becomes the new "frontier" of Brain Research
The UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences is embarking on
a journey to become a national leader in the quest to discover
new knowledge of how the brain works at its most basic level,
and, ultimately, the causes of neurodegenerative diseases such
as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s and the underlying
mechanisms of drug addiction.
Research aimed at these problems, it is hoped, will lead to more
effective and preventative treatment measures.
The first steps in this journey are evidenced by:
a $10.3 million federal grant for the “Center of Biomedical
Research Excellence (COBRE),”
a federal award of $3.8 million for a microPET (positron emission
tomography) scanner to be used in the study of the brain at the
cellular and molecular levels, and
a federal award of $3 million to construct a new neuroscience
research facility dedicated to brain research.
“We are committed to identifying and pursuing those areas
where we can excel and make significant contributions,”
said H. David Wilson, medical school dean and vice president for
health affairs at UND. “We cannot be all things to all people,
so we must focus on a few select areas where we can carve out
a niche and fill it such as rural health care, innovative medical
education which responds to society’s needs, and now neuroscience
North Dakota is an appropriate “laboratory” for neuroscience
research: similar to other agricultural states, it has a “quite
high” incidence of Parkinson’s disease, according
to Manuchair Ebadi, associate vice president for health affairs
and associate dean for research and program development at the
The prevalence of Parkinson’s disease has been attributed
to both longevity and the use of agricultural chemicals, Ebadi
said, adding that members of the state’s largest minority
group, American Indians, also experience a high incidence of Parkinson’s.
According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the
National Institute of Drug Abuse, North Dakota also has the dubious
distinction of ranking first in the nation, per capita, in all
forms of drug addiction, especially amphetamine and cocaine, he
said. The incidence of Parkinson’s disease increases with
“Thinking big” positions UND
to be national leader in research
“Miracles happen to those who believe in miracles,”
says Manuchair (“Mike”) Ebadi, associate dean for
research and program development at the medical school.
“I think big and dream big, and then I work hard to make
it come true.”
The “miracle” he refers to is the UND medical school’s
selection by the federal government as one of the few in the country
to receive a $2.5 million grant for a positron emission tomography
(PET) scanner and a cyclotron. An additional $1.3 million completes
the funding package to cover related costs of preparing the lab
and hiring a radiochemist to operate the equipment.
The extremely sophisticated PET scanner will allow biomedical
researchers to conduct cutting-edge investigations into neurodegenerative
diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, and
into the underlying mechanisms in the brain which lead to drug-seeking
“It is basically a special kind of camera (like the Hubble
Space Telescope) which takes pictures” of the inner regions
of the brain, Ebadi explains, giving researchers a view of how
the brain functions.
Through the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the government
has funded the placement of the highly sophisticated research
equipment in the Center of Excellence in Neuroscience at the UND
School of Medicine and Health Sciences one of only a handful of
sites in the country to receive this equipment.
As a partner in the network of universities and others conducting
this type of research, the UND medical school is in the company
of the prestigious: University of California-Los Angeles, Harvard,
Johns Hopkins, the University of Colorado, Oregon Health Sciences
University, Emory University, the University of Pennsylvania,
Brookhaven National Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
Massachusetts General Hospital, the University of South Florida,
and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Ebadi has been appointed a member of the National Nuclear Imaging
Infrastructure Network by the Office of National Drug Control
Policy, Counter Technology Assessment Center. In this capacity,
he is working to acquire a $6 million grant for Single Photon
Emission Computed Tomography (SPECT) for the medical school and
the Parkinson’s disease initiative with the MeritCare Health
System in Fargo. SPECT may be used to diagnose Parkinson’s
disease before it becomes manifest as a motor deficit.
“I have a dream, but it is not an empty dream,” he
said. He credits the distinction the medical school has achieved
to “thinking associated with good science.
The reason UND was selected to receive the rare technology “has
to do with our capacity” to conduct research of the quality
and caliber the government requires, Ebadi maintains.
The Center of Excellence in Neuroscience is intended to make
UND nationally visible and competitive in brain research. To that
end, five highly qualified scientists from throughout the United
States – from Stanford, the National Institutes of Health
(Institute of Aging, and Institute of Neurological Disorders and
Stroke), Cleveland Clinic Foundation, Vanderbilt University, and
Case Western Reserve – have been recruited to function as
a team, or a “cluster.” Each member is working on
a specific aspect of the research project. The team may eventually
grow to 30 neuroscientists.
Currently being built by CTI in Tennessee, the PET scanner is
expected to be delivered in late summer and become fully operational
in February 2004. To make its new home ready in the medical school’s
basement, work is under way to “build a bunker,” as
Ebadi dubs it, by reinforcing the concrete floor and walls to
18 inches thick and readying nearby space for a “hot lab,”
where radioactive material will be purified, and a cyclotron for
driving the PET scanner.
On arrival, the 120-ton cyclotron will be lowered into place
through the ceiling of the basement in an area where the building
does not rise above ground level.
Examining dopamine “tracks”
in the brain & looking for ways to protect neurons
The brains of people with Parkinson’s lack dopamine, a
chemical that is necessary for movement. Researchers at the UND
medical school are studying four “tracks” in the brain
that deliver dopamine in an effort to determine their individual
They will use experimental animal models to uncover new information
about the area of the brain where dopamine is synthesized and
These dopaminergic tracks “do different things,”
Mike Ebadi said, and “you can design a drug to block the
action that produces the undesirable effect. For the Parkinson’s
patient, thinking is preserved but movement is not controlled;
for the Alzheimer’s patient, movement is controlled but
thinking is adversely affected.
“If you know which ones are involved in addiction, you
can develop a mechanism for blocking the sensations that cause
For the drug user, the initial lure is the first reaction to
the drug, a sense of euphoria, the neuroscientist explains. After
the user becomes hooked on the drug, he or she continues to take
the substance to avoid the dysphoria, or feeling of agony, the
“If we know how neurons are damaged, we could develop ways
to protect them,” Ebadi said.
The brain is “the last portion of the body” to be
intensively studied, he noted.
Ebadi is clearly determined to direct the medical school’s
search toward the goal of understanding the nature of and combating
the effects of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and other
devastating and progressive diseases.
“By providing neuroprotection,” he said, “we
can help individuals with neurodegenerative disorders.”
Construction to start on neuroscience facility
This fall, ground will be broken on a new $3 million-plus, state-of-the-art
facility to house neuroscience research at the UND School of Medicine
and Health Sciences. Federal funds are financing most of the cost
of constructing the 14,000-square-foot structure, which is expected
to be completed in the fall of 2004.
The building, to be located at Fifth Avenue North and Hamline
Street, just west of the medical school complex, will provide
laboratories for eight neuroscientists and their assistants. The
neuroscientists will be members of the basic science and clinical
departments of the medical school. All will have received grant
funding to work on various aspects of the research.
“It will be the best research building at UND,” says
Dean H. David Wilson. With huge labs and offices lining the exterior
walls, the facility will have modern support systems, including
central core equipment bearing central vacuum and central nitrogen,
and a neuroscience library.
NOTE: The design of the new neuroscience research facility is
the result of a collaboration between the architectural firms
of Johnson, Laffen, Galloway (JLG) of Grand Forks and Hammel,
Green & Abrahamson, Inc. (HGA) of Minneapolis. This architect’s
rendering was provided by HGA.