New insights into the neural representation of reward and punishment

The ability to weigh the risk of punishment relative to the risk of reward is critical to our ability to make decisions.

Bita Maghaddam, Ph.D., Ruth Matarazzo Professor and chair of the Department of Behavioral Neuroscience, OHSU

Bita Moghaddam, Ph.D., Ruth Matarazzo Professor and chair of the Department of Behavioral Neuroscience, OHSU

New research by Bita Moghaddam, Ph.D., provides fresh insight into how the brain processes reward and punishment. Little has been known about the neural representation of punishment risk during reward-seeking behavior. For people to make the best decisions, our brains need to appropriately represent the punishment that lurks during reward-seeking actions. An exaggerated neural representation of risk may lead to anxiety disorders while deficits in this representation may lead to impulsive behavior and addictive disorders.

Moghaddam, Ruth Matarazzo Professor and chair of behavioral neuroscience at the OHSU School of Medicine, and co-author Junchol Park, Ph.D., at the University of Pittsburgh, modeled the neural representation of punishment risk during reward-seeking behavior using a rodent model.

The team designed and validated a task that allowed them to assess reward-guided actions in the absence or presence of punishment risk. The findings, published in the journal eLife, demonstrated sharp distinctions in the level of coordination between a spike in dopamine neurons and activity within the prefrontal cortex, the portion of the brain that regulates complex cognitive functioning.

When there was no risk of punishment, the research team found close coordination between activity in the prefrontal cortex and dopamine levels. When there was a small risk of punishment, there was a marked difference. They found that coordination between the prefrontal cortex and dopamine levels collapsed. That suggests the brain encodes an ingrained assessment of risk in normal circumstances.

The study suggests new avenues of research that could involve functional magnetic resonance imaging of people given risk-reward tasks such as gambling.

Read more about the research at OHSU News.

The study was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health of the National Institutes of Health (grant R56MH084906).

Who’s new at OHSU? Joe Voje

Joe Voje is the Chief Information Security Officer at OHSU

Joe Voje joined OHSU as chief information security officer in May 2017.

Joe Voje is the Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) at OHSU. Before joining OHSU in May, Joe worked as CISO for the City and County of San Francisco. He’s an active contributor to the international and national information security communities, serving on the Certified Chief Information Security Officer advisory board for EC-Council, an international information security training and certification body.

What is your vision for the research community and data security?

I’m committed to enabling our research community to do the great work they’re doing. My job isn’t to burden anyone with security for security’s sake. Rather, it’s to address the threats to our collective information and computing environment by applying reasonable controls. Defining what’s reasonable means working together, and I’m looking forward to partnering with our research community.

How would you describe your role as CISO?

My primary function is to help the organization make decisions that mitigate risks to our information (data) and our operational system. That requires a deep understanding of the types of internal and external threats to OHSU’s information resources. Although most folks only see a piece of what we do protect OHSU, there is a larger program involving a lot people, processes and technology that allows us to keep the right information at employees’ fingertips when and where it is needed.

What do you like best about your job? 

I enjoy working with people to solve complex problems — and there are some pretty complex problems in the cybersecurity and privacy worlds. Organized crime, nation-state hackers, natural disasters — any one or combination of these can emerge instantly to make for a challenging day. I like to see the end result of our preparations thwart what would otherwise do us harm. Of course, we don’t win them all. And that is the challenge — can we build a program that enables us to win regularly?

What do you like least about your job?

I don’t like to lose. I don’t like anyone on our team to lose. There have been occasions when I’ve seen skilled people fail to prevent a breach, even following best practices. The online world offers a lot of time-saving and potential for collaboration and innovation, but brings threats that require us to remain vigilant in protecting ourselves and addressing our vulnerabilities.

What unique information privacy and security challenges do you see for researchers at OHSU and elsewhere?

