In August, Harryet and Stuart Ehrlich took a mini-vacation from their home in New Jersey to Baltimore, MD. The highlight of their trip was a stop at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences to meet NARSAD Young Investigator Grantee Sun-Hong Kim, Ph.D.
The Ehrlichs and Dr. Kim are Research Partners, participants in a Brain & Behavior Research Foundation program that matches major donors with scientists in a common area of interest. The Ehrlichs’ daughter Rebecca has struggled for much of her life with the symptoms of bipolar disorder.
The Ehrlichs found the meeting with Dr. Kim “exciting and unexpectedly moving.” As they recount: “It’s hard to explain the power of the connection we felt getting to know a scientist who has the potential to make a difference in our daughter's life, as well as the lives of so many others who struggle every day. Visiting Sun-Hong’s lab, meeting his team and listening intently to understand as best we could what his research is intended to achieve was far more than we had expected to experience.”
What Dr. Kim’s research is intended to achieve is a keener explanation of disturbances that occur in the developing brain, as neural pathways are laid down, that are implicated in mental illness. Specifically, he is studying molecular mediators of nitric oxide-regulated behaviors. Nitric oxide, a neurotransmitter produced by the enzyme neuronal nitric oxide synthase (nNOS), has emerged as an essential molecule in a variety of developmental processes involved in the formation of neural circuits.
Disturbances in working memory, or short-term memory, are common to a number of psychiatric illnesses. In a recent paper in Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications, Dr. Kim and his colleagues reported for the first time the identification of working memory deficits in nNOS “knockout” mice, pointing to potential impairments in cognitive function linked to the prefrontal cortex region in the brain. (Knockout mice are mice in which a gene, in this case the gene for nitric oxide synthase or nNOS, has been deactivated as a means to pinpoint its function. nNOS signaling has been known to regulate diverse cellular processes during brain development required for higher brain function.) This work might offer novel potential treatment targets to better address cognitive impairment associated with various mental illnesses.
Over lunch the Ehrlichs got to know their Research Partner on a more personal level as Dr. Kim expressed his appreciation for his first grant, making it possible for him to launch his independent research, and his deep feelings for the challenges that people like Rebecca face as the motivation for his studies. Say the Ehrlichs: “We will always keep the meeting close to our hearts because of Dr. Kim’s warmth, compassion and dedication to his work.”
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