UNC neuroscientist awarded renewal of federal grant that began in 1957


CHAPEL HILL -- With a recent nod from federal officials, a research grant to a pioneering neuroscientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine entered its 48th year.

Since 1957, a grant from the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke, or NINDS, has supported the research of Dr. Edward R. Perl, Sarah Graham Kenan professor of cell and molecular physiology at UNC's School of Medicine. Renewal of this research was approved for another five years.

Perl's grant is believed to be the longest-running research grant at this institute, which was established in 1950 as a component of the National Institutes of Health.

The record for the oldest NIH grant is 52 years. Dr. Kenneth Brinkhous, former UNC pathology chair and world-renowned blood and hemophilia researcher, held the grant from 1947 to 1999. Brinkhous died in 2000.

Perl's federally supported exploration of pain sensation's biological basis helped him become the first to document the existence of nociceptors, the sensory fibers specially activated by tissue damage and their relation to the sensation of pain.

"His nociceptor work has had an enormous impact on modern pain research," said Dr. William Snider, director of the UNC Neuroscience Center and professor of neurology and cell molecular physiology.

"There are now literally dozens of laboratories, as well as biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, studying the molecular characteristics of these neurons with an eye toward developing novel pain therapies."

Perl, 77, received his medical degree in 1949 from the University of Illinois at Chicago and was acting head of the University of Utah's physiology department in Salt Lake City, where he was part of a strong neurophysiology program.

While at Utah, Perl first obtained the NINDS grant, holding it there for 15 years. In 1970, he was recruited to UNC to build the university's strength in the neurosciences. Perl served as chairman of UNC's department of physiology from 1971 to 1989. A founder and acting president of the Society for Neuroscience in 1969, he was awarded that group's 1998 Gerard prize for outstanding contributions to the field.

Perl said the grant now focuses on the connection of nociceptors to central nervous system neurons in the part of the spinal cord called the substantia gelatinosa (gelatinous substance) and the relationship of those connections to the organization of messages that get transmitted up to the brain for interpretation.

"At the cellular level the attempt is to define the connectivity of neurons in a particular portion of the spinal cord. We know that several kinds of neurons exist there, we know that nociceptors terminate there, we know that nocicepter activity excites some of these neurons but we don't understand the neural circuitry and what its function is," he said.

"My aim before I die is to sort out the nature of this circuitry and how it works."

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