Research Overview

ZNI scientists reach across boundaries to embrace methods and techniques from many fields. They work to identify new approaches for examining nervous system function to discover underlying causes of neurological and psychiatric disorders. Research areas overlap considerably, and every Principal Investigator (PI) has multiple projects ongoing at any one time.

Research projects are driven by a talented group of research fellows, graduate students, research staff and collaborating faculty applying genomic approaches to a variety of brain disorders. The long-term goal of our research programs is to understand the biological basis of neurodevelopmental and neuropsychiatric disorders and to improve the ability to treat them on an individualized basis.

Alzheimer's & Related Diseases

Alzheimer's brain scan

Investigators study Alzheimer’s and Related Diseases in multiple labs at ZNI. The Protein Structure group investigates the structure of proteins involved in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease. These studies aim to help investigators understand the molecular basis of neural pathology, looking toward devising new treatments for the cure and prevention. Other investigators are studying the wiring of the brain, the role of the immune system in dementia and the role of cerebral blood vessels and blood-brain barrier in pathogenesis of neurodegenerative disorders.


Autistic boy's face

Our scientists are leading a unique interdisciplinary effort using the latest technology in genetics, information sciences, neuroscience, and engineering to approach autism research.

With the incidence of ASD now reaching almost 1 in 100 children, the challenge is to treat patients with a more personalized approach to early diagnosis and treatment. ZNI researchers are exploring different kinds of genetic risks that reflect specific types of social and communication impairments in children with autism.


Woman standing in the woods

ZNI investigators are studying genetics and disease at a population level to better understand cancer causes and prevention.

The strong link between epidemiology and biology, combined with the development and application of state-of-the-art analysis methods, has been the hallmark of USC’s cancer research.


Man and woman smilign next to each other

Researchers at ZNI are attempting to identify therapeutic targets and diagnostic approaches for more effective treatment and earlier diagnosis of diabetic organ complications.

We are focusing on kidney damage, the most common complication of diabetes. This research is also highly relevant to diseases of the heart, blood vessels, fat deposits, retinas, and more.

Down Syndrome

A brain scan film being looked at by an off-camera researcher

Scientists at ZNI are taking a multidisciplinary approach to investigating the genotype-phenotype relationships in Down syndrome.

By using a simple model system with extremely powerful genetics, scientists are investigating the roles of various genes in regulating the function of neurons.


Colorful DNA

ZNI principal investigators studying genomics are working on developing novel statistical methods to analyze next-generation sequencing data to discovery genetic variants involved in diseases ranging from cancer and multiple sclerosis to psychiatric disorders. Our scientists are also utilizing next-generation genomic and epigenomic profiling to study the behavior of various brain tumors. Our genomics research also includes working on creating an automated pipeline for whole exome/genome sequencing analysis on Mendelian diseases and cancer, and for RNA-Seq analysis
of single neuronal cells.


Child with a hearing aid

The most common sensory abnormality in the world is age-related hearing
loss. The second most common form of hearing loss is noise-induced. Our researchers are studying the genetic causes behind both types of hearing loss. Additionally, there is a strong multidisciplinary focus on understanding how the brain works in conjunction to hearing loss. These projects aim to understand disease mechanisms of hearing impairment and develop translational research such as regeneration.

Parkinson's Disease

Elderly woman smiling

Researchers are studying how a-synuclein functions normally at synapses and how its accumulation in plaques contributes to neurodegeneration associated with Parkinson’s Disease.

Some of the research includes pioneering methodology based on electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR) spectroscopy; the use of roundworms to understand the sequence of molecular changes caused by synuclein; and biophysical techniques to determine the origin of the misfolding event by engineering and studying variants of functional a-synuclein.


Elderly couple seen from behind at the beach. The woman is in a wheelchair.

Clinician scientists at ZNI are conducting laboratory investigations on the study of stroke symptoms and inflammatory modulation to directly improve the clinical care administered to stroke patients.

ZNI scientists are collaborating with the Davis School of Gerontology to examine the role of inflammatory processes in a state of decreased blood flow to the brain. This research may also lend insight into dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.


Girl looking through an ophthalmology examination device

There is extensive eye and vision related research done at ZNI. Investigators are working to understand on a cellular level what factors contribute to blindness and visual impairments. Studies on the development and function of our visual processing have been impactful; providing insights into how abnormal visual experience in early life, such as in the condition of strabismus and visual deprivation, can lead to abnormal wiring in the brain, and how we can correct it.