Early last week, the MacArthur Foundation announced the 2015 MacArthur Fellows. Former Dana grantee Beth Stevens was among the 24 recipients. According to MacArthur President Julia Stasch, the award goes to individuals who are “shedding light and making progress on critical issues, pushing the boundaries of their fields, and improving our world in imaginative, unexpected ways.” The fellowship, colloquially known as the MacArthur ‘genius grant,’ comes with a $625,000 ‘no-strings-attached’ stipend to allow recipients to “advance their expertise [and] engage in bold new work.”
Stevens’ 2010 Dana Neuroimaging study investigated synaptic pruning– the process by which the brain strengthens vital wiring while eliminating unnecessary connections. Stevens stressed the importance of this process in a 2014 Q&A with the Dana Foundation:
If pruning doesn’t happen correctly you can have a lot of long-term consequences in terms of brain wiring and behavioral problems. We think it may also play a role in autism, schizophrenia, and other neurodevelopmental disorders. It’s also important in adult diseases where synapse loss is thought to be a hallmark.
Until Steven’s groundbreaking study, most brain imaging research focused on the neuron. As Stevens explains in a YouTube video on the MacArthur website, “neurons generally get all the credit, but there’s another cell-type called glia that make up more than half of the brain.” One type of glia, immune cells called microglia, were traditionally thought to only play a protective role in the brain during injury or disease, but nothing was known about their role in promoting healthy development.
Steven’s early study found that microglial activity wasn’t just restricted to protecting against injury and disease, they were also playing an active role in the healthy, developing brain, and were responsible for pruning unnecessary synapses. Stevens suggests this pruning activity also may be implicated in neurodegenerative and neurodevelopmental diseases such as Alzheimer’s and autism, saying the process could be “reactivated early in these diseases to drive synapse loss.”
In the MacArthur video, Stevens says the grant will “allow us to continue to move forward into these exciting new areas of research, and tackle big questions with bold approaches. It’s just going to enable creativity and things that might have taken 10 more years to get going, but now we’re just going to go for it.”
– Kenzie Novak