The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Akiva S. Cohen, PhD, recently received a prestigious MERIT award from the National Institutes of Health. A concussion and traumatic brain injury (TBI) expert, Dr. Cohen has been investigating using an amino acid-based dietary therapy to mitigate TBIs’ long-term effects.
The NIH’s R37, or Method to Extend Research in Time (MERIT), award is designed “to provide long-term grant support to investigators whose research competence and productivity are distinctly superior and who are highly likely to continue to perform in an outstanding manner,” according to the NIH’s site. Investigators cannot apply for R37 awards. Rather, MERIT awardees are chosen by NIH staff and a review board, who make their recommendations based on researchers’ past successes and productivity.
With this award, Dr. Cohen joins a very small, exclusive group of CHOP investigators who have received MERIT awards (including the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke’s R37, the Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award). Currently, only two other Children’s Hospital researchers have active MERIT awards — hematologist Gerd A. Blobel, PhD, and hyperinsulinism expert Charles Stanley, MD — while several other investigators, including Tom Curran, PhD, FRS, and Douglas A. Coulter, PhD, have received MERIT/Javits support in the past.
Dr. Cohen’s work is focused on the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying pathologies caused by head injuries. In particular, Dr. Cohen has been studying using a “cocktail” of cellular nutrients to address brain damage associated with TBIs. According to the CDC, roughly 2 million TBIs occur every year in the U.S, and more than 500,000 TBIs are suffered by children aged 14 years and younger. While many reported TBIs are milder forms such as concussions, even “mild” brain injuries can lead to long-term health challenges, such as cognitive and emotional issues.
Late last year, Dr. Cohen led a study published in Science Translational Medicine that found the dietary therapy improved sleep disturbances caused by brain injuries in mice. “If this type of dietary treatment is proved to help patients recover function after traumatic brain injury, it could become an important public health benefit,” Dr. Cohen said at the time.
In addition to his MERIT award, Dr. Cohen was also recently invited to serve as a standing member of the NIH’s Center for Scientific Review’s Brain Injury and Neurovascular Pathologies (BINP) Study Section. During his two years on the BINP Study Section, alongside a number of other experts Dr. Cohen will review grant applications submitted to the NIH “aimed to understanding mechanisms of neural injury, related vascular abnormalities, and alterations in the blood brain barrier in stroke,” among other topics.
“I am honored and humbled to be nominated and receive a MERIT award,” said Dr. Cohen. “And I am driven even more to determine the alterations in brain function that contribute to cognitive impairment caused by brain injury.”