University of Iowa neuroscience researchers explore treatments for brain disorders

Since its founding in 2016, the Iowa Neuroscience Institute researchers have made discoveries to treat patients with neurological and psychiatric disorders to provide care faster.


Tate Hildyard

University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics are seen on Tuesday, June 23, 2020.

Lillian Poulsen, News Reporter

University of Iowa researchers are exploring scientific breakthroughs in neuroscience that could lead to treatments and cures for psychiatric and neurological disorders.

The Iowa Neuroscience Institute, established in 2016 with a $45 million grant from the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust, is a multidisciplinary center with over 120 faculty members in seven colleges and 30 departments across campus.

Institute Director Ted Abel said he founded the program to make discoveries in neuroscience and develop new ways to treat neurological disorders.

“We started the Iowa Neuroscience Institute because of the dramatic advances in fundamental neuroscience research that have occurred in recent years,” Abel said. “We also did it because of the challenge of treating patients with neurological and psychiatric diseases that are debilitating and challenging for individuals.”

Abel organizes funding for programs of research and creates opportunities that enable individuals to carry out experiments that they’re passionate about, he said. He also supports grants and creates workshops to bring other researchers to campus, he said.

Because of the efforts of him and other researchers from the UI, the institute has developed some treatments for brain disorders, Abel said.

The UI Department of Neurology Vice Chair for Basic and Translational Research Kumar Narayanan said the collaborative environment at the university led to new diagnostic tools and treatments for people with Parkinson’s disease.

“On the treatment side, we have worked to discover new brain stimulation paradigms that might help for some of these cognitive manifestations,” Narayanan said. “We are working to understand new treatments that have the potential to help limit the progression of Parkinson’s disease.”

Narayanan worked with two other researchers at the UI to develop an algorithm that detects Parkinson’s disease in patients using electroencephalography data, as previously reported by The Daily Iowan. This algorithm helps researchers identify the disease, allowing them to provide treatments earlier in the disease’s progression.

More than 1 million people in the U.S. have Parkinson’s disease, which causes tremors and slowness of movement, according to the Mayo Clinic. It affects nearly 2 percent of those over the age of 65.

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Narayanan said his goal is to help these patients and their families, which is made possible by the efforts of the neuroscience institute.

UI Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry Hanna Stevens said the UI neuroscience program has allowed her to study brain development at the prenatal stage.

Her lab studies risks for neurological and psychiatric disorders, she said, such as autism spectrum disorder and anxiety.

“Trying to understand what happens during early brain development is really important from the standpoint of making sure it doesn’t go wrong,” Stevens said. “Things that happen to a mother have been tied with changes in brain development in a child.”

Stevens’ research focuses on how stress and chemicals in the environment that the mother consumes impact brain development. She said understanding these factors allows researchers to protect prenatal brains.

According to Helmut Sies from ScienceDirect, oxidative stress occurs when there is an imbalance between oxidants and antioxidants. If mothers experience oxidative stress during pregnancy, their children can develop neurological disorders, including Parkinson’s disease, later in life, according to Healthline.

Because of the unique opportunity to work with people in the Iowa Neuroscience Institute, Stevens said she can study risk genes in early development and interact with scientists who focus on neurological disorders.

“People are so insightful at looking at your ideas and giving you additional feedback and where to make improvements,” Stevens said. “All the success we’ve had could never have happened without the collaboration and learning new things from scientists here at Iowa.”

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Over the years, researchers at the institute have made advances in an area that is challenging, Abel said. The institute has also helped create a neuroscience undergraduate degree and established new centers, including the Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation.

In the future, Abel said the institute hopes to bring awareness and foster acceptance for individuals with neurological and psychiatric disorders.

“People suffering from brain disorders are often regarded as outsiders, so we want to connect the community to create discussions about what it’s like to suffer from psychiatric and neurological disorders,” Abel said. “We want to discuss how we as a community can better support individuals and their families suffering from these diseases.”

Abel said these improvements wouldn’t be possible without the UI and Iowa City communities.

“The most important resource we have is our people — our students, our fellows, our faculty, and staff — all of whom are tremendously accomplished in their disciplines and focused on improving the lives of patients with brain disorders,” he said.