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University of Montana journalism student Jessie Mazur, left, speaks with Neil Moisey on Thursday morning inside the University Center and shares some of her work and experiences from a recent trip to India focused on environmental reporting. The display of student work was one of several Charter Day activities in celebration of the university’s 121st birthday.

The University of Montana celebrated its 121st birthday on Thursday by announcing a major new initiative surrounding research on the human brain, an effort that will span campus and tap the school’s interdisciplinary fields.

UM Provost Perry Brown announced the UM Brain Initiative over lunch on Charter Day, less than two hours after the school opened its new Blackstone LaunchPad program aimed at entrepreneurs.

Addressing a crowd of UM faculty, staff and community members, Brown said the school currently offers a doctorate in neuroscience, and enjoys a strong collaboration with Providence St. Patrick Hospital through the school’s Montana Neuroscience Institute.

The university also claims a Center for Structural and Functional Neuroscience funded by the National Institutes of Health, and it recently landed a grant from the NFL to further study head injuries in athletes.

“We’re going to have some new elements coming on board,” Brown said. “Through this Brain Initiative, we’ll bring together people from across campus to expand the research we have.”

The new Brain Initiative covers a variety of fronts, including a new bachelor’s degree in neuroscience, which is being developed by a faculty committee.

It also pushes deeper into research, applying experts across campus in a variety of fields, including such nontraditional areas as dance, the humanities and the natural sciences.

Darrell Jackson, a professor in the Department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences, will coordinate the initiative.

“The Brain Initiative brings together a large number of faculty members and students who focus on the brain in their respective fields and research,” Brown said. “Expertise on the brain literally crosses the campus.”

As part of the initiative, Brown also announced a new Neural Injury Center, which goes before the Montana Board of Regents for approval next month.

That effort will apply university experts to help student veterans and others who have suffered traumatic brain injury – or some other injury to the spinal cord – move through rehabilitation toward recovery.

“We should be able to leverage that expertise in ways that demonstratively improve the outcomes of neural injury, be it TBI, a spinal cord injury or their associated disorders,” said Reed Humphrey, chair of the School of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science.

“The Brain Initiative helps identify the pockets of considerable expertise across this campus that can create an environment that’s both welcoming and supportive to students challenged by neural injury, but also to conduct clinical and translational research,” he added.

Catherine Off, a professor in the Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders, would also join the initiative.

Off would apply her work in UM’s stroke and TBI rehabilitation center – known as the Big Sky Aphasia Program – toward the larger Brain Initiative.

“What we’re really excited about with the Neural Injury Center and the Brain Initiative is being able to bridge the gap between basic and applied sciences, incorporating our clinical coursework and critical research with some of our basic research,” said Off.

In celebrating the university’s founding, UM President Royce Engstrom lauded the new Brain Initiative and challenged faculty members to think outside the box as the school examines its academic offerings.

“Today is a call to action,” Engstrom told the room. “It’s a call to action to innovate academically, to constantly raise the bar on what we expect of our students, to ensure we graduate them with the most competitive education available in public higher education today.”

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Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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