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March 15, 2016

Presidential awards to three VA investigators

The White House will be honoring three VA investigators, among 105 federal researchers in all, with Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the highest honor given by the U.S. government to science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers. The winners will receive their awards at a ceremony in the nation's capital in spring 2016.

The three PECASE winners from VA are Drs. Paul Marasco, with VA's Advanced Platform Technology (APT) Center and the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center; Panagiotis Roussos, with the James J. Peters VA Medical Center in the Bronx, N.Y.; and Erika Wolf, with VA's National Center for PTSD and the VA Boston Healthcare System.

Paul Marasco, Ph.DPaul Marasco, Ph.D

Paul Marasco, Ph.D., and his team are working on providing touch and movement sensation to prosthetic limbs so that users feel like the devices are part of their body. Marasco, a neuroscientist, leads several projects in this area that are funded by VA, the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Defense—including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

In a groundbreaking article published in 2011 in the journal Brain, he and his team first showed how they were able to use a robotic simulator to couple a pressure sensor on the hand of an amputee to surgically redirected nerves that once served the lost limb. The team wrote, "We suggest that this may help amputees to more effectively incorporate an artificial limb into their self-image, providing the possibility that a prosthesis becomes not only a tool, but also an integrated body part."

In related work, he is now developing composite materials to increase the comfort of prosthetic devices. Attaching hard metal or plastic prosthetic components to the soft, vulnerable skin and muscle of the residual arm or leg can cause discomfort, pain, and even tissue damage. To address the problem, his group is developing a new material for prosthetic liners—the interface between the user and the prosthetic limb—that is inspired by the natural shock-absorbing material found in the squid beak.

In addition to his VA role, Marasco is with the department of biomedical engineering at the Cleveland Clinic's Lerner Research Institute, and with Case Western Reserve University. He is the third APT Center investigator to win a PECASE in the center's 11-year history.

Panagiotis (Panos) Roussos, M.D., Ph.D.Panagiotis (Panos) Roussos, M.D., Ph.D.

Panagiotis (Panos) Roussos, M.D., Ph.D., is a researcher and physician specializing in schizophrenia. He works at the Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center at the Bronx VA, and with the site's Schizophrenia Treatment and Research (STAR) program.

His focus is the neurobiology of schizophrenia, particularly the role of genetics in the disease. His studies include explorations of gene and protein expression, biochemistry, and systems biology. He is an expert in computational biology, also known as bioinformatics.

He has collaborated with scholars worldwide to analyze large datasets in an effort to identify key genetic variants and other biochemical pathways that influence schizophrenia risk and severity. Most recently, as part of the international Schizophrenia Working Group of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium, he was coauthor on a study published online in JAMA Psychiatry in March 2016 that looked at the role of microRNAs—a recently discovered class of short non-coding RNAs that regulate gene expression. The team pinpointed one microRNA in particular, called miR-9-5-p, as having a strong link to the disease.

Along with his work in VA, Roussos is an assistant professor of psychiatry and genetics and genomic sciences at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Erika Wolf, Ph.D.Erika Wolf, Ph.D.

Erika Wolf, Ph.D., studies the genetic and environmental contributors to posttraumatic stress disorder and some of the conditions that often accompany PTSD, such as depression or alcohol and drug abuse.

Her work also addresses the role of personality, personality disorder, and dissociation—detachment from one's surroundings, or from physical and emotional experiences—in the context of trauma and PTSD. Wolf is also involved in developing and validating instruments—such as questionnaires or structured interviews—to effectively evaluate trauma exposure and PTSD.

Much of Wolf's research relies on advanced statistical techniques such as confirmatory factor analysis, structural equation modeling, latent class analysis, and item response theory.

Some of her recent work has focused on the idea that PTSD is associated with accelerated cellular aging, as reflected in DNA methylation and in physical health and neurocognitive decline. Her group found support for the theory in a study they published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology in January 2016, based on a group of nearly 300 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans who submitted blood samples for DNA analysis and underwent MRI scans, diagnostic exams, and neuropsychological testing. The findings underscore the importance of effective PTSD treatment, not just for mental health but for physical health as well.

Along with her VA affiliations, Wolf is also an assistant professor at Boston University School of Medicine.

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