The Pew Charitable Trusts announced recently that Salk Institute for Biological Studies scientist Nicola Allen, an assistant professor in the Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory, is one of 22 researchers to be named a Pew Scholar in the biomedical sciences.

Allen joins the ranks of more than 600 scientists who have been selected as Pew scholars in the 30 years since the program’s inception.

Allen investigates the role of brain cells called astrocytes, the most abundant cells in the brain and, until recently, were thought to merely provide scaffolding for neurons. Now, however, researchers believe astrocytes actually play critical roles in regulating neuronal function. Allen studies how astrocytes control the formation and function of neuronal connections, and aims to use this knowledge to develop ways to repair damaged connections to improve cognition and memory. Allen is also investigating whether these properties of astrocytes may regulate the brain’s ability to learn new tasks.

These findings will help researchers understand how astrocytes control neuronal development and function, and provide new insight into diseases like autism, epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease.