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By Ginger Hall Carnes
Martin Paukert, M.D., is on the cutting edge of working with cells that have long been under-appreciated, yet could play a role in our ability to pay attention and help slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease or eventually prevent onset of the disease.
Dr. Paukert, who joined the Joe R. & Teresa Lozano Long School of Medicine in December 2013, has an eight-person lab focusing on astroglia cells and how they interact with neurons in the brain. He was awarded a five-year, $2 million grant from the Robert J. Kleberg, Jr. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation in 2015.
Most people have heard of neurons, which are the electrically active cells of the brain, but few are familiar with glial cells. “Substantial methods for studying electrical activity in neurons have been available for more than half a century; in contrast, optical and genetic means applicable to studies of glial cell function have rapidly emerged only during the recent decade,” said Dr. Paukert, assistant professor in the Department of Cellular and Integrative Physiology.
“Glial cells undergo dynamics in a rich repertoire of signaling molecules during awake behavior, yet they are often not considered in models of healthy brain function. That is why we want to study them and understand how they interface with neurons in health and disease,” he said. For many years glial cells have been regarded as “passive cells that fill the space, provide energy and are responsible for other housekeeping functions for neurons,” but in recent years researchers have been finding increasing evidence that the glial cells play a more active role during brain development as well as throughout life, Dr. Paukert added.
“In our case, we want to understand how these cells interact with each other, what goes wrong, so that one could potentially develop ways to influence their interactions with neurons and slow down disease processes or, ideally, prevent them from happening.” Using genetically engineered mice, researchers are studying how the brain works differently when the animals are “awake but resting,” such as sitting still on a treadmill, or “actively engaged” in locomotion on a treadmill.
Dr. Paukert is especially grateful to be sharing expertise with Manzoor Bhat, Ph.D., professor and chairman of the Department of Cellular and Integrative Physiology. “His research also is focusing on the interactions between a different kind of glia and neurons which allow neurons to transmit signals long distances, so he has a similar interest from a different angle. That is one of the aspects that attracted me to San Antonio,” he said. “Studying glia is still an evolving, novel field, and we expect to uncover the fundamentals of the importance of various glial cells for modulating neuronal function and survival in an intact animal.”