University of North Dakota Faculty/Staff Newsletter

NIH renews Saobo Lei’s study of molecules that stimulate learning and memory

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Saobo Lei

The National Institutes of Health is renewing the funding of a UND neuroscientist's study of a vital molecular facilitator of learning and memory. Saobo Lei, an associate professor in the Department of Basic Sciences at the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, will receive a $1.04 million R01 grant over the next three years for his work on molecules found in cells of the central nervous system that activate learning and memory. The NIH's grant renewal is recognition of the significance of Lei's work in pursuing potential treatments for neurological diseases that affect learning and memory, such as Alzheimer's, anxiety, epilepsy, and schizophrenia.

A part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the NIH is the nation's medical research agency. The NIH is the largest source of funding for medical research in the world. The Research Project Grant (R01) is the original and historically oldest grant mechanism used by the NIH. An R01 grant provides support for health-related research and development based on the mission of the NIH, which is to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability.

Lei studies a molecule called neurotensin, which is a peptide composed of amino acids that the human body derives from digesting milk, eggs, cheese, meat, fish, and some vegetables, such as soybeans. In particular, Lei focuses on the effect neurotensin has on the entorhinal cortex, the structure in the brain that is crucial to learning and memory.

"In Alzheimer's disease, memory loss is a major problem," Lei said. "Also, in schizophrenia, patients suffer from memory impairment."

For these diseases, the problem is that there are no effective drugs to prevent memory loss or to improve memory. Neurotensin substitutes have the potential to fill this gap.

A goal of Lei's laboratory is to further understand the cellular and molecular mechanisms by which neurotensin molecules increase the excitability of neurons in the entorhinal cortex. Establishing those mechanisms could help to identify chemically similar substitutes for neurotensin, possibly leading to novel pharmaceutical interventions to improve learning and memory.

"Neurotensin receptor agonists can improve learning and memory ability," Lei said. "And they may have some therapeutic potential for patients with Alzheimer's disease and schizophrenia."

-- Denis MacLeod, assistant director, Office of Alumni and Community Relations, School of Medicine and Health Sciences, 777.2733, denis.macleod@med.UND.edu.


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