By Nonie Arora

Duke student Katie Shpanskaya is excited about how education can change our brains.  She had the chance to share her work with other students in a poster session at the State of North Carolina Undergraduate Research and Creativity Symposium (SNCURCS).

Hundreds of undergraduates from several North Carolina universities came together to talk about research at SNCURCS (pronounced like Snickers, the candy bar) hosted by Duke University on November 17th.

In the lab of Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy, Shpanskaya studies the effects of education on Alzheimer’s disease. Originally from Raleigh, Shpanskaya is a sophomore in Trinity College studying Neuroscience. When she’s not in classes or working in the lab, she tutors through UNITED (a high school tutoring organization that she is the president of) and mentors others through the Women’s Mentoring Network.

In Alzheimer’s, the part of the brain called the hippocampus experiences great neuronal cell death and amyloid plaques accumulate throughout the brain, Shpanskaya said. The hippocampus is important for memory, and Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by progressive memory loss. In the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s, the protein amyloid-beta builds up whereas this protein is normally broken down, Shpanskaya clarified.

Shpanskaya explained that the study she is working on has found that patients with higher education (17 or more years) had greater hippocampal volume size than those with less education (less than 12 years). Those with more education also had less overall loss of hippocampal volume. Shpanskaya also said that those who challenge themselves cognitively benefit: they retain more functionality when afflicted by Alzheimer’s.

MRI image depicting the hippocampal region of interest used in computing hippocampal volume. Courtesy of the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (ADNI).

“Education likely acts through neuroprotective mechanisms, thereby decreasing volume loss to delay cognitive decline. This is supported by our results,” said Shpanskaya.

At the conference, students also had a chance to interact with faculty members from other institutions, and attend “Lunchbox Learning” sessions on topics such as avoiding research misconduct and applying to graduate school.

Overall, students appreciated the opportunity to attend the symposium and meet students from around the state. “I thought SNCURCS was a great symposium that really did a good job of bringing together students from all sorts of research backgrounds together to learn from each other and share their work,” said Trinity sophomore Akhil Sharma. “SNCURCS really showed a good sample of the great research institutions North Carolina houses and it was a great feeling to be a part of it all.”