ZEBRAFISH GIVES PROFESSOR DOWNES CLUES INTO HUMAN DISEASE

Professor Downes rushes into his laboratory, his mind whirring with possibilities for research that could lead to cures for diseases. “Sometimes I forget to say, ‘Hi,’” says the professor of neurobiology. “I just say, ‘Here is what we need to do.’"

Downes obviously is a man on a mission - actually several missions. With the help of a 10-member lab team and thousands of zebrafish, an ideal animal for studying neurobiology, Downes investigates neurological diseases with an eye toward finding treatments. As a professor, he wants to do more than teach biology; he wants his students to be critical and strategic thinkers. He selects undergraduates and offers them meaningful research experiences that give them an advantage in applying to medical school, graduate school, or the workforce. It is also important to him to reach out to the community to give young people an image of a scientist unlike Einstein or Doc Brown from the Back to the Future movies.

At 45, he has made quick work toward his goals. In one breakthrough, his experiments found zebrafish models that can be used to develop new treatments for maple syrup urine disease (MSUD), a rare neurometabolic disorder that can be fatal. He is establishing new animal models to study epilepsy and a disorder that combines symptoms of autism and epilepsy. Last year, he and colleagues were awarded an $824,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study zebrafish to better understand how the brain stem controls movement. The research uses an integrated genetic, molecular, cellular, and behavioral approach to reveal how brain stem neurons integrate sensory information and control locomotion. Basic research into cellular and molecular mechanisms of brain circuitry is essential to deeper understanding of how brains work, leading to new therapies to treat neurological disease.

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