A University of Cincinnati neurobiologist may soon help mental health
researchers understand depression at a more effective level than ever
before, thanks to an innovative research method and a
nearly-quarter-million-dollar grant from the National Institutes of
James Herman, PhD, received a two-year NIH grant worth
$248,159 in its first year to fund research into the role that microRNA
(miRNA) - molecular-level controllers that help regulate the brain's
chemistry - play in how the brain reacts to stress.
attempting to develop this as a discovery platform to understand what's
going on in the brain," Herman says. He explains that this research, in
which scientists analyze how miRNA in mice affect the brain's
mood-regulating prefrontal cortex, is very early-stage work in the
exploration of the molecular process behind depression.
ultimate implications of Herman's work could be significant. He
explained that miRNA in mice function the same as miRNA in humans:
identify a link between mouse miRNA and a brain dysfunction, and there's
good reason to look for a similar relationship in the human brain.
Beyond this tantalizing fact, though, scientists don't completely
understand how miRNA works, or even how many types of miRNA exist in the
Herman's team is tackling this hurdle with a new analysis
technique, called deep sequencing, to analyze miRNA at a high level of
"The method is really, really powerful," he says.
Processing one set of data from a sample, for example, can keep lab
computers running nonstop for a weekend. Thanks to a collaboration with
informatics researchers at the University of Michigan, Herman's team can
spot relationships and patterns in this sea of data, results that could
help scientists link certain miRNA function - or dysfunction - to the
stress-processing problems underlying depression and mood disorders.
results could eventually give psychiatrists a new weapon against mood
disorders. Rather than giving a patient medicine that floods the brain
with mood-altering chemicals - a practice that often comes with severe
side effects - physicians could one day provide treatment that fixes the
way the brain controls its own chemistry. Medicine has a long way to go
to reach that point, but the work Herman's team is undertaking at UC
could be a major step in the right direction.
By Matt Cunningham