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It took George Vidal nearly three years to secure the funding he needed from the National Institutes of Health for his research on autism, but he said the process has made him a better scientist.

Vidal, an assistant professor of biology at James Madison University, has received $1 million from the National Institutes of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, a part of the NIH, to research the function of an autism risk gene in the developing brain.

The grant is the largest research grant ever given by the National Institutes of Health to a single scientist at JMU.

While still in training in grad school, Vidal studied the elasticity of the brain and its ability to change. He discovered that there are certain genes telling the brain to slow down on its ability to change.

When Vidal came to JMU in 2016, he took his research about how to block these genes to see how it could be related to genes that are linked to autism.

Through his connections and mentors, Vidal learned that the the best way to get this research underway was through NIH funding. He began the process in 2017, and it was extensive. It included much vetting about how the university would support his research, and who would be working with him and how.

After the grueling process, it was announced that Vidal’s application had not scored high enough to receive funding. So he began again in 2018.

“I put my nose to the grindstone to really pump out the experiments that needed to be done and to contact the right mentors,” Vidal said.

He took the feedback from his previous application and this time learned unofficially in February that he was likely to receive his funding. He found out officially in April, and the grant began in May.

In addition to being the largest NIH grant, it is also the first NIH faculty development award for a JMU faculty member. The program provides support and protected time for an intensive, mentored research project for underrepresented junior neuroscience faculty, boosting their research independence.

The grant will support Vidal for up to five years as he investigates how integrin beta 3, a gene implicated in autism, helps form brain circuits properly.

“Integrin beta 3 is an autism risk gene that is associated with intellectual disability, but it has a completely unknown function in the cerebral cortex,” Vidal said. “If we discover where, when and how it works in the cerebral cortex, we will also know where, when and how to treat its dysfunction.

“We will study how integrin beta 3 affects neurons and circuits in the cerebral cortex in vivo. The neurons and circuits we will study are the ones that underpin behaviors that are impaired in autism, such as social functioning.”

The grant will also support Vidal’s mentorship by neuroscience faculty at JMU, University of Virginia, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and Brown University. His primary mentor will be JMU professor Mark Gabriele, who was awarded the 2018 Outstanding Faculty Award from the Commonwealth of Virginia, and also runs an NIH-funded lab with JMU undergraduates.

“I could not have achieved this major award without mentorship from my faculty colleagues at JMU and beyond, and from the outstanding work of my JMU undergraduate research team,” Vidal said.

Prior to joining the faculty at JMU, Vidal earned a bachelor’s degree in neurobiology from Harvard University and a doctorate in neurosciences from Stanford University. At JMU, Vidal’s lab studies how genes and environment shape the development of the cerebral cortex.

“We are so excited for George to receive this award, which reflects the truly outstanding caliber of his research,” Cynthia Bauerle, dean of the College of Science and Mathematics, said in a press release. “As a primarily undergraduate research university, this really sets the bar for the research that our faculty and students are engaged in.”

Contact Megan Williams at 574-6272 or mwilliams@dnronline.com. Follow Megan on Twitter @DNR_Learn

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