PIK Professor Michael Platt Earns $2.9 Million NIH Award for Neural Circuitry Work

Michael Platt of the University of Pennsylvania has received a five-year, $2.9 million Method to Extend Research In Time, or MERIT, award from the National Institute of Mental Health to continue his work on the neural circuits that mediate complex social cognition. Program staff and scientific advisory board members within the NIH nominate candidates for these awards, which go to fewer than 5 percent of NIH-funded investigators across all disciplines.

As a Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor, Platt is the James S. Riepe University Professor at Penn, with appointments in the Perelman School of Medicine, the School of Arts & Sciences and the Wharton School.

Platt’s research funded by this grant aims to optimize and understand treatments for people with disorders like autism, social anxiety or schizophrenia who often have trouble with basic social functions such as following another person’s gaze. The scientific community studying these often looks to brain imaging or post-mortem analysis, but those methods frequently lack insight into the actual neurophysiology at play. 

“These are the kinds of social behaviors that are difficult to model in mice or other animals that don’t pay attention to each other in the way people do,” Platt said. “What we’ve been developing for a long time are non-human primate models in which all of these behaviors are observed and in which we can actually monitor and manipulate neurological activity in the same circuits identified in people as important.”

Phase 1 of work for this grant will determine baseline measurements for the connection between the animals’ neural activity and social cognition, and then will focus on two treatment options: A pharmacological solution involving inhalation of oxytocin and a non-pharmacological, newer alternative called transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS.

Oxytocin has long been studied, well known in its role for inspiring positive social interactions in certain animals. However, its function in humans still remains unclear.

“One aim of this project is to simultaneously administer oxytocin [to the animals] in various ways and measure the impact on behavior but also on the concurrent neurophysiological activity,” Platt said. “This will allow us to determine how it works, to see whether we can optimize the delivery method, the timing, the dosage, to achieve the best outcomes.”

A second objective involves TMS, a treatment FDA approved for depression. During this non-invasive procedure, a magnetic field applied outside the head generates pulses that essentially create an electric field in the brain that can alter neural pathways to either enhance or suppress a function.

“We don’t really have direct evidence for how TMS works. There’s a lot of indirect evidence from people recording behavioral changes, recording changes in how fast people respond, even looking at muscle twitches,” he said. “Just as in the oxytocin arm of this project, we will apply TMS, measuring its impact on behavior and on the activity of neurons in the area we’re stimulating and other connected areas.”

NIH MERIT awards provide long-term grant support to investigators who exhibit research competence and productivity, and who are highly likely to continue performing at a high level, by offering the option for a second five-year grant following completion of the first. With as many as 10 years of funding from this award, Platt and his team can take on more challenging projects and think more innovatively about developing solutions.

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