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Unravelling the mysteries of the brain

March 8, 2013

Unravelling the mysteries of the brain
Henry Dunn, a graduate student and researcher, conducts research that will help advance the treatment of mental health.

As a young boy, Henry Dunn had an unusual fascination about the brain and how it works.

“I loved thinking about ‘mind over matter’ as a kid, and wondering to what extent the mind can control things,” he confesses. “I’ve always found anything about the brain to be endlessly interesting.”

This boyhood curiosity has definitely prepared Henry for his current research as a PhD student in physiology at Western – exploring the molecular mechanisms that underlie stress, anxiety, depression and other mood disorders. “The more we understand the brain, the better we can understand depression and anxiety and how to provide better treatment,” says Henry, who is the first recipient of the Jonathan and Joshua Memorial Graduate Scholarship in Mental Health Research.

In the lab at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, Henry is focused on G protein-coupled receptors, which have a role in regulating all aspects of physiology, including mood and behaviour. These receptors are the targets of almost half of modern pharmaceuticals.

Henry’s research group has demonstrated that a “stress receptor” in the brain is capable of enhancing the activity of an “anxiety and depression receptor.” Interestingly, they found that the cross-talk between these two receptors was abolished when interrupting the interaction with a special subset of proteins.

His current work explores how these specific proteins can regulate particular receptors in the brain. “By better understanding the molecular mechanisms behind mood disorders, this research can pave the way for new drug design – potentially limiting the unwanted side-effects of modern psychiatric drugs,” he says.

Ultimately, research conducted by Henry is advancing discoveries to improve the treatment of depression and anxiety. That goal makes his student award for mental health research particularly meaningful.

“I’m grateful to the donor for making this award possible,” he says. “There is limited financial assistance for students conducting research, so this scholarship provides great support to my work.”

Receiving the scholarship has also connected Henry to the benefits of his work. “I spend my days in the lab and can miss seeing the effect of what I’m doing,” he says. “So to meet the donor and know of his desire for mental health research creates a full picture for me – what I’m doing may better people’s lives.”

This article appeared in the Winter 2013 edition of Impact Western
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