Grant to fund aging research

October 15, 2010

For the second time this year, a postdoctoral fellow in UT Dallas' Center for Vital Longevity has earned a prestigious, highly competitive career-development grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Dr. Karen M. Rodrigue was selected to receive the K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award. The five-year, two-phase grant totals just under $1 million. It comes from the National Institute on Aging, which usually awards only seven or eight K99s per year.

The central aim of Rodrigue's grant is to examine a vascular hypothesis of aging that involves the role of risk factors, such as hypertension, and specific cerebrovascular mechanisms such as hypoperfusion, in shaping the course of brain and cognitive aging.

An additional goal of her project is to test the hypothesis that vascular risk factors lead to the deposition of a sticky protein found in the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease and in about 30 percent of non-demented healthy adults.

Rodrigue sees this area of research as vital to future preventive approaches. "Understanding the contributions of vascular health to successful, as well as pathological aging, is fundamentally important, given both the prevalence of vascular risk in the aging population and its amenability to prevention and treatment," she said.

The first phase of the K99 grant provides $90,000 per year for two years to support Rodrigue's postdoctoral work in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. She then will transition into a faculty position at UT Dallas or another institution, and the grant will follow her, providing three more years of research funding at $250,000 per year.

"I'm deeply honored to the be a recipient of such a competitive award and am particularly excited to embark on my first series of funded studies here at UT Dallas, where we have a great depth of resources to conduct cutting-edge cognitive neuroscience research," Rodrigue said.

The NIH career-development programs are designed to ensure a wide range of highly trained scientists are available in adequate numbers and in appropriate areas to address vital clinical, biomedical and behavioral research needs. The K99/R00 program was created to ease the transition from postdoctoral positions into junior faculty roles and to provide earlier independent research support to the most promising young investigators.

After her next two years at UT Dallas, Rodrigue will decide whether to stay and continue her projects here or go elsewhere. The grant probably will make her attractive to many universities and give her a competitive edge when she seeks her first professor position.

The grant requires that 75 percent of Rodrigue's time as a newly minted faculty member be devoted directly to research. So her teaching load will be lower than most assistant professors face. She will be able to set up an independent lab and hire research assistants to facilitate projects.

Dr. Kristen Kennedy, another center researcher, received a K99 grant last spring, to support her research into the role of white matter in the reorganization of age-related brain function.

Dr. Denise Park, director of the center and Distinguished University Chair in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, has served as a mentor to Rodrigue.

"These awards are given to the most elite new PhDs to support the next generation of scientists in the United States," Park said. "They provide significant resources to further the careers of the best and see that they are provided with everything they need for the first five years of their career. To have one young scientist at the Center for Vital Longevity with such an award is a significant honor. To have two is unprecedented. Dr. Rodrigue will play an important role in understanding how cardiovascular health and Alzheimer's disease are intertwined."
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University of Texas at Dallas

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