Lynn Dobrunz, PhD, the new chair of the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, sees the brain as “the final frontier” of human biological research.
Dr. Dobrunz joined UT Health Science Center in the fall, after nearly 25 years at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). There, she rose through the ranks from assistant professor to tenured full professor, also serving as founding co-director of the Neuroengineering PhD program and founding director of the Consortium for Neuroengineering and Brain-Computer Interfaces.
A highly accomplished and nationally funded researcher, Dr. Dobrunz studies neural circuits related to anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with the goal of finding new treatments for these conditions.
“There is still so much more to learn about how the brain works,” she says. “As the tools for studying the brain are continuing to evolve, exciting possibilities have emerged to understand how the brain controls behavior and emotions, as well as mental and physical health.”
Dr. Dobrunz also serves as the Simon R. Bruesch Professor and the director of the Neuroscience Institute at UT Health Science Center. She says she was attracted to the university because of the outstanding history and reputation of the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology.
“I was approached about this opportunity about a year ago, and the more I found out about UT Health Science Center, with its Neuroscience Institute and the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, the more excited I became,” she says. “What brought me here was the opportunity to come into a really outstanding department and provide leadership to help the department continue to grow and to promote neuroscience research and training across the university through the activities of the Neuroscience Institute.”
G. Nicholas Verne, MD, interim executive dean of the College of Medicine, said, “We are confident under Dr. Dobrunz’s leadership, the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology and the Neuroscience Institute will excel.”
Originally from Illinois, Dr. Dobrunz received a Bachelor of Science degree in bioengineering from Harvard University and a PhD in biomedical engineering from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She then moved to Southern California and did her postdoctoral training at the Salk Institute in the lab of Charles Stevens, MD, PhD, a world-famous neuroscientist who passed away last year.
“Although I originally planned to study cardiac muscle ion channels in his lab, I became fascinated with the work that was being done on the neuroscience side of his lab,” she says. “I talked to him about it, and he agreed to move me to a project related to studying synaptic transmission in the brain. For me, it was a wonderful move. After I made that switch, I never looked back. The brain is truly fascinating and plays a crucial role in our overall health and in shaping our identities.”
Today, Dr. Dobrunz’s lab is specifically interested in the role of a brain chemical known as Neuropeptide Y in controlling anxiety and behavior. “What’s been shown is that Neuropeptide Y has anti-anxiety properties in animal models,” she says. “So, if you reduce the levels, most mice and rats become more anxious. If you increase the levels, under some circumstances, the animals can become less anxious. We’ve identified which receptors underlie these properties and now there are drug companies trying to target these mechanisms to potentially treat anxiety in human patients.”
Dr. Dobrunz is currently setting up her lab on the fifth floor of the Wittenborg Building on the Memphis campus. A goal of her research is to understand the mechanisms by which emotional trauma causes reduced expression and release of Neuropeptide Y and ways that this process could be averted, which “may prevent people from developing PTSD in the first place,” she says.
As chair, her focus is on expanding the work of the department. “This esteemed department used to be quite a bit bigger, but has shrunk a bit over past years,” Dr. Dobrunz says. “My mandate is to hire new faculty, grow research opportunities, explore new research directions and foster increased collaborations between faculty members in the department and with other investigators across our campus and beyond.”
As director of the Neuroscience Institute, Dr. Dobrunz is expanding the capabilities of the institute’s Imaging Center and plans to start new programs supporting neuroscience research across the university. “One area that I helped start at UAB was the area of Neuroengineering, and I’m thrilled that there’s interest in perhaps starting a Neuroengineering program here as well,” she says.
Dr. Dobrunz is married to an academic neurologist and the couple has a blended family of four children. “The fact that our kids are college-aged or older made it an opportune time for me to relocate to another community and pursue exciting, new career challenges,” she says.
She enjoys singing and was an alto in Over the Mountain Festivals, a community choir in Birmingham that performs sacred choral music. She and her husband also like to travel.