Following the people and events that make up the research community at Duke

Author: Sonal Gagrani

Duke students present Alzheimer's research at Montana conference

By Sonal Gagrani

The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) brought together neuroimmunologists from all over the world to Big Sky, Montana in July to discuss their current and upcoming research on mechanisms and therapeutics in neuroimmunology.

They covered a plethora of topics in the field from multiple sclerosis, a neurodegenerative brain disorder, to neuroprotection by microglia, the resident immune cells of the brain, to the effects that intestinal imbalances can have on the brain via the blood brain barrier.

My primary focus at the meeting was to expand my knowledge on Alzheimer’s disease (AD), a dementia-causing neurodegenerative disease of the central nervous system that I am currently researching.

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Lauren Kane with her poster at the FASEB conference

We were fortunate to have Lauren Kane, a rising senior in Dr. Carol Colton’s lab at Duke and the only undergraduate student with a poster at the conference, be able to present her work on her Alzheimer’s mouse model.

It is known as a CVN-AD model and has many pathologies found in AD such as β-amyloid plaque formation, neuron loss, tau protein defects, and behavioral deficits. Lauren is studying the changes in myelin, the primary make-up of white matter in the brain. Myelin wraps around axons in order to allow faster communication between neurons. She has found that there is some breakdown in myelin in the CVN-AD model, and this could lead us to find treatments for AD that promote remyelination in the brain.

Matthew Kan, an MD/PhD student in Dr. Michael Gunn’s lab at Duke, also presented his work on Alzheimer’s at the conference. He showed in the CVN-AD mouse model that a possible mechanism of neuronal death may be decreased arginine, an essential amino acid in the brain. Microglia produce arginase-1, an enzyme that breaks down arginine, and Matthew found that blocking arginase-1 activity reversed some neurodegeneration found in the CVN-AD mice. This arginine depletion pathway is known to suppress the brain’s immune system rather than cause inflammation, which many people thought was the mechanism for AD pathology in the past. These results may shift some focus to arginine in looking for AD treatments.

The conference strived to integrate and improve neuroimmunology research by providing a venue for creating connections with the experts in the field. There are many therapeutics for brain disorders in progress that key in on the importance of the brain’s immune system in regulating pathology.

Aphasia: Acceptance, Hope, Purpose

By Sonal Gagrani

Imagine having a head full of things to say, but not being able to articulate them. This is the life of Carl McIntyre.

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courtesy of aphasiathemovie.com

There is a three-hour window of opportunity after the initiation of a stroke in which it can be effectively treated. However, when a stroke hit Carl McIntyre, those three hours passed before he could be safely withdrawn from danger. His ability to speak and understand became heavily impaired, a condition known as aphasia. In order to raise awareness of this condition that affects not only him, but almost 40% of the people who suffer a stroke, he starred as himself in a film called Aphasia. Carl McIntyre came himself to speak at Duke for Brain Awareness Week following a screening of his film.

BAW logoAphasia is a group of communication disorders that affect the language centers of the brain causing impairments in speech, speech comprehension, reading and writing. It tends to arise with damage of some part of the brain, often due to a stroke, brain tumors, or neurodegenerative diseases.

McIntyre expressed powerfully that, “what happens to one, happens to two.” The aphasia affects not only him but his entire family. Life felt as if it was over, loving was difficult; he felt “trapped inside of his head.” Having a reservoir full of thoughts that he was unable to empty due to this inability to communicate could be eternally frustrating. Aphasia patients often are cognitively intact, but have trouble expressing what they want to say. McIntyre occasionally used a whiteboard to write down words he was struggling to say or stumbled on the first sounds of words.

Carl McIntyreBut rather than letting the aphasia control the way that he lived, McIntyre worked hard to restore his language capabilities and spread awareness of the challenges that inflicted individuals must face. Most importantly, McIntyre expressed the importance of keeping hope.

He explained that the first step to having a positive outlook on his condition was to accept the “old Carl was dead.” The next was to keep hope that his life could continue as normal as possible – that the condition would not impair his lifestyle. Last, he expressed the importance of having a sense a purpose by picking up hobbies and not losing all meaning in life. Carl strives to have a strong sense of self despite the adversities he and his family has had to face and inspires others to understand and do just this.

 

Duke's First Annual Brain Games

by Sonal Gagrani

Question: How many miles of myelin-covered nerve fibers exist in the brain of the average 20 year old?

In an effort to bring together students and faculty to celebrate and spread the awareness of neuroscience, the Neuroscience Majors Union, Synapse, and the neuroscience education team put together its first annual Brain Games. Students who had signed up beforehand to compete formed four teams with one faculty mentor per team to collaborate on various neuroscience related games.

Faculty mentors included Dr. Jenni Groh, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, Dr. Nina Sherwood, Assistant Research Professor in Biology, Dr. Leonard White, Associate Professor in the Duke Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development, and Dr. Tobias Egner, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience.

The games consisted of 6 different sections of play. The first was the Left Brain game in which a neuroscience related word or phrase was shown to one member of a team and he or she had to use describe that word with other words so that the team could guess it.

In the second game, called Timing is Everything, teams had to chronologically arrange a given series of events such as discoveries about neurotransmitters and drugs or the order of founding of certain neuroscience/psychology programs at Duke.

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photo by Sonal Gagrani

The third game was called the Match game in which students, without their faculty mentors, had to match facts to the correct faculty to whom they belonged. Facts ranged from baby pictures of faculty to which pets they had to which instruments they played. Dr. Groh plays the banjo, Dr. Marty Woldorff juggles flaming torches and Dr. Craig Roberts has written a paper on the management of lower extremity lawn mower injuries in children. So many things you never knew about professors at Duke!

After this came the Right Brain game, similar to the Left Brain game but instead of using words, teams drew pictures of the given neuroscience phrases. The fifth game was the Numerical Cognition Game, which was essentially Price is Right: Neuroscience Version. Given a prompt, the teams had to guess the value of what was shown without going over the true value, like the myelin question. Answer: 100,000 miles!

The end of the Brain Games was a bonus round that allowed teams to bet any amount of points that they wanted. They viewed two images quickly switching back and forth that had a very slight difference between them and had to identify what that change was. This presents a phenomenon known as change blindness where it is very difficult to detect quick or subtle changes between two photos or environments. Surprisingly, all the teams were able to identify the change and all finished with comparable scores.

Shaina Gong, a sophomore neuroscience major and visual arts minor from the winning team said about the experience, “I signed up for this without knowing what I was really going to do. I was really nervous actually, like, what if I didn’t know enough neuro for this? But it was fine and really fun! Anyone interested in neuroscience should definitely try it out!”

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