Neuroscientist gets grant to map neural circuits that control organ function

November 13, 2015 | News, Research, UToday, Medicine and Life Sciences
By Brandi Barhite

A neuroscientist at The University of Toledo has received a $500,000 grant to help develop research tools to advance the treatment of medical conditions of the gut, heart, lungs and other organs.

Dr. Marthe Howard, a professor in the Department of Neurosciences, is one of 12 U.S. researchers to receive this special line of grant money through the National Institutes of Health (NIH).



“We want to better understand how the nervous system is put together and the specifics of the neural circuitry,” Howard said. “We want to explore how neurons interact with organs, such as the gut, heart and brain, because there is a large interest in using electrical stimulation to control the nerves that affect these specific organs.”

For instance, Howard said people in the medical community want to use electrical stimulation to treat diabetes, obesity, heart failure and Parkinson’s disease. Many of these approaches have failed, though, because scientists don’t really understand the complexity of the road map of neuron-organ interactions. Howard’s research will help clarify that.

“One great advantage of using electrical stimulation to treat some medical conditions is that it will not have the side effects that many drugs have,” Howard said. “Also, it will be more cost-effective than many current treatments.

“The idea to use electrical stimulation to treat medical conditions is not really new, but it will be greatly improved by a better understanding of the nervous system combined with better tools to modify its activity.”

Howard has spent 30 years studying the autonomic nervous system, which serves both visceral sensory and motor functions. She has been NIH-funded for the majority of that time.

Howard said it is helpful to understand how the autonomic nervous system works by thinking about how you would respond to encountering a Tyrannosaurus rex while on a walk in the woods.

“What is your response? Your heart rate goes up, you breathe faster, your pupils open up so you can see better, and your body temperature rises, which all lead to you running like hell to get away from the Tyrannosaurus rex. The autonomic neurons that I study control these organ responses.”

Dr. William Messer, UT vice president for research, said this grant demonstrates the importance that the NIH places in better understanding the autonomic nervous system, which is Howard’s expertise.

“Dr. Howard is developing a vital set of new tools for characterizing the neurons that control activity in the autonomic nervous system, particularly in the gastrointestinal tract,” he said. “She is using several cutting-edge technologies to help us understand how the nervous system is connected, aid in the development of better models of the autonomic nervous system, and point the way toward better treatments for disorders of the visceral organs.”

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