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Meet the Researchers: 2023 Next Generation Research Grant Recipients

Meet our current class of grant recipients and discover how their critical brain disease research will lead to treatments and cures for the millions of people living with brain diseases and disorders.


At the American Brain Foundation, we invest in research across many different brain diseases because we know that finding a cure for one disease will lead to cures for many others. Our Next Generation Research Grants create a foundation for future discoveries by providing support for early-career researchers across a variety of specialties and research areas. Their vital work will pave the way for the next major breakthroughs in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of brain disease.

Launching Careers of the Next Generation of Brain Disease Researchers

We created the Next Generation Research Grants program to support innovative projects by today’s best and brightest early-career researchers. Critical advancements in the fight against brain disease are built on the collective discoveries of past researchers. Our Next Generation Research Grants encourage a passion for knowledge and discovery, paving the way for future breakthroughs.

To date, we have granted about $40 million to nearly 300 researchers, over 85% of whom have gone on to receive funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or other major national funders. The NIH is one of the major sources of funding for brain disease research in the U.S., and it is vital to prepare early-career researchers to secure long-term funding for their projects.

We continue to fund this vital work each year thanks to our generous donors’ support, so that one day we can all enjoy life without brain disease.  

Marina Avetisyan, MD, PhD

Disease Area: ALS

FTD (frontotemporal dementia) and ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) are both neurodegenerative diseases that share similar pathology, genetics, and symptoms. Dr. Avetisyan’s project focuses on the role of neuroinflammation in both FTD and ALS and investigates why neuron death occurs in individuals with these diseases. There are few current treatments for FTD or ALS, but a better understanding of the causes of each disease will lead to more effective therapies and treatments for FTD, ALS, and potentially many other diseases.

Maurizio Grassano, MD

Disease Area: ALS

Men seem to be at an increased risk for ALS, but the reasons for this higher risk factor are not fully understood. Dr. Grassano’s project will examine the relationship between sex and genetics in the formation of ALS. This work has the potential to identify sex-specific biological factors that lead to the formation of ALS, which in turn could unlock earlier diagnosis methods and inform new, more personalized targets for drug development.

Eva Klinman, MD, PhD

Disease Area: Cognitive Aging and Age-Related Memory Loss

Despite researchers having studied neurodegenerative conditions for decades, we still do not understand what makes the aging brain prone to degeneration. Dr. Klinman’s project will examine the brains of young and old individuals to identify specific age-related changes that occur in brain cells over time. This research aims to better identify the factors that may lead aging brains to develop neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Discovering the specific causes of neurodegeneration would give future researchers more specific targets of investigation in learning how to rejuvenate old neurons and slow the progression of these diseases.

Sheena Baratono, MD, PhD

Disease Area: Cognitive Aging and Age-Related Memory Loss

Visuospatial dysfunction makes it hard for people to interpret what they see and respond appropriately. This is a common symptom of neurodegeneration in elderly individuals and contributes to falls, accidents, and a loss of independence. However, visuospatial dysfunction can be improved with early diagnosis and treatment. Dr. Baratono’s research will explore using clinical MRI scans to predict dysfunction and identify targets for neuromodulation treatment. Being able to intervene before visuospatial dysfunction symptoms arise would enable better treatment outcomes and raise quality of life for individuals experiencing cognitive aging. 

Wesley Kerr, MD, PhD

Disease Area: Epilepsy

Clinical trials are essential for developing new treatments for epilepsy, but they are expensive to run, proceed slowly, and require recruiting participants, which is often difficult. Dr. Kerr’s project will analyze 15 previous trials to identify ways to make clinical trials shorter. The goal of this research is to determine if the safety and benefit of a treatment can still be evaluated accurately if researchers use new, shorter parameters to guide how long participants stay on blinded treatment (where they may be receiving either medication or a placebo). 

Tanav Popli, MD

Disease Area: FTD

Primary progressive aphasia (PPA), a form of frontotemporal degeneration (FTD), causes the gradual loss of language skills as people age. Because PPA usually occurs earlier in life than other forms of aphasia, other cognitive abilities like memory and thinking often remain unaffected during the early stages of the disease. For this reason, early diagnosis and treatment is critical to reduce disability and improve quality of life—yet there are currently no proven treatments or cures for PPA. Dr. Popli’s project will use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to test whether a form of neuromodulation called high-definition transcranial direct current stimulation (HD-tDCS) is an effective therapy to restore and preserve language skills in people with early PPA. 

