I am working on a project that studies a neural receptor that is crucial to memory formation and learning, called the NMDA receptor. While this protein is broadly implicated in cognition as well as a variety of neurological disorders, I am specifically interested in the NMDA receptor’s role in a rare condition called the Phelan-McDermid Syndrome. My cousin was diagnosed with this neurodevelopmental disorder about a decade ago, and this served as one of my primary motivations for wishing to study neuroscience. Several recent studies have demonstrated a link between impaired NMDA receptor function and a loss of SHANK3, one of the core genes that is affected in the Phelan-McDermid Syndrome. I decided to center my project on studying how this receptor functions in the mouse cortex, the area of the brain that is at the center of these studies.
The main idea of my project is to isolate the activity of the NMDA receptor in mouse cortical neurons. I will use a mixture of neural receptor inhibitors to do this, effectively blocking the effects of other neurotransmitter receptor types other than the NMDA receptor. Common tasks that accompany my project include maintaining cultures of mouse spinal cord and brain cells, assessing cultures for neural spiking, and processing electrophysiological data. I additionally work with a team of high school and undergraduate students in the lab on a weekly basis, allowing us to collaborate on each of our respective projects.
My project relates directly to the kind of research that I wish to pursue in the future, studying the underlying neurobiology of neuro-developmental conditions. I am especially interested in looking at conditions that tend to co-occur with autism such as epilepsy and sleep disorders, with the goal of better understanding the molecular basis of these associations. I hope this work can then be applied to finding more specialized treatments for these conditions when they co-occur with autism, improving individuals’ overall quality of life.