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University of Maryland School of Medicine Researcher Wins Prestigious Presidential Honor for Young Scientists

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

 Thomas A. Blanpied, PhD, will receive funding for up to five years as part of his award.

Thomas Blanpied Honored for His Research on the Connections Between Neurons

Thomas A. Blanpied, Ph.D., assistant professor of physiology of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, has won the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, known as PECASE. Dr. Blanpied was honored in a ceremony at the White House on Friday, Dec. 19. The award recognizes Dr. Blanpied for his work using high-resolution imaging to study synapses, the connections between neurons in the brain. Changes in the brain’s synapses play a key role in diseases like Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, depression and addiction.

"An enormous number of people are affected by diseases caused by impaired synapses," says Dr. Blanpied. "To understand these conditions, we need to observe exactly how synapses are malfunctioning. This will help us to identify what causes the diseases and how better to treat them."
The PECASE Award is the U.S. government’s highest honor for scientists and engineers who are beginning their careers. PECASE winners receive a citation, a plaque and federal funding for their research for up to five years. Each year, nine federal departments recommend scientists and engineers for the honor. The National Institutes of Health, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, recommended Dr. Blanpied.

"Dr. Blanpied is really drilling down and pushing the limits of our ability to understand synaptic transmission," says Meredith Bond, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Physiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. "He is one of the rising stars at this institution, in both physiology and neuroscience. This award is an honor for Dr. Blanpied, for the Department of Physiology and for the School of Medicine."

Dr. Blanpied and his research team are tracking the plasticity of the synapses; that is, how they change over time. Those changes affect how the synapses transmit signals between neurons, a process known as synaptic transmission. His technique of using state-of-the-art fluorescent microscopy allows Dr. Blanpied’s team to examine changes in just one synapse at a time. Traditional methods of studying synapses through biochemistry, molecular biology and genetics only provide images of large groups of synapses. Even for traditional light microscopes, synapses are so small that they can barely be measured accurately.

Dr. Blanpied is the second University of Maryland School of Medicine faculty member to win the PECASE honor in recent years. Steven D. Munger, Ph.D., associate professor of anatomy and neurobiology, received the award in 2004. "The fact that this is our second PECASE winner in several years speaks to the strength of the research that goes on here," says Dr. Bond.

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