UTSA neuroscience researcher Carlos Paladini explains how his research into manipulating dopamine levels could impact people with clinical depression, drug addiction, schizophrenia, PTSD or Parkinson’s. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone
UTSA neuroscience researcher Carlos Paladini explains how his research into manipulating dopamine levels could impact people with clinical depression, drug addiction, schizophrenia, PTSD or Parkinson’s. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone

University of Texas at San Antonio‘s pursuit of Tier One status has captured the attention of San Antonio. Tier-One universities, “nationally competitive research universities,” are known for their strong research, faculty, and student bodies. They typically serve as incubators for innovation and creativity, as these strengths come together in labs, lecture halls, and dorms.

The status is not something a university can simply declare, or decide to achieve. It requires substantial funding and cooperation. Toward that end, UTSA has established powerful partnerships with technology-driven employers like Rackspace and Southwest Research Institute to expand innovation. Prestigious national institutions continue to award grants and designations as UTSA faculty research hits topics of global interest and importance.

Dr. Carlos Paladini, UTSA associate professor of neuroscience, has recently received one such grant. The National Institutes of Health recently awarded $1.8 million to Paladini to further his research of dopamine activity in the brain, with possible implications for clinical depression, drug addiction, schizophrenia, and even neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s.

UTSA neuroscience researcher, Carlos Paladini, received an $1.8 million grant for research in PTSD, Parkinson's, drug addiction. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone
UTSA neuroscience researcher Carlos Paladini received an $1.8 million grant for research in PTSD, Parkinson’s, and drug addiction. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

This research falls into one of five categories identified by UTSA as areas of potential for high impact. Dr. Mauli Agrawal, vice president of research at UTSA, explained that the efforts toward Tier One status have been strategic and focused to maximize each research dollar and each hiring decision. At the level UTSA hopes to operate, it cannot afford nebulous goals or half-hearted efforts.

“We’re entering the big ball park,” Agrawal said.

The five areas of advanced research focus are integrated biomedicine; advanced materials; cloud, cyber and computer analytics; social and educational transformation; and sustainable communities and critical infrastructure.

Each area represents a growing job market and increasingly critical need the research community.

Some fields, especially in social and educational transformation, naturally fit UTSA’s time and place in San Antonio.

“We’re sitting demographically and geographically right in the middle of those issues,” Agrawal said.

Vice President of Research at UTSA, Dr. Muali Agrawa speaks at the ribbon cutting ceremony. Photo by Scott Ball.
UTSA Vice President of Research Dr. Mauli Agrawal speaks at the Open Stack Innovation Center ribbon cutting ceremony. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Other fields, especially in technology, have benefitted from the right partners at the right moment. Cybersecurity has been at the forefront of government and business concern for some time, and is increasingly worrisome for private citizens. What was once a back corridor of tech jargon is now a regular headline.

Integrated biomedicine and advanced materials research like Paladini’s hits on issues touching millions of Americans. It will only continue to become more relevant as the two largest generations in American history, the Baby Boomers and the Millennials confront the realities of neurodegenerative diseases in their own lives and those of loved ones.

“Age is the best predictor of neurodegenerative disease,” Paladini said.

Paladini’s focus on dopamine began with treatments for drug addiction, which disturbs the normal “reward system” in the brain.

“Drug abuse hijacks that entire system,” Paladini said. “When your brain is addicted to drugs, things that bring you joy, like relationships or food, no longer bring that dopamine reward. You are only able to obtain it from drugs.”

The grant will allow Paladini to expand his research. Dopamine production and release is so essential, the extent of its connection to other systems and functions is still being explored. 

“This is like a survival circuit we have in our brain,” Paladini said.

While conditions like Parkinson’s and depression effect the function and production of dopamine, other disorders, such as autism can also effect the release of dopamine inside the brain. The more the medical community understands dopamine, the more treatments and therapies may develop for diseases and disorders that aren’t immediately obvious.

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The current grant will allow Paladini and his team to look specifically at astrocytes, a type of glia cell long thought to be simply part of the brain’s “clean up crew” after injuries or trauma. Glia are far more numerous that neurons in the brain, and renewed attention to their various functions may open up new understanding of how things go wrong. Astrocytes, Paladini realized, seem to have a function related to the release of dopamine.

Every time the research expands, it will require new funding. Paladini spends time grant writing, and the backing of a serious research institution is a crucial component.

UTSA has expressed their seriousness in part through the Goldstar Initiative, which will dedicate $40 million over 4-5 years to hire at least 60 top-tier researchers in their focused areas of advanced research. These will be senior hires, and some will even be recruited along with their core research team, Agrawal said.

The presence and energy of these hires, will not only increase the university’s productivity and prestige in the research community, but it will give students the chance to take part in research that will likely be published.

To ensure that faculty recruited under the GoldStar Initiative can continue to produce work of national and international significance, the university intends to increase its annual research expenditures to $75 million throughout the initiative, then soon after to $100 million – a Tier One threshold for research spending.

“San Antonio needs this,” Agrawal said.

He points to the tech boom in Austin after the University of Texas fostered microelectronics research in the 1980s. The infrastructure for research and development and talent recruitment attracts existing companies, and makes a viable ecosystem for new companies.

The presence of a Tier-One university would definitely strengthen San Antonio’s business and educational appeal, but it would also mean that research like Paladini’s would have the chance to improve lives around the world.

*Top image: UTSA researchers are able to track neurological changes in mice brains and observe dopamine levels.  Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone. 

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.