August 8, 2023

Grad student John France secures training grant from National Institute of Mental Health

John France

A doctoral student at the Wayne State University School of Medicine has secured two years of funding from the National Institutes of Health to support training for his research into how trauma in adolescence may shape brain development and behavior.

John France was awarded the F31 Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award for Individual Predoctoral Fellows by the National Institute of Mental Health. The program enables promising predoctoral students with potential to develop into productive, independent research scientists to obtain mentored research training while conducting dissertation research.

France is mentored by Tanja Jovanovic, Ph.D., and Jeffrey Stanley, Ph.D.

“The F31 Fellowship from the National Institutes of Health is a tremendous accomplishment, as it represents an award to the best students on a national level. John’s fellowship application was reviewed by well-established researchers in the field of neuroimaging and mental health and was highly rated in terms of its scientific innovation and training potential,” said Dr. Jovanovic, professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences. “Receiving the F31 Fellowship is an exceptional honor and sets the stage for future success in academic settings. As John’s mentor, I am very proud of his accomplishment and believe it points both to his excellence as a doctoral student and to the high quality of the Translational Neuroscience Program at WSU.”

The fellowship begins Nov. 19, funding two years of training to use proton functional magnetic resonance spectroscopy, or 1H fMRS, to investigate cortical glutamate modulation in trauma-exposed youth.

“I feel honored and fortunate. My award speaks not only to my hard work, but the expert knowledge of and support from my mentoring team,” France said.

France grew up in Harper Woods, Mich. He applied to Wayne State’s Graduate School because of the School of Medicine’s leading research in child and adolescent development, trauma-related psychiatric disorders and magnetic resonance imaging. He also liked that the university was in the heart of Detroit.

“I spent a lot of time in the city growing up. So I wanted to continue to learn from and serve the community that helped raised me,” he said.

France is in his fourth year of the Translational Neuroscience program within the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences. His doctoral project, “The Role for in vivo Glutamate Modulation in Maintaining Cognitive Control in Trauma-Exposed Adolescents,” investigates the neural processes that support the ability to regulate emotions in youth at risk for anxiety disorders.

“I am fascinated by the way our experiences shape brain development and our behavior. I hope to contribute to an understanding of how anxiety disorders manifest through development,” he said. “This understanding will aid in establishing effective early interventions in youth at risk for anxiety, like trauma-exposed youth.”

Functional MRI studies demonstrate that the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex is a critical component of maintaining cognitive control, and that visual cues of negative effect may interfere with these functions. The majority of current investigations utilize functional MRI, which relies on the hemodynamic response function, and is an imprecise indicator of neural engagement, France said. A more precise measure of neural engagement can be obtained using in vivo ¹H functional MR spectroscopy, a novel tool sensitive to temporal changes in glutamate under contrasting task conditions.

The study will enroll 60 adolescents ages 11 to 15, 50% female, from an urban setting with high rates of trauma exposure. Thirty will have been exposed to trauma and 30 will serve as a control group.

The project will provide France with training in conceptual (neurobiology of trauma and anxiety) and methodological approaches (¹H fMRS and psychological assessments). It will also prepare him for a career in academic research.

“John has definitely earned this prestigious and highly competitive award with his passion, dedication and hard work,” Dr. Stanley, professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences, said. “As his co-mentor, I have witnessed first-hand steady growth and maturity. He has a bright future as a young scientist in neuroscience research with more success to come.”

The number for this National Institutes of Health award is F31MH132307.

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