UCL neuroscientists awarded highly competitive ERC Advanced Grants
10 December 2012
Congratulations to Professors Dmitri Rusakov (UCL Institute of Neurology), Robin Ali (UCL Institute of Ophthalmology) and Patrick Haggard (UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience), who have all recently been awarded European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grants. These highly competitive research grants are among the most sought after Principal Investigator awards offered from the ERC, and as stated on the ERC’s website: “allow exceptional established research leaders of any nationality and any age to pursue ground-breaking, high-risk projects that open new directions in their respective research fields or other domains.”
Professor Dmitri Rusakov and his research group at the Department of Clinical and Experimental Epilepsy (UCL Institute of Neurology) will receive roughly €2.5 million for five years for the study “Signal Formation in neural circuits with astroglia.” Astroglial cells (astrocytes) are a common type of non-neuronal cell found in the brain and spinal cord and their rapidly emerging role in common neurological diseases raises an urgent need to understand the way in which they organise themselves and communicate with neurons in the brain.
Professor Rusakov commented: “Our research will explore the contribution of astrocytes and their assemblies to the key mechanisms of synaptic signal exchange, neural network function and homeostatic plasticity in the brain.”
Professor Haggard (UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience) has been awarded about €2 million for the study “Human Volition, Agency and Responsibility (HUMVOL).” In this study, Professor Haggard and his team will use EEG, MRI and behavioural, psychophysical and neural experiments, to investigate the neural bases of human volition, in other words, what happens in our brains when we make our own choices and decisions, as opposed to responding to external instructions. He will also explore the implications the findings this research may have for society, particularly in the area of the law.
Professor Robin Ali and his group (UCL Institute of Ophthalmology) will receive €2.5 million for five years for their study “Generation of stem cell derived photoreceptors for the treatment and modelling of retinal degeneration”. Retinal degenerations leading to loss of photoreceptors are a major cause of untreatable blindness. Currently no treatments restore lost photoreceptor cells and visual function and thus there is a need for new therapeutic approaches. As new photoreceptors need only make short, single synaptic connections to the inner retinal circuitry to contribute to visual function, retinal repair by photoreceptor transplantation represents one of the most feasible types of CNS repair.
Over the past 8 years Professor Ali’s group has developed a comprehensive programme to investigate the potential of photoreceptor cell transplantation to repair degenerating retinae. The study will build on their achievements in the field of donor photoreceptor cell transplantation and will determine if mouse and human pluripotent stem cells have the potential to provide an efficient source of rod photoreceptor precursors for restoring vision and modelling disease processes in vitro.
In a separate achievement, further congratulations go to Professor Rusakov’s, who was also elected to the Academia Europaea (European Academy of Humanities, Letters and Sciences), a group comprising around 2300 European scientists and scholars, including 39 Nobel laureates.