Neuroscience has been identified by Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences (RBHS) as one of five signature areas for future focus and development. As part of this strategic plan, the Brain Health Institute (BHI) was established to become an internationally recognized center for basic, translational, and clinical research into the biological bases of human brain function and dysfunction. By supporting and coordinating neuroscience across all campuses, the BHI will unite Rutgers University’s dynamic and diverse neuroscience community toward common goals:
- To create research programs focused on the biological underpinnings of the central nervous system’s function and dysfunction.
- To develop treatments for these disorders using novel neuroscience tools.
- To establish a rich neuroscience resource in New Jersey that educates the public, clinicians, faculty, and students, as well as state, national, and international health officials.
Vision: BHI will develop neuroscience at Rutgers to become a highly translational and internationally preeminent research enterprise, to advance new treatments for debilitating nervous system disorders. This vision will be achieved by integrating cutting-edge basic and clinical research, developing robust educational programs, enhancing scientific collaborations, and providing a state-of-the-art infrastructure.
History: On July 1, 2013, all units of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) were integrated into Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Rutgers Biomedical and Health Science (RBHS) was created and composed of legacy UMDNJ units and Rutgers School of Pharmacy, College of Nursing, and Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research. The resulting broad research scope of this new Rutgers presented unparalleled opportunities for collaborations among basic and clinical scientists from many disciplines across all of Rutgers. The Brain Health Institute (BHI) was established in 2013 as a pan-Rutgers entity to organize this effort and become an internationally recognized center for basic, translational, and clinical research into brain function and dysfunction. The BHI is the home for the overall Rutgers neuroscience initiative, and is a growing interdisciplinary institute consisting of more than 250 principal investigators with neuroscience laboratories across 33 departments and seven schools of various campuses of Rutgers University and Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences.
In 2014, Dr. Gary Aston-Jones was recruited to Rutgers as the inaugural Director of BHI and the Murray and Charlotte Strongwater Endowed Chair in Neuroscience and Brain Health. Dr. Aston-Jones, in his role as the Director of BHI, reports to both the Chancellor of RBHS and Chancellor of Rutgers- New Brunswick, both of whom contributed $500,000 each to help launch the institute. Subsequently, BHI has been financially-supported, primarily, by the RBHS Chancellor and administered by RBHS. BHI is a virtual institute with administrative offices located in the School of Public Health/RWJMS Research Building, 683 Hoes Lane West, Busch campus, Piscataway, NJ.
BHI Strategic Plan
Current Overview and Focus Areas: Dr. Aston-Jones identified four areas of strength in the newly integrated Rutgers, and created four corresponding focus areas as opportunities for further development. Thus, the strategic plan for development of neuroscience at Rutgers by BHI is focused on four areas and associated disorders:
- Neurodevelopment (e.g. autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia, Tourette’s);
- Neurodegeneration and Injury (e.g. multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, spinal cord and traumatic brain injury);
- Cognitive and Sensory Neuroscience (e.g. dementias, aging, pain, auditory disorders);
- Motivational and Affective Neuroscience (e.g. addiction, eating disorders, obesity, depression, anxiety).
Rutgers currently has numerous well-funded investigators in each of the above four focus areas that study brain processes at the cellular, circuit or behavioral levels.
BHI Activities: To further develop the four focus areas, and facilitate basic, translational and clinical research, BHI uses an institutional perspective to help realize the full potential of neuroscience research across Rutgers. To obtain planning input from the Rutgers neuroscience community, in 2015/2016 the BHI held a series of workshops in each of the focus areas. These workshops generated plans for how BHI could support the growth of neuroscience at Rutgers. Over the past five years, BHI has executed these plans by:
- Developing new research centers and initiatives within each focus area.
The Rutgers University Center for Autism Research, Education and Services (RUCARES): The CDC reports that 1 in 59 children in the US are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD); the rates are ~1 in 34 in New Jersey. Rutgers has considerable strengths in basic, clinical and translational autism research, with over 50 principal investigators working to develop new autism treatments. Rutgers faculty and students also work closely with the autism community in NJ, providing educational intervention and support services through the Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center and the newly created Rutgers Center for Adult Autism Services and developing policy and performing public outreach through the Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities.
The new RUCARES will be responsible for coordinating and fostering basic and clinical research at Rutgers focused on diagnosing, treating and supporting patients with ASD. The goal is to develop a world-class autism research center engaged in cutting edge basic research to identify mechanisms and biomarkers, developing novel interventional behavioral therapies, creating new technologies and services to support both pediatric and adult ASD patient population. RUCARES has also established a partnership with Children’s Specialized Hospital to form CSH-RUCARES focused on treating autistic children with severely affected behavior disorders. RUCARES and CSH-RUCARES will be directed by the newly recruited Director- Dr. Wayne Fisher, Henry Rutgers Endowed Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at RWJMS. Dr. Fisher will be assisted by a newly recruited Assistant Professor, Dr. Brian Greer, also in the Department of Pediatrics at RWJMS.
