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University of Pittsburgh announces creation of brain institute

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University of Pittsburgh leaders and scientists will spend $120 million to focus more of their brains on others' brains.

They announced on Monday that they'll establish a multifaceted Brain Institute to develop treatments for brain disorders and injuries.

“It's recognition of the importance of brain research to the community and to the nation,” said Peter L. Strick, founding scientific director of the Brain Institute. He noted “opportunities that we have to make discoveries in brain research, but also the challenges we face.”

Strick said the institute will help the nation attend to veterans who had brain injuries or lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the onslaught of baby boomers who might develop Alzheimer's or Parkinson's diseases, both of which attack the brain. Between Jan. 1, 2000, and Aug. 20, 2012, 253,330 military personnel received traumatic brain injuries, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. As of Dec. 3, 2012, 1,715 people underwent amputations for battle injuries.

“The more research and knowledge that can be gained on the issue can be put out to doctors and psychiatrists to help people with those issues,” said Ulysses Winn, 26, of McCandless, an Army veteran who suffered a traumatic brain injury in Iraq.

The institute will consist of NeuroTech, NeuroGenetics, NeuroMapping, NeuroLearning and NeuroDiscovery centers.

Scientists hope to develop treatments that could restore movement to the paralyzed or vision to the blind, officials said. Pitt achieved success with a robotic arm that works when tiny chips are implanted in the brain. The project, made public in December 2012, allowed a quadriplegic Whitehall woman to complete tasks such as stacking plastic cones on a table.

“This is a remarkable set of projects they put together under one roof,” said James R. Lackner, director of the Ashton Graybiel Spatial Orientation Laboratory at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. “It takes a broad but integrated perspective to attack the problem from all the relevant aspects — from basic research to a genetic basis to trying to find surgical as well as other techniques related to brain functioning.”

Lackner knows Pitt's brain research capability from having evaluated the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, a joint project of Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University.

Strick is the Pitt co-director of that center, and Marlene Behrmann is the CMU co-director.

“Certainly from the CMU side, we're looking forward to continuing our strong collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh to make Pittsburgh the city of brain science,” Behrmann said.

Pitt conceived the idea of the institute a year before President Obama announced a $100 million BRAIN Initiative in April. The federal project aims to speed the invention of technologies to help researchers make pictures of complex neural circuits and visualize the rapid-fire interaction of cells. Leaders of the federal plan hope it improves understanding of the link between the brain and human behavior, learning and the mechanism of brain disease.

“The president's initiative just confirmed we were on the right track,” said Strick, distinguished professor and chair of Pitt's department of neurobiology. “His initiative is creating grants that faculty can apply for. I'm sure Pitt faculty will apply for them. I know I am.”

He said the institute will build on Pitt's faculty; he expects the university to hire 10 senior and junior scientists during five years. He said Pitt's School of Medicine and other divisions within the university committed $45 million to start the institute. Pitt hopes to raise $75 million for the startup.

Bill Zlatos is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7828 or bzlatos@tribweb.com.

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