JMU neuroscientist receives $1M for autism research: Largest NIH research grant in university history
George Vidal, an assistant professor of biology at James Madison University, has received $1 million from the National Institutes of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, a part of the National Institutes of Health, to research the function of an autism risk gene in the developing brain.
The grant is the largest research grant ever given by the National Institutes of Health to a single scientist at JMU.
“We are so excited for George to receive this award, which reflects the truly outstanding caliber of his research,” said Cynthia Bauerle, dean of the College of Science and Mathematics. “As a primarily undergraduate research university, this really sets the bar for the research that our faculty and students are engaged in.”
In addition to being the largest NIH grant, the grant is also the first NIH faculty development award for a JMU faculty member. The program provides support and protected time for an intensive, mentored research project for underrepresented junior neuroscience faculty, boosting their research independence.
The grant will support Vidal for up to five years as he investigates how integrin beta 3, a gene implicated in autism, helps form brain circuits properly.
“Integrin beta 3 is an autism risk gene that is associated with intellectual disability, but it has a completely unknown function in the cerebral cortex,” Vidal said. “If we discover where, when and how it works in the cerebral cortex, we will also know where, when and how to treat its dysfunction.
“We will study how integrin beta 3 affects neurons and circuits in the cerebral cortex in vivo. The neurons and circuits we will study are the ones that underpin behaviors that are impaired in autism, such as social functioning.”
The grant will also support Vidal’s mentorship by neuroscience faculty at JMU, University of Virginia, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and Brown University. His primary mentor will be JMU professor Mark Gabriele, who was awarded the 2018 Outstanding Faculty Award from the Commonwealth of Virginia, and also runs an NIH-funded lab with JMU undergraduates.
“I could not have achieved this major award without mentorship from my faculty colleagues at JMU and beyond, and from the outstanding work of my JMU undergraduate research team,” Vidal said. “Their dedicated work is how we discovered that integrin beta 3 is a worthwhile autism risk gene to study. I have been privileged to work with my students to discover knowledge that can be used to combat neurodevelopmental disorders.”
Prior to joining the faculty at JMU, Vidal earned a bachelor’s degree in neurobiology from Harvard University and a doctorate in neurosciences from Stanford University. At JMU, Vidal’s lab studies how genes and environment shape the development of the cerebral cortex.