A Peek Inside the New and Improved Klingenstein-Simons Fellowship Awards in the Neurosciences

The Klingenstein Fund is one of those modest, family foundations that really knows what it’s about. Beginning in 1981, it administered the Klingenstein Fellowship Awards in the Neurosciences, handing out thousands of dollars in support to young scientists seeking bold new ways to understand the brain. And fittingly, the recipients of these awards went on to do amazing things.

Past awardees include Marc Tessier-Lavigne (1992), now president of The Rockefeller University; Richard Scheller (1985), executive vice president of research and early development at Genentech; Susan Hockfield (1985), past president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Karl Deisseroth (2005), who essentially discovered the field of optogenetics.

But, times change. By 2013, it was clear the folks at Klingenstein wanted a broader reach, and a greater impact for its awards. So it sought a partner in the Simons Foundation, which enabled the fund to bump its award up to a three-year, $225,000 commitment, and to award up to twelve grants each year. (Previously, Klingenstein Fund awardees had been capped at ten.)

Other than announcing their satisfaction and optimism at having partnered up, the two foundations were pretty hushed about why, exactly, they’d hooked up, and how this new iteration of the Klingenstein Award might differ from the old one. (To clarify, the award is still administered by Klingenstein, so the decision-makers haven’t changed. Just the money behind them.) Now, though, they’ve gone and announced their latest batch of recipients—the first to be receiving the joint award—and it’s a good idea to take a close look here at who got the money and why.

Three areas of neuroscience are of particular interest to both Klingenstein and the Simons Foundation:

  • Cellular and molecular neuroscience: Studies of the mechanisms of neuronal excitability and   development, and of the genetic basis of behavior.
  • Neural systems: Studies of the integrative function of the nervous system.
  • Clinical research: Studies designed to improve the prevention, diagnosis, treatment and our understanding of the causes of neurological and psychiatric disorders.

Two of the award’s highest priorities are something we’ve been seeing a lot of lately in these sorts of “up-and-comers” awards in the field of neuroscience: First, basic, foundational science—the sort of work that, it’s hoped, could lead to some mega milestone breakthrough with the potential for a zillion little spin-off projects in some novel new direction.

Tthe second is seeking to make improvements in how these conditions are diagnosed and managed. That second one isn’t so well-represented in this latest batch of awardees, but there’s plenty of basic science projects getting funded.

It doesn’t get much more foundational than Dr. Benjamin R. Arenkiel’s research at the Baylor College of Medicine. Arenkiel and his colleagues are working to forge a deeper understanding of how synapses and neural circuits are formed, which, he hopes, will ultimately lead to new treatments for damaged or diseased neural tissues.

At Johns Hopkins, Solange Brown, MD, PhD, is doing much the same kind of work on cortical circuits, where perception and behavior come from. By labeling key cortical neurons with fluorescent markers, and then conducting in vivo trials monitoring brain activity, Brown and her colleagues aim to understand what, exactly emotions like regret and behaviors like decision-making look like in the brain. The work could have major payoffs in the realm of diagnosing and treating neurological and psychiatric disorders.

Less basic, perhaps, but no less high-impact, is Dr. Dragana Rogulja’s work at Harvard Medical School. Rogulja has honed in on sleep: how it affects us, our moods and behaviors, and ultimately our lifespan. She’s working with fruit flies, which have very similar sleep cycles to ours, targeting the neuronal clusters than control and respond to sleep, and studying the outcomes.

Meanwhile, at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dr. Ryan Hibbs is studying mechanisms of ion selectivity and allosteric modulation, with the goal of gaining insight into the best ways to treat neurological disorders, including addiction.