The threats to researchers really boil down to three main areas. The first area has to do with the confidentiality, integrity and availability of research data. Most researchers are focused on their research, not confidentiality. In fact, confidentiality often runs counter to the purpose of research, but it’s necessary in certain circumstances: Grant language may require it, protected health information may be involved, or exposure might jeopardize the researcher’s intellectual property claims, for example. In addition to confidentiality concerns, unauthorized access to a researcher’s system or data can call into question the integrity of the data source and compromise their results. The flip side to unauthorized access is unauthorized destruction or disappearing of data — ransomware or sophisticated denial-of-service attacks can potentially cut off access to needed resources.

The next area is the compromise of very powerful computer clusters and supercomputer platforms. Most, if not all, academic research institutions have very powerful computing platforms that have the ability to be turned against the institutions themselves or used by criminals for profit

Lastly, researchers frequently use non-standard or specialized equipment and software. Often, security isn’t considered in the design of this equipment and software, or it isn’t regularly updated to address emerging threats. That exposes the research environment to potential compromise, as well as the institution as a whole.

How can OHSU researchers address such challenges?

The best strategy is to consider security as part of the overall research project. Think about how the information could be monetized and by whom. Think about the systems you use and how they are connected to other systems and devices, and implement the principle of least privilege. The Information Privacy and Security team is here to assist you with your efforts.


— Submitted by Melissa Flitsch,  Communications Specialist, Information Privacy & Security

NIMH new innovator award recognizes leader in autism research

Brian J. O’Roak, Ph.D., assistant professor of molecular and medical genetics in the OHSU School of Medicine.

Brian O’Roak was one of 11 scientists to receive the 2017 NIMH BRAINS award.

The National Institutes of Mental Health has awarded a highly competitive research grant to Brian J. O’Roak, Ph.D., assistant professor of molecular and medical genetics in the OHSU School of Medicine. The grant, $2.5 million over five years, is part of the NIMH Biobehavioral Research Awards for Innovative New Scientists, or BRAINS, program and recognizes O’Roak as an autism research innovator who has the potential to transform the field.

The BRAINS program was established in 2009 to assist early-stage investigators in launching innovative research programs that hold the potential to profoundly transform the understanding, diagnosis, treatment or prevention of mental disorders. O’Roak was one of only 11 scientists receiving the 2017 BRAINS award.

Over the past decade, O’Roak has conducted pioneering work into the genetics of complex neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism. Through these efforts hundreds of novel autism risk genes have been identified. Moving forward, O’Roak and his team will use the BRAINS award to begin to unravel how patient-specific mutations in the autism risk gene, TBR1, alter the developing brain. TBR1 is a recently identified high confidence autism risk gene, which is mutated in roughly 0.2 percent of individuals with autism. This equates to thousands of individuals in the US with TBR1-related autism spectrum disorder. The TBR1 protein functions as a transcription factor that controls whether hundreds of target genes are expressed or repressed during brain development. These target genes collectively form a TBR1-regulated network or pathway. TBR1 also regulates roughly one-third of other high confidence autism risk genes, making it a potential ‘master regulator’ of a critical autism-related network.

To understand how mutations in TBR1 affect human brain development, the lab will use cutting-edge methods including, ‘adult stem cells’ and 3D printed miniature bioreactors to mimic brain development in a lab dish. Kevin Wright, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Vollum Institute, and Andrew Adey, Ph.D., assistant professor of molecular and medical genetics and the Knight cardiovascular institute, are co-investigators on the project, bringing complementary expertise in modeling brain development and single-cell genomics. By understanding this master regulator, the team hopes to have an unprecedented view into a potential common genetic path that leads to autism.

O’Roak’s team hopes to leverage this new knowledge for early interventions and biologically based personalized therapies, which could improve the lives of individuals affected by autism. In addition, O’Roak co-leads the OHSU network site for SPARK, the largest autism study ever conducted in the United States. The project aims to accelerate autism research by creating a national registry of 50,000 individuals and families affected by autism. He has previously been awarded the Alfred P. Sloan and Klingenstein-Simons fellowships in neuroscience and the NARSAD Young Investigator award.

