The Regeneron Science Talent Search (Regeneron STS) is the USA’s most prestigious pre-college science competition. Alumni of STS have made extraordinary contributions to science and hold more than 100 of the world’s most coveted science and math honors, including the Nobel Prize and National Medal of Science.
It brings to the fore many new types of research in science and many brilliant minds who are contributing to our society and solving age-old problems related to science, health, math, and the likes.
One such brilliant mind, participating in the Regeneron STS this year, is Indrani Das – a 17-year-old high schooler whose research will change many people’s lives. She has won the top prize in the talent search.
Das has developed a treatment that keeps neurons from dying after a brain injury. Brain tissue is composed of neurons and other supporting cells, such as glia. Neurons in the brain are interconnected to make functional circuits. If these connections are interrupted as a result of trauma, brain function is impaired.
Neurons are post-mitotic and therefore cannot divide to produce new neurons making a neuronal loss as a result of trauma profoundly detrimental to normal brain function. It is irreversible and presently there is no effective therapy available to treat victims of brain trauma. Simply put, Das’s research could be a breakthrough in brain injury recovery.
Indrani Das hails from Orendell, New Jersey. Although she is a certified medical technician, research is what fuels her passion and she aspires to be a practicing physician. Her interest in brain injury and its consequences has led her to this research.
Das’s work revolves around the behavior of supporting cells in order to prevent neuron injury and death. The brain has star-like cells called ‘astrocytes’