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Nearly everyone becomes a sports fan during Olympics season. Viewers the world over sit by radios or televisions to cheer their country’s athletes on to gold. What viewers dread to think of, however, is injury, particularly serious ones that could put their athletes out of commission.
Traumatic brain injury (TBI) has been in the news recently in relation to football players, but many Olympic sports also carry the frightening possibility of TBI: boxing, rugby, field hockey, soccer, and diving. Non-athletes are also at risk from car accidents or falls; in fact, TBI affects 1.7 million people annually in the US alone.
The prevalence of these types of injuries has led professors in Washington College’s psychology department, such as Dr. Cynthia Gibson, to research the effects of TBI and possible treatment options. This summer, she worked with Lauren White ’14 to study the link between TBI and Alzheimer’s disease.
“Although a single moderate-to-severe injury is known to be a risk factor for early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, little is known about the outcome of repeated concussions, a mild form of TBI,” Dr. Gibson explained.
The mice in their experiment were assessed based on learning ability, as measured using the Barnes Circular Maze, and on the amount of a protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease found in the brain. “We found that there was significant cognitive decline in the injured mice compared to the control mice,” Lauren summarized. She and Dr. Gibson also found that these effects were more pronounced in older animals than younger ones.
While Lauren was investigating the effects of TBI, another student, Ian Barry, worked to find possible treatments. He and Dr. Gibson investigated a compound called rolipram, which previous studies found to increase cognitive function.
Ian’s work, though, found the mice’s behavior unchanged after rolipram was administered. “The mice’s injuries were too mild, and didn’t affect mice behavior at all,” he said, so there wasn’t much that the behavioral studies could teach them. He is currently awaiting the results of physical tests on the mice’s brains.
The experience was very rewarding for Ian, and relevant to his future plans. “The entire SCE program is unique to WC. When you apply for graduate school, they don’t expect you to have research experience, but I conducted this experiment largely by myself. It’s definitely an advantage.”
Lauren, for her part, considers herself “lucky” to have had this opportunity. “This was truly an amazing summer for me.”
Dr. Gibson enjoys the opportunities to work with students. “They bring lots of fresh ideas and enthusiasm to the table,” she said. “One of the primary reasons I chose to become a professor was because I love helping students develop their knowledge and skills and then apply them in creative new studies and projects.”
Both Lauren and Ian plan to present their findings at the Eastern Psychological Association’s March 2013 conference in New York.
— Emily Blackner ’13