Brain & Behavior Research Foundation Awards Distinguished Investigator Grants Valued at $1 Million to 10 Scientists Pursuing Innovative Mental Health Research

Posted: April 4, 2024

Philanthropic Support from the WoodNext Foundation Funds Grant Program for Senior-Level Psychiatric Researchers

NEW YORK (April 4, 2024) – The Brain & Behavior Research Foundation (BBRF) today announced it is awarding Distinguished Investigator Grants valued at $1 million to 10 senior-level scientists who are conducting innovative projects in neurobiological and behavioral research. Recipients of the $100,000, one-year grants are exploring new frontiers in understanding a wide range of neuropsychiatric disorders, including autism, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and the potential connection between mental illness and cannabis use.

“One in five people in the United States lives with a mental illness. By funding transformative research focused on new ways to prevent, diagnose, and treat psychiatric disorders, our Distinguished Investigator Grants are encouraging established scientists to continue advancing our understanding of mental illness and disorders of brain and behavior,” says Jeffrey Borenstein, M.D., President and CEO of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation. “The grants serve as seed funding for new approaches that might otherwise go unfunded. We thank the WoodNext Foundation for their extraordinary philanthropic support that makes it possible for us to award the 2024 Distinguished Investigator Grants to these leading mental health scientists.”

“WoodNext is very proud to support innovative research via the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation Distinguished Investigator Grants with a total commitment of $5 million across five years,” said Nancy Chan, Executive Director of the WoodNext Foundation, a component fund administered by Greater Houston Community Foundation. “We recognize that scientific research is the key to discovering new pathways to understanding and treating psychiatric illnesses. The ground-breaking work of the Distinguished Investigator Grant recipients will bring hope and healing to people and families impacted by mental illness. We applaud these scientists for their extraordinary dedication, innovation, and leadership.”

Recipients of the Distinguished Investigator Grants are full professors at research institutions in the United States and abroad. They were selected by a committee of the BBRF Scientific Council, which is comprised of 193 experts across disciplines in brain and behavior research who review grant applications and recommend the most promising ideas to fund.

“It is wonderful to see the relaunching of this very important component of BBRF’s research portfolio,” said Eric J. Nestler, M.D., Ph.D., Chair of the BBRF Distinguished Investigator Grant Committee and Member of the Scientific Council. “The Distinguished Investigator Award Program serves a unique niche by supporting established investigators to explore high risk but also high yield ideas. We are delighted with the slate of award winners this year. The new awards were selected from a large group of highly competitive applications and will support exciting and innovative lines of research consistent with BBRF’s mission to better understand and ultimately treat severe mental illness.”

The recipients of the 2024 BBRF Distinguished Investigator Grants are:

2024 Distinguished Investigators

Dorit Ben-Shachar, Ph.D., DSc, Professor, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Israel, seeks a mitochondria-related target that therapeutically impacts schizophrenia-related molecular and behavioral pathologies. If successful, the study will provide mechanistic insight into the role of mitochondria in schizophrenia and identify a potential novel therapeutic target.    

Laura Lee Colgin, Ph.D., Professor & Director Department of Neuroscience, Center for Learning and Memory, University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical School, seeks to enhance our understanding of how neurophysiological disturbances in the hippocampus contribute to abnormal social behaviors in individuals with autism associated with Fragile X Syndrome.

Sanjay J. Mathew, M.D., Professor & Vice Chair for Research, Baylor College of Medicine, will evaluate a novel radioligand for positron emission tomography (PET) imaging in individuals with PTSD. The goal of this work is to understand the role of a key glutamate receptor (AMPA) in the brain and its relationship to post-traumatic psychopathology.


Peter Penzes, Ph.D., Professor, Northwestern University, will continue with research in which his team has detected synaptic ectodomains in cerebrospinal fluid, a discovery with potential breakthrough implications for biomarkers and novel therapeutics in schizophrenia.

Elizabeth A. Phelps, Ph.D., Pershing Square Professor of Human Neuroscience, Harvard University, is exploring novel ways of treating subjective clinical symptoms of anxiety. This project will assess the clinical technique of cognitive restructuring during a period of memory vulnerability.  Will it more persistently and effectively diminish the negative and distressing feelings evoked by intrusive, symptom-relevant autobiographical memories in socially anxious adults, compared with current first-line therapies for anxiety disorders?

Noah Stephen Philip, M.D., Professor, Ocean State Research Institute, Inc., Brown University, will study low-intensity focused ultrasound to the amygdala in depressed patients. The goal is to examine whether changes in brain perfusion are associated with clinical improvements, and to use individual-level findings as a ground truth to evaluate the accuracy of the acoustic modeling used to target the ultrasound.

Mary L. Phillips M.D., M.D. (Cantab), Professor, University of Pittsburgh, will examine mitochondrial Complex I (MC-I) in the brain in individuals with bipolar disorder (BD), and determine relationships among MC-I and indices of neural activity and neurotransmission known to be aberrant in BD. The study will guide future, larger-scale studies examining MC-I in BD to aid BD risk detection and the development of new, mitochondrial dysfunction-informed treatments.

Carmen Sandi, Ph.D., Professor, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Switzerland, investigates anxiety and its co-morbidity with depression, using rodent models. This project will evaluate a promising nutritional intervention that targets mitochondrial dysfunction called mitophagy. The project aims to elucidate the mechanisms of action of this intervention, assess its feasibility, and investigate its long-term safety. It could lay the groundwork for human nutritional studies aimed at alleviating anxiety symptoms.


Karin Johanna Hendrika Verweij, Ph.D., Professor, Amsterdam University Medical Centers, The Netherlands, seeks to unravel the causal relationship between cannabis use and mental illness. Does cannabis use increase the risk or severity of mental illness, or can a mental illness lead individuals to increase their use of cannabis (for example as self-medication)? The team will use novel, genetically informed methods to investigate this question.

Kate M. Wassum, Ph.D., Professor, University of California, Los Angeles, seeks to reveal how value judgements for food reward options are constructed in the brain and used to guide adaptive decision making. The work has the potential to transform how we view the neuronal computations that support decision making and will enable subsequent investigation of the biological architecture of value construction and decision making, facilitating a deeper understanding of maladaptive cognition and decision making that can characterize psychiatric illnesses.    

About the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation

The Brain & Behavior Research Foundation awards research grants to develop improved treatments, cures, and methods of prevention for mental illness. These illnesses include addiction, ADHD, anxiety, autism, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, depression, eating disorders, OCD, PTSD, and schizophrenia, as well as research on suicide prevention. Since 1987, the Foundation has awarded more than $450 million to fund more than 5,400 leading scientists around the world. 100% of every dollar donated for research is invested in research. BBRF operating expenses are covered by separate foundation grants. BBRF is the producer of the Emmy® nominated public television series Healthy Minds with Dr. Jeffrey Borenstein, which aims to remove the stigma of mental illness and demonstrate that with help, there is hope.

About the WoodNext Foundation

The WoodNext Foundation manages the philanthropy of tech innovator and Roku CEO/founder, Anthony Wood, and his wife Susan. Their philanthropic efforts are guided by their overall mission to advance human progress and remove obstacles to a fulfilling life. The WoodNext Foundation makes grants and investments in a variety of areas, including scientific and biomedical research, mental health, homelessness, education, nature conservation, disaster recovery, and economic opportunity, with a focus on addressing root causes. For more information, please visit


Brain & Behavior Research Foundation


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