The partnership with CSH also supports a new Pediatric Feeding Disorders (PFD) program, directed by Dr. Cathleen Piazza, a newly-recruited Professor in Rutgers Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology (GSAPP).
CSH and Rutgers leased a 15,000 sq. ft. building at 888 Easton Avenue in Somerset to house both clinical research and treatment programs of the RUCARES and PFD program. The center and programs have become operational in December 2020.
The BHI also helped organize a successful application for the New Jersey Autism Center of Excellence (NJACE) at Rutgers University, in collaboration with the Children’s Specialized Hospital; the NJACE at Rutgers was funded by the NJ Governor’s Council for Medical Research and Treatment of Autism in 2018. The work carried out at the NJACE supports the Council’s commitment to advance and disseminate the understanding, treatment, and management of ASD by supporting and stimulating basic and clinical ASD research and providing a statewide system of training and continuing education programs for health care professionals to improve the clinical care of children, adolescents and adults with ASD.
Rutgers Alzheimer’s Disease & Dementia Research Center (RUADRC): An estimated 6 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) and dementia in 2018. This number includes an estimated 6 million people age 65 and older and approximately 200,000 individuals under age 65 who have younger-onset Alzheimer’s. As the size and proportion of the U.S. population age 65 and older continue to increase, the number of Americans with AD or other dementias will grow. Data indicate that in the tristate area alone more than a million people will be suffering from AD by the year 2025, an increase of more than 15% from 2018. A recent report from the National Center for Health Statistics shows that the rate of Americans who died from dementia has more than doubled from 30.5 deaths per 100,000 people in 2000 to 66.7 in 2017. The costs associated with caring for patients with AD and Dementia are very high. In 2017, the cost of care was valued at more than $230 billion. The total lifetime cost of care for someone with dementia was estimated at over $300,000 in 2017 dollars. Despite the staggering physical, emotional and financial costs, there are no viable treatments to prevent AD or alleviate it multiple symptoms. Rutgers currently has several faculty and clinicians performing basic research and treating AD & Dementia patients.
Research at RUADRC focuses on identifying disease mechanisms using genetic, cellular, organismal and behavioral approaches in animal and human model systems. Understanding of disease mechanisms will help uncover pathways that need to be targeted by drugs to achieve therapeutic efficacy. Development of relevant in vitro and in vivo models will be important for pre-clinical evaluation of novel drugs. A dementia clinic for patient recruitment, assessment and treatment will also be developed for translating research to clinic. Dr. Aston-Jones worked with the Rutgers Foundation to obtain a $1.5M gift from the Honorable Herbert C. Klein to help fund a new Herbert C. and Jacqueline Krieger Klein Endowed Chair in Alzheimer's Disease and Neurodegeneration Research. In 2017 BHI recruited Dr. Luciano D’Adamio to fill that chair and as Professor of Pharmacology, Physiology & Neuroscience and Professor of Neurology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. More recently BHI was successful in obtaining an additional $750,000 from Mr. Klein to help fund a junior recruitment in AD, and recruited Dr. Hyung Jin Ahn as an Assistant Professor Pharmacology, Physiology & Neuroscience at NJMS. Dr. Ahn studies the role of cerebrovascular deficits in the etiology of AD and dementia.
Recently, Dr. Aston-Jones collaborated with the Rutgers Foundation, RBHS Chancellor and others to obtain from Herbert Klein an additional $5 million gift, with a matching $2 million contribution from the RBHS Chancellor, to establish a new Krieger-Klein Endowed Chair in Neurodegeneration Research to help recruit and support a clinician-scientist faculty to serve as the Director of Krieger-Klein Alzheimer's Disease and Cognitive Neurology Research Center. This recruitment is being led by the BHI and is underway.
