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$5.9M grant to fund brain research in NM, Neb., La.

Vince Calhoun is lead investigator for a new, four-year project involving the MIND Research Network in New Mexico. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Vince Calhoun is lead investigator for a new, four-year project involving the MIND Research Network in New Mexico. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Researchers in New Mexico and two other states will use a variety of imaging tools to study brain development in adolescents, and how genetics affect the process, with help from a new $5.9 million federal grant.

The MIND Research Network in New Mexico will lead the four-year project, which will study brain development in 230 children ages 9 to 15 in New Mexico and Nebraska, said Vince Calhoun, the project’s lead investigator.

Remarkably little work has focused on brain structure and function in normal, healthy children and how genetics affect brain development, said Calhoun, executive science officer at the nonprofit MIND Research Network.

“We’re trying to characterize the healthy, developing brain,” Calhoun said Thursday. “The goal is to look at how brain networks and genetic networks change in this very rapidly developing period of life.”

Researchers in New Mexico and at the University of Nebraska will scan the brains of each child three times over a four-year period.

They will use several kinds of imaging tools, including two kinds of MRI, and magneto-encephalography, or MEG, which uses magnetic fields to map the brain.

A goal of the National Science Foundation study will be to help researchers understand how to interpret data collected from a variety of imaging techniques, Calhoun said.

Another key goal will be to study how brain structure and function are related to genetic factors, he said.

Researchers at Tulane University will analyze DNA from cheek swabs taken at the time of each scan to study methylation, a process that changes the function of DNA over time.

The MIND Research Network, a nonprofit located at the University of New Mexico, has ongoing studies of brain illnesses, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and traumatic brain injury.

The new research eventually should contribute to that work by studying how normal brains develop in children, shedding light on abnormal brain development, Calhoun said.

“I think we’re going to learn a lot about these kids – about how the brain develops and which regions of the brain are changing,” he said.

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