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£1.8m grant awarded for study of engineered neurogenesis for brain repair

Professor of Developmental Neurobiology at King’s College London Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (IoPPN), Prof Benedikt Berninger, has been awarded a prestigious Advanced Grant by the European Research Council (ERC).

Kcl 1.8 grantThe grant, worth more than £1.8m, will enable Prof Berninger to conduct a five-year study into engineered neurogenesis for brain repair.

The IMAGINE study is researching the possibility of changing the identities of cells in the brain, with the hope that they will be able to generate new neurons.

Berninger’s work has shown that “glia”, a kind of support cell in the brain, have the potential to be converted by introducing proteins that regulate gene expression. This grant will enable him to make the process of cell conversion directly visible in mouse brains, and in doing so learning both how glial cells transform into new neurons, and how those neurons connect to pre-existing ones.

On being awarded this grant, Prof Benedikt Berninger said:

I feel immensely happy to have received this funding from the ERC. It allows us to take a significant step forward in addressing as yet unanswered questions about the brain’s capacity for repair from within. The idea that we will be able to actually see conversion of glia into new neurons happening in front of our eyes is absolutely thrilling.
An important next step will be to study whether and how these new neurons are then co-activated together with the pre-existing network of neurons when the brain processes stimuli.

Prof Berninger’s aim is to be able to regenerate lost or non-functional neurons in patients with neurological diseases like epilepsy and autism.

The ERC is the premier European funding organisation for excellent frontier research. Every year, it selects and funds the very best, creative researchers of any nationality and age, to run projects based in Europe. ERC Advanced Grants are awarded to outstanding investigators with an internationally recognised track record of research achievements. The IoPPN’s Centre for Developmental Neurobiology is proud to host four ERC awardees, including three Advanced Grants.

The 2020 ERC Advanced Grants will see €507 million (£438m) going to 209 leading researchers across Europe. The new research projects will lead to the creation of some 1900 new jobs for post-doctoral fellows, PhD students and other research staff. The UK has 51 grantees in this year’s funding round, the most of any ERC participating country.

Prof Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, ERC President, said:

For this last ERC call under Horizon 2020, over 200 researchers will be funded to follow their scientific instinct and dreams. Still, the great increase in demand led to a very fierce competition; only 8% of candidates were successful.
Many outstanding researchers with innovative ideas passed the excellence threshold but were left unfunded due to budget constraints - another motivation for the national or regional levels to support these great projects.

King’s Health Partners Neurosciences delivers outstanding research and education and drives excellence in care and equity for patients with neurological conditions.

Liked this article? Read our interview with Prof Peter Goadsby on receiving the Brain Prize.