Society for Neuroscience Presents the Nemko Prize in Cellular or Molecular Neuroscience to William Allen and Ashley Lepack
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Society for Neuroscience (SfN) will present the Nemko Prize in Cellular or Molecular Neuroscience to William Allen, PhD and Ashley Lepack, PhD. Supported by the Nemko Family, The Nemko Prize recognizes young neuroscientists for their PhD thesis that advances the understanding of molecular, genetic, or cellular mechanisms underlying higher brain function and cognition. The prize will be presented during SfN’s Awards Announcement Week 2020.
“The Society is honored to recognize the innovative doctoral research of both William Allen and Ashley Lepack and their contributions to the understanding of mechanisms underlying higher brain function and cognition,” said SfN President Barry Everitt, PhD. “Dr. Allen advanced our understanding of the neural circuitry of thirst while also creating powerful new research tools, while Dr. Lepack uncovered previously unidentified epigenetic mechanisms in the brain, with important implications for drug addiction.”
In his thesis work at Stanford University, William Allen, PhD, studied the circuits underlying thirst while developing several new imaging approaches for investigating the structural, functional, and molecular properties of neural circuits. Allen identified hypothalamic neurons that control the motivation to drink and then used brain-wide electrophysiology to measure activity in response to thirst in an unprecedented 24,000 neurons across 34 brain regions. He also developed a wide-range of tools, including cortex-wide calcium imaging in behaving mice, brain-wide labeling of neural circuits defined by activity, and STARmap, a new spatial transcriptomics approach that can map the expression of up to 1000 genes in three dimensions within single cells in a tissue section. The development of these new imaging approaches allowed to map the flow of activity through the brain during behavior, which is likely to be used in many future studies analyzing different types of higher cognitive functions.
Allen’s technical skills range from behavioral neuroscience and molecular biology to statistics and machine learning tools. His ingenious experimental design and execution substantially advanced our knowledge of thirst circuitry while also providing new technologies that can be applied to a wide range of neuroscience research.
Ashley Lepack, PhD, completed her thesis work at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, where she discovered a novel role for dopamine in addiction. While dopamine is known for its role as a neurotransmitter involved in reward signaling and drug addiction, Lepack revealed its surprising role in modifying gene expression: in response to cocaine or heroin use, dopamine is added to histone proteins, altering not only gene expression, but also disrupting dopaminergic neuron functioning and triggering addictive behaviors. She also demonstrated that manipulating these modifications can alleviate the addictive behaviors. In a separate study, she characterized a novel chromatin “reader” protein, BRWD1, and discovered its role in normal brain development and the physiological and behavioral consequences of its triplication in Down syndrome.
Lepack’s innovative work required diverse technical skills (from analytical mass spectrometry to chemical biology and behavioral neuroscience), the understanding of new technologies for probing novel histone modifications, and the development of unique experimental approaches and molecular and viral tools. Her transformative project translated mechanistic studies to possible therapeutic avenues and was the first to indicate a neurotransmission-independent role for dopamine in addiction. This discovery should represent a major conceptual breakthrough in our thinking about the actions of dopamine in higher cognitive functions subsurving health and welfare.
The Society for Neuroscience (SfN) is an organization of nearly 36,000 basic scientists and clinicians who study the brain and the nervous system.