Foundation system

Rutgers scientist who studies sense of smell named Rita Allen Foundation Fellow

Kevin Monahan will use the award to expand his research into spinal cord injury

Before the COVID-19 pandemic – when loss of smell and taste became a common sign of infection – Kevin Monahan says most people took the sense of smell for granted.

“Smell has really been underestimated,” said Monahan, an assistant professor in the Department of Molecular biology and biochemistry in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. His research on our sense of smell has earned him recognition as a 2022 Rita Allen Foundation Fellow.

“It wasn’t the focus of our attention like hearing and vision until COVID took people’s sense of smell and taste away and they realized how important it was to them,” said he declared.

He is one of five fellows to win this year’s award for early career leaders in biomedical sciences whose research shows exceptional promise in revealing new avenues to advance human health. He joins a distinguished group of laureates who have made seminal contributions to their fields and who historically have won some of the most prestigious accolades, including the Nobel Prize.

Monahan understands the importance of smell: the aroma of freshly baked brownies that can bring back a fond childhood memory or the stench of garbage on a New York street that will make the same nose with disgust. He has spent years researching odors at the molecular level.

At Rutgers, the Monahan Laboratory studies how well the olfactory system – or sense of smell – can identify so many different smells, about a trillion for humans who have about 10 million nerve cells in the nose and 400 genes dedicated to smell.

While this biological interaction allows humans to smell pleasant and less pleasant odors, each neuron has only one receptor that signals the brain to identify if it has been stimulated by the smell of freshly mowed grass. or freshly brewed coffee.

Monahan’s research recognized by the Allen Foundation focuses on these specialized sensory cells located inside the nose that send messages to the brain to identify smell. Working with mice, her goal is to decipher the regulatory mechanism to determine how a gene is selected to stimulate the sense of smell.

“It gets really complicated because there are hundreds of different receptors and they’re in one part of the nose, not the other,” said Monahan, who owns the Duncan and Nancy MacMillan Chair in Faculty Development in Life Sciences. “There are many complexities that we are only just beginning to understand.”

Monahan’s team is not only trying to identify the mechanism that causes this gene expression to occur to more clearly understand the sense of smell at the molecular level, but also looking at the implications the research may have on the system. nervous in general.

“I’ve always been interested in understanding the diversity of cell types, the specialized cells that make the nervous system work, and how to turn on the right genes to generate a different outcome,” Monahan said.

He and the four other scholars from Harvard, Stanford, Columbia and Brown universities will receive grants of up to $110,000 a year for five years. They have been selected to conduct innovative research on critical topics in cancerology, immunology and neuroscience.

The funding will be used to continue his research on the impact of 3D DNA structures in the nucleus of cells on gene regulation, while developing new molecular tools to understand and analyze brain circuits and study the evolution of the cerebral cortex . The cerebral cortex is responsible for language, memory, reasoning, thinking, learning, decision making, intelligence and personality.

Monahan says the Allen grant funding will allow him to build on what he’s learned about how the brain works as it relates to smell and take his research on gene regulation in a new direction.

He plans to work with Victoria Abraira, assistant professor of cell biology and neuroscience in the School of Arts and Sciences, who studies mice to understand what happens to the human spinal cord after injury and whether the pain state chronic can alter the nuclear structure. of a cell.

“My lab is really interested in how different types of cells in the nervous system respond to the environment,” Monahan said. “We want to know how an injury accompanied by chronic pain changes neurons. To deal with these injuries, we need to have a better understanding of the cells in your spinal cord to determine what is wrong and what needs to be done about it.