Assistant Professor Kazuko Sakata of UTHSC Receives $375,000 Grant for Research on Inflexible Learning

A $375,000 grant from the NIH will allow Dr. Kazuko Sakata and her research team to explore the neural mechanisms of inflexible learning caused by BDNF deficiency.
A $375,000 grant from the NIH will allow Dr. Kazuko Sakata and her research team to explore the neural mechanisms of inflexible learning caused by BDNF deficiency.

Kazuko Sakata, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC), has received a grant totaling $375,000 from the National Institute of Mental Health, a subsidiary of the National Institutes of Health. The funds will be used to study inflexible learning, the inability to change from one course of action to another by learning from a behavioral consequence.

The award will be used to support a project titled, “Neural Mechanisms of Inflexible Learning Caused by BDNF Deficiency,” and will be distributed over a two-year period.

Inflexible learning is a common symptom of many psychiatric disorders, including depression and schizophrenia. Inflexible learning limits the effectiveness of cognitive behavioral therapies and patient recovery. The biological mechanisms of inflexible behavior are largely unknown, but one important cause is deficiency in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a major neuronal growth factor in the brain.

This project will aim to explain how BDNF deficiency affects neural processing between the hippocampus (the part of the brain that forms memory) and the medial prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that controls executive function) during flexible learning. Based on preliminary results, it is hypothesized that timing-dependent neuronal communication between the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex occurs during flexible learning, and that the BDNF deficiency disturbs this timing-dependent neuronal communication causing inflexible learning.

Dr. Sakata and her research team will test this hypothesis by finding the timing relations of communication and synchronous firing between these brain regions during flexible learning, and by determining the effects of BDNF deficiency. The hope is that this discovery will aid in the development of a neural biomarker of BDNF deficiency and inflexible behavior, and a new therapeutic strategy for improving flexible learning, which will promote recovery from psychiatric disorders.

“I am very excited about the award and project,” said Dr. Sakata. “BDNF is a very important neuronal growth factor and its deficiency causes inflexible behavior, but we still do not know how BDNF deficiency affects neural processing among different brain regions. I hope understanding the neural mechanisms will help in developing the diagnosis tool for inflexible behavior and its effective treatment such as brain stimulation, which will help psychiatric patients to improve flexible learning and recover from their symptoms like depression.”