University of Utah researcher faked data for years, according to investigators

Gian-Stefano Brigidi was highly regarded among neuroscientists for his work on how life experiences change the brain. But a federal office found he manipulated his data.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah research park is pictured on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022. A neuroscience researcher at the school was fund to have manipulated data in his studies of the brain, according to federal investigators.

A former University of Utah neuroscientist — who was regarded in the field as a “visionary” — manipulated results and faked data in his research for years, according to the findings of a federal investigation.

The report on the misconduct from the U.S. Office of Research Integrity states that Gian-Stefano Brigidi used at least 43 fabricated numbers across several scientific presentations, a handful of grant applications and one published paper in the peer-reviewed journal “Cell.” Using that faked data, he was awarded more than $1 million in federal funding.

The U. stated this week that Brigidi no longer works at the school, but declined to comment further on his employment or the findings from investigators. Brigidi, who was widely considered a creative thinker in the study of the brain, was first hired as an assistant professor at the school in January 2021. His tenure there ended in August 2023, a spokesperson confirmed.

Prior to working at the U., Brigidi was a postdoctoral fellow in a lab at the University of California San Diego, as well as an assistant professor there.

Brigidi told The Transmitter — a publication that writes about neuroscience research and first reported on the faked data — that no misconduct happened during his time at the U., though the federal report shows that he continued to use the numbers in Utah that he had originally manipulated while in California. He did not respond to requests for comment from The Salt Lake Tribune.

Both the U. and UC San Diego did their own analyses of his work, which also confirmed the research misconduct that has called into question years of Brigidi’s work. And it provides a glimpse into the oversight of research and the rigorous process for when allegations arise that research is not based on real results.

“Allegations of misconduct can come through many channels, and as soon as we are aware of an allegation, UC San Diego’s Office of Research Compliance and Integrity begins our inquiry,” a spokesperson for the California school said in an email to The Tribune.

The faculty leader of the Bloodgood Lab at UC San Diego, Brenda Bloodgood, did not respond to a request for comment. Her lab is renowned for its studies of how experiences shape the neurons of the brain — work that Brigidi was continuing in his position at the U. and for which he was also awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding.

Currently, his picture remains with the noted alumni on the Bloodgood Lab’s website. His staff page has been removed from the U.’s site.

Brigidi specifically was heralded by the National Institutes of Health in 2021, a few months after joining the U.’s faculty, for his “highly innovative” project on how the electrical circuitry of the human brain is altered by memories or behaviors — such as having a kid or earning a promotion.

The idea was that significant experiences leave a mark on a molecular level, according to the announcement of the award.

The U. has since requested the National Institutes of Health to terminate that $1.37 million grant.

It’s unclear what happens to other funding awarded to Brigidi through the U.S. Public Health Service.

The research office’s report states that Brigidi “knowingly or intentionally manipulated” graphs, figures and images in presentations and posters over seven years, from 2015 to 2022.

Now, he has entered into a voluntary agreement that will require his research at future jobs to be supervised by two or three senior faculty members for the next five years. If he submits any applications for federal funding, the institution employing him must include a certification that the research is “based on actual experiments.”

Brigidi must also correct or retract the paper he published in “Cell” in 2019.

This is the second time in the last two years that a faculty member at the University of Utah has been cited by the federal Office of Research Integrity for misconduct. Last year, Ivana Frech, a former assistant professor in the U.’s School of Medicine, was also found to have manipulated data by altering images in her work about cellular iron regulation.

“ORI found that these acts constitute a significant departure from accepted practices of the relevant research community,” the office wrote in that report.

Frech is no longer employed by the U., with her last day there in October 2013. It’s unclear why the investigation into image manipulation came a decade after that. But she will be required to retract or correct her findings that were also published in “Cell.” Frech did not respond to a request for comment from The Tribune.

Julie Kiefer, a U. spokesperson, said the school “takes research misconduct seriously.” When manipulation in research occurs, she said, the university will work to correct the record, notify federal funding agencies and provide training on responsible research practices.

She said that the U. is committed to “ethical conduct and excellence in scientific inquiry.”