Lieber Institute awarded $1 million grant to foster racial diversity across neuroscience

The Lieber Institute for Brain Development has received a $1 million, two-year grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to support the work of the African Ancestry Neuroscience Research Initiative (AANRI) to promote racial equity throughout the field of neuroscience.

AANRI began in 2019 as a collaboration between African American community leaders in Baltimore, the Lieber Institute for Brain Development-located on the Johns Hopkins medical campus in Baltimore-and Morgan State University (MSU), a public historically Black university in Baltimore.

AANRI is a bold effort to establish a framework that advances substantive and sustainable progress toward equity across the biomedical research landscape. Its unique approach is to promote coordinated change across many domains of biomedical research, with communities of African ancestry leading the trajectory of the research agenda.

"The mission of the AANRI is to tackle the issue of disparities in scientific research to build a more inclusive and healthy future for everyone," says Dr. Alvin C. Hathaway Sr., Co-Founder of AANRI and retired pastor of the historic Union Baptist Church in Baltimore. "This generous grant will help us build on the work we're already doing to extend the promise of personalized medicine to everyone. We're ready to take AANRI to the next level."

Human beings are 99.9% genetically identical. That 0.1% accounts for all human diversity on earth -; and that is the focus of AANRI, says Dr. Daniel R. Weinberger, M.D., Director and CEO of the Lieber Institute.

We are uncovering the genetic roots of life-changing brain disorders in hopes of developing treatments and diagnostic tools that can help people genetically predisposed to neuropsychiatric diseases live long, healthy lives. But if the data we use to make these discoveries don't include people of different ethnic and racial backgrounds, it's hard to say whether scientific findings can apply to diverse patient populations. In our work at AANRI, we are partnering with the Black community to correct this injustice."

Dr Daniel R. Weinberger, MD, Director and Chief Executive Officer, Lieber Institute for Brain Development

The Lieber Institute for Brain Development uses genomics and other advanced scientific techniques to learn more about the roots of brain disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and autism. More than 81% of large-scale genomic datasets used in this type of research come from people of European descent, though those of European background make up less than 16% of the world population.

"Advancing equity and diversity in science is embedded in our work at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and is key for driving scientific progress and creating a healthier future for everyone -; especially communities that have been historically underrepresented," said Katja Brose, Senior Science Program Officer at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. "We are thrilled to support the efforts of the African Ancestry Neuroscience Research Initiative and the partnership between community leaders from Baltimore, Morgan State University and the Lieber Institute for Brain Development to build a new model for community-centered and partnered science."

The Lieber Institute is uniquely positioned for AANRI's work. It is home to the world's most extensive collection of postmortem human brains used for neuropsychiatric research -; more than 4,000 donated brains, including more than 700 from people of African ancestry.

The funding from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative will help AANRI advance the critical research already underway. Lieber Institute scientists have been analyzing the genomic data from brains of African ancestry and are preparing to publish their groundbreaking initial findings later this year.

Chan Zuckerberg Initiative founders Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg started the Initiative in 2015 to address widespread societal issues in health care, education and other vital areas. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative joins a distinguished group of funders that have supported AANRI in its first few years, including Brown Capital Management, the State of Maryland and the Abell Foundation.

Racial disparities exist in every aspect of neuroscience, from patient outcomes to staffing. The data illustrate the depth of these disparities:

  • African Americans are 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems and twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's disease
  • Suicide rates among African American children younger than 13 are twice those among children who come from European backgrounds
  • Only 5% of those who participate in research studies of brain disorders are people of African Ancestry
  • Just 4% of neuroscience PhDs go to Black scientists

In addition to its ongoing biomedical research, AANRI is creating a pipeline for more Black researchers to enter the neurosciences and for increased collaborations with researchers focused on health disparities research. It is collaborating with Morgan State University on these initiatives.

Morgan State recently founded a new Center for Brain Health Research focused on health disparities. Students in the center's master's level training program in applied neuroscience, as well as select undergraduates and Ph.D. students, will join the Lieber Institute for internships and training to prepare for their neuroscience careers. Morgan State has started to bring on Lieber Institute scientists to teach select courses in the new M.S. in Applied Neuroscience Program.

"AANRI is very close to the mission of Morgan State University," says Dr. Christine Hohmann, Professor of Biology and Director of multiple institutional development activities at MSU. "This initiative continues to create avenues for collaboration between our faculty and Lieber Institute staff scientists and for mutual training of our students using some of the resources that the Lieber Institute has to offer. In addition, the NIH-funded Morgan CARES core facility, which supports community-based participatory research, gives AANRI enhanced access to the Baltimore community through its existing health disparities-focused partnerships."

Dr. Hathaway knows all too well the realities of health disparities. He grew up watching his family struggle to find care and services for a brother who was developmentally disabled. He says his work with AANRI is as much a calling as his career as a faith leader.

"I have seen the impact of racial health disparities in my own family and every day on the streets of Baltimore," he says. "I'm excited about the potential of this generous grant to advance AANRI's goal of building a framework for equity throughout the field of medicine. I hope the groundwork we're doing with the Lieber Institute and our partners will change the future of neuroscience and mental health care to mean better outcomes for all."

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