Colbran receives Park Award for Basic Research, Vanderbilt School of Medicine

Yellow neuron

The Vanderbilt School of Medicine recognized faculty members for excellence in education, research, and clinical service at its Spring Faculty Meeting on May 23. Recipients were nominated by their faculty colleagues and chosen by the 2018 Faculty Awards Selection Committees. Vanderbilt Kennedy Center investigator Roger Colbran was recognized for contributions to basic research.

Roger Colbran, Ph.D.

Roger Colbran, Ph.D.

CHARLES R. PARK AWARD—For Basic Research Revealing Insights into Physiology or Pathophysiology

Roger Colbran, PhD

Professor and Interim Chair, Department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics

A native of the United Kingdom, Colbran received his Bachelor of Science degree in Biochemistry from the University of Bristol and his Ph.D. in Biochemistry from Newcastle University in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. He came to Vanderbilt in 1986 as a Research Associate in the Department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics and in 1992 was appointed assistant professor in the Department, rising to full professor in 2006. Colbran is former vice chair and now interim chair of the Department and also serves as director of the Postdoctoral Training Program in Functional Neurogenomics in the Vanderbilt Brain Institute.

Colbran has long-standing interests in Ca2+ -dependent signaling and protein phosphorylation/dephosphorylation, and the physiological roles of the enzyme Ca2+/calmodulin-dependent protein kinase II (CaMKII). His lab was the first to identify and characterize CaMKII-associated proteins and was the first to recognize the importance of protein phosphatases in controlling CaMKII activity. In the heart, his observations of interactions between CaMKII and L-type calcium channels in cardiac tissue provide a molecular model for long QT arrhythmias. A key finding was his discovery of an interaction between CaMKII and the NMDA receptor, a key initiator of synaptic plasticity. The Colbran laboratory currently employs multidisciplinary approaches including molecular biology, electrophysiology, and pharmacology to investigate key biochemical mechanisms that underlie the roles of CaMKII in synaptic plasticity, learning, and memory, which may be inappropriately regulated in neuropsychiatric disorders.

More recently, Colbran and his colleagues described a functional interaction between CaMKII and an endocannabinoid-producing enzyme that depresses synaptic signaling in the brain region that regulates movement and coordination. Endocannabinoids are the natural signaling molecules mimicked by the active ingredients of marijuana. The findings suggest that a disruption in the balance between the two enzymes could play a role in movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. Last year the Colbran lab characterized a spontaneously arising mutation in the CaMK2-alpha gene that had been identified in a child diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and showed in a mouse model that the mutation produced ASD-like behaviors – the first clear association between CaMKII and this highly prevalent disorder.

Colbran is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of the Society for Neuroscience and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. He has served on the editorial board and is an associate editor of the Journal of Biological Chemistry. He is an investigator in the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development, the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, the Vanderbilt Center for Molecular Neuroscience, and the Vanderbilt Diabetes Research and Training Center. In recognition of his creative application of diverse techniques to elucidate the molecular mechanisms of key brain functions and their role in brain disorders such as autism, Colbran is the 2018 recipient of the Charles R. Park Award for Outstanding Contributions to Research.

First published in Vanderbilt News, May 25, 2018.

Pictured top of the page: Image of a neuron from the hippocampus area of the brain, grown in a culture and labeled to show the partially overlapping localizations of two different types of receptors (in red and green) for glutamate, the major excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain. Image courtesy of the Colbran Lab.

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