Stuart Bradford illustration of female face surrounded with data elements

Investigations of the Brain

The Tulane Brain Institute under the leadership of psychology professor Jill Daniel is answering some of the biggest questions in brain science, from aging and estrogen therapy to fear and trauma. The institute involves researchers and students from all parts of the university.

Illustrations by Stuart Bradford • Photography by Rusty Costanza

Shannon McQuillen (SSE ’20, ’21) is passionate about the brain — so much so that she enrolled at Tulane University largely because of the school’s acclaimed neuroscience program. Her studies eventually led her to the Tulane Brain Institute, which, still in its infancy, was already making a name for itself in the world of brain research.

Around the same time, McQuillen’s grandmother, who had had dementia for many years, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, a brain disorder that wiped out her memory and thinking skills.

“Watching her progress into Alzheimer’s disease ignited a passion in me to learn everything I could about what was happening to her brain as she aged,” said McQuillen, who is now in her second year at Tulane School of Medicine.

“Ultimately, this is what pushed me to seek out a position in Dr. (Jill) Daniel’s lab during my junior year at Tulane. She was focusing on sex differences in neurodegenerative diseases, which I felt was a perfect fit for me.”

Conducting research under Daniel (G ’97, ’00), a professor of psychology and director of the Brain Institute, was the highlight of McQuillen’s undergraduate experience. She was so absorbed in her studies that after earning a Bachelor of Science with a major in neuroscience and a minor in psychology in 2020, she stayed at Tulane an additional year to get her master’s.

“I wasn’t quite ready to stop learning about the brain,” said McQuillen, whose older brother Brendan McQuillen (SSE ’18, ’19) was also a neuroscience student at Tulane.

Stuart Bradford illustration depicting research on estrogen effects

A Gamut of Research

Daniel, the Gary P. Dohanich Professor in Brain Science, is grateful to have had such an impact on students like Shannon McQuillen. But she is quick to point out that she is only one part of the institute. Since its inception in 2016, the Brain Institute has been an all-encompassing, interdisciplinary entity, bringing together brain experts from across the university, including the School of Science and Engineering on the uptown campus, the School of Medicine, and School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine on the downtown campus and the Tulane National Primate Research Center on the North Shore in Covington.

The faculty includes neuroscientists, neural engineers and clinical researchers, all working to fulfill the three pillars under which the institute began — research, education and community outreach.

“The boundary-crossing research being conducted through the institute has grown exponentially, resulting in myriad discoveries being made by top faculty,” Daniel said. “This allows our undergraduate and graduate students to participate in the institute’s significant work.”

Research studies have run the gamut from one that is delving into the link between diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease to another that is looking into ways to end opioid addiction. Other areas of research include genetic aging, panic disorder, and the link between stress and mental health disorders.

Estrogen and the Brain

Earlier this year, the Brain Institute received one of the biggest grants ever awarded to Tulane — a $14 million award from the National Institute on Aging to study why the brain-protecting benefits of estrogen may not apply to all women, especially those with hypertension and Type 2 diabetes.

“It was a real coup to get this,” said Daniel, who serves as the principal investigator on the grant. “It’s very competitive. We started working on our grant proposal in 2019, and with support of the Tulane Office of Research Proposal Development, we developed a 540-page proposal.”

The lead investigators include Sarah Lindsey, PhD, an associate professor of pharmacology; Ricardo Mostany, PhD, an associate professor of pharmacology; Laura Schrader, PhD, an associate professor of cell and molecular biology; and Andrea Zsombok, PhD, an associate professor of physiology.

Under the five-year grant, Daniel is leading a team of scientists from the Tulane schools of Science and Engineering, Medicine, and Public Health and Tropical Medicine, the LSU Health Sciences Center, and Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine in determining under what conditions estrogen therapy may increase or decrease risk for developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Daniel said preliminary evidence suggests that postmenopausal women taking estrogen, a hormone that plays an important role in sexual and reproductive development, could be at increased risk of cognitive disease if they have a pre-existing condition such as Type 2 diabetes or hypertension. The project will determine if and how estrogens interact with cardiovascular and metabolic health to impact the brain and cognitive aging. 

“In the lab, estrogens are neuroprotective and enhance memory,” Daniel said. “Yet in women, effects of menopausal estrogen therapy on aging brains can range from beneficial to detrimental.

“We hypothesize that cardiovascular and metabolic disease alter the neuroprotective effects of estrogens. This comprehensive research program will determine mechanisms by which a healthy brain responds differently to estrogens as compared to an unhealthy one, and identify conditions under which estrogen administration will or will not prevent or delay age-related cognitive disease.”

Jill Daniel in a lab at The Brain Institute
Jill Daniel is a professor of psychology and director of the interdisciplinary Brain Institute.

“The boundary-crossing research being conducted through the institute has grown exponentially, resulting in myriad discoveries being made by top faculty. This allows our undergraduate and graduate students to participate in the institute’s significant work.”

JILL DANIEL, Director and the Gary P. Dohanich Professor in Brain Science

Growth of the Institute

Daniel, who received her master’s and doctoral degrees from Tulane, has served as the institute’s director since its inception in 2016. She is proud of its growth, especially in terms of research funding. Brain Institute faculty currently serve as principal investigators on $90 million in National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants, compared to $45 million in 2016. And new research initiatives have led to $23 million in new federal grant funding.

