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STEMINISM

Rebuilding the brain: How a researcher is studying the injured brain’s ability to fix itself

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STEMINISM

By now, I’ve spoken to enough researchers to know that there isn’t one clear path into one’s respective field. People find their passion as early as elementary school or decades later. For Samira Moorjani, a research assistant professor at the UW, this journey started during her graduate school years.

Moorjani majored in biomedical engineering as an undergraduate, and enjoyed working with tech and figuring out how things worked.

She was uninterested in the Indian biotech market, which focused primarily on agriculture, prompting her to move to the United States and try her hand at something else.

Over the next couple of years, she worked in labs and studied tissue cultures on an almost exclusively subcellular level. During her postdoc, she began studying the neuron itself, introducing her to the field of neuroscience. 

It was around this time that her husband was diagnosed with a movement disorder. She began reading different studies and found a disconnect between the literature and the clinical research. The literature studied the brain in the way Moorjani understood it, dynamic and ever-changing, but that wasn’t how they treated it in the clinical setting.

“In clinics, the adult brain was seen as more static,” Moorjani said.

She disagreed.

Brain plasticity is the brain’s capacity to modify and strengthen its connections to essentially rewire itself in cases of injury or degeneration.

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The brain has certain cues for changes where various inputs can change the brain itself. Moorjani wants to study how to harness these cues to induce plasticity.

Moorjani explored the natural ways in which our brains induce plasticity and strengthen neural connections, often induced by exercise and enrichment of the brain. Researchers study this by observing rats, comparing the ones who live in the enriched environment to the caged rats. 

The enrichment arena works on cognitive enrichment where the rats solve problems, get treats, and have running wheels. They also add aspects of novelty in which the rats have new toys to play with each week.

They also try to study social learning by placing injured rats with injured ones, who are typically more motivated, in hopes that the injured animals will learn from the others. 

While the natural methods are extremely powerful in their own ways, they are not always sufficient. Moorjani and her team are working on artificial ways of inducing the same plasticity. These are more applicable in cases of injury where remedies such as exercise and enrichment just won’t cut it.

Their method uses closed-loop electrical stimulation reliant upon on spike timing. The idea is that researchers will artificially fire neurons in close proximity of when other neurons have fired and, theoretically, their collective connection is strengthened.

The second artificial technique is the delivery of neuromodulators. Neuromodulator is merely a fancy term for a type of chemical that plays a role in plasticity by helping neuronal growth. This chemical works on the neuron itself, elongating its various parts such as dendrites and axons which induces a strengthening connection, which is essentially the baseline concept of plasticity. 

Her lab is a collaborative space with engineers working on electrical stimulation and neuroscientists studying the effects of brain plasticity. 

“The way we are approaching this is sort of more general,” Moorjani said. “We hope that our interventions will be applicable across a wide range of neurodegenerative disorders.”

From an engineer to a neuroscientist, Moorjani’s path was unconventional but led to her research today. She hopes to use the concept of brain plasticity and apply it a large array of disorders. While she acknowledges that her research on its own cannot do that, it’s a step forward.

Reach Assistant Science Editor Ash Shah at science@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @itsashshah

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