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Winning brain wave

Adrienne Benediktsson and astrocytes

While no one on Earth will ever again discover a new continent or sail an unexplored ocean, the human brain is still full of uncharted territory.

In fact, Mount Royal University Assistant Professor Adrienne Benediktsson’s research into mysterious brain cells known as astrocytes could make her a modern-day Christopher Columbus.

That’s why Benediktsson was awarded the 2010/11 Petro-Canada Young Innovator Award — a $25,000 grant that provides research funding and opportunities for researchers who do not yet have the history of research publications necessary to secure conventional funding.

“I really cannot overstress the importance of this award as I begin my independent research program here at Mount Royal,” says Benediktsson, who teaches biology courses in the Faculty of Science and Technology.

“As a young researcher it can be a significant challenge to get the startup funds necessary to initiate an independent line of inquiry.”

Revolutionary potential

Benediktsson’s research into astrocytes and their role in the brain has revolutionary potential.

“For almost a century, these cells were essentially ignored,” she says. “They were thought to be merely ‘supportive’ cells for neurons — the major cell type in the brain.”

Then in the late 1990s, research indicated that astrocytes might actually hold the key to unlocking all sorts of mysteries that stymie researchers in a range of fields.

“I was intrigued by these cells because there are so many more astrocytes in the human brain than other types of organisms. I would argue this implicates them in higher-order cognitive processing.

“Still so little is known about them. There are some pretty fundamental questions that still remain to be answered — some of which I’m hoping to contribute answers to now that I’m a professor at Mount Royal,” says the professor who joined Mount Royal last January.

Benediktsson says some evidence indicates Albert Einstein’s brain had significantly more astrocytes than the average brain. If that’s proven accurate, it opens the doorway to a whole other range of implications.

Results may help fight Alzheimer’s

Benediktsson says there is significant research indicating that astrocytes are actively involved in synapse — how certain parts of the brain communicate with and direct other parts of the brain.

“In neurons — the main cell involved in brain processes — there are tiny small sub-cellular regions with a specific morphology, or shape.

“Specific proteins are clustered there which allow that region of the neuron to have a specific function, created through synapses.

“The two neurons involved in a synapse are called either the pre- or post-synaptic neuron. Both have highly specialized microdomains that allow them to participate in this synapse.”

Brain diseases such as epilepsy and Alzheimer’s can be traced back to some type of defect in the communication between those two neurons.

Benediktsson believes astrocytes play a key role in that communication process. The more light she can shed on that role, the more people she could possibly help.

Money well spent

Benediktsson has used the award money to purchase technology and to fund travel to Tufts University medical hospital in Boston to conduct complex research she hopes will allow her to create a three-dimensional map of astrocytes.

“The impact of my research is to help build up our knowledge of basic astrocyte biology and how astrocytes develop and change over the lifetime of an organism.

“By understanding how these cells are organized at a basic level we can start to get a better handle on their inner workings and also on what might be happening in instances of injury and disease.”

Steven Noble, Dec. 22, 2010