O’Roak was presented with the BRAINS award at the 2017 Society for Neuroscience meeting in Washington D.C. on November 12.

Vollum Writing Program Starts January 10

The Vollum Writing Program is a professional science writing course open to OHSU graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty.

This class uses short lectures, class discussion, and workshop-style writing assignments to help researchers learn to write better papers and grants. Topics include:

  • The basic elements of good scientific writing style, including sentence and document structure
  • Insight into scientific conventions regarding grammar, punctuation, and usage
  • Strategies for revising
  • Dealing with writer’s block and time management
  • Best practices for writing introductions, results, discussions, and grant proposals

The class runs for four weeks, Wednesdays, 9:30 a.m. to 12 p.m., beginning January 10, 2018. Six individual tutorials with the instructor are included. There are no prerequisites for this non-credit professional development course, but you should not take the class unless you have enough data to write about.

The course carries a fee of $500 per student (unless you are in a Vollum lab or part of certain graduate Ph.D. programs). Questions? Contact

Access Compass to register for the Vollum Writing Class.

Funding opportunity for women’s health research: Letter of intent due January 5

Bench-research-240x250The OHSU Center for Women’s Health Circle of Giving is now accepting submissions for its 2018 Women’s Health Research Funding Opportunity. Circle of Giving funding is intended to support new or established investigators interested in developing innovative directions in women’s health research.

Letter of intent: Friday, Jan. 5, 2018
Application: Friday, Jan. 19, 2018

Applications will be accepted from OHSU faculty at the rank of lecturer, assistant, associate or full professor. Applications may be in basic science, clinical investigation, population health or behavioral research. The pilot project conducted using these seed funds is expected to lead to additional research funded by federal and non-federal sources. The proposed research must be intended to produce a tangible improvement in women’s health.

The Circle expects to award $125,000 to support one project for one year. There may be an opportunity for a second award this year.

Please view the full RFP for additional information. Applications must be submitted via OHSU’s Competitive Application Portal.

OHSU places in top 20 of Nature’s Index 2017 Innovation

OHSU logoOHSU is among the top institutions in the world for influencing innovation, according to a recently published supplement to the journal Nature. OHSU placed in the top 20 of Nature’s Index 2017 Innovation ranking, which measures the quality and quantity of research by institutions and universities worldwide. 
Nature’s metrics assessed an institution’s influence on innovation by calculating the citations of research articles in patents owned by third parties, rather than those owned by the institutions themselves. 
More than 13 percent of all OHSU’s natural science articles appear in the index. Influential research cited in the index was produced across OHSU, from the Oregon National Primate Research Center and Center for Embryonic Cell and Gene Therapy to the Knight Cardiovascular Institute and Papé Family Pediatric Research Institute. The most cited publications were authored by Shoukhrat Mitalipov’s team.   
The top ranking reflects OHSU’s consistent production of original research and technology that is influencing researchers in academia and in private industry and is advancing science, new technologies and new industries. 
Nature’s description of its analysis, which includes the institution’s research articles, collaborations and relationships, was published as a supplement to Nature in August.

Functional brain connectivity: Fair lab shines new light on the role of genetics

Damien Fair and Oscar Miranda Rodriguez, OHSU

Lead author Óscar Miranda-Domínguez and principal investigator Damien Fair.

Every person has a distinct pattern of functional brain connectivity — a connectotype, or brain signature. A team led by Damien Fair, Ph.D., P.A.-C., reports a new methodology that reliably identifies and tracks these individual brain signatures. The research shows that, while individually unique, each connectotype demonstrates both familial and heritable relationships. The results were published in Network Neuroscience.

The work builds on continuing research in the Fair lab. In a previous study, the team showed that even 2.5 minutes of fMRI data can be used to build robust, individual connectotypes in adult humans and in non-human primates. Those individual signatures were able to identify individuals with very high reliability after a two-week interval.

Similar to DNA, specific brain systems and connectivity patterns are passed down from adults to their children. This is significant because it may help better characterize aspects of altered brain activity, development or disease.

