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Duke Neurobiologist Among First U.S. Scientists to Receive Two Top NIH Awards in Same Year

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Duke University School of Medicine neurobiologist Miguel Nicolelis, MD, PhD, is one of 20 recipients of the 2010 National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director's Transformative Research Projects (T-R01) award, making him one of the first people to receive both the NIH Director's Pioneer Award and the T-RO1 award in the same year.

The T-RO1 award is designed to support bold, creative and high impact research. According to the NIH, the T-RO1 is intended to "encourage exploration of exceptionally innovative and original research ideas that have the potential for extraordinary impact."

Nicolelis, a professor of neurobiology, biomedical engineering, and psychological and brain sciences and co-director of the Center for Neuroengineering, will use the award to continue his groundbreaking work developing a novel approach to relieve the symptoms of Parkinson's disease.

He created a unique stimulation method, which is the first potential therapy to target the spinal cord instead of the brain, possibly offering an effective and less invasive approach for Parkinson's disease treatment.

"These two prestigious awards from the NIH recognize Miguel's innovative approach that continues to push the boundaries of science in order to improve the lives of patients with a range of neurological conditions," said Victor J. Dzau, MD, chancellor for health affairs at Duke University and CEO, Duke University Health System.

Nicolelis intends to further his research toward the development of a prosthetic device designed to improve the impaired motor skills seen in advanced stages of Parkinson's disease.

The device applies electrical stimulation to the dorsal column in the spinal cord. In previous studies conducted in mice and rats, dopamine-depleted animals' slow, stiff movements, similar to those observed in people with Parkinson's disease, were replaced with the active behaviors of healthy mice and rats within seconds of the device turning on.

Nicolelis says that if the device is proven safe and effective through further research, he imagines it mirroring similar spinal cord stimulator technology currently used to treat chronic pain.

"Current treatment options for Parkinson's disease are often associated with side effects and eventually lose efficacy or are invasive and used as a last resort," Nicolelis said. "Dorsal column stimulation is easy to use, significantly less invasive than other alternatives to medication, such as deep brain stimulation, and has the potential for widespread use in conjunction with medications typically used to treat Parkinson's disease."

The research being conducted for the T-RO1 Program and Pioneer Award further 25 years worth of research that Nicolelis has lead investigating basic neurophysiological principles that allow neural circuits in the brain to generate sensory, motor, and cognitive behaviors.

The Pioneer Award research involves the development of brain-machine interface technology, a revolutionary field that Nicolelis helped to establish. Specifically he is working to develop the first shared brain-controlled virtual reality environment designed to investigate the dynamic properties of very-large scale brain activity and the full potential of brain-actuating technologies for treating neurological disorders.

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