UMCG researchers receive major grant to develop brain atlas and protein network

Two consortia of researchers from various universities, university medical centers and research institutes, including the UMCG, will receive a total of 46.2 million euros from the Dutch government in NWO's Gravitation programme. One consortium will develop a 'brain atlas' of psychiatric symptoms and the other will study the network that makes proteins to function in a cell.

Developing 'brain atlas' of psychiatric symptoms

The aim of the consortium the Institute for Chemical Neuroscience is to develop a 'brain atlas' of neuropsychiatric symptoms. This should ensure improved diagnosis and treatment of brain disorders such as depression, dementia and multiple sclerosis. To achieve this, neurobiologists, psychiatrists, data scientists and chemists are joining forces.

'Unclear what goes wrong in the brain in psychiatric symptoms'

UMCG researcher Bart Eggen: 'The Dutch Brain Bank has a unique collection of human brains from donors who have suffered from a variety of diseases, including neuropsychiatric disorders. What exactly goes wrong in the brains of people with psychiatric symptoms is not clear. 

We do not yet understand how and why symptoms such as anxiety, hallucination or depression arise. Over the next 10 years, we will map in the brains of donors with neuropsychiatric disorders, at the molecular level, by determining which cells and which brain regions are affected by neuropsychiatric disorders and symptoms. We will analyse this data using the latest artificial intelligence methods, among others. In ten years' time, we hope to be able to tell people with psychiatric symptoms what is happening in their brains and to have found possible leads for better diagnoses or possible therapy.'

Mapping protein function

The team of scientists participating in the FLOW consortium are going to create an overall picture of all the processes that contribute to the proper functioning of proteins in the cell. They want to know exactly how the cell ensures that a protein folds correctly and how it is maintained. In addition, they want to know how the cell clears a protein if it folds incorrectly. When proteins malfunction, it can lead to protein diseases, such as metabolic diseases, cystic fibrosis, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. The knowledge should eventually lead to researchers being able to control the protein folding system themselves as a basis for new therapies.

Mark Hipp on the project: 'Every cell in our body contains thousands of different proteins, the quality of which must be precisely controlled to prevent diseases. The body has its own quality assurance system for this. With this research, we want to understand this so well that we can use it to help defective proteins.

What is special about this project is that we are looking at proteins from the moment of their creation to their end, and not just at a specific moment. For this project, we will focus on two important proteins, and we will analyse them from many different angles. The first protein is called CFTR, and in people in whom this protein behaves abnormally, it leads to cystic fibrosis. The second protein is called alpha-synuclein, and when it malfunctions, it leads to Parkinson's disease. We think that once we properly understand flow of these two proteins from manufacture to degradation, this could lead to possible solutions not only for these 2 diseases, but could have implications for protein folding diseases in general.'

Gravitation programme 

The Gravitation programme was established to stimulate top research in the Netherlands. Gravitation is intended for consortia of scientists conducting innovative and influential scientific research within their field. The aim is to encourage research programmes to achieve breakthroughs of international standard.

Consortium the Institute for Chemical Neuroscience:

The consortium receives 23.3 million euros from the Gravity programme and from the UMCG, Prof Bart J.L. Eggen, Dr Inge R. Holtman and Dr Susanne M. Kooistra are involved. The other scientists involved in the project are:
Main applicant: prof.dr. Ingeborg Huitinga, University of Amsterdam
Co-applicant(s): Prof Mario van der Stelt (LU), Prof Paul J. Lucassen (UvA), Dr Lot D. de Witte (RU), Prof Maarten H.P. Kole (UU/NIN).

Consortium FLOW:

The FLOW consortium receives 22.9 million euros from the Gravity programme. From the UMCG, Dr Mark S. Hipp is involved. Also participating in the consortium are Dr Katarzyna M. Tych from the RUG and Prof Harm H. Kampinga from the UMCG. The other scientists involved in the project are:
Main applicant: prof.dr. Ineke L.J. Braakman, Utrecht University
Co-applicant(s): Mireille M.A.E. Claessens (UT), prof.dr. Friedrich Förster (UU), prof.dr. Stefan G.D. Rüdiger (UU), prof.dr. Alfred C.O. Vertegaal (LUMC)