneer Award in 2006.


Contact: Robert Cahill
University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston

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