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Scholar Feature: Gerald Downes (FRS '14-15) Receives NSF Grant to Study Locomotion

Gerry Downes headshot

Dr. Gerald Downesassociate professor of biology at UMass Amherst, is the latest CRF faculty affiliate to convert his year as a Family Research Scholar directly into a successful grant proposal. After spending many months developing his proposal alongside the five other members of the 2014-15 FRS cohort, Dr. Downes was thrilled over the summer to learn that he had been awarded a three-year, $824,025 collaborative research grant from the National Science Foundation to study the zebrafish brain. 

"In short, it has been a fantastic experience," says Prof. Downes. "The FRS program provided me with a select group of colleagues that met weekly to bounce around ideas, obtain constructive feedback, and help keep me on-track to achieve my research goals. They provided invaluable advice and enthusiasm," he recalls.

Such testimonials have become a hallmark of the Family Research Scholars program, CRF's flagship initiative since its inception in 2003. "Few faculty have access to the kinds of support and expertise provided by CRF," he says. "I'm an enthusiastic supporter of the program. I can't say enough good things about it!" 

Each year, dozens of UMass Amherst and Five College faculty apply to become a Family Research Scholar. The program is targeted to family researchers in the process of seeking a grant with significant relevance to emerging family research. Aside from providing a course buyout to the awardees, the program strives to foster a multidisciplinary environment where members of the faculty cohort can harness one another's knowledge and experience while members of the CRF staff offer practical guidance on the financial, administrative and logistical aspects of obtaining grants.

According to Prof. Downes, "the model of faculty support has clearly proven its worth," especially as he looks back on the lengthy, occasionally complex process that culminated in his grant's successful funding. He praised the mentorship of the CRF staff as they helped him navigate several challenges during the grant-writing and -review phases. "They enabled me to focus on my research" whenever such hurdles arose, he says. "I would love to see similar programs replicated across campus to enhance other fields of study."

Dr. Downes will be the primary investigator in the zebrafish project, alongside UMass Amherst chemist James Chambers and Amherst College neurobiologist Josef Trapani. Their ultimate research goal is to better understand how different chemical signals, called neurotransmitters, work together at cellular and molecular levels to coordinate normal locomotion such as walking and swimming. This knowledge has far-reaching implications for both children and adults—and for families struggling to cope when someone is born with or begins to suffer from a debilitating neurological condition.

Downes says the grant will also support his plan to bring neuroscience demonstrations to as many as 600 Springfield and Holyoke charter middle and high school students in their science classes beginning in spring 2016, followed by visits to UMass Amherst. Participating schools include the Renaissance Charter School in Springfield and Paolo Frieri Social Justice High School in Holyoke.

“This is an important aspect of the grant to me,” he says. “I believe in reaching out to young students, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, to show them who scientists are and what we do. Hopefully we will help inspire some students to pursue careers in science.”

As Prof. Downes explains, locomotion is possible because brain cells, or neurons, communicate with each other using neurotransmitters. In the brain’s neuronal networks, signals pass from one neuron to another, then to neurons in the spinal cord, which finally pass these signals to individual muscles.

“Some neurotransmitters increase neuron activity whereas others decrease neuron activity. We’re working to tease out cellular and molecular mechanisms of brain circuitry that control movement,” he adds. “And because there are many similarities in neurotransmitters and locomotor networks between zebrafish and mammals, this work can have implications about locomotion in many species, including humans.”

Zebrafish have a more simple brain and spinal cord than mammals and their embryos are transparent, which makes them easy to examine under a microscope, the neurobiologist points out. For this project the researchers will focus on how one neurotransmitter—known as Gamma AminoButyric Acid (GABA)—regulates locomotor networks in the brain.

Prof. Downes explains, “Part of the difficulty in understanding how these neuronal networks function is that there are so many different GABA receptors, which allow neurons to receive GABA signals. So a main goal of this project is to identify individual types of GABA receptors that are important for locomotion.”

To accomplish this, the team will use a variety of approaches involving the mutation of different GABA receptors and examining the effects such mutations have on locomotion. Trapani’s lab will investigate how mutations change the electrical activity of individual neurons involved in locomotion, for example.

In addition, the team will use drugs developed by Dr. Chambers that bind to GABA receptors and block their function depending on the wavelength of light. GABA binding to a receptor can be blocked using one wavelength of light, but not using a different one, Dr. Downes explains. The transparency of the zebrafish embryo makes them great for this optical approach, he adds.

“Using light, we will be able to turn on and turn off different types of GABA receptors on different cell types,” Prof. Downes says, “and see how that affects locomotion. We’re thrilled to bring together our different areas of expertise to tackle such a complex but interesting problem. With all of the new technology now available, it’s a great time to be a neuroscientist.”

The project also includes a training element that will support UMass Amherst alumna Kelly Anne McKeown, assistant professor of biology at Westfield State University, and two of her students to conduct summer research in neuroscience using state-of-the-art laboratory instruments and techniques in the Downes lab.

Since 2003, CRF has offered the Family Research Scholars Program, which provides selected UMass and Five Colleges faculty with the time, technical expertise, peer mentorship and national expert consultation to prepare a large grant proposal to support their research.