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Dr. Craig Stark takes UCI’s women’s health research to new heights with the Ann S. Bowers Women’s Brain Health Initiative

As we celebrate Women’s History Month this March, we also find ourselves at a historic moment in scientific inquiry for women’s health research. Today, nearly two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer’s disease are women, but the underlying cause of this sex disparity is still poorly understood. For decades, research focusing on women’s health has been inadequate, with a mere 0.5% of all neuroimaging studies conducted over the past 25 years focusing on women’s health. The potential to reach new heights in our understanding of the brain, especially today in the era of “big data” and artificial intelligence, is promising, but requires the right combination of expertise on women’s health and large-scale coordinated efforts to take meaningful steps forward. 

The Ann S. Bowers Women’s Brain Health Initiative (WBHI), a new brain imaging consortium officially launched in November, represents a first-of-its-kind effort spanning multiple institutions within the UC system specifically aimed at accelerating transformative discoveries in women’s health through deeply collaborative science. The namesake of the WBHI honors the legacy of the late Ann S. Bowers, a trailblazer known for her leading roles in Intel, Apple, and the Noyce Foundation who dedicated much of her life to philanthropy and advancing efforts in technology and innovation.  

 One of the distinguishing features of the WBHI is its commitment to collaboration and data sharing. “Often in the neuroimaging community, we collect small amounts of data, and we do that repetitively. We have a siloed science model of how neuroimaging research is done. It overlooks one of the core features of the UC — we are one university system with campuses spread out across a geographically and demographically diverse state,” says the Director of the WBHI, Emily Jacobs, PhD, a cognitive neuroscientist from UC Santa Barbara (UCSB). Dr. Jacobs has spent her career conducting cutting-edge neuroimaging research for understanding the role of hormone action on the human brain. Her visionary work led to Dr. Jacobs being invited to the White House in March, where she represented the Ann S. Bowers WBHI at the signing of the historic executive order calling for $12B in funding for women’s health research. 

President Biden signs the executive order to fund women’s health research. Photo credit: Emily Jacobs, PhD

UCI MIND faculty member and Professor of Neurobiology and Behavior, Craig Stark, PhD, is the Director of the UCI Campus Center for NeuroImaging (CCNI) and is a founding member of the WBHI. With UCI as a WBHI data collection site, Dr. Stark and his team of researchers are spearheading data sharing efforts that will support the WBHI vision of generating the most diverse and comprehensive collection of data ever acquired for women’s brain health. Furthermore, UCI Associate Professor of Neurobiology and Behavior, Elizabeth Chrastil, PhD, is co-leading one of the WBHI’s inaugural studies, the Maternal Brain Project along with Dr. Jacobs, where their labs are using precision imaging to map the maternal brain starting pre-conception through one year postpartum. Enrollment for this study at each site is currently ongoing. 

 Together, UCSB and UC Irvine, along with UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco, UC San Diego, and UC Riverside, will harness the collective expertise and resources of the world-class imaging centers at each institution. The WBHI’s Data Coordinating Center at Stanford University, led by Russell Poldrack, PhD, will also play a key role in leading the effort to organize and prepare the data, which will be housed open-access on OpenNeuro. WBHI’s AI Core, a joint endeavor between Cornell University (Co-Director, Amy Kuceyeski, PhD) and UCSB (Co-Director, Nina Miolane, PhD), brings together leaders in computational science from industry and the academy to drive discovery for women’s brain health. 

To stay updated on WBHI’s latest news and research, continue to follow this blog and visit the Ann S. Bowers WBHI website where you can find information about participating in research studies and registering for their monthly webinar series.