Eileen Maler: Meet three McKnight neuroscientists

Funded solely by The McKnight Foundation, The McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience aims to bring science closer to the day when diseases of the brain and behavior can be accurately diagnosed, prevented, and treated. We provide funding for individual awards targeting early career scientists, scientists developing new research technologies, and scientists applying basic and translational research to human brain disorders. In addition to our research grants, we also host an annual conference for our awardees to encourage knowledge-sharing and collaboration within the field.

Since the late 1970s, McKnight has invested more than $60 million in outstanding neuroscientists across the U.S., including nine Nobel Prize recipients. For decades, these scientists have contributed in countless ways to the world’s growing understanding of the human brain — a field that remains one of modern science’s great frontiers. I frequently share brief profiles of McKnight’s neuroscientists with our board of directors, and thought it might be worth sharing a few of their stories with McKnight’s broader community too.


Dr. Eric Kandel

In 2000, Dr. Eric Kandel shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Drs. Greengard and Carlsson for multiple discoveries about the complex passage of signals from one neuron to another in the nervous system. An early McKnight awardee, Eric first received funding in 1977 and 1980. In 1986, he became a founding member of the Endowment Fund for Neuroscience’s board, and also has chaired several of our award selection committees. Today, Eric is the Kavli Professor of Brain Science and Co-Director of the Kavli Institute for Brain Science at Columbia University, and you may even have seen him on PBS as co-host of Charlie Rose’s Brain Series. Eric’s research is focused on the molecular biology of short- and long-term memory; he studies the simple forms of learning and memory in the nervous system. As a part of this work, Eric has demonstrated important, long-term changes in sea slug synaptic function during learning. Later, he was able to demonstrate the same types of long-term changes in synaptic function during learning with mice. The fundamental mechanisms also apply to humans; like sea slugs and mice, and other animals, our memory can be said to be located in the synapses, or small gaps between neurons, and changes in synaptic function occur as different types of memories form. Eric’s work on memory formation has potential to lead to new drugs to improve memory function for patients with memory loss or dysfunction. His research also has contributed to science’s understanding of the cellular processes targeted by psychoactive drugs that can impact perception, mood, consciousness, cognition, and behavior.


Dr. Helen Mayberg

Dr. Helen Mayberg currently serves on the review committee for the Endowment Fund’s Memory and Cognitive Disorders Awards, which support innovative efforts to solve the problems of neurological and psychiatric diseases, especially those related to memory and cognition. Helen is a professor of neurology and psychiatry and the Dorothy C. Fuqua Chair of Psychiatric Neuroimaging and Therapeutics at Emory University School of Medicine. Helen has always been interested in the functional conditions and biological processes behind depression, including which mechanisms in the brain mediate a patient’s response to various treatments. To map the brain regions linked to depression, she was has taken advantage of the emerging field of positron emission tomography, which produces three-dimensional image of functional processes in the body, as well as magnetic resonance imaging, which employs strong magnetic fields and radiowaves to form images of the body. This research paved the way for Helen’s use of deep brain stimulation for patients in treatment-resistant depression, work that has been especially meaningful to her: “What makes this work gratifying is seeing how research can have a major impact on individual patients’ lives. Deep brain stimulation seems to allow the brain to recover, but it takes time. It isn’t like flipping a switch, but it is still amazing to realize that patients who were debilitated for years by depression are able to return to normal lives, going back to their families, to school, to jobs — getting on with activities we all take for granted. It is wonderful to see people thrive after fighting their brains for so long.”

McKnight neuroscientist Tirin Moore

Dr. Tirin Moore

Dr. Tirin Moore received the 2006 McKnight Endowment Fund Scholar award, which encourages neuroscientists in the early stages of their careers to focus on disorders of learning and memory. An associate professor of neurobiology at Stanford University School of Medicine, Tirin focuses on identifying the circuits underlying fundamental perceptual and cognitive functions in the brain. He studies how disturbing the activity of neurons can affect the performance of behavior, with particular attention to how the nervous system processes visual inputs. Tirin’s team has demonstrated that the neural source of “visual attention” is located in a specific area in the brain’s frontal lobes, called the frontal eye field. Looking closer at prefrontal dopamine — a neurotransmitter which transmits signals across synapses, from one neuron to another — Tirin also has investigated dopamine’s possible role in how the brain processes sense-related signals; other clinical studies have explored similar connections between prefrontal dopamine and attention disorders such as Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Studying the effects of dopamine on frontal eye field activity, Tirin found that test animals paid attention better, concentrating their vision with greater focus on predetermined visual targets. At the neural level in the visual cortex, the dopamine manipulation increased neurons’ response to stimuli as well as the degree to which the neurons conveyed information about the shape of the stimuli. Tirin’s work could lead to more refined treatments for the estimated five percent of people with ADHD, because of related connections with dopamine in the brain’s frontal lobes.

For more information on The McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience’s awards and awardees, please visit neuroscience.mcknight.org.

EBM_mk0402_cEileen Bloodgood Maler
Neuroscience Program Manager, McKnight Foundation