Overall, the connectotype demonstrated heritability within five brain systems, the most prominent being the frontoparietal cortex, or the part of the brain that filters incoming information. The dorsal attention and default systems, important for attention or focus and internal mental thoughts or rumination, respectively, also showed significant occurrences.

These findings add to the way researchers think about normal and altered brain function. It also creates more opportunity for personalized and targeted treatment approaches for conditions such as ADHD or autism.

Read more about this research on OHSU News.

In addition to Fair and lead author Óscar Miranda-Domínguez, Ph.D., co-authors include Eric Feczko, Ph.D., David S. Grayson, Hasse Walum, Ph.D., and Joel T. Nigg, Ph.D.

This work was supported by the grants MH086654, MH096773, MH099064, MH091238, U54MH091657; McDonnell Center for Systems Neuroscience, and from the OHSU Fellowship for Diversity in Research.

BioResearch Product Faire, Nov. 9

2016 BioResearch Product Faire at OHSU

2016 BioResearch Product Faire at OHSU

This life science biotechnology event features a wide range of industry professionals providing information on new lab technologies, methods and protocols, analytical equipment, and research techniques. You’ll be able to see what’s new in antibodies, cell culture systems, cell sorting, DNA sequencing, capital equipment, microscopes, and many, many other products. Vendors include AboveChem/ MedChemExpress, Caliber ID, Charles River, GoldBio, Ibidi USA, Meso Scale Discovery, MilliporeSigma, Proteintech, StemExpress, and Visiopharm. Stop by to chat with vendors and see what’s on the horizon. Optional preregistration is here.

Thursday, Nov. 9
10 a.m.–2:30 p.m.
OHSU Auditorium

Sponsored by Science Meetings, Science Researchers LinkedIn, and Diffinity Genomics.

Join RAIN: Research Administration Information Network

Autumn leaves and precipitation! October is here.Research Administration Information Network, or RAIN, serves the research community, particularly those who take part in the many aspects of research administration.

Monthly RAIN meetings provide the latest NIH updates, award administration news, learning opportunities, process improvement projects, RDA staffing updates, and other information that affects research administration at OHSU. Research Development and Administration units, members of research departments, and other members of the OHSU research community present information and answer questions.

Everyone is welcome to attend RAIN meetings
9:30 a.m., third Thursdays (except December and August)
OHSU Hospital Auditorium, 8th floor, room 8B60

Find out how to live stream the meeting or connect from West Campus.

Sign up for the RAIN distribution list or request an agenda topic by contacting Margaret Gardner or Holly McClure at

Study by Back lab brings new understanding of brain development in preterm children

Stephen Back, M.D., Ph.D., Clyde and Elda Munson Professor of Pediatric Research and Pediatrics, OHSU School of MedicinePremature infants are at risk for a range of life-long cognitive and learning disabilities – disabilities that for years have been attributed to impaired blood flow to the brain. A new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience challenges more than a decade of scientific study and this clinical understanding of brain development in preterm children.

OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital researchers led by Stephen Back, M.D., Ph.D., found that, while limited blood flow may contribute to delayed brain maturation, major disturbances are actually caused by low oxygen. In response to low-oxygen states as short as 25 minutes, subplate neurons in sheep showed major long-term disturbances. These disturbances were apparent just one month following exposure, according to Back, Clyde and Elda Munson Professor of Pediatric Research and Pediatrics, OHSU School of Medicine.

These findings have important clinical implications. The brains of preterm babies commonly sustain blood flow and oxygenation disturbances. Determining when and what concentrations of oxygen are necessary for early intervention may guide the reevaluation of current practices in intensive care settings.

Read more about the study at OHSU News.

Back’s OHSU coauthors included Evelyn McClendon, Ph.D., Kiera Degener-O’Brien, Xi Gong, M.D., and Thuan Nguyen, M.D., Ph.D.

This research was supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke of the National Institutes of Health (grants NS045737 and NS054044)

Welcome to the Research News Blog

Welcome to the Research News Blog

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