Researchers study dopamine’s relation to Parkinson’s disease

Nina Kahn ’18 and Professor Barbara Christie-Pope kept a close watch on their cell cultures during their summer research.

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Nina Kahn ’18

“Under the hood, I was working on feeding the cells,” Kahn said. “That’s what we need in order to keep the cells alive.”

Kahn said she got a late start in her interest for biology, but it only took one class her junior year with Professor Christie-Pope to know she wanted to help with Christie-Pope’s long-running Parkinson’s disease research. This biology professor’s interest and research on the topic started more than 30 years ago.

“We examine the cells that degenerate in the midbrain resulting in Parkinson’s disease,” Christie-Pope said. “Parkinson’s disease is the second most common neurodegenerative disease behind Alzheimer’s disease. The loss of those particular dopamine-containing cells leads to all kinds of ramifications regarding movement, eventually regarding cognitive abilities. The question is why do those cells die? No one knows.”

The two exposed their cell cultures to a neurotoxin that causes the cells to die in order to gain a better understanding of how and why the cells might degenerate in Parkinson’s disease.

“Although dopamine is necessary for normal functions in the brain, it can also be toxic and might be responsible for the death of cells containing this neurotransmitter,” Kahn said.

Christie-Pope said that when dopamine is first made in a neuron, it has to be quickly put into a membrane-bound vesicle. 

“If it remains in the cytoplasm where it is made, it can be metabolized into a neurotoxin,” she added. “So, it seems logical to look at this ability to load dopamine into these vesicles. Maybe the degeneration of dopamine-containing neurons is due to a defect in the ability to put dopamine inside those vesicles.”

Kahn and Christie-Pope know their research is just a small piece of a much larger puzzle behind a disease that impacts so many lives.

“Eventually, hopefully—I hate to use the word cure—but if we could understand why something happens, maybe we could prevent this from happening,” Christie-Pope said.

Kahn added that she hopes their work can provide helpful insight to other researchers studying Parkinson’s disease.

“It is really amazing that I get to be kind of a part of this—a small piece in this giant research,” she said.

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    Nina Kahn '18

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