Stephen A. Back, M.D., Ph.D.

01/05/2010 - Stephen A. Back, M.D., Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Pediatrics, has been awarded a Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award (NINDS) for his pioneering work in the cellular and molecular cause(s) of brain injury in premature infants.

Stephen A. Back M.D., PhD

"I am thrilled the NINDS continues to recognize the potential of the unique research models we have developed - some of which are not used anywhere else in the world. With the help of this long-term grant, we hope to devise therapies that can not only reverse brain damage in infants but slow cognitive decline in aging adults as well," said Dr. Back.

Dr. Back's research looks at the mechanisms responsible for causing white matter brain injury in developing infants. The goal is to benefit three groups of children at risk for cerebral palsy (CP) and associated white matter injury: infants that survive after premature birth; full-term babies later discovered to have brain injury that occurred during pregnancy; and infants born with heart disease.

Dr. Back and his team have shown that during human brain development there is a critical time period when the cells (oligos or oligodendrocyte progenitors) required to make myelin are easily killed by low blood flow to the brain. The loss of these oligo-cells results in failure to make the myelin required for normal brain function.

Recently, Dr. Back's team developed the first animal model that reproduces the major forms of brain damage that occur in premature infants. This model has altered perceptions about how damage occurs to the developing white matter of the brain.

"We previously believed that the developing brain fails to make normal myelin, because the oligo-cells that make the myelin were completely killed. Hence, it was thought that the children with CP sustain permanent abnormalities in movement and intellect," Dr. Back explained. "However, our recent studies suggest that this view may not be correct."

Dr. Back and Lawrence Sherman, Ph.D., an Associate Scientist in the OHSU Oregon National Primate Research Center, have discovered that after adult white matter damage, numerous oligo-cells survive, but fail to mature to make myelin. This appears related to the molecule hyaluronic acid (HA) that builds up in the damaged white matter and prevents the normal production of myelin.

"The oligo-cells are blocked at a critical period in their cell development before they are able to make myelin. The fact that these cells appear normal and are present in large numbers in the regions of brain damage raises the possibility that we might develop therapies that allow these oligo-cells to mature and make the myelin needed to restore greater function to the damaged brain," Dr. Back said.

Congress established the Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award in 1983 in honor of Sen. Jacob Javits, who for several years battled amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), sometimes called Lou Gehrig's disease. Sen. Javits was a staunch advocate for research into a wide variety of brain and nervous system disorders.

The Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award is given to scientists who have demonstrated exceptional scientific excellence and productivity in one of the areas of neurological research supported by NINDS. Approximately 505 awards have been made to date. The awards typically support a researcher for several years. Back is one of several OHSU researchers to receive this highly coveted award, including Dr. Edward Neuwelt, Dr. Gary Westbrook and Dr. Paul Brehm.