Entry for:The Peer Prize for Women in Science 2017
1. Please give a brief summary of your work.
Forget the Mariana Trench. The deepest unexplored geographies on the planet are trapped right inside our skulls. When you stop thinking, 25% of your brain lights up. Your brain doesn’t turn off when you do. It just shifts gear to default. It’s for this reason that we call this area of the brain the default mode network and understanding what it does is critical for stopping it breaking down in brain diseases like Alzheimer’s. To do this we are training mice to play memory games using touch-sensitive computers – iPads for mice! We will also look into the brains of mice using MRI scans to see how a damaged default mode network can contribute to memory problems. If we can figure out what the default mode network does, we might be able to better understand its role in brain diseases like Alzheimer’s. This is a pretty important problem to solve.
2. Describe your approach and broader findings.
What does your brain do when you’re daydreaming?
About 20 years ago, scientists found that a large part of our brain becomes more active when we stop thinking. It’s kind of like the brain’s default mode, which is why we call it the “default mode network”. We have been using MRI scans for the past two decades to look at the brain. The brain is a highly interconnected structure with highways that transfer lots of information. These highways connect parts of the brain that need to work together. The default mode network is the most interconnected network, like the national highway of the brain.
My team and I want to understand what your brain is doing when you’re not thinking. Why is such a large part of our brain dedicated to doing nothing much? The default mode network has got to be important. We have inherited it from our monkey and mouse ancestors. But perhaps most importantly, we know that the default mode network is broken in many different brain diseases.
In Alzheimer’s disease the default mode network is the first to break down. This devastating disease causes people to lose their memory. Memory loss starts small, from where you last left your keys, and ends up with forgetting the faces of people you’ve spent your entire life with. If we can figure out what the default mode network does, we might be able to better understand it’s role in brain diseases like Alzheimer’s.
How are we doing this?
We work with mice. Mice are genetically similar to us and research has shown that they use the same brain areas for learning and memory as we do. We are training mice to use touchscreens to play memory games. They’re like iPads for mice. Our mice learn to chose between pictures on the screen and get a shot of strawberry milkshake when they get it right. These games are similar to neuropsychological tests that are being used to assess memory in people with Alzheimer’s disease. Testing mice that have a modified default mode network can teach us about what this network does and how it contributes to memory problems.
We can also look inside the brains of our mice using MRI scans and track damage to the default mode network and see how this relates to the memory problems in our mice. What we are doing in this project is different in a couple of ways. We are really lucky to have state of the art technologies in the same place, so we can put them together in a way that’s never been done before. We are working with mice that have a modified default mode network and are training them on the same tests that are used to identify memory decline in people. We are also MRI technologies from human research to measure network connections in our mice. This allows us to take our findings from mice to the clinic.
What will we end up with?
We hope if we can figure out what the default mode network does, we might be able to better understand it’s role in brain diseases like Alzheimer’s.
3. What is the wider contribution, or impact, to your scientific field(s)?
The default mode network is one of the last areas of the brain to be understood. This project will help fill this knowledge gap. The default mode network breaks down in many diseases, including Alzheimer’s Disease and Multiple Sclerosis and our work may generate new ideas on how to treat these diseases.
4. Are there any potential ideas you would like to explore to take this research further?
We would like to apply these approaches to mice containing disease causing genetic mutations. This will enable us to see how broken machinery in the brain can modify the activity and function of the default mode network and give us new leads in developing new therapies.
5. Please share a link for researchers to access a relevant publication, data-set, or thesis.
This is brand new work and we are yet to publish. You can find my research profile here https://scholar.google.com.au/citations?user=opmFIzkAAAAJ&hl=en