The Rutgers-Princeton Computational Cognitive Neuropsychiatry Center (CCNP): In spite of advances in genetics and basic neuroscience, our understanding of the brain mechanisms involved in psychiatric disorders remains in its infancy, seriously limiting our ability to develop desperately needed new treatments for mental illness. To address this problem, researchers in the cognitive and brain sciences have forged several productive partnerships that have resulted in the field of cognitive neuropsychiatry (CNP). CNP attempts to clarify the nature and patterns of brain activity that form the basis of specific symptoms, such changes in mood, arousal, reality testing, threat perception, and other dimensions whose extremes represent mental illness. However, progress in CNP has been slower than anticipated, largely due to the high cost of CNP research and the long length of time it takes to complete research studies. Therefore, new methods are needed to accelerate progress. Although animal modeling can test new hypotheses and treatments more quickly than is the case with human patients, this line of research is limited in scope because many aspects of psychiatric disorders are uniquely human. This limitation is now being addressed with a new field denoted as Cognitive Computational Neuropsychiatry. Cognitive Computational Neuropsychiatry is highly interdisciplinary and involves the use of mathematics and computer simulations to rapidly explore the effects of changes in individual biological variables, and their combinations, on the functioning of neural systems and human behavior. By being able to test the effects of changes in many variables quickly, the most likely causes of psychiatric symptoms, and the most likely treatment approaches, can be identified in far less time than would be the case with the usual trial-and-error approach to animal modeling and human research.
The Rutgers-Princeton Center for Cognitive Computational Neuropsychiatry (CCNP) has been formed to pursue this exciting opportunity. The goal is to leverage the expertise in Princeton’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience Institute, and in Rutgers’ Departments of Psychology, Psychiatry and Computer Science, Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care, Robert Wood Johnson Hospital, and the Rutgers Brain Health Institute, in a major collaborative initiative that has the potential to be much greater than the sum of its individual parts. The center, housed in the Research Tower on Busch campus in Piscataway, is co-directed by Dr. Anna Konova from Rutgers (RWJMS/Psychiatry/UBHC) and Dr. Yael Niv from Princeton University. Of note, the CCNP- driven partnership with Princeton University was highlighted and a key part of the recently awarded $29 million Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) grant to a Rutgers-lead team of clinicians and scientists from Rutgers, Princeton University and New Jersey Institute of Technology.
The Rutgers Addiction Research Center (RUARC): Our nation is in the midst of an unprecedented opioid epidemic. The costs of addiction are staggering. Aside from the direct damage to the health of the affected person, costs include damage to family member's lives, family health, school and work performance, and absenteeism. Despite extensive scientific progress over the last 40 years, we are still far from a cure. Enormous opportunities exist to integrate gains made across several fields (especially genetics and neuroscience), synergize multi-disciplinary efforts, and to translate bench science to the bedside in new personalized prevention and treatment approaches.
The Rutgers ARC at BHI will build collaborations among scientists with the multidisciplinary expertise required to advance our understanding of the causes of opioid addiction. Housed within the Rutgers Brain Health Institute, RUARC will be composed of faculty across all Rutgers schools and campuses with expertise in addiction prevention, research, treatment, education, and public policy, especially including Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, New Jersey Medical School, School of Arts and Sciences, Center for Alcohol Studies, Center for Tobacco Studies, School of Public Health, School of Social Work, School of Nursing, University Behavioral Health Care, School of Pharmacy, and the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research. RUARC will be the only comprehensive addiction center in NJ with the capacity to impact the addiction epidemic through the diverse strengths of its members by integrating the following cutting-edge approaches.
BHI is currently recruiting a Director for the RUARC. BHI recently recruited two senior addiction researchers, Dr. Chris Pierce, as a tenured Professor in Psychiatry at RWJMS and Dr. Ying-Xian Pan as Professor in Anesthesiology at NJMS. Dr. Pierce is a well-funded world-class researcher focus on identifying mechanisms underlying addictive behavior and Dr. Pan is a leader in opioid receptor research, developing new opioid drugs that have analgesic properties with reduced addiction liability. BHI has also recruited several junior faculty in addiction research: Dr. David Barker, as an Assistant Professor in Psychology in SAS- RU-NB, Dr. Morgan James and Dr. Mark Rossi as Assistant Professors in Psychiatry in RWJMS and Dr. Ioana Carcea as an Assistant Professor of Pharmacology, Physiology and Neuroscience in NJMS.
- Creating state-of-the-art research cores and supporting multi-investigator extramural grant applications across Rutgers.
The Rutgers Center for Advanced Human Brain Imaging Research (CAHBIR): Advances in imaging technology now allow neuroscientists to non-invasively study structure, function and dynamical properties of the human brain. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) methods neuroscientists are beginning to understand how brain structure and function are altered in disorders such as autism, schizophrenia, addiction, anxiety and depression, brain injury, neurodegeneration etc. This new knowledge is leading to the development of imaging biomarkers not only for diagnosis but also to determine efficacy and progress of treatments of various neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders. Rutgers neuroscientists have the expertise and also access to a diverse patient population; however, their research programs are being held back by the lack of a human brain imaging center on the Piscataway and New Brunswick campuses. To fill this critical infrastructure gap, BHI is developing a new brain imaging center (CAHBIR). The center, located in the Staged Research Building on Busch campus in Piscataway, will house a state of the art 3-Tesla (3T) MRI that will be dedicated for research purposes. This core facility will be available for use to neuroscientists from across Rutgers and neighboring institutions.
