When Civitan selected the University of Alabama at Birmingham as the site for the Civitan International Research Center (CIRC) in 1989, it was the realization of a dream that had been a driving force of Civitans around the world since the 1950s. The story began when Civitan Thomas McNulty aand his wife began raising funds to provide school teachers with special education training. Their son, Tommy, was born with Down Syndrome and the McNultys refused to follow the advice of doctors who suggested they institutionalize their son.

As a result of their relationship with Civitan founder, Dr. Courtney Shropshire, the McNultys persuaded Civitan to devote resources to helping children with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (I/DD). In 1956, Civitan’s membership voted unanimously to make service to children with I/DD the major project of the organization. Tommy McNulty passed away in 2002. Since 2005, the Foundation for Children with Intellectual & Developmental Disbilities has awarded the Civitan McNulty Scientist grant to a researcher at the CIRC.

Dr. Vladimir  Parpura, the current McNulty award recipient, was kind enough to share some thoughts about his work with Civitan Magazine.

 What is the primary focus of your research?

I work on secretory function of glial cells in the nervous system. Glial cells were long thought to serve merely as the supporting cast and scenery against which starring roles would be played by neurons. Relatively recent evidence, however, indicates that glial cells are intimately involved in many of the brain’s functions, including its computational power. My research has been instrumental in demonstrating a novel functional role for glial cells. I showed that astrocytes, a sub-type of glial cell, can release the transmitter glutamate and in turn, that glutamate released from astrocytes can signal to adjacent neurons. We know today that among the processes regulated by this astrocyte-neuron signaling, a.k.a. gliotransmission, are sleep-regulation, respiration, and learning/memory. Recently, we expanded our investigation into gliotransmisison in the enteric nervous system, i.e., the second brain, residing in the gut wall. Enteric glia in the enteric nervous system can modulate neuronally regulated gut functions. We showed that two distinct mechanisms of gliotransmitter release, connexin 43 (Cx43) hemichannel vs. Ca2+-dependent exocytosis, have differential effect on gut function. Cx43 plays a role in gut motility in vivo, while Ca2+-dependent exocytosis regulates the fecal pellet fluid content.

What could the research mean for patients in terms of treatments, cures, etc.?

 Mutations of Cx43 underlie occulodentodigital dysplasia, a hereditary human disease affecting the brain, causing a variety of neurological deficits in humans. The patients also have some gastrointestinal disturbances. In the above work, we used a mouse model with a Cx43 mutation that causes human pathology. It is enteric glia but not neurons that bare this mutation. The study provides new sites for possible therapeutic intervention and raises the issue whether pharmacology-based modulation of Cx43 could be used for the treatment of gastrointestinal disturbances.

How has the Civitan McNulty Award been helpful to your research?

The Civitan McNulty Award has been enormously helpful. It has kept my laboratory open in the time period that I run out of federal support for my research.

You have a medical degree from the University of Zagreb. How did you become interested in neuroscience as a career?

 Early in the medical school I took a neuroscience class and I was fascinated how little was known about glial cells that represent at least ½ of the human brain by volume. At that juncture I wanted to know more about these cells.

Do you have any advice for young people interested in learning more about neuroscience?

 Study neuroscience. You cannot go wrong. It is an interdisciplinary area, and you will be trained to become a jack of all trades. At the end of your education you will be well-trained and invaluable for academic, private industry or governmental environment.