Hamilton, Rampersaud, and Xia named 2021 BBRF Young Investigator Grant recipients

Grant recipients

(L to R) 2021 BBRF Young Investigator Grant recipients Holly K. Hamilton, PhD; Ryan Rampersaud, MD, PhD; and Frances Xia, PhD

Three UCSF Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences researchers — Holly K. Hamilton, PhD; Ryan Rampersaud, MD, PhD; and Frances Xia, PhD — have been awarded 2021 Young Investigator Grants by the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation (BBRF) in recognition of their work as promising young scientists conducting innovative, cutting-edge neurobiological and psychiatric research. The trio are among the 150 researchers from around the world selected to receive a combined $10.3 million in grants to further their research.

The two-year awards will provide them each with up to $70,000 for the purposes of extending their research fellowship training or fostering a career as an independent research faculty member. In addition, they will be eligible for consideration to present at the foundation's annual scientific symposium.

“BBRF Young Investigators represent the next generation of scientists who we expect will make great strides in basic research, new technologies, next generation therapies, and early intervention techniques,” said BBRF President and CEO Jeffrey Borenstein, MD. “This is the kind of out-of-the box research that will offer the best hope for improved treatments, cures, and methods of prevention for our loved ones, and we’re thrilled to provide seed funding for this important work.”

Funded projects seek to tackle depression from three different angles

Hamilton, an assistant adjunct professor, hypothesizes that the psychedelic hallucinogen psilocybin’s reported antidepressant effects depend on two interacting mechanisms: neural plasticity and cognitive flexibility. Her randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial of psilocybin in depression patients seeks to determine psilocybin’s effects on neural plasticity using a novel electroencephalography (EEG)-based paradigm, investigate psilocybin’s effects on cognitive flexibility using a well-established measure adapted for EEG, and explore the relationships between psilocybin-induced changes in neural plasticity and cognitive flexibility. Her team will also examine if changes in neural plasticity and cognitive flexibility predict changes in depression symptoms and improvements in daily functioning following psilocybin therapy.

Rampersaud, an assistant adjunct professor and alum of the UCSF Psychiatry Research Resident Training Program (RRTP), studies alterations in gut microbiota composition (also known as dysbiosis) leading to altered signaling along the route of communication between the gut and the brain. He believes this represents a novel modifiable target associated with major depressive disorder (MDD). His project aims to determine how changes in the metabolic capacity of the gut microbiome to generate aromatic amino acid metabolites contributes to the pathophysiology of MDD, using stool and blood samples from a well-characterized cohort of unmedicated MDD subjects along with healthy controls and samples from these same unmedicated subjects after 8 weeks of antidepressant treatment. Rampersaud's hope is to identify changes in microbialencoded metabolic pathways associated with MDD and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) treatment, revealing novel pathways implicated in the pathogenesis of disease.

Xia, a postdoctoral scholar in the Kheirbek Lab, will explore the neuronal and circuit mechanisms underlying changes in ventral hippocampal-amygdala interactions in a depressed population. By performing large-population neural recordings in ventral hippocampus and amygdala simultaneously, she will identify patterns of activity in two regions that track with mood and examine how they are altered in those susceptible to depression. Xia will identify specific projections and circuits that underpin ventral hippocampal-amygdala interactions to generate mood-related behavior, as well as test how specific cell types and pathways can be manipulated to enhance stress resilience. The findings could provide insight into mechanisms by which depression alters the processing of emotional information.

A commitment to furthering basic science research

BBRF Young Investigator Grants are designed to help researchers launch their careers in neuroscience and psychiatric research and gather pilot data to apply for larger federal and university grants on research relevant to the understanding, treatment, and prevention of serious brain and behavior disorders such as schizophrenia, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, or child and adolescent mental illnesses. Since the program's founding in 1987, grants have been awarded to more than 5,100 scientists totaling over $430 million in funding.

“For more than 30 years BBRF has focused on funding visionary young investigators who see opportunities in forging new paths,” noted BBRF Scientific Council President Herbert Pardes, MD. “By supporting ground-breaking work, BBRF helps set the trajectory of brain research and builds momentum toward discoveries that we expect will yield advances in neuroscience.”

This year's 788 grant applications were reviewed and the awardees selected by the BBRF's Scientific Council, comprised of 176 leading experts across disciplines in brain and behavior research, including one Nobel Prizewinner, two former directors and the current director of the National Institute of Mental Health, four recipients of the National Medal of Science, eight members of the National Academy of Sciences, 16 National Institute of Health chiefs and directors, 31 chairs of psychiatry and neuroscience departments at leading medical institutions, 50 members of the National Academy of Medicine, and nine UCSF Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences faculty members. The 2021 Young Investigator Grant Selection Committee was co-chaired by the University of Rochester's Suzanne N. Haber, PhD, and UCSF's Judith M. Ford, PhD.

Also receiving a 2021 BBRF Young Investigator Grant was Liza Ashbrook, MD, from the Department of Neurology. In addition to the three named this year, 55 other members of the UCSF Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences—including 30 current faculty members—have been honored as Young Investigator grant recipients since 1987.

About UCSF Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

The UCSF Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and the Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute are among the nation's foremost resources in the fields of child, adolescent, adult, and geriatric mental health. Together they constitute one of the largest departments in the UCSF School of Medicine and the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences, with a mission focused on research (basic, translational, clinical), teaching, patient care, and public service.

UCSF Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences conducts its clinical, educational, and research efforts at a variety of locations in Northern California, including Langley Porter Psychiatric Hospital; UCSF Medical Centers at Parnassus Heights, Mission Bay, and Mount Zion; UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals in San Francisco and Oakland; Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center; the San Francisco VA Health Care System; UCSF Fresno; and numerous community-based sites around the San Francisco Bay Area.

About the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences

The UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences, established by the extraordinary generosity of Joan and Sanford I. "Sandy" Weill, brings together world-class researchers with top-ranked physicians to solve some of the most complex challenges in the human brain.

The UCSF Weill Institute leverages UCSF’s unrivaled bench-to-bedside excellence in the neurosciences. It unites three UCSF departments—Neurology, Psychiatry, and Neurological Surgery—that are highly esteemed for both patient care and research, as well as the Neuroscience Graduate Program, a cross-disciplinary alliance of nearly 100 UCSF faculty members from 15 basic-science departments, as well as the UCSF Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases, a multidisciplinary research center focused on finding effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, frontotemporal dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and other neurodegenerative disorders.

About UCSF

The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) is exclusively focused on the health sciences and is dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence in patient care. UCSF Health, which serves as UCSF’s primary academic medical center, includes top-ranked specialty hospitals and other clinical programs, and has affiliations throughout the Bay Area.