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NYMC Students Receive Touro Fellowship Grants to Support Research

The goal of the competitive program is to provide support for high quality, student-initiated summer research projects across the TCUS.

February 10, 2021
Saqlain Javed, left, M.S. candidate, and Stella Iskandarian, SOM Class of 2023

Working under the mentorship of Jana Veliskova, M.D., Ph.D., professor of cell biology and anatomy, obstetrics and gynecology and of neurology, Ms. Iskandarian’s project explored sex differences in brain excitability and cognitive disturbances following Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) associated with severe stress. “TBI leads to cognitive and behavioral disturbances and can lead to post-traumatic epilepsy,” she says. “These negative outcomes are more common in victims who suffered severe stress at the time of TBI suggesting an additive effect.”

While clinical studies show that sex differences exist in sensitivity to TBI-induced brain injury and in response to severe stress, many pre-clinical studies focus more on male subjects. Therefore, Ms. Iskandarian chose to focus her research on the use of the double trauma TBI model (acute severe stress + TBI), which was pioneered by Dr. Veliskova, to study female rats in order to develop more adequate data and knowledge to treat female patients.

“I chose this project because it was important for me to incorporate what I am truly passionate about in my journey to becoming a practicing physician-scientist,” says Ms. Iskandarian. “In addition to fulfilling my curiosities in neuroscience, I want to do my part in addressing the importance and complexity of women’s health and in expanding the knowledge base that we have in order to do right by our female patients. I’m extremely thankful for the opportunity to work with Dr. Veliskova, who shares this vision, has done immense work in the field and has helped me understand how I may apply my specific interests into academic work.”

Mr. Javed, working under the mentorship of Christopher S. Leonard, Ph.D., interim chair and professor of physiology, explored the possible causes of cataplexy, an abrupt episode of muscle weakness and postural collapse while fully conscious, which is related to narcolepsy.

“A loss of neurons that synthesize the neuropeptide orexin, which is associated with the sleep-wake cycle, produces the sleep disorder narcolepsy with cataplexy in humans and animals,” says Mr. Javed. “How symptoms of this disorder come about are not well understood, but evidence indicates that cataplexy can be prevented by restoring orexin actions at serotonergic neurons in the brainstem.”

To gain a better understanding of how orexin acts on these serotonergic neurons, Mr. Javed further examined the sodium leak channel (NALCN) to try to determine if NALCN protein is localized to serotonergic neurons. “Our preliminary findings indicate that NALCN is present in serotonergic neurons and some of their neighboring cells. After we successfully knock out NALCN in this region, we will then be able to test whether the loss of the NALCN channel prevents orexin action on the neurons. This finding could identify another molecular target in the pathway producing cataplexy and provide a potential target for future therapeutic intervention.”