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Research Week 2017: Understanding the brain: ‘We’ve got a lot of work to do’

Research Week 2017: Kevin Wright, Ph.D.
Kevin Wright, Ph.D. is an assistant professor running his own laboratory in OHSU’s Vollum Institute, where he applies his natural curiosity toward solving one of the most formidable puzzles in science and medicine: how the nervous system works. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)
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As the son of a middle school science teacher and a pharmacist, Kevin Wright, Ph.D., developed an interest in science and medicine at an early age. He became permanently hooked during an undergraduate course in basic neuroscience as a sophomore at Allegheny College in his home state of Pennsylvania.

“I fell in love with how complex it is,” he said.

Today, Wright is an assistant professor running his own laboratory in OHSU’s Vollum Institute, where he applies his natural curiosity toward solving one of the most formidable puzzles in science and medicine: how the nervous system works.

“It’s daunting, for sure,” he said. “But that’s what makes it so exciting.”

Wright’s work focuses on uncovering the basic biology of how neurons connect to one another and what goes awry when they don’t. In Wright’s laboratory, scientists are focused on the role of a protein called dystroglycan in regulating the formation and function of connections within the developing nervous system. Mutations affecting this protein are known to lead to muscular dystrophy and related neurodevelopmental defects, including autism.

This line of basic science research isn’t easy or quick, which is why Wright said stable funding is so important to conduct research projects that span years.

“These are not easy questions we’re tackling,” Wright said. “They take a long time.”

For relatively young scientists like Wright, who arrived at the Vollum in 2013, proposed cuts in National Institutes of Health budget would be especially hard-hitting. In 2016 alone, OHSU scientists received more than $234 million in NIH funding, by far the largest source of funding for research at the institution. Even maintaining a static level of funding – much less a 20 percent cut – makes it difficult to sustain the nation’s burgeoning research enterprise. For the sake of comparison, the recent Chan Zuckerberg Initiative announced by the Facebook founder commits $3 billion over 10 years – an amount that’s less than 10 percent of the NIH’s annual budget.

Wright noted that NIH funding, which also helps to train the next generation of scientists, is especially important in supporting the work of scientists who are just getting started.

“While funding basic science research through philanthropy is important and can achieve a great deal, it tends to concentrate resources in specific areas of research and often favors higher-profile institutes and labs,” Wright said. “That’s why public support through the NIH is so vital.”

Maintaining the nation’s investment in basic science comes at a crucial time for brain researchers to continue the momentum of recent years. Wright along with other scientists note that we’re entering a golden age for science, particularly for research involving the brain and central nervous system. New tools are becoming available that make it cheaper, more efficient and faster to conduct basic science. For example, it used to take a year to deactivate a gene within a laboratory mouse. Now, it can be done within a matter of weeks.

Wright is optimistic about the future, although much remains to be done.

“Even with all of the progress we’ve made, we probably understand 1 percent of how the brain works,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

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