ISU Magazine

Volume 40 | Number 1 | Fall 2009

Fighting Disease Through a Body Electric

Idaho State University molecular neuroscientist James Groome

Photo by ISU Photographic Services

Fighting Disease Through a Body Electric

Fall 2009 Issue | By Andy Taylor

Our bodies, in some senses, are one big electrical grid, and Idaho State University molecular neuroscientist James Groome is studying electrical pathways in genetically altered cells he has produced to help understand and fight diseases such epilepsy and other genetic disorders.

Groome, an associate professor in biological sciences, recently received a $213,417 grant titled “Channelopathy Based Investigation of Domain-Specific Functions in Sodium Channels” from the National Institutes of Health to help him continue some of his investigations.

To explain Groome's research, it is worth noting just how electrical and charged-up humans are.

“Every cell has electrical potential,” Groome said. “The inside of a cell is different electrically compared to the outside, which is electrically excitable. Cells use action potentials to send information very, very rapidly over a distance. For example, motor neurons in the spinal cord need to send a signal a meter in distance in a couple of milliseconds, at high frequency, several hundred times per second. Without action potentials there is no way that can happen.”

Groome is studying channels in the neuron cells of the brain, muscle fibers for the skeleton and of the heart. These cells use electrical impulses as part of their function when our brain sends signals. When a neuron sends information the first thing it must do is send an “action potential,” which is a rapid change in voltage across a membrane.

“The action potential is absolutely critical for cells to do their function,” Groome said.

Many genetic disorders are caused when the ion channels in cells mutate and don’t function properly and the action potential is interrupted. Groome and his colleagues are focusing on sodium channel mutations in epilepsy, cardiac arrhythmia and muscle myotonia.

“Using very high-tech stuff we compare the activity of the ion channels produced by normal genes with mutated genes,” Groome said. “The goal is to try to identify the specific defects these mutations cause in the hopes of developing new pharmaceuticals.”

The ISU researchers are looking at a new direction in this field of research, examining ways to identify specific channels in a cell. Some drugs designed to treat epilepsy, for example, block the function of all channels in a cell when just blocking the activities of the specific channel in a cell would be more beneficial.

Groome is an IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) funded scientist at ISU, proving the value of that program. A $16.5 million INBRE renewal grant awarded to Idaho colleges and universities this spring supports undergraduate, graduate and faculty research and other statewide efforts. The grant is the third major award for the network founded in 2001 and brings the total federal investment to $40 million.

The NIH Institutional Development Award Program, or IDeA, supports programs in 23 states that have smaller capacities to conduct biomedical research. The program is based in the NIH National Center for Research Resources.

James Groome’s new grant is the third NIH grant awarded to a neuroscientist at ISU. The other two NIH grants to ISU neuroscientists are:

  • Maria WongMaria Wong, associate professor of psychology, recieved a $296,000 NIH grant titled “Sleep Problems and Substance Use/Abuse in Adolescence and Young Adulthood."

    The new grant will allow Wong to extend and expand the research she started in 2004 that looked at sleep problems in childhood and the early onset of alcohol and other drug use in adolescence. In her initial study, Wong and her co-researchers from Michigan State University and the University of Michigan found children’s behavior as early as age 3 can predict whether they will use alcohol and illicit drugs in adolescence. In 2006 Wong completed a related study focusing on self-control and alcohol use.

    Now Wong is looking at the same population that was analyzed in her first study and examining how sleep problems as toddlers affect them even later in life. She is using extensive data on a large group of children 3 to 5 years old that was collected by the University of Michigan in the mid-1980s funded by National Institutes of Health.That population is now in its 20s and is still being tracked. She will be working on this project for two years.
  • Daniel SelvageDaniel Selvage, assistant professor of biomedical and pharmaceutical sciences received a $223,080 grant to study gender-specific reactions to alcohol use. His research could lead to better gender-specific alcohol treatment.

These three scientists and their colleagues in their respective departments have formed the Snake River Association for Neuroscience, that has an overall mission to promote intellectual discussion of neuroscience across a broad range of perspectives.

“For each of the departments that make up our neuroscience group we have had some success in attracting NIH funding,” Groome said. “That says a lot about Idaho State University that our neuroscience community has attracted NIH grants.”