McNair Scholar's science sheds light on formation of brain circuitry

January 1, 2011

Dr. Benjamin R. Arenkiel
Dr. Benjamin R. Arenkiel

Dr. Benjamin R. Arenkiel, the first McNair Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine, seeks to understand how neurons in the developing brain make the connections that form the final circuits in the mature brain.

Arenkiel, assistant professor of molecular and human genetics and neuroscience at BCM and a member of the faculty at the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children's Hospital, began his academic career at St. Cloud University in Minnesota and did his graduate work at the University of Utah School of Medicine in the laboratory of Dr. Mario R. Capecchi, now a Nobel Laureate. His postdoctoral work as a fellow of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Duke University Medical School took place in the laboratories of the late Dr. Lawrence C. Katz and Dr. Michael D. Ehlers.

Combing cellular and genetic research

His work with Capecchi focused on developmental genetics and at Duke, he added new interests in imaging and electrophysiology. At BCM, he plans to marry the two interests to investigate how neurons in the olfactory system 'wire-up' in the developing and adult brain.

He hopes to use specially developed fluorescent markers and genetic techniques to watch the formation of synapses, the junction at which one neuron transfers information to another neuron or a muscle cell.

"It's a combination of my cellular and genetic backgrounds," he said. "The overlying biology is to use new approaches to look at newborn neurons to see how they make connections until they form a final circuit in the adult brain," said Arenkiel.

Scholar program

The McNair Scholars program identifies "rising stars" in four areas of biomedical research – neuroscience, juvenile diabetes, breast cancer and pancreatic cancer. The Robert and Janice McNair Foundation gave the college $100 million to begin a specialized faculty recruitment program, the McNair Scholars Program, which keys on collaboration.

"We offer financial support to outstanding scientists to entice them to come to Baylor and the Texas Medical Center," said Bob McNair. "One of the requirements is that the scientist must be willing to cooperate and share information with other scientists working on similar projects."

McNair, owner of the Houston Texans and a BCM board trustee since 1994, said the commitment to collaboration is a key component of the program he and his wife, Janice, funded through their foundation.

"Our reasoning is simple," he said. "Time is of the essence as we seek cures for cancer, juvenile diabetes and neuro-psychiatric disorders – and we don't need people reinventing the wheel. If we are successful, and I believe we will be, there will be plenty of credit to go around."