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Synaptic success - MUHC neuroscientist Dr. Keith Murai wins large EJLB grant

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Published: 10 May 2006

MUHC neuroscientist Keith Murai has been awarded a $350,000 grant to study the communication possibilities of neuron-supporting cells, called glial cells, that until recently were thought to be passive players in brain function.

MUHC neuroscientist Keith Murai has been awarded a $350,000 grant to study the communication possibilities of neuron-supporting cells, called glial cells, that until recently were thought to be passive players in brain function. His findings may eventually lead to a better understanding of how the brain processes information and exciting new research developments in disorders such as mental retardation and schizophrenia.

The 33-year-old researcher has been awarded a Scholar Research Program grant, one of three handed out to young university researchers by the EJLB Foundation, a Canadian organization with a keen interest in schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.

"Many genes believed to be associated with schizophrenia are found in glial cells," says Dr. Murai. "I hope to bridge the gap between the basic biology of neuron-glial interactions and mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia."

Dr. Murai, a Canada Research Chair in Molecular Control of Synaptic Structure and McGill University professor of neurology and neurosurgery, studies the molecular framework of synapses, the active junctions between neurons. His particular interest has focused on glial cells, which communicate extensively with neurons in the brain.

While the glial cell had always been characterized as mere scaffolding in the brain's molecular structure, Murai and others have shown that it does more than just support. Their findings have shown that the astrocyte, an abundant glial cell type in the brain, can change its structural properties, and thus be capable of dynamically influencing synaptic behaviour.

In commenting on how the EJLB Foundation handed two of the three large grants to McGill, Murai praised the research environment he finds himself part of. "This points to the quality of research going on at McGill and the MUHC and of its strong commitment to neuroscience research," said Dr. Murai, who arrived at the MUHC in 2003 from the Burnham Institute in La Jolla, California.

The Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI MUHC) is a world-renowned biomedical and health care hospital research centre. Located in Montreal, Quebec, the institute is the research arm of the MUHC, a university health centre affiliated with the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University. The institute supports over 500 researchers, nearly 1,000 graduate and postdoctoral students, and operates more than 300 laboratories devoted to a broad spectrum of fundamental and clinical research. The Research Institute operates at the forefront of knowledge, innovation and technology and is inextricably linked to the clinical programs of the MUHC, ensuring that patients benefit directly from the latest research-based knowledge. For further details visit: Research Institute website.

The McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) is a comprehensive academic health institution with an international reputation for excellence in clinical programs, research and teaching. The MUHC is a merger of five teaching hospitals affiliated with the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University — the Montreal Children's, Montreal General, Royal Victoria, and Montreal Neurological Hospitals, as well as the Montreal Chest Institute. Building on the tradition of medical leadership of the founding hospitals, the goal of the MUHC is to provide patient care based on the most advanced knowledge in the health care field, and to contribute to the development of new knowledge. MUHC website

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