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Katie Baldwin Receives NIH Director’s New Innovator Award to Study Brain White Matter

Katie Baldwin, Ph.D., assistant professor of cell biology and physiology in the UNC School of Medicine, received $1.5 million from the NIH to study white brain matter and its contribution to brain development, function, and debilitating diseases such as Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis.

Katie Baldwin, PhD, assistant professor in the UNC Department of Cell Biology and Physiology and a member of the Neuroscience Center, has been awarded the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award (DP2) from the National Institutes of Health to study the molecular properties of brain white matter and how the tissue contributes to brain development, function, and diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, and autism spectrum disorder.

The award, which is part of the NIH’s High-Risk-High-Reward Research Program of the NIH Common Fund, “supports exceptionally creative early career investigators who propose innovative, high-impact projects in the biomedical, behavioral or social sciences within the NIH mission.” This award will provide Baldwin with $1.5 million in direct costs split into two multi-year segments for her research project.

“Understanding how cells in the white matter might function differently from cells in the grey matter will open new avenues of research to try to treat white matter dysfunction,” said Baldwin. “We’ve been missing out on a lot of brain biology by focusing more on gray matter.”

Underneath the pink, fleshy exterior of the brain lies two different types of tissue: white matter and gray matter. Gray matter is home to neural cell bodies, axon terminals, and dendrites, where “all of the neural action is happening”. White matter, which makes up 50% of the brain, functions as a neural highway, passing along brain signals from cell to cell and coordinating communication between brain regions.

Baldwin’s lab is particularly interested in non-neuronal glial cells, which make up 90% of the cells in the white matter and play critical roles in brain development and function.

However, due to technical challenges, white matter is far less studied compared to its darker, more popular counterpart. Current methods, such as single-cell sequencing, are not able to pick up complete information from the white brain matter because of its tissue structure and the thick myelin coating surrounding the neural highways.

To fill in this substantial knowledge gap, Baldwin and her team of researchers will use an innovative proteomic strategy to study brain white matter on the protein level. From there, they are able to see how protein function changes during certain disease states and at different time intervals. The specific approach will allow them to analyze thousands of proteins over time to see how white matter changes across the lifespan and during disease.

“Many neurological disorders that manifest later on in life could be caused by improper development early on,” said Baldwin. “Over time and with aging, those defects become more noticeable. By analyzing proteins during both normal and disease states over time, we can better understand how to target white matter dysfunction, which is a major hallmark of many neurological disorders.”

To read more about Baldwin and other recipients of the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, visit the NIH website.

This NIA is supported by the NIH’s High-Risk-High-Reward Research Program of the NIH Common Fund and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke of the National Institutes of Health under award number DP2 NS136873. 

Media contact: Kendall Daniels, Communications Specialist, UNC Health | UNC School of Medicine

From UNC Health and UNC School of Medicine Newsroom (October 3, 2023)

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