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Rutgers Research: Following the Trail of Cell Death in Patients with Epilepsy to Find Ways to Preserve Brain Health

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Scientists have known for years that seizures in patients with epilepsy cause progressive cell death in the brain. What they did not know was why this was happening.

That may change with a new line of research led by Professor Wilma Friedman of the Department of Biological Sciences at Rutgers University, Newark.  The research is funded by a recently awarded, four-year, $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

“Researchers have identified a likely culprit in this post-seizure damage, and its name is P75,” says Friedman, professor of cellular neurobiology. P75 is a receptor for a specific type of chemical in the brain called a growth factor. Growth factors can regulate the normal functions of a cell, or they can tell a cell to self-destruct.

“When a growth factor called ProNGF binds to the P75 receptor on damaged nerve cells following a seizure, it causes them to die,” Friedman says. Understanding this process can help researchers determine how to prevent cell death from happening.

This research has the potential not only to benefit people with epilepsy, but also those who suffer seizures as a consequence of traumatic brain injuries and strokes. In addition, it may shed some light on how to prevent cell death in degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Friedman and her team of Rutgers researchers are working in an ongoing collaboration with Barbara Hempstead, MD, Ph.D., at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. They have also recently developed a working relationship with Helen Scharfman, Ph.D., Nathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research, who is associated with New York University’s Langone Medical Center.

A key to learning how the ProNGF growth factor works with the P75 receptor is following it through the brain after a seizure. Similar in concept to how the migration of birds is monitored with tagging, scientists will biologically tag the proNGF growth factor in mice. That will allow them to follow where the growth factor goes in the brain, what it does, and how it functions in the cell-death process. Once the process is better understood, researchers will test various molecules, already approved by the Federal Drug Administration, in hopes of finding one that blocks the P75 receptors and thereby prevents cell death.

Friedman has worked at the Department of Biological Sciences at Rutgers University, Newark, for nearly a decade. She has been involved in neurobiological research for more than 30 years at several prestigious institutions including Columbia University, the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, Karolinska Institute in Sweden, and the Rockefeller University in New York.   She is a graduate of The Rockefeller University (Ph.D.) and Oberlin College (B.A.).

“I find research on the brain to be one of the most fascinating fields of scientific study,” Friedman says. “There’s still so much we don’t know and need to discover. It’s a mystery that is constantly being unraveled bit by bit. The more we know about it, the more potential there is for the development of new therapeutic treatments. That’s very exciting.”

For further information on Wilma Friedman’s research, please visit  http://newarkbioweb.rutgers.edu/department/FacultyProfiles/friedman.html.