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Interdisciplinary neuroscience research

Crossing lines for a cause

Huntington’s disease research spans neuroscience, chemistry and more

Contact: Gary H. Piatek

​Beside a door in Central Michigan University's Health Professions Building is a small whiteboard drawing of Charlie Brown uttering his famous one-word expression.

But here, "Rats" isn't about exasperation, it's about hope. For in that laboratory are rodents that could help a team of students and professors find a safe way to decrease the symptoms of Huntington's disease in humans.

It's a goal that has sparked an interdisciplinary research effort involving faculty and students in chemistry and biochemistry, psychology, neuroscience, and medicine. In these labs, you'll find doctoral students rubbing shoulders with graduate students and undergrads — and sometimes even local high school students.


Researchers Gary Dunbar (rear right), Julien Rossignol (seated right), Ajit Sharma (rear left) and grad student Bhairavi Srinageshwar (seated left) work together on an interdisciplinary project researching Huntington’s disease.

"Any undergraduate from any discipline can become involved in a research project. They just need to ask," said Julien Rossignol, associate professor of neuroscience in the College of Medicine and project leader. He noted that high school students sometimes help out. "They all get trained and can work as much or as little as they want."

That's what makes the research teams strong, said Gary Dunbar, director of the neuroscience program and the Brain Research and Integrative Neuroscience Center.

"We learn from them," Dunbar said. "They have good ideas. Sometimes we're so focused, and we go, 'Whoa, why didn't we think of that?' We keep an open mind, so it's a two-way street."

Preparing the project

The team effort fighting Huntington's disease began like many ideas: in a brainstorming session.

This one was between neuroscience graduate research assistant Bhairavi Srinageshwar and Rossignol, trying to come up with a way to deliver altered DNA — gene therapy — into the brains of rodents with Huntington's-like conditions. They decided on nanoparticles and took the idea to Ajit Sharma and his team in the department of chemistry and biochemistry.

Collaboration makes the whole team very powerful. I don’t want to see everything from one side.” — Bhairavi Srinageshwar

The team that included Douglas Swanson and students created the "little spaceships" that would carry the genes, modified by molecular scientists, past the rodents' blood-brain barriers to the affected cells.

Sharma agreed to the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to research.

"The human body works on many disciplines ... so it's very important that we put our heads together to try to solve any medical disease. We have to have this stage with all the actors," he said.

Closing the loop and analyzing the effect on the rodents' behavior are Dunbar and his group. The hope is that if the gene therapy works in the rodents, then it should work similarly in humans, Dunbar said.

Huntington's disease isn't the only project that has brought together university researchers. Right now, Rossignol said, about six collaborative projects are addressing conditions such as spinal injuries, stroke, Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease. And Dunbar is working on complementary Huntington's disease research that he expects will produce exciting results in the not-too-distant future.

The collaborative impact

Collaborative research isn't new at CMU. It is an approach Dunbar has championed since he helped start the neuroscience program in 1987, and it was that approach that helped the department earn the Neuroscience Program of the Year Award from the Society for Neuroscience in 2013, he said.

The approach appeals to many, including Srinageshwar and the students she manages in the labs on the Huntington's study.

"Collaboration makes the whole team very powerful," she said. "I don't want to see everything from one side. Looking at a problem from different aspects helps. It gives you a better understanding of what's going on."

She said that collaboration has helped her to accept different opinions, and working in the lab made her realize that she likes teaching. She recently began working toward a Ph.D.

A taste for research

Anna Wedster, a senior in neuroscience working on the Huntington's project, said that working side by side with graduate students helped her decide to go to graduate school.

"I wanted to get a taste of what actual research was like," she said. They are doing the work that she hopes to do in the future.

Brooke Rezmer, a junior majoring in neuroscience and psychology, is working with doctoral student Andrew Stewart on a study involving stem cells and spinal cord injuries. The pre-med student said her lab work is really applicable to what she learns in class.

That squares with what Rossignol has observed over his 10 years at CMU.

"Some students had no idea they wanted to do neuroscience, and after just one year of serving, working with the grad students, they love neuroscience, and they want to do it. It is really by doing that you are learning. That is what Dr. Dunbar started in the program a long time ago."

To Dunbar, collaboration "is what makes this worthwhile: to see the students blossoming."

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