To help build and direct CAHBIR, BHI recently recruited Dr. David Zald, Henry Rutgers Term Chair and Professor of Psychiatry in RWJMS. The new center and faculty recruitment are supported by a $6.1 million start-up investment from the office of the RBHS Chancellor, a $1.5 million Henry Rutgers Term Chair from the office of the RBHS Chancellor and an additional $1.2 million from the Office of Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation at RU-NB. CAHBIR recently recruited Dr. Jeff Luci as Technical Director and Research Assistant Professor of Psychiatry in RWJMS to help run the imaging center. An additional recruitment is underway to hire a junior faculty with expertise in human neuroimaging methods including fMRI, TMS, tDCS.
Animal Behavior Cores at NJMS & RWJMS: To translate laboratory discoveries to the clinic and conduct NIH-funded neuroscience research, well-operated and easily accessible vivarium facilities are necessary. In addition, state-of-the-art facilities and equipment to conduct animal behavior studies are essential for pre-clinical research in neuroscience. BHI has worked with Rutgers CMR and the offices of Research Deans at NJMS and RWJMS to create animal behavior cores on the Busch and Newark campus. The animal behavior facility at NJMS is located within the MSB vivarium and has separate rooms and equipment to conduct rat and mouse behavior studies. The animal behavioral facility at RWJMS is located on the 7th floor of the Research Tower on Busch campus and has three rooms and equipment dedicated to conducting rat and mouse behavior studies.
Neuroscience T32 training grant: Funded in 2019 by NIAAA, the Molecular Neuroscience of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Research training grant (T32AA028254-01; Dipak Sarkar, PI; Gary Aston-Jones, co-PI). The Rutgers molecular neuroscience of alcohol and drug abuse research training (MNADRT) program in New Jersey is designed to promote the development of promising postdoctoral research fellows as independent investigators and future University faculty members who will investigate the pathogenesis of alcoholism and drug abuse. The MNADRT will emphasize a multidisciplinary approach including molecular and cellular techniques, electrophysiology, optogenetics, designer receptors exclusively activated by designer drugs, stem cell technology, neuroimaging, neuroimmunology, neurobehavioral pharmacology, and genetics to increase the understanding of pathogenesis in alcoholism and drug abuse. Training of the postdoctoral fellows will be individualized with the most important component being the research conducted by the trainee in the faculty mentor's laboratory. In addition to hands-on alcohol and drug abuse research, additional training will include seminars and conferences, grant writing, responsible conduct of research, teaching and mentoring, scientific rigor and reproducibility and other training as needed to prepare fellows for independent research. The training faculty includes 10 funded investigators from multiple departments at Rutgers University. The trainees will benefit from the unique strengths of alcohol and drug abuse research at Rutgers University, which include the Endocrine Research Program, Brain Health Institute, Center of Alcohol Studies, and the research cores, including genome editing core facility, bioimaging core facility, genomic informatics and biostatics services. The vast resources of Rutgers provide state-of-the-art space, laboratory facilities, and equipment that support exceptional postdoctoral training. The training program will be directed by Drs. Dipak K. Sarkar and. Gary Aston-Jones and assisted by the Internal Advisory Committee consisted of 3 senior faculty members. Broader scientific inputs to the training will be provided by an External Advisory Committee consisting of four well- known alcohol and drug abuse researchers, Drs. Fulton Crews, Paula L. Hoffman, Fernando Valenzuela and Regina M. Carelli, who have substantial knowledge in NIAAA/NIDA training of postdoctoral fellows. The program supports four post-doctoral fellow slots. Trainees receive two years of research training and with external support sought for later years. This institutional training grant promotes intensive training in molecular, cellular, immunological, stem cell technology, imaging techniques and basic neuroscience and neuroendocrinology in a stimulating environment leading to broadly trained independent investigators capable of adapting to the rapid advances in research in the 21st century.
Two additional NIH T32 training grants in neuroscience are being prepared for submission by Dr. John McGann and Dr. Chris Pierce. Dr. McGann’s application will focus on students in the first two years of pre-doctoral training and Dr. Pierce’s application will focus on training pre- and post-docs in translational neuroscience in addiction and substance use disorders.