Medical Center Researchers Honored for Excellence

October 5, 2004

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Wake Forest University School of Medicine has honored four of its researchers with awards for excellence:

Jonathan H. Burdette, M.D., associate professor of radiology, received the “New Investigator in Clinical Sciences Award” for his work using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to learn more about the cause of dyslexia.

Burdette and colleagues are exploring the possibility that dyslexia, or difficulty reading, is related to problems integrating sight and sound. Using functional MRI, which shows which areas of the brain are activated, the researchers evaluate brain activity in readers with and without dyslexia while they are performing tasks that involve matching sights and sounds.

“We are looking at several different areas of the brain that are involved in language interactions and the integration of visual and auditory stimuli,” said Burdette.

Their goal is to learn more about what causes dyslexia, a disorder that affects about 10 percent of the population. They also believe that MRI could also be used to monitor the effectiveness of dyslexia treatments.

Burdette is a graduate of Duke University and earned his medical degree from the University of Tennessee. He completed a radiology residency at the University of Michigan and neuroradiology fellowship at Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

Sara R. Jones, Ph.D., assistant professor of physiology and pharmacology, received the “New Investigator in Basic Sciences Award” for her work investigating the biology of drug addiction.

Through research in genetically engineered mice, Jones is exploring changes that take place in the brain with addiction. She is learning more about the role of dopamine and serotonin, chemicals released by the brain to transmit nerve impulses. Researchers believe that a buildup of dopamine in the brain after drug use is a “reward” that causes drug users to repeat the behavior.

“Addiction is a brain disease. and we are studying the brain reward system and how it changes,” said Jones.

All drugs of abuse, including nicotine, caffeine, alcohol and cocaine, result in increased levels of dopamine in the brain. But, through her work in mice, Jones has found that the serotonin system can also be involved.

Jones is a graduate of the University of Georgia and earned her doctoral degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She completed postdoctoral training at Duke University School of Medicine and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

James E. Smith, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, received the “Established Investigator in Basic Sciences Award,” for his 28 years of research on brain circuits and pathways underlying drug addiction. For many years, he was also director of the school’s Center for the Neurological Investigation of Drug Abuse.

In his talk, Smith described how his research is developing a brain map of the various circuits and pathways that are important in self-administration of cocaine and similar drugs by experimental animals. Understanding these circuits and pathways may point the way to development of therapies to block these circuits and allow a cocaine addict to break his addiction.

One element of his research focuses on the rate of use of various neurotransmitters, and on calculating the half-life of the transmitters (when half of the substance is used up) and in this way identifying brain cells involved in addiction.

A second major element of his research focuses on mouse self-administration of cocaine, testing one mouse that can self-administer cocaine at will, yoked with a second mouse that gets cocaine every time the first mouse gets cocaine, without any choice, and a third mouse that gets just an inert substance. The results are very different between the self-administering mouse and the mouse and the mouse that has no choice.

Smith is a graduate of California State University at Northridge and received his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, and completed post-doctoral training at Indiana University Medical School.

Under Smith’s leadership, the school’s Department of Physiology and Pharmacology has climbed from 80th to third in the nation in funding from the National Institutes of Health. He also served recently as the school’s associate dean for research.

John R. Crouse, M.D., won the “Established Investigator in Clinical Sciences Award,” for his 26 years of research in prevention of atherosclerosis.

Crouse, who is professor of internal medicine and public health sciences, described his work on detecting atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries while it is in the “preclinical” stage (has caused no symptoms) and might still be reversible. “Coronary angiography is an invasive procedure that carries a modest level of risk and is not done in asymptomatic patients.”

So he is using a type of ultrasound called “b-mode” to measure the thickness of walls of carotid arteries in the neck. Those measurements “are a valid and reproducible measure of atherosclerosis,” he said, and correlate directly with the thickening and blockage of coronary arteries, a prime cause of heart attacks. And ultrasound is non-invasive.

Drugs called statins both lower cholesterol and reduce heart attacks and could be started when the ultrasound detects carotid wall thickening. He said that use of non-invasive imaging represents “a paradigm shift in patient-oriented research” from a focus on patients with symptoms to one that could prevent disease symptoms from developing.

Crouse, also director of the Preventive Cardiology Program and associate director of the General Clinical Research Center, has had continuous funding from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute for 20 years and recently got NHLBI funding for a study that uses MRI to quantify the rate of progression of carotid artery atherosclerosis in patients with and without coronary artery disease.

Crouse is a graduate of the University of Michigan and got his M.D. degree from the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in New York City and did his internship and residency at New York Hospital, Cornell Medical School, in Manhattan. After that he was a New York Heart Association Fellow at the Rockefeller University in New York and on the faculty at the University of California in San Diego before joining the faculty at Wake Forest in 1980.

The awards were presented at the seventh annual research awards ceremony on Sept. 28. 30. The four researchers honored all live in Winston-Salem.


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