Buhusi’s research has shown that certain drugs can help older mice learn and remember mazes better.
By Allyson Myers
Dr. Mona Buhusi, an associate professor in psychology who specializes in neuroscience, believes that our memories are, in a way, who we are. As we age, our ability to learn and remember can decline, which can affect our ability to accomplish daily tasks, impact our quality of life, and even alter our personality.
Trained in genetics, cell biology and developmental neuroscience, Buhusi has spent much of her recent career studying how cognitive decline happens and how it can be reduced. She attributes the direction of her current research to her relationship with Dr. Ann-Charlotte Granholm, a distinguished scholar in the field of neuroscience of aging, with whom Buhusi collaborated during her time as a research assistant professor at the Medical University of South Carolina.
Buhusi moved to Utah State as an assistant professor of psychology in 2012 and established her own lab to study biological mechanisms of cognitive aging and neurodegenerative disorders, such as Parkinson’s Disease, as well as other neuropsychiatric disorders. In her latest project, Buhusi is accomplishing this work with the help of some unlikely research partners — swimming mice.
To learn about the effects of cognitive decline on learning and memory, Buhusi’s lab studies mice as they swim through a maze to an exit platform. In repeated trials of this task, young mice can more quickly and efficiently remember the correct route to get out of the maze. Older mice do not learn or remember as well as the young mice and do not perform as well.
This difference in performance based on age is due to the fact that older brains have less neuroplasticity, or ability to adapt and change in response to experiences. Older brains have smaller amounts of mature BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor), a key molecule involved in learning and memory, and more proBDNF, a precursor molecule that contributes to synapse remodeling and cell death.
Through her research, Buhusi has determined that certain drugs can modify the effects of proBDNF, enabling older mice to learn and remember the mazes better. This research could contribute to interventions to reduce or prevent cognitive decline in humans affected by aging, Alzheimer’s disease, or other forms of dementia.
“It is always easier to prevent than to treat,” Buhusi said. “If we learn how things go wrong, maybe we can learn what to do so they don’t go wrong in the first place.”
In addition to her primary research focuses, Buhusi and some of her graduate students also study how BDNF plays a role in depression and schizophrenia. Madison Treasure Areno, a psychology major, will receive a research assistantship from the Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia Research Center at USU to work with a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease. Sophia Mouritsen, a biochemistry major, has received an Undergraduate Research and Creative Opportunities (URCO) grant to study a model of depression.
Buhusi is now embarking on research focusing on the role of astrocytes, which are star-shaped glial cells, in the brain. Glial cells provide physical and chemical support to neurons.In the aging brain, astrocytes become impaired and affect our ability to recall or to update our memories. Buhusi will examine if and how drugs that target astrocytes can have a positive effect on cognitive impairment.