One thing that I really enjoy about being a PhD student is getting to explain my research to others – so I thought it was about time to give you all a little snapshot into what it is that I actually research! Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia and is an extremely complex disease. As a result of this complexity and sadly a lack of funding we still don’t quite fully understand the disease.
This is where myself and my research lab come in. The research we do falls into the realm of basic science – however there is nothing basic about basic science.
The aim of basic science research is to expand our knowledgebase and to increase our understanding of different subject areas within science. Our lab is specifically interested in expanding knowledge about the role of interneurons in the brain, and how Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia and heart disease affect how our brains function.
We specifically investigate a mechanism within the brain called neurovascular coupling. Neurovascular coupling is the term used to describe an essential relationship between neurons and blood flow.
Our brains are a truly spectacular organ – they are highly vascularised – with approximately 400 miles of blood vessels and need a constant energy supply. When neurons in our brains fire this is closely followed by an increase in blood flow to that same brain region. This increase in blood brings with it nutrients that are essential for healthy neurons. If blood flow in the brain is impaired for some reason then our neurons and other brain cells don’t get the energy they need to work correctly, which can be damaging.
As a lab and as part of my research project we want to learn how neurovascular coupling is affected in Alzheimer’s disease and we do this by using different preclinical models of Alzheimer’s disease.
In order to fully understand neurovascular coupling, we use a variety of imaging techniques that give us an insight into what is happening inside the brain. We use optical imaging methods, where we shine four wavelengths of light on the brain, this allows us to measure changes in the oxygenation of the blood within the brain and from this we can learn how Alzheimer’s disease may be impacting blood volume within the brain.
We also use techniques that allow us to measure neural activity at the same time as measuring changes in blood oxygenation levels – by measuring both neural activity and blood oxygenation at the same time this can give us an insight into the whole mechanism.
We also use two-photon microscopy – a relatively new technique that allows us to get an insight into what is happening at the single vessel level – using this we are able to look at blood flow within the brain and assess how single blood vessels in the brain are involved in neurovascular coupling.
But why are we so interested in neurovascular coupling? Well, research suggests that this mechanism is impaired in a number of neurodegenerative diseases – including in Alzheimer’s disease!
Our job – as basic science researchers is to learn more about the mechanism, in both health and disease. By using Alzheimer’s disease models and the methods I’ve briefly mentioned we can investigate if, how and potentially why this mechanism may be impacted by Alzheimer’s disease.
The more we learn about this mechanism and its role in Alzheimer’s disease, the more likely we are to be able to understand the disease in greater depth. The more we understand a disease, the closer we get to figuring our potential new treatments!
Interested in getting involved in this research area? There are two competition funded PhD projects available in the Sheffield Neurovascular lab! Use the links to learn more about project 1 and project 2.
Beth Eyre is a 2nd year PhD Student at The University of Sheffield, researching Neurovascular and cognitive function in preclinical models of Alzheimer’s disease. Beth has a background in psychology, where she gained her degree from the University of Leeds. Inside and outside the lab, Beth loves sharing her science and we are delighted to have her contributing as a regular blogger with Dementia Researcher, sharing her work and discussing her career.
You can follow Beth on Twitter Follow @bethsbrainbites
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