Innovator Award Recipients

2022 Award Recipients

Meet the 2022 Recipients

Emilie Reas, PhD headshot

Emilie Reas, PhD
Professor, University of California, San Diego

Project: The mediating role of bloodbrain barrier dysfunction in effects of systemic inflammation on brain microstructure and memory

Dr. Reas’ lab uses advanced brain imaging methods to develop biomarkers of early Alzheimer’s disease and to characterize the neurobiological changes leading to brain aging and dementia. Although inflammation and vascular dysfunction are risk factors for dementia, it remains unclear how they promote cognitive decline. Given the brain’s privileged protection from the periphery by the “blood-brain barrier,” the ways by which systemic inflammation affects the brain remains a critical unanswered question.

With support from the 2022 Innovator Award, Dr. Reas will examine relationships of blood-borne inflammatory factors with microstructural brain injury and memory, and to determine if a leaky blood-brain barrier mediates these associations. She will also evaluate whether individuals with high genetic risk for Alzheimer’s disease show stronger connections between inflammation and brain microstructure, vascular leakage, and memory impairment. Findings are expected to clarify how inflammation and vascular dysfunction accelerate brain aging, and to guide development of therapeutic approaches to optimize cognitive health with age.

Tara Tracy, PhD Headshot

Tara Tracy, PhD
Assistant Professor, Buck Institute for Research on Aging

Project: Role of KIBRA in Age-Related Memory Loss

The dynamic modulation of the synaptic connections between neurons in the brain is critical for memory. Decline in synapse function underlies memory loss in aging, but little is known about what factors make synapses more vulnerable to dysfunction with age. KIBRA (KIdney/BRAin) is a postsynaptic protein required for synaptic plasticity and memory. Genetic variation in KIBRA is associated with age-related memory deficits in older adults. Given the critical role of KIBRA protein at synapses, the amount of KIBRA expressed in the brain may modulate susceptibility to memory decline in aging.

With funding from the 2022 Innovator Award, Dr. Tracy’s lab will investigate how KIBRA levels impact synapse dysfunction and memory loss in aging. The goal of this research is to uncover mechanistic insight into the susceptibility of synapses to dysregulation in aging which could guide development of a therapeutic approach to repair synapse function as a treatment for age-related memory loss.

Past Recipients

Lindsay De Biase, PhD
2021 Recipient

Lindsay De Biase, PhD
Assistant Professor, University of California, Los Angeles

Project: Biological Age and Cognitive Resilience: with Special Emphasis on Ischemic Stroke Survivors

Cognitive decline during aging is tightly linked to changes in the status of synapses, the connections between neurons where information is stored. Yet, the factors that regulate synapse health during aging are not well understood. Microglia are immune-like cells in the brain that respond to infection, disease, and injury. Surprisingly, these cells can also regulate the function and integrity of neuronal synapses.

With support from the Innovator Award in Cognitive Aging and Memory Loss, Dr. Biase will investigate the possibility that microglia shape synapse health during aging via modification of the extracellular matrix (ECM). The ECM is a meshwork of proteins and sugars woven tightly around neurons that potently regulates synapse stability. Recent studies and Dr. Biase's preliminary data show that microglia express numerous genes involved in building up and breaking down the ECM and that they can engulf ECM components. Dr. Biase will use multiple technical approaches to elucidate links between microglial-ECM interactions, synapse stability, and cognitive performance in aging mice and rats. The overarching goal is to identify molecular pathways for therapeutic modulation of microglial-ECM interactions to preserve cognition.

Saul Villeda, PhD
2021 Recipient

Saul Villeda, PhD
Assistant Professor, University of California, San Francisco

Project: Caloric-restriction Induced Mechanisms of Cognitive Rejuvenation

Identifying novel therapies to delay, and potentially reverse, age-related cognitive decline is critical given the projected increase of dementia-related disorders in an aging population. Caloric restriction counters age-related impairments in cognitive function in the aged brain. Dr. Villeda’s lab and others have shown that systemic interventions, including administration of blood plasma derived from young or exercised aged animals rejuvenates cognition at old age. The rejuvenating effects of caloric restriction mirror those observed with a youthful circulation, raising the possibility that caloric restriction similarly functions through blood factors to exert its beneficial effects.

With support from the Innovator Award in Cognitive Aging and Memory Loss, Dr. Villeda’s research will investigate the rejuvenating potential of caloric restriction-induced blood factors on the aged brain at the cellular, molecular and cognitive level. The proposed studies aim to identify molecular mechanisms that can be targeted to promote cognitive rejuvenation at old age, with clear therapeutic implications for dementia-related neurodegenerative disorders.

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