The Regeneron Science Talent Search (STS) is often called the Junior Nobel Prize. Founded in 1942, it is the nation’s most prestigious science and math competition for high school seniors. This year, 1,749 students competed for a spot among the 300 Regeneron STS Scholars – out of which only 40 finalists were chosen. These top 40 students were invited to Washington D.C. in March to display their work to the public, meet with notable scientists, and compete for awards, including the top prize of $250,000.
That top prize was won by 17-year-old Indrani Das of Oradell, New Jersey. Das is a senior at the Academy of Medical Science Technology, where she carried out her research. She entered STS in the category of Medicine and Health and conducted a three-year in vitro study on a potential treatment for brain injury.
Our brains consist of two main types of cells: neurons and glia. While neurons are regarded as the “more important” of the two because they relay messages about what we are thinking, feeling, or doing, glia- or glial cells- play a critical role as the support system of the brain. There are a few different types of glia in the brain (and even more in the peripheral nervous system) including oligodendrocytes, microglia, and astrocytes. Each of these types are needed for optimal brain function.
The third type of glial cell types mentioned above – astrocytes – was the focus of Das’s research. Astrocytes are star-shaped glia that hold neurons in place, supply nutrients, and digest parts of dead neurons. Since astrocytes cannot generate their own action potentials, or nerve impulses, they have not gotten much attention from the scientific community. However, it has recently been shown that astrocytes may actually be able to communicate with neurons and modify the signals that neurons send and receive.
Brain injuries, traumatic or chronic, inevitably lead to neuronal death. Astrogliosis is a condition in which astrocytes react to brain injury by growing, dividing, and reducing their uptake of glutamate. This has been shown to be a contributing factor to the death of neurons caused by brain injury as an excess of glutamate is toxic to neurons. In order to remediate the effects of astrogliosis on neurons, Das selected microRNA-124a as the agent to be delivered in exosomes, small vesicles that can transport therapeutic agents to cells. She made this choice as microRNA-124a has been shown to increase astrocyte glutamate uptake by existing research studies. Introducing microRNA-124a to reactive astrocytes helped improve their function by restoring their glutamate uptake, thus increasing the survival rate of surrounding neurons.
By identifying a potential major mechanism of neuronal death as well as a possible treatment method, Das has contributed much in advancing our current knowledge regarding the mysteries of the brain. Das’s research holds much potential in the fight to to treat traumatic brain injury that could lead to a stroke, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s diseases.
For a press release regarding this year’s Regeneron STS winners, click here.
For descriptions of the finalists’ research and access to the finalist book, click here.
Editor: Summer Lee