Creative Minds: Can Microbes Influence Mental Health?

Photo of a young woman

Elaine Hsiao
Credit: NIH Common Fund

While sitting in microbiology class as a college sophomore, Elaine Hsiao was stunned to learn that the human gut held between as much as 6 pounds of bacteria—twice the weight of an adult human brain. She went on to learn during her graduate studies in neurobiology that these microbes had co-evolved with humans and played important roles in our bodies, aiding digestion and immune function, for example. But more intriguing to her, by far, was new research that suggested that gut bacteria might even be influencing our thoughts, moods, and behavior.

Now a senior research fellow at the California Institute of Technology, Hsiao is launching her own effort to explore how these microbes can affect brain function—a very creative endeavor made possible through NIH’s Early Independence Award program—also known as the “skip the postdoc” award.

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Creative Minds: Lighting Up Memory

Christine Denny, Columbia UniversityOne of the most debilitating, and heartbreaking, consequences of Alzheimer’s disease is the way it slowly robs people of their memories. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have a cure for Alzheimer’s, let alone a good understanding of exactly how this disease destroys memory skills. That’s why, in this first post in my series highlighting some of the awardees in NIH Common Fund’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program, I’m excited to introduce a young scientist who’s using some cool technology to tackle this formidable challenge: Christine Ann Denny.

A winner of a 2013 NIH Director’s Early Independence Awards (often called the “skip-the-postdoc” award), Denny has developed a technique to label the cells that encode individual memories in the brains of mice. That’s right: she tags the nerve cells that build these memories, the neurons, with a fluorescent molecule that glows. Continue reading

Driving Innovation and Creativity with High Risk Research

Girl in a lab

Caption: One of the many faces of NIH-supported innovation, Stanford’s Christina Smolke is exploring how synthetic biology and microbes can be used to produce new drugs. She is a 2012 Pioneer Award winner.
Credit: Linda Cicero/Stanford News Service

High-risk research isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s for fearless researchers who envision and develop innovative projects with unconventional approaches that, if successful, may yield great leaps in our understanding of health problems and/or biological mechanisms. It takes nerve and creativity to conceive such projects—and, often, special support to bring them to fruition.  And, as the name implies, there is a significant chance of failure.

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