McLaughlin Institute

McLaughlin Research Institute hires new director

McLaughlin Research Institute has named Mike Kavanaugh, Ph.D, Director of the Center for Structural and Functional Neuroscience at the University of Montana, as its new director. Dr. Kavanaugh will replace outgoing director George Carlson in December.

According to longtime member of McLaughlin’s Scientific Advisory Committee Dr. Leroy Hood, “Mike Kavanaugh’s scientific expertise, energy, and desire will make for a powerful leader of this long-historied Montana science institution.”

Dr. Kavanaugh has had a long relationship with MRI. His Center for Structural and Functional Neuroscience has worked as a partner with McLaughlin over many years. He attends annual science workshops at MRI and has presented his own research there.

“I’ve known him for ages” said George Carlson. “I think he’ll be excellent.” Dr. Carlson explained that Dr. Kavanaugh studies the electrical signals between neurons, which is a very important aspect of any neurological disease. “His work with electrophysiology, which records neuron activity in the brain, brings a new strength to the Institute,” he said.

Dr. Kavanaugh’s research is focused on expanding the understanding of signaling processes in both healthy and diseased brains, with the goal of providing new approaches to treat neurodegenerative diseases, stroke, and brain injury.

“I see the addition of my work to the Institute as expanding on the research that has been going on there for a long time,” Dr. Kavanaugh said.

“I want to say how happy I am to be joining the McLaughlin Research Institute as director,” he said, “and how grateful I am to George Carlson for his stewardship over the past 28 years. He set a high standard of scientific rigor at MRI, and maintaining that is my top priority for the future. Next is making sure that the very talented scientists and staff of the Institute have the resources necessary to fulfill our research mission. This is an extraordinary time in the history of brain research – advances in neurophysiology, imaging, and genetics are providing scientists and physicians with exciting new tools and approaches to understand and cure neurological diseases.”

Dr. Kavanaugh came to the University of Montana in 2003 from the Oregon Health Sciences University School of Medicine, where he had been on the faculty for a decade. Before that, he received a PhD in Biochemistry from OHSU and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Vollum Institute there. He did his undergraduate studies at Washington University in St. Louis. He has served on Neuroscience, Biophysics and Fellowship Review panels for the National Institutes of Health and is the recipient of neuroscience research awards, including a Klingenstein Fellowship and a senior Wellcome Fellowship from Oxford University.

“In addition to its mission in research,” Dr. Kavanaugh said of MRI, “the Institute has a longstanding tradition of mentoring and encouraging young people by providing opportunities to get hands-on experience in science. Some of the eminent researchers on our Scientific Advisory Committee were influenced by their early experiences at MRI, and I want to continue and even expand our programs in outreach, and explore possibilities for partnerships with the University system and hospitals throughout the state.

I’m gratified to have the confidence and support of a dedicated and talented Board of Directors. I also feel very lucky to be able to rely on the advice of an extraordinary Scientific Advisory Committee – a group of truly visionary scientific leaders. The next 60 years of MRI is going to be a great journey.” McLaughlin celebrated its 60th anniversary last year.

Dr. Kavanaugh’s lab studies how electrical signaling in the brain is controlled by small molecules called neurotransmitters. This process underlies all basic brain functions including cognition and memory. His research focuses on the neurotransmitter glutamate, whose release and reuptake by neurons is involved in neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and the brain damage caused by stroke.

Dr. Kavanaugh’s group was the first to identify the human genes encoding glutamate transporters, and to determine how these reuptake proteins work. Other studies in his lab are focused on novel neurotransmitters that may play important roles in learning and memory. His group has recently identified a protein in the brain mediating selective reuptake of the neurotransmitter D-serine; recent findings suggest that mutant forms of this protein cause neurodevelopmental delays in children.

Dr. Irving Weissman of Stanford University’s Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine is chair of MRI’s Scientific Advisory Committee. “Mike Kavanaugh brings to the McLaughlin Research Institute not only a first class research program in neurobiology—how brain cells communicate—but also a commitment to community service and making opportunities for young Montanans in high school and college to learn how information is obtained by becoming experimental scientists,” he said.

Dr. Kavanaugh is no stranger to Great Falls; his wife, Larkin Bates Kavanaugh, grew up in Great Falls. Her father is Leonard Bates and her mother is Janice Driver. The Kavanaughs have two sons. Dr. Kavanaugh will maintain an appointment as professor at UM. He is an avid outdoorsman and enjoys mountaineering, skiing and fly-fishing.

Randy Gray is chair of McLaughlin’s Board of Directors. “It’s terrific to have a succession plan in place with Mike at the helm,” he said. “He’s such a capable guy, who I believe will be able to open new doors for MRI to partner with other institutions and usher us into an exciting new era.”


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