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Emory Neuroscientist Honored by MIT’s McGovern Institute


The McGovern Institute has announced that Michael Davis, PhD, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University School of Medicine, will be the 2008 recipient of the Edward M. Scolnick Prize in Neuroscience for his work on the neural basis of fear.

The Scolnick Prize is awarded annually by the McGovern Institute to recognize an individual who has made outstanding advances in the field of neuroscience.

“This is an enormous honor and I am extremely grateful to the McGovern Institute and their review committee for this prestigious award and very generous prize,” says Dr. Davis. Over the last three decades, Dr. Davis, who is also a researcher at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, has devoted his career to providing fundamental insights into the way humans learn fearful associations. He has contributed to important studies showing that fear learning is controlled by a class of molecules known as NMDA receptors, acting within a brain structure called the amygdala.

“Fear conditioning is normal and very adaptive, and there’s a mechanism that has evolved to make people remember potentially dangerous things,” Davis explains. "But for some people, anxiety disorders become crushing weights that keep them from living normal lives. While scientists have discovered many of the mechanisms in the brain that are responsible for fear, what they have not discovered is the mechanism that allows humans and other animals to overcome fear and lead normal lives.

“By determining what areas of the brain are responsible for fear and anxiety, we hope to target those areas and find new therapies for people whose fear overwhelms their ability to function normally.”

To do this Dr. Davis studied the process of extinction - a process by which learned associations such as fearful memories eventually disappear -- and showed it uses the same NMDA receptors that cause the brain to acquire fearful associations. Based on this, Dr. Davis’s lab showed that a medication called D-cycloserine (DCS) speeded up extinction of fear. This was predicted based on work by other scientists who had shown that DCS, originally used at high doses to treat tuberculosis, made the NMDA receptor work better when given at low doses.

In 2004, Dr. Davis and his colleagues at Emory, Kerry Ressler, MD, and Barbara Rothbaum, PhD, published the first trial in humans using DCS to speed up fear extinction. Patients with fear of heights took the drug before each therapy session, using virtual reality exposure therapy with a simulated glass elevator. These patients recovered much more quickly than the patients given placebo, and maintained this advantage at three months with no intervening therapy needed. Seed money for this clinical trial was provided by the National Science Foundation-sponsored Center for Behavioral Neuroscience.

Currently, a National Institutes of Mental Health clinical trial is being conducted at Emory using a combination of DCS with virtual reality therapy for Iraq Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is hoped that the addition of the drug will speed recovery for soldiers who have been haunted by combat-related memories.

The McGovern Institute will award the Scolnick Prize to Dr. Davis on Monday, April 14, 2008.


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