A quiet, gentle-speaking man, Dr. Ashok Hegde’s office is adorned with artwork by Renoir and Monet.
But his brain’s occupied with scientific concepts unintelligible to most. Things that may someday help people with dementia and other brain disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease.
“Neuroscience is the final frontier in biology and maybe in all of science. We know a lot about the brain, but we still don’t know everything,” said Hegde, the William Harvey Professor of Biomedical Science, who recently scored Georgia College a $381,357 grant for undergraduate research from the National Institute of Health (NIH).
“Generally, people are living longer and longer, and that means we’ll have more and more problems of the brain,” he said.
It could be 10 years before research yields results: Drugs that can improve connections in the brain or block things that destroy memory.
It’s the first time Georgia College has received a grant from that federal agency. It’s unusual too, because competition’s fierce even among larger, research schools. Less than 15 percent of applications each year get funded.
The grant is “very significant” and “equally-historic” - like another first grant last fall from the National Science Foundation, according to Dr. Indiren Pillay, chair of biological and environmental sciences.
“This is an immense achievement. Not only does it put us in the forefront of doing cutting-edge research; it also serves as a great platform for our undergraduate students to get involved in neuroscience research,” Pillay said. “For me, getting the grant is one thing. But what the grant brings is opportunity for our students. And that’s what will enhance our program. That’s what it’s all about.”
The university had to provide the government evidence its research will work. This included preliminary data, innovation, introduction of new concept, methodology and proper description of plans. Hegde also had to show his past history, publications and contribution to science.
Hegde did postdoctoral research on sea slugs at Columbia University in New York City, where he and his mentors were first to discover a critical role for the “ubiquitin-proteasome pathway” – a set of cellular proteins that function in the brain’s ability to retain memory. Snails were used, because their brains are simple with only 20,000 nerve cells - compared to a human’s, which has 86 billion.
That discovery led to more research on mice, when Hegde was an independent investigator at Wake Forest School of Medicine. He found the ubiquitin-proteasome pathway played additional roles in long-term memory formation. With this NIH grant, Hegde now hopes to discover new mechanisms by which genes can be activated electrically to strengthen neural pathways in the brain.
“We have found something that we think is very important for turning on the genes that are important for changing the connection between nerve cells. Nobody else has done this particular part. It’s a small part in the big picture. But an important one,” Hegde said.
The grant is being used to purchase special machinery, chemicals, microscopes and computer software to analyze data. Money will also pay the salary of a postdoctoral Research Fellow and stipends for undergraduates to continue their work in the summer.
Four students currently work with Hegde. Senior biology major William Anda of Peachtree City said he’s excited to join Hegde’s team, because the research is “completely unique.”
“The work in this lab is an opportunity I never dreamed of having during my undergraduate education,” said Anda, who hopes to become a neurologist. “Dr. Hegde is an excellent teacher and mentor. I’ve always been impressed with his ability to teach and to understand that we are undergrad students, who are new to this research.”
As a senior, biology major Daniel Chung of Marietta says he won’t be around long enough to do more than set a foundation for the three-year project. But even that, he said, is a “huge honor” and will provide skills for a career in medicine.
Allison Pourquoi of Dalton is a junior majoring in biology and manages daily activities in the lab. “Vast knowledge” gained from this experience will “definitely set me apart from other biologists,” she said. That sentiment is echoed by Kayla Ernst of Buford, a freshman biology major, who hopes to work with Hegde through the entire project.
Students will study the brains of mice, which have largely the same gene composition as humans. They will examine pathways that turn on genes in nerve cells and measure changes in electrical communication along pathways between nerve cells.
“If we understand how long-term memory works at the very basic level, then we can find ways to manipulate it,” Hegde said. “These kinds of techniques are not new, but the questions that we are asking are new.”