6 Dec 2017

Brain Studies - Biomed Students Take On Neuroscience Research

Brain Studies - Biomed Students Take On Neuroscience Research

Author: Wings  /  Categories: Campus, Wings  / 

The brain. It’s one of the most important and enigmatic organs in our bodies.  Every thought, feeling, memory and action is controlled by the constant rapid firing of neurons that make you you.  So what can we do when something goes wrong in the brain, such as when Alzheimer’s begins to steal away our precious memories? Or when we want to change behaviors, such as those tied to addiction?

Neuroscience researchers at two of the nation’s leading institutions, Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and The National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, are working on these very issues. This summer, two Heritage University biomed students joined their teams. Sophomore Danielle Rodriguez spent eight weeks at Vanderbilt’s School of Medicine in the Pharmacology Program. Senior Corbin Schuster worked for 10 weeks at the NIH’s Eating and Addiction Section, Diabetes, Endocrinology, and Obesity Branch.

Danielle Rodriguez

Danielle RodriguezRodriguez’s fascination with neuroscience goes back to her early years.

“Ever since I was a kid, I thought the mind was interesting,” she said. “Your brain can hold all this information, everything that you have ever seen or experienced. It seems like we should be able to recall anything, but we just don’t have that capacity.”

When she enrolled at Heritage, she immediately declared her major in biomedical science and signed up for the Introduction to Chemistry class.

“I was pretty familiar with chemistry and had an aptitude for it, so by the fourth week I was moved out of that class and into a more advanced course. My professor mentioned to Dr. Winona Wynn that I would be a good candidate for the Leadership Alliance FYRE program,” said Rodriguez.

The FYRE program (Freshman Year Research Experience) takes students of promise and pairs them with researchers in a variety of fields from across the United States. The students work on research projects at a level typically reserved for those in their junior and senior years. The program’s goal is to ignite an interest in these students early on that encourages them to see themselves in graduate or Ph.D.-level studies after they earn their bachelor’s degree.

Rodriguez researched the participating programs and found her top choice in the memory research work being done in Dr. J. David Sweatt’s lab at Vanderbilt.

“The program I was interested in works on the internal, chemical side of memory and is looking at how enzymes that link to genes can affect learning and memory,” she said. “I found the work fascinating.”

After Rodriguez was selected, she was assigned to work on the study that looked at how two specific enzymes within brain cell genes stimulate and “turn on” when a memory is formed. This naturally occurring reaction is necessary for long-term memory to form. The question she examined was whether they could stimulate the genes that are tied to memory by manipulating these enzymes. And if so, could doctors help stem the progression of memory loss in Alzheimer’s patients with a treatment that would function similarly?

Most of the time, Rodriguez worked in the lab with regenerated mouse brain cells. She would isolate ribonucleic acid (RNA) and introduce the two enzymes independent of each other to a sample set. Then, using lab equipment that could read the amount of cell expression that took place in each sample, she compared each of the manipulated sets to a control set.

“We were able to see that genes clearly upregulated when the enzymes were introduced,” she said.

While it is still extremely early in the research process, and only a small portion of the entirety of the research that is being conducted at Vanderbilt, the implications of the work could impact thousands of people who suffer from memory loss.

Corbin Schuster

Corbin SchusterSchuster’s introduction to his summer research experience began when his mentor, Dr. Ramos Diaz from the Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences, with whom he had completed an internship the previous year, told him about the research opportunity and suggested that he apply.

Schuster is an enrolled member of the Yakama Nation. Serious health risks such as diabetes and heart disease are rampant in his community. As he was looking at research projects at the NIH, Dr. Alexxai Kravitz’s study on the neuroscience behind food addiction, failing diets and obesity caught his eye.

Like the FYRE program, research internships with the NIH are extremely competitive. Only 10% of applicants are accepted. The NIH’s push to encourage more Native Americans to consider careers in STEM fields, as well as Schuster’s work mentoring high school students, helped him stand out from his peers.

Schuster was assigned to a study that looked at fat sources and the concentration of those fats, and their effect on over- and undereating. Working with mice, he measured the number of calories eaten when the diet had a healthy level of fat and compared it to the amount of calories eaten when the fat level was increased. Additional comparisons were made as fat levels were raised even higher, and then again when the high-fat diets were replaced with the healthy diets.

Not surprisingly, he found that the mice consumed more when the fat level increased. But what did surprise him was that there was a threshold at which the fat level increase was too high and the mice quit eating. Likewise, once the fat was reduced to a healthy level, the amount the mice ate was actually less than what they ate initially when on the healthy diet.

“They didn’t like it at all,” said Schuster. “They were essentially starving themselves.”

When he looked at the source of fat and its impact on how much the mice ate, he found no correlation between increases or decreases in consumption.

Schuster couldn’t help but think about his community back home and the way that the Yakama people’s traditional diet—salmon, elk, roots and berries—had been replaced with higher-fat alternatives such as beef and pork.

“You don’t see traditional diets contributing to diabetes,” he said.

For both Schuster and Rodriguez, the experience proved valuable.

“I took this internship because I wanted to know what it would be like to be a researcher in graduate school and as a career. I didn’t know if I would really like it,” said Rodriguez. “What I learned was yes, I absolutely want to do this as my career. I loved it!”

The experience helped Schuster focus a bit more on where he wants to take his education and career.

“I really want to study microbiology and the evolution of parasites,” he said. “As global warming changes our environment and ecosystems, it changes the evolution of parasites. They adapt. The treatments we use to get rid of them do not work all the time and their impact can become more severe.”


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