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Two Duke researchers receive $1 million grant for brain studies

Two Duke brain researchers were awarded a $1 million grant by the W.M. Keck Foundation, the University announced Wednesday.

Fan Wang, associate professor of neurobiology, and Kafui Dzirasa, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, have been given the funds to advance their studies of the circuits in the brain that control conscious and unconscious states. Their study is entitled "Unraveling the Neural Gate to Consciousness.”

“We are grateful for the Keck Foundation’s support of this ambitious research goal,” said President Richard Brodhead in a Duke Today release. “With this vital support, Duke faculty can work to discover the biological mechanisms that undergird our consciousness—producing insights that have the potential to expand the frontiers of science and medicine.”

The study will focus on a family of cells called the anesthesia-affected neurons, or AANs, and will work to create maps of neural networks by chemically and electrically tracing cellular activity. Then, the researchers will test if creating specific patterns of neural activity in the brain can sustain conscious perception.

Wang noted that the study could help identify ways to reawaken patients from coma or vegetative states.

The W.M. Keck Foundation is a philanthropic institution that awards grants to pioneering efforts in medical, science and engineering research.

“Consciousness has long puzzled scientists and philosophers, and Dr. Wang and Dr. Dzirasa’s pioneering research has the potential to transform how we understand both consciousness and our shared human experience,” said Dr. A. Eugene Washington, chancellor for health affairs and president and CEO of Duke University Health System, in the release. “I look forward to their pursuit of this great unanswered question in science, and I am thankful for the W. M. Keck Foundation’s investment in their work.”


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