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UC researcher earns NIH grant for miRNA study

A University of Cincinnati neurobiologist may soon help mental health researchers understand depression at a more effective level than ever before, thanks to an innovative research method and a nearly-quarter-million-dollar grant from the National Institutes of Health.

James Herman, PhD, received a two-year NIH grant worth $248,159 in its first year to fund research into the role that microRNA (miRNA) - molecular-level controllers that help regulate the brain's chemistry -- play in how the brain reacts to stress.

"We're attempting to develop this as a discovery platform to understand what's going on in the brain," Herman says. He explains that this research, in which scientists analyze how miRNA in mice affect the brain's mood-regulating prefrontal cortex, is very early-stage work in the exploration of the molecular process behind depression.

But the ultimate implications of Herman's work could be significant. He explained that miRNA in mice function the same as miRNA in humans: identify a link between mouse miRNA and a brain dysfunction, and there's good reason to look for a similar relationship in the human brain. Beyond this tantalizing fact, though, scientists don't completely understand how miRNA works, or even how many types of miRNA exist in the brain.

Herman's team is tackling this hurdle with a new analysis technique, called deep sequencing, to analyze miRNA at a high level of detail.

"The method is really, really powerful," he says. Processing one set of data from a sample, for example, can keep lab computers running nonstop for a weekend. Thanks to a collaboration with informatics researchers at the University of Michigan, Herman's team can spot relationships and patterns in this sea of data, results that could help scientists link certain miRNA function -- or dysfunction -- to the stress-processing problems underlying depression and mood disorders.

These results could eventually give psychiatrists a new weapon against mood disorders. Rather than giving a patient medicine that floods the brain with mood-altering chemicals - a practice that often comes with severe side effects - physicians could one day provide treatment that fixes the way the brain controls its own chemistry. Medicine has a long way to go to reach that point, but the work Herman's team is undertaking at UC could be a major step in the right direction.

Source: James Herman, University of Cincinnati
Writer: Matt Cunningham

This story originally appeared in hiVelocity's sister publication, Soapbox.
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