Patricia Olson, MD

Disease Area: Migraine

People can have a genetic predisposition to developing migraine, but researchers do not fully understand what impact, if any, genetic factors may have on migraine treatment—specifically, which treatments work for a given individual. Dr. Olson’s project will examine how genetic variants may influence the effectiveness of monoclonal antibodies—a common preventive migraine treatment. This research may reveal biological indicators related to migraine treatment response, enabling doctors to create more tailored, personalized treatment plans.

Danwei Wu, MD

Disease Area: Multiple Sclerosis

Despite significant advancements in treating multiple sclerosis (MS) in recent years, some people don’t respond to current therapy options. A bone marrow transplantation called hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT) is being studied as a potential therapy for people with aggressive and treatment-resistant forms of MS. Dr. Wu’s research project will explore ways to make HSCT more effective and has the potential to lead to new ways to repair nervous system damage.

Dominique Popescu, PhD

Disease Area: Neurodisparities

Even with recent developments in stroke care, people who survive strokes still face many recovery challenges, including increased risk for depression and dementia. Additionally, there are disparities in how individuals experience and recover from strokes, and factors like stress, social isolation, and depression may impact the recovery process. Dr. Popescu’s project will analyze the broader factors that affect stroke severity and recovery in order to identify ways to better address these disparities in recovery and care.

Natalie Katz, MD, PhD

Disease Area: Neuromuscular Disease

We know more than ever about pediatric neuromuscular disease, but current methods of measuring treatment outcomes have not kept up with recent advances in research. To find an alternative to traditional strength-based clinical assessments, Dr. Katz will explore using imaging-based techniques to evaluate disease progression and the effectiveness of treatments. This work has the potential to provide a more accurate assessment of neuromuscular diseases like muscular dystrophy as well as better targets for treatment.

Robert Heuermann, MD, PhD

Disease Area: Parkinson’s Disease

People with Parkinson’s disease commonly experience increased pain sensitivity, but researchers are still exploring what causes this. Dr. Heuermann’s project utilizes mouse models to understand the effect of dopamine on pain signals in the brain. The project will also seek to identify changes in particular areas of the brain that process pain by examining samples from people with Parkinson’s. An improved understanding of how pain signals are processed in the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease will lead to better pain treatments not just for Parkinson’s, but potentially for other chronic pain conditions as well.

“The brain is the most complex organ in the body. Unraveling that complexity to understand how the brain works and how to restore normal brain function after [disease onset] are some of the greatest challenges of our time,” says Dr. Heuermann. “Progress is often slower than we’d like, but I truly believe we are on the verge of major breakthroughs for many of the most devastating brain diseases. I am deeply grateful to the American Brain Foundation for supporting my small part in this endeavor.”

Erika Williams, MD, PhD

Disease Area: Peripheral Neuropathy

Essential functions like blood pressure, breathing, and digestion are regulated by the peripheral autonomic nervous system (ANS), but the complex organization and anatomy of the ANS has made it difficult to study. Dr. Williams’ project will create a detailed map of important hubs within the ANS. This will aid in understanding the molecular organization of the ANS, how it is impacted by diseases, and better ways to treat dysfunction, as in cases of peripheral neuropathy.

Paula Barreras, MD

Disease Area: Peripheral Neuropathy

The inflammatory disorder sarcoidosis often leads to small fiber neuropathy (SFN), which causes chronic pain. Dr. Barreras’ project will explore the role of inflammation in SFN while working to identify factors that can better predict severity of disability caused by SFN in sarcoidosis. This research will lead to a better understanding of sarcoidosis-associated SFN and pave the way for better diagnostic tools and targeted therapies that will improve quality of life.

Margy McCullough-Hicks, MD

Disease Area: Stroke

Thrombectomy is a surgical procedure to remove blood clots from a blood vessel. It can be a highly effective treatment for stroke, but doctors can’t accurately predict which symptoms the procedure will improve. Because its benefits are uncertain, this treatment is not often offered. Dr. McCullough-Hicks’ research project will use special imaging technology to map specific stroke symptoms to particular areas of the brain, creating a resource that can be used to better predict when thrombectomy will be beneficial. This work will provide more accurate prognoses and better outcomes for people with strokes.

Next Generation Research Grants: Today’s Research for Tomorrow’s Cures

There are over 600 brain diseases impacting millions of people worldwide. By investing in today’s most promising early-career researchers, we create the foundation for discoveries that will lead to tomorrow’s treatments and cures. With the help of our donors, we can achieve our vision of life without brain disease.

The American Brain Foundation is committed to supporting the next generation of brain disease researchers. By donating today you can help us achieve our vision of life without brain disease.