UO launches new translational neuroscience research center

Elliot Berkman and Phil Fisher

How can we create better academic outcomes for students in low-income school districts? How might we help people of all ages steer clear of cancer-related foods and avoid smoking? Can improving foster care visitation rooms help create stronger bonds between biological parents and their children?

The answers to these and other questions can be found through the application of evidence-based neuroscience knowledge in community settings, according to the directors of the Center for Translational Neuroscience (CTN) at the University of Oregon. The new center, which launched at the University of Oregon on September 28, will focus on translating basic knowledge about brain structure and function to practical, scalable tools to improve mental health and well-being. CTN’s scope encompasses research from basic neuroscience to cutting-edge interventions to science communications aimed at effecting policy change, with an emphasis on mitigating the effects of early adverse experiences such as maltreatment and poverty.

“Neuroscience provides us with the ability to cut to the core of the causal properties behind many behavioral issues such as addictions, anxiety, aggressive behavior and overeating,” said Phil Fisher, the center’s director and a professor in the Department of Psychology who serves as a Philip H. Knight Chair. “If we can identify common neural circuitry underlying these problems, particularly processes that are malleable and can change with the right kind of experiences, we have the ability to really move the needle and address some of these problem areas at a societal level.”

Housed within the UO’s Prevention Science Institute, the new center brings together a half-dozen researchers from psychology, the College of Education and other UO centers and departments — including the Lewis Center for NeuroImaging, a core research facility with an MRI that supports multifaceted research in neuroscience and biological imaging. A common thread is a shared belief in a collaborative, multidisciplinary team-based approach.

CTN reflects the Prevention Science Institute’s interdisciplinary focus on understanding human development, preventing behavioral health problems and implementing evidence-based interventions in community settings. In addition to utilizing traditional randomized trials to deliver results, CTN will employ smaller, quicker pilot programs that are more targeted.

“This represents a new way of going about intervention development and a whole new framework for thinking about clinical sciences,” said Elliot Berkman, CTN’s associate director and a professor in the Department of Psychology. “Our goal is to be a little bit more nimble, targeting not just the ultimate outcomes but understanding the precise mechanisms that explain why an intervention changed a particular behavior.”

The Center’s mission includes a focus on training at the undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral levels in neuroscience-informed approaches to prevention and intervention. In a departure from more conventional models, Berkman said, clinical scientists will be co-trained from day one in neuroscience methods. Students in psychology and education will become intimately familiar with clinical science techniques as well as the use of neuroimaging tools and analytic methods.

“CTN leverages some of our greatest research strengths and connects our faculty with expertise in basic neuroscience methods to those with established track records in evidence-based prevention and intervention programs,” said Brad Shelton, interim vice president for research and innovation.  “By seeking to address the underlying causes behind addiction, mental health disorders, and other behavioral problems, the center promises to make a real difference in the lives of children, the economically disadvantaged and other more vulnerable segments of the population.”

Many of the kinds of research projects the center hopes to take on are already happening on campus, Berkman said, pointing to research projects funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and other agencies seeking to understand the effects of early adversity on risky decision-making and behavior policy and practice in child welfare systems. Having a formal center devoted to translational neuroscience allows the UO to take on additional multidisciplinary projects, and enables researchers to focus on developing scalable interventions that can be applied across a range of settings. Another aim is to examine alternative means of research funding, such as collaborations with venture philanthropists and other partnerships with foundations and private industry.


About the Center for Translational Neuroscience

The Center for Translational Neuroscience (CTN) seeks to translate knowledge from basic neuroscience and apply it to improve well-being, promote resilience and mitigate the effects of early adverse experiences. Activities at the center address scientific issues of social importance with the goal of informing policy and practice. Core focal areas include (but are not limited to) poverty and maltreatment and their effects on addiction and mental health disorders. The center takes a lifespan development approach to understand how specific brain and biological systems are affected by genetic and environmental influences. The knowledge obtained from this work is deployed in the development of evidence-based practices and science-informed public policy. The center brings together faculty whose interests span basic neuroscience methods such as neuroimaging, neuroendocrine research, and psychophysiology with those interested in evidence-based prevention and intervention programs. Researchers and staff embrace a collaborative, multidisciplinary, team-based approach in all of their activities.

The Office of the Vice President for Research & Innovation (OVPRI) promotes excellence in research at the University of Oregon — the state’s only Association of American Universities member. Research, both basic and applied, is fundamental to the mission of the University and is essential to Oregon’s economic and civic vitality. The office is committed to enhancing these efforts by providing administrative and financial support for sponsored programs, including identification of funding opportunities, proposal submission, research compliance, and contracts and grant administration.