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Academic Innovation

Critical Thinking

Lab research aimed at traumatic brain injury

By Christopher Loh

Regis Today Fall 2017

Tucked away on the third floor of Regis’ Watson-Hubbard Science Center sits a laboratory that seems typical in appearance—work benches, fume hoods, dry erase boards, and a few faucets—but it is anything but typical.

In reality, the small space packs a big punch and serves as home to cutting-edge video and software systems, auditory processing equipment, brain-sample processing technology, and a microscope capable of intricate three-dimensional brain mapping.

Two National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants brought to Regis by Steven Threlkeld, PhD, program director and associate professor of neuroscience, provide the tools that are an integral part of what could prove to be one of the most promising research projects on traumatic brain injury (TBI) in the world. A project that, in turn, has become a key element of the new neuroscience program that is gaining the attention of Regis students across campus.

As Threlkeld walks through the lab, he talks with passion about building the neuroscience program at Regis that features both a minor and major and welcomes students from other disciplines such as biology. The goal is to provide real-life experience in a laboratory setting that involves data analysis and tracking as well as hands-on use of sophisticated equipment.

“We work very hard to make sure that the experiences students gain in this program are ones that they can use in real-world settings once they graduate,” Threlkeld says. “So in addition to the program’s regional collaborations with other labs, a critical element for us when building the program is that students participate in a research project for an entire year while earning their degree.”

For junior Emma Morales from Puerto Rico, the field’s professional opportunities made the decision to major in neuroscience an easy one.

“Neuroscience is a growing field with opportu­nities to join the frontline of research immedi­ately,” says Morales. “The innovative and hands-on program at Regis made me eager to declare the major.”

Senior Steeve Laborde, a biology major from Malden, Massachusetts, agrees with Morales that students are looking for experiences that provide significant job opportunities. Over the last year, both students worked with Threlkeld on the TBI research project.

“I learned multiple skills this summer that I would not have inside the classroom, skills that I can take with me to the professional setting,” says Laborde.

Before they enter the lab, however, students in the major learn about the brain, behavior, and cognitive processes from multiple perspectives including health sciences, physiology, anatomy, pharmacology, imaging, and data gathering and analysis.

The program’s interdisciplinary approach allows students to explore the nervous system from the level of molecules up to memory and emotions. Students hone critical thinking, writing, and communication skills through analysis of the newest breakthroughs and trends in the field.

Coursework culminates with a yearlong research experience in which students gain in-depth knowledge of a specific neuroscience topic through one-on-one mentorship with a faculty member or an off-campus internship.

Threlkeld and colleagues from Rhode Island Hospital’s Department of Emergency Medicine and Brown University were recently awarded a $2.6 million grant from the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

With the students’ help, Threlkeld and his team are investigating the therapeutic efficacy of a new multifunctional drug that has been shown to reduce harmful inflammation and improve sensory function after TBI in model species. The group’s initial work was recently accepted for publication in the journal Scientific Reports.

In other words, students using the small but powerful third-floor lab are helping to deliver critical research on a complex condition that affects more than 1.7 million people every year in the United States.

Originally planning to go to medical school, Laborde said he is now thinking about the possibility of exploring permanent positions in laboratory research.

“I was able to understand what we were doing and why we did it, leading to some pretty complex research,” Laborde says. “This research experience really helped to shape my future.”

Morales plans to attend medical school and wants to specialize in neurology or neurosurgery.

“I want to continue in the field of research, though I’d like to foster a bench-to-bedside medical care practice.”

Research referenced in this article was supported by the National Institutes of Health Grants R15HD077544 and RO1 NS094440-01A1.

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