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Rutgers' Brain Health Institute continues to expand its research capabilities

<p>Located on the second floor of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School Research Building on Busch campus, the institute oversees more than 270 neuroscience labs at Rutgers</p>

Located on the second floor of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School Research Building on Busch campus, the institute oversees more than 270 neuroscience labs at Rutgers

The Rutgers Brain Health Institute was formed five years ago under the guidance of director Dr. Gary Aston-Jones. Since then, Aston-Jones has been creating centers for neuroscience research and investing in both talent and technology under the institute’s umbrella.

Located on the second floor of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School Research Building on Busch campus, the institute oversees more than 270 neuroscience labs at Rutgers, Aston-Jones said.

“The institute was formed a year after the consolidation of UMDNJ (University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey) and Rutgers, which created a very large neuroscience environment,” he said. “Two medical schools, two psychology departments, two biology departments — it’s a lot.”

During the consolidation, Robin Davis, a professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience, and Teri Wood, a professor in the Department Of Pharmacology, Physiology and Neuroscience, started connecting the neuroscience landscape at the University.

“I took off of where they had started and created the Brain Health Institute,” Aston-Jones said.

His first year as director was spent talking to senior leaders in Rutgers neuroscience to identify four areas of strength that could be further developed: neurodevelopment, neurodegeneration, motivational and affective neuroscience and cognitive and sensory neuroscience, Aston-Jones said.

“What I'm doing to develop each of those areas is creating centers in each area and hiring directors for the centers,” he said. “Then those directors for the centers will grow and recruit other faculty.”

Within the neurodegeneration focus area, The Rutgers Brain Health Institute has already started an Alzheimer’s disease research center based in Newark. The center is searching for a director, Aston-Jones said.

“All of it is supported by philanthropy from Herbert Klein and his wife Jacqueline, who had Alzheimer's disease. He was a Rutgers graduate, so he's been very generous with us and that's allowed us to put that research center together,” he said.

The Rutgers Brain Health Institute also collaborated with Princeton University to create the Center for Cognitive Computational Neuropsychiatry (CCNP). Addressing the focus area of cognitive and sensory neuroscience, this center is funded by both universities and is based at Rutgers.

“It's a space in the basement of the research tower. It's basically three behavioral testing rooms where patients with different disorders are tested with a computer task that investigators design with a particular disorder in mind,” Aston-Jones said. “It’s a way of probing cognitive abilities and disabilities in people that have depression or addiction or OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), or any number of neuropsychiatric disorders.”

Within the next few years, two more centers will be created to address the motivational and affective neuroscience and neurodevelopment focus areas. For example, the institute is currently recruiting faculty for a new addiction research center.

“Chris Pierce from the University of Pennsylvania will join us in January and we’ve got a couple other recruitments in mind. We are right now searching for a director for that center — I actually just got off the phone with a candidate for that,” Aston-Jones said.

In neurodevelopment, the center will also be opening an autism research center on Easton Avenue. The Rutgers University Center for Autism Research, Education and Service (RUCARES) will be separate from the New Jersey Center of Autism Excellence (NJACE), which is a state-funded research initiative, Aston-Jones said

“That will be directed by Wayne Fisher who will come in December. His colleague Brian Grier is already here — he arrived a couple of weeks ago. This center is a collaboration with Children's Specialized Hospital. It has a lot of autism patients, more than Rutgers. It's a great collaboration,” he said. 

In addition to these centers, the Rutgers Brain Health Institute coordinates animal and human preclinical work, Aston-Jones said. Beyond preclinical work, the institute aims to include clinical research and clinical trials.

“I named the effort the Brain Health Institute because I wanted to emphasize the importance of translational approaches. Everything we do has some clinical goal in mind,” he said. “All the basic research is basic research, but it has some clinical, therapeutic endpoint.”

The rapid growth of the Rutgers Brain Health Institute is in part due to the consolidation between UMDNJ and Rutgers as well as Rutgers’ recent partnership with RWJBarnabas Health, Aston-Jones said.

“In a way, we were very fortunate to already have in the process a lot of recruiting and center development. Now this new support comes along to further support that effort that already had a lot of momentum. So, it'll keep going even faster,” he said.

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