2016 Incubating Interdisciplinary Initiatives (I 3) Award Recipients

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The Incubating Interdisciplinary Initiatives (I 3) award program fosters new interdisciplinary research projects at UO. The Office of the Vice President for Research & Innovation (OVPRI) is pleased to announce the following recipients for 2016:


 “Live Imaging of the Gut-Brain Axis: Examining the Intersection between Neurons and Inflammation”

Annie Powell, assistant professor, Department of Biology / member, Institute of Molecular Biology; and Cris Niell, assistant professor, Department of Biology / member, Institute of Neuroscience; Yashar Ahmadian, assistant professor, Departments of Biology & Math / member, Institute of Neuroscience to perform novel analyses of neural activity; and Judith Eisen, professor, Department of Biology / member, Institute of Neuroscience (ION) to provide her expertise on biology of the enteric nervous system.


Diseases of chronic inflammation of the intestine and colon, such as inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease are incurable illnesses with severe symptoms, ranging from diarrhea to bowel obstruction, that affect 1.4 million Americans. Nearly all studies of these diseases have focused on the cells of the gut itself. However, the gut also has its own nervous system, known as the enteric nervous system, which may be a regulator of both chronic inflammation and intermittent disease recovery. Here we propose to combine the strengths of the Powell lab (Institute of Molecular Biology) and Niell lab (Institute of Neuroscience) to apply novel tools from neuroscience to investigate the role of the enteric nervous system in chronic inflammation. Specifically, we propose to perform live in vivo imaging of neuronal activity in the intact gut, to assess neuronal contributions to colon biology in states of chronic inflammation. This pilot project has two primary aims, which will provide key preliminary data for subsequent grant applications – demonstrating the technical ability to measure neural activity in the intact gut, and making the first measurements of the disruption of neural activity during inflammation. We will also work with Yashar Ahmadian (Math/Biology) to perform novel analyses of neural activity, and with Judith Eisen (ION) an expert in biology of the enteric nervous system. The findings in this proposal should lead to funding opportunities through both gut and neuroscience funding agencies, and open up translational applications in developing therapies for chronic inflammation.


“Neuroimaging Approaches to Studying the Neurodevelopmental Effects of Malnutrition in Southeast Asia”

Jeffrey Measelle, associate professor, Department of Psychology; Dare Baldwin, professor, Department of Psychology; Geeta Eick, laboratory manager and research scientist; Geraldine Richmond, professor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and Josh Snodgrass, associate professor, Department of Anthropology.


Infant development in many low-income countries is significantly compromised by endemic malnutrition. Currently, the implications of malnutrition for brain development and sensory/cognitive functioning during infancy are poorly understood, in part due to a lack of affordable and transportable neuroimaging methods. However, newer technologies are rapidly changing this circumstance. The current proposal would use I 3 funding to achieve two interrelated goals: Goal 1: introduce a functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) system into the ongoing nutrition science efforts of four collaborating SE Asian countries to demonstrate the feasibility of acquiring functional brain imaging data from healthy and severely malnourished children during the first 1000 days of life. Goal2: link infants’ discrete nutritional profiles (nutritional, growth, and immune factors as measured in dried blood spots) with cortical responses (activation patterns and level) to verbal and auditory stimuli as measured with fNIRS. If successful, we will have performed the first functional brain imaging study of malnourished infants in SE Asian, joining, just two other parallel efforts in Gambia and Bangladesh. Preparatory consultations with promising external funding sources (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, NICHD, Ford Foundation) suggest that the pilot data collected with I3 support would enable a series of high-probability proposals. Finally, this I 3 proposal represents an innovative, multidisciplinary collaboration between scientists from three distinct UO units (Pyschology, Chemistry, and Anthropology) that will also help to solidify the University of Oregon’s institutional relationship with governmental and scientific groups in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar.


“Neural circuit mechanisms underlying speech processing”

Mike Wehr, Associate Professor, Department of Psychology / member, Institute of Neuroscience; and Kaori Idemaru, associate professor, Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures


Speech perception is a vital human function, which is impaired in a wide range of neurodevelopmental, congenital, and neurological disorders. Several critical barriers have so far prevented a clear understanding of the neuronal mechanisms underlying speech perception, especially compared to most other aspects of sensory perception. For example, speech is too fast and the neural circuity too small for conventional methods of studying the human brain. Neurobiological studies in animals are limited by the uniquely human nature of speech. As a result, the fields of linguistics and neurobiology have remained largely isolated. Here we propose an interdisciplinary effort, bringing together a linguistics lab and a systems neuroscience lab to develop a mouse model of speech perception. Our broad goal is to understand the neuronal circuitry underlying speech processing. We will train mice to classify human speech phonemes, and use the powerful tools of systems neuroscience to understand how the mammalian auditory system solves this problem. Here we propose a pilot project to demonstrate feasibility and develop preliminary data to support external funding proposals aimed at a bold and innovative large-scale research program. The human health relevance of this research is squarely within the mission of NIDCD (Deafness and Communication Disorders).


“Personalized Thermal Comfort in the Built Environment”

Chris Minson, professor, Department of Human Physiology; Kevin Van Den Wymelenberg, associate professor, Department of Architecture, Energy Studies in Buildings Laboratory; Susan Sokolowski, associate professor, Product Design Program; Michel Kinsy, assistant professor, Department of Computing and Information Sciences; and additional Co-I’s. 


We propose to utilize an innovative approach to design a unique advanced personal system to improve thermal comfort in work and home environments. Our interdisciplinary team will take advantage of human anatomical sites and physiological processes to apply heat from a wearable unit to targeted areas of the body that will increase thermal comfort and could be used to reduce HVAC costs in buildings. Specifically, we would use I3 funding to form a team of researchers from Human Physiology, AAA (including the Energy Studies in Building Laboratories and Product Design), Computer and Information Sciences, and a local company (Innovative Sports) that would design, develop, and test a system to improve thermal comfort and potentially reduce building energy consumption. Phase 1 of the proposed project would be to develop a heated wrist product, and to examine other areas of the body in which there is high skin blood flow and thermal sensitivity to apply targeted heating. We would work with our commercialization partner (Innovative Sports) and Product Design to build a new system and perform initial testing on human subjects. Based on the preliminary data, we would then apply for initial funding from programs such as ONAMI or Oregon BEST. In Phase 2 we would work to refine and redevelop the products in a work or home environment. In Phase 3, the team will work with our consultant to identify and apply for development and/or funding opportunities to take the products to the next level for future application to consumers.