Newswise — In an event that showed the growing breadth and depth of research at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UM SOM), more than 500 attendees participated in the Third Annual Festival of Science on December 11.

With a series of presentations and panel discussions on both basic and clinical neuroscience, UM SOM researchers and physician-scientists focused on topics ranging from new ways of treating addiction and depression to advances in understanding concussion and brain injury and unraveling the causes of chronic pain, autism and other mental disorders.

In addition, leading neuroscientist Antonello Bonci, MD, addressed the conference as the event’s keynote speaker. Bonci, the scientific director at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA),focused on the emerging science of optogenetics, the use of light-sensitive cells to study and modify the brain.

The Festival of Science is a one-day celebration of research at the school. This year it featured a series of 12 faculty presentations showcasing innovative work by UM SOM scientists. The event was hosted by Dean E. Albert Reece, MD, PhD, MPH.

This year’s topics included potential new treatments for depression, memory loss, brain injury, and new understanding of the brain circuitry that links chronic pain and depression.

The opening morning session focused on addiction, pain and reward systems in the brain.

Asaf Keller, PhD, Professor in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, spoke on the links between chronic pain and emotion, including depression.

Joseph F. Cheer PhD, Associate Professor in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, talked about his research into addiction and key neurotransmitters, including dopamine and endocannabinoids.

Mary Kay Lobo, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, talked about the close connections between drug addiction and mood disorders such as depression.

The second session focused on the neurochemical balance that is necessary to keep the brain healthy.

Scott Thompson, PhD, Professor and Chair of the Department of Physiology, talked about his research into new compounds that could help treat depression very quickly with minimal side effects. Thompson and his team focused on an inhibitory neurotransmitter called GABA.

Jessica A. Mong, PhD, Associate Professor, in the Department of Pharmacology, focused on gender differences in sleep disorders, and how these play out in the brain.

Robert Schwarcz, PhD, Professor in the Department of Psychiatry, talked about his work on kynurenic acid, a metabolite of the amino acid L-tryptophan. Schwarcz and his team are testing the idea that lowering kynurenic acid levels in the brain might improve some symptoms of schizophrenia.

The third session focused on inflammation in the brain, and traumatic brain injury.

Alan I. Faden, MD, Professor in the Department of Anesthesiology, along with his colleague David Loane, PhD, Assistant Professor of Anesthesiology, talked about their work on traumatic brain injury and how it causes chronic degenerative problems. They have found that chronic brain damage and neuropsychiatric problems after trauma are to a large degree caused by long-term brain inflammation.

J. Marc Simard, MD, PhD, Professor in the Department of Neurosurgery, talked about his research into neuroinflammation and microglia, the immune cells of the central nervous system. He and his colleagues have discovered that in each of these conditions, the sulfonylurea receptor 1 (Sur1) plays a major, and previously unrecognized, role. Simard and his colleagues have identified several promising medicines that can inhibit Sur1.

The fourth session focused on new technologies that are driving discovery in brain research.

Dennis Sparta, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, talked about His work on how addiction and stress affect the brain. He uses a new approach known as in vivo calcium imaging, this technology allows him to track individual neurons as they are activated.

Thomas Blanpied, PhD, Associate Professor in the Department of Physiology, talked about his research on synaptic transmission. His lab is using an innovative technology known as single molecule microscopy, which locates and tracks the movement of individual proteins in a living cell, and even within the confines of a single synapse.

Graeme Woodworth, MD, Associate Professor in the Department of Neurosurgery, talked about his work with focused ultrasound to disrupt and destroy tissue with unprecedented precision. He is part of a multidisciplinary team that has just begun clinical trials, in partnership with industry, to see whether focused ultrasound can effectively treat Parkinson’s Disease and essential tremor.