MINNEAPOLIS, MN- October 21, 2019 – University of Minnesota Medical School student Brian M. Sweis, PhD, who also studied in the Graduate Program in Neuroscience, is the first student in the Medical School’s history to receive the prestigious Donald B. Lindsley Prize in Behavioral Neuroscience by the Society for Neuroscience, supported by The Grass Foundation. This prize recognizes Sweis as having an outstanding PhD thesis in the general area of behavioral neuroscience and is typically awarded to one individual world-wide each year.

Through the U of M’s Medical Scientist Training Program (MD/PhD), Sweis is able to train in the Medical School and simultaneously pursue a PhD in neuroscience to become a physician-scientist. Sweis completed the PhD portion of his MD/PhD program in the Graduate Program in Neuroscience, defending his thesis. Sweis took a novel approach to his thesis by diving deep into the emerging field of neuroeconomics and applying it to psychiatric disorders. He did this under co-advisors David Redish, PhD, and Mark Thomas, PhD, who are professors in the Departments of Neuroscience and Psychology at the university, by combining work from both laboratories to study how specific memories influence different ways the brain can make decisions and how those decisions could go awry.

“My entire PhD started with the goal of keeping a focus on application of scientific discoveries toward the clinical world,” said Sweis. “When you publish work in an animal study, you often suggest what a particular finding might mean for humans. We wanted to take that one step further and carry out a study translated across species to humans side-by-side.”

During his PhD, Sweis collaborated with the laboratory of Angus MacDonald, PhD, who is a professor in the Department of Psychology, in order to directly translate his discoveries in rodents to humans. Throughout the course of his MD/PhD training, Sweis was awarded several research grants, including a four-year fellowship from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and produced 10 publications culminating with his cross-species work published in Science.

“Brian’s thesis was an amazing integration of breakthrough techniques and cross-disciplinary insights that will have a major impact going forward,” said Thomas.

Among his other discoveries, Sweis found that there is a conserved evolutionary history to cognitive biases previously thought to be unique to humans, and that these biases arose from similar neural systems in rodents and humans. Applying this framework to the study of addiction, Sweis found that mice exposed to different drugs of abuse suffered lasting impairments in fundamentally distinct types of choices and causally linked those specific dysfunctions to changes in only certain memories in the brain.

“It is extremely exciting and humbling to see my PhD thesis recognized on a global level like this,” said Sweis. Prior to getting awarded the Lindsley Prize, Sweis also received the 2019 Best Dissertation Award for biological and medical sciences from the university. 

“This is an exciting award for Brian particularly, but also for the program and the University in general, and speaks to the incredible collaborations available at the University of Minnesota. Brian integrated work from three different laboratories to build his thesis, and this work that he started is being carried onward by more than a dozen different laboratories across the University and elsewhere,” said Redish.

“Brian’s work epitomizes the value and importance of MD/PhD physician-scientist training,” said Yoji Shimizu, PhD, director of the MD/PhD program. “By integrating top-tier scientific training with clinical medicine, physician-scientists, like Brian, are uniquely qualified to lead research efforts that accelerate the translation of research advances that will directly benefit patients. Brian’s thesis clearly demonstrates the impact of having this training and expertise in both science and medicine.”

Sweis is currently finishing his final year of the MD/PhD program, where he is seeing this research one step further applied to human patients struggling with addiction, with the support of the University’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute. In the future, he will continue his medical training in psychiatry while maintaining research activity as a neuroscientist. His ultimate aim is to run his own research lab at the same time he is taking care of patients while working on developing new treatments for those struggling with mental illnesses, truly encompassing what it means to be a physician-scientist. Sweis says that neuroeconomics will be at the center of his clinical and research platform moving forward.

About the University of Minnesota Medical School
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Contact: Kelly Glynn
Media Relations Coordinator, University of Minnesota Medical School