Dr. Stacy Drury, associate director of the Brain Institute and the Remigio Gonzalez, MD, Professor of Child Psychiatry at Tulane medical school, was awarded a $2.9 million grant from the NIH to lead a research network that will set methodological standards for studying a part of the chromosome that scientists increasingly recognize as an important biological marker of aging and age-related diseases.

“We are charged with bringing together all of the international experts in the field and becoming a central focus for this research across the globe,” she said.

Drury believes the institute is poised to become an internationally recognized research center, especially in the areas of neurodegeneration and the impact of trauma on the central nervous system.

“The institute has stayed very true to its mission, being a place for great education and collaborative research,” Drury said.

What’s more, she said, “It’s a great group of people that love to work together. We’re very much a family. We thought we’d lose that as we grew, but Jill has done a great job in maintaining that family feel. Your voice is always heard.”

“We are charged with bringing together all of the international experts in the field and becoming a central focus for this research across the globe. ... The institute has stayed very true to its mission, being a place for great education and collaborative research. ”

DR. STACY DRURY, Associate Director and the Remigio Gonzalez, MD, Professor of Child Psychiatry

Members of the Jill Daniel lab 2022
Lead investigators on the $14 million National Institute on Aging grant to study the uneven benefits of estrogen therapy on women’s brain health are (left to right) Ricardo Mostany, Jill Daniel, Andrea Zsombok, Sarah Lindsey and Laura Schrader.

Gifts for Boundary Crossing

Daniel credits donors for the institute’s success, especially Tulane engineering alumnus and Board of Tulane member Bill Marko (E ’81, ’83) and his wife, Marta, who provided the lead gift to turn an ambitious idea into a reality.

“We’ve always been strong in neuroscience, but we didn’t have the infrastructure to take us to the next level,” Daniel said. “We’re here because the Markos believed in us.”

Marko said he and his wife were fans of the Brain Institute from the very beginning. Having served on the board of the School of Science and Engineering since 2010, he was well aware of Tulane’s reputation in neuroscience and its potential to make Tulane a national leader in brain science.

That Marta’s parents had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease made their interest that much keener. At the same time, newly installed Tulane President Michael Fitts was pushing for more interdisciplinary, boundary-crossing research.

“None of this was our idea, but we know a great idea when we hear one, and this seemed like a natural,” said Marko, a Houston-based petroleum engineer and energy banker who has strong ties to New Orleans.

“It’s about playing to your strengths and focusing on the things we’re good at, and brain research is something we’re really good at.”

The Markos’ lead gift included endowed funds for the Brain Institute and administrative facilities in Flower Hall. They also started the Marko Spark Innovation Research Fund — $50,000 a year for five years — which supports annual faculty seed fund awards to fund collection of pilot data needed for federal grant submissions.

One of the first of the Marko Spark awards went to Mostany and Jonathan Fadok, PhD, a professor of psychology in the School of Science and Engineering, to investigate the neural circuits of fear. The cross-campus collaboration brought together the expertise of Fadok in the neural circuits of fear with that of Mostany in advanced neural-imaging techniques to understand how populations of neurons control fear- and anxiety-related behavior. The award led to a $2.2 million NIH grant.

The Markos aren’t alone in their enthusiasm for the Brain Institute. The Priddy Foundation, led by Robert (UC ’69) and Kikie Priddy, gave $1 million to the institute to establish the Priddy Family Spark Research Endowed Fund. The fund provides competitive awards to faculty for early-stage research support that advances the institute’s research priorities.

Stuart Bradford illustration depicting items in a lab with data graphics

Neuroscience Students at All Levels

Daniel said the Brain Institute is attracting students from all over the world because of the opportunities to work on meaningful research. Currently, about 450 students are enrolled in the neuroscience program at the undergraduate, graduate and doctoral levels. “Students are very involved in our mission,” she said.

Shannon McQuillen observed that passion up close when she signed on to work in Daniel’s lab as a junior. A former Tulane cheerleader, she said she never would have taken that step had she not suffered a back injury that forced her to give up cheering.

“It also forced me to expand my horizons at Tulane and focus more on research and academics,” she said. “I could not be more thankful for this turn of events. I would have never met some of the most intelligent, kind and passionate people if I hadn’t become more involved in the Brain Institute community.”

In Daniel’s lab, McQuillen worked with preclinical animal models and learned about various lab techniques. Her interest in neuroscience flourished, so much so that now, as a medical student, she is studying to become a neurologist, possibly specializing in neuroradiology.

“My interest in neuroscience grew and I knew I wanted to make a future out of it,” McQuillen said.

Limitless Future

As for the Brain Institute itself, the future appears to be limitless. In 2024, the institute will expand into a portion of the Steven and Jann Paul Hall for Science and Engineering, now under construction between Stanley Thomas Hall and Donna and Paul Flower Hall. The five-story building is named for Steve Paul (A&S ’72, M ’75) and Jann Paul (SW ’73), who provided the lead gift.

Upon completion, the building will boast three floors of interdisciplinary research laboratories, an animal research facility and an auditorium with seating for over 200 people. The institute’s downtown campus, based in the Hutchinson Building, will soon include a dedicated MRI facility, which will allow for the study of the human brain through human imaging neuroscience.

Beyond the lab and classroom, the Brain Institute is committed to bringing neuroscience to the community. Current outreach activities include a K-12 program to promote brain literacy in New Orleans area schools and special programming to support patients and families affected by brain disorders.

“I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished and what we will continue to accomplish,” Daniel said. “Through the Brain Institute, we are in a position of answering some of the biggest questions in brain science.”