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U of U Health Neurobiologist Receives McKnight Scholar Award to Study Impacts of Social Isolation

By Julie Kiefer, Associate Director, Science Communications

Moriel Zelikowsky, Ph.D., an assistant professor of neurobiology at the Spencer Fox Eccles School of Medicine at the University of Utah, has received a 2023 McKnight Scholar Award in recognition of her efforts to understand the brain-wide, neurobiological mechanisms that underlie a prolonged lack of social contact.  

She is one of 10 neuroscientists nationwide honored by the McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience, which promotes innovative research designed to bring science closer to the day when diseases of the brain can be accurately diagnosed, prevented, and treated. 

"The McKnight Scholar Award will allow my group to pursue exciting research aimed at uncovering the role of distinct, genetically defined neural populations in the control of social isolation and its impact to incite violence,” Zelikowsky says. 

In modern society, stress-related mental health disorders and feelings of loneliness are on the rise, but much remains to be learned about the neurological basis behind these behaviors and how to alleviate them.  

To gain insights, Zelikowsky and her research group are investigating the neural circuitry underlying the effects of social isolation to promote aggression. Her investigations combine detailed behavioral and computational analyses with cellular and molecular methodologies to formulate an in-depth understanding of the effects of social isolation stress on neural circuits and mechanisms. 

Moriel Zelikowsky, Ph.D., an assistant professor
Moriel Zelikowsky, Ph.D., an assistant professor of neurobiology at the Spencer Fox Eccles School of Medicine at the University of Utah

"We are thrilled that Moriel will be recognized with the prestigious 2023 McKnight Scholar Award," says Monica Vetter, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Neurobiology. “This support will accelerate her work on investigating social isolation and stress-induced aggression with the exciting potential for understanding modulation by top-down neuropeptide control pathways. By deeply probing the neural mechanisms, Moriel's work has the potential to reveal important new insights into stress-related mental health disorders."  

Zelikowsky seeks to understand changes in brain function during and after stress and make advances toward new treatments for neuropsychiatric disorders.  

“Social isolation is at the forefront of everyone’s minds these days,” Zelikowsky explains. “When the COVID-19 pandemic was at its height, we were spending loads of time isolated from friends and family. How does this social isolation alter our behavior? How is it encoded by the brain?” 

To find out, Zelikowsky recently studied changes in the behavior and brain function of mice kept in isolation. They found that the mice became “skittish and aggressive.” The researchers believe this behavior was sparked by a molecule called Tac2 that may trigger a stress response in many regions of the brain. Zelikowsky and her team suspect clusters of elevated Tac2 explain why some abnormal behaviors persist after isolation. The McKnight Scholar Award will help Zelikowsky and her group build on these findings. 

Moriel Zelikowsky, Ph.D., in Lab

She conducted her graduate studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and was a postdoctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology, where she was named a L'Oréal USA Women in Science Fellow. In 2019, Zelikowsky joined the University of Utah faculty. Stories about her research have appeared in USA Today, Scientific American, London Daily Mail, and other publications. 

The McKnight Scholar Awards are given to exceptional young scientists who are in the early stages of establishing an independent laboratory and research career. The intent of the program is to foster the commitment of these scientists to research careers that will have an important impact on the study of the brain. 

Since the award was introduced in 1977, this early-career award has funded more than 250 innovative investigators and spurred hundreds of breakthrough discoveries. Each McKnight Scholar Award recipient will receive $75,000 per year for three years.