USC researchers awarded new NIH grant encouraging interdisciplinary research

September 30, 2004

LOS ANGELES, Sept. 30, 2004- Researchers from the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine, the Department of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy, Viterbi School of Engineering and Annenberg School for Communication, along with researchers from the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas in Austin, have been awarded a $1.8 million grant as part of a brand-new National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant program designed to encourage interdisciplinary research.

This new initiative, led by the National Center for Research Resources, is part of the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research that was unveiled by NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D., in 2002. The new grants, called P20 grants, are intended to create what are being called Exploratory Centers for Interdisciplinary Research. In essence, they are planning grants, designed to get people working together, to get them to recognize that it is indeed possible-and even fruitful-to form interdisciplinary research teams. If successful, these grants will eventually lead to the awarding of the more traditional and highly coveted NIH center grants.

"With these new Exploratory Centers, we hope to remove roadblocks to collaboration so that a true meeting of minds can take place that will broaden the scope of investigation, yield fresh and possibly unexpected insights, and create solutions to biomedical problems that have not been solved using traditional, disciplinary approaches," Zerhouni said in announcing the 21 new grants.

The USC Interdisciplinary Center is aimed at exploring new directions in stroke neurorehabilitation, according to its principal investigator, Thomas McNeill, professor of cell and neurobiology and neurology at the Keck School of Medicine. "Each year in the United States over 700,000 people suffer a stroke, and nearly 450,000 survive with some form of neurologic impairment or disability. In addition, with the population progressively getting older, and obesity and heart disease on the rise, it is estimated that the number of stroke patients will more then double over the next 50 years, making the need to develop new and innovative rehabilitation programs to treat the growing number of stroke survivors a national priority."

The group will begin by focusing on rehabilitation strategies for the arm and hand in people who have survived a stroke. "Statistics indicate that almost 80 percent of people who suffer a first time stroke have impairment of the upper limb that significantly impacts functional independence, health and quality of life for stroke survivors," McNeill explains.

"We know that a recovery of function can occur, and that it requires retraining the brain to move the arm and hand in the correct fashion. Now we're looking for better ways to enhance that recovery. We need to figure out how intense the training should be, what skills we need to focus on, and what the physical therapist's practice strategies should be. We're collaborating with the researchers from the University of Texas because they have developed animal models of stroke that investigate the same motor skills strategies that we're using with patients and will provide new insight into the cellular mechanisms that drive the recovery process.

"In parallel with our clinical and animal studies, we will develop novel virtual environment tests that can assess and rehabilitate human functional performance under a range of conditions that are not easily deliverable and controllable in the real world, as well as, computational models of reach and grasp with the capacity to predict neuroplastic events related to cortical reorganization after stroke and following rehabilitation. We will link our clinical and experimental studies with USC's bioinformatics group headed by Stan Azen, professor of preventive medicine, in order to develop new data mining tools for sharing and analyzing data between projects. We are also investigating whether there are certain molecules in the brain that help the injured neurons grow, and apply this basic knowledge to combined pharmacological and behavioral interventions that will enhance recovery of function in stroke survivors. "

Carolee Winstein, associate professor of biokinesiology and physical therapy in the Independent Health Professions, is McNeill's co-PI. She believes that the interdisciplinary research paradigm being encouraged by the NIH is going to be crucial for rehabilitation in the 21st Century. "It is well known that the translation of basic science discoveries to clinical practice through a systematic progression of developmental steps can take anywhere from 7 to 11 years," Winstein says. "If the pre-clinical human studies can be conducted in parallel with the animal studies, we may be able to effectively reduce the bench to bedside translation time by 50 percent."

But that reduction will require a significant effort, Winstein notes. "For our center to be effective, we will need to foster the environment to encourage the cross-fertilization of ideas between the clinical and basic sciences. This is the major challenge for us, but also a tremendous opportunity to reap the rewards of a truly interdisciplinary collaboration."

The participants in the center include:
  • Thomas H. McNeill, Ph.D., Department of Cell and Neurobiology, Keck School of Medicine of USC
  • Carolee Winstein, Ph.D., P.T., FAPTA, Department of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy, Independent Health Professions, USC
  • Helena Chui, M.D., Department of Neurology, Keck School of Medicine of USC
  • Theresa Jones, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, University of Texas, Austin
  • Tim Schallert, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, University of Texas, Austin
  • Michael Arbib, Ph.D., Department of Computer Science, Viterbi School of Engineering, USC
  • Nicolas Schweighofer, Ph.D., Department of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy, Independent Health Professions, USC
  • Albert Rizzo, Ph.D., Integrated Media Systems Center, Viterbi School of Engineering, USC
  • Margaret McLaughlin, Ph.D., Integrated Media Systems Center, Annenberg School for Communication, USC
  • Stan Azen, Ph.D., Department of Preventive Medicine, Keck School of Medicine of USC

    The NIH Roadmap is a series of far-reaching initiatives designed to transform the nation's medical research capabilities and speed the movement of research discoveries from the bench to the bedside. It provides a framework of the priorities the NIH must address in order to optimize its entire research portfolio and lays out a vision for a more efficient and productive system of medical research. For more information about the NIH Roadmap, please visit the Web site at

    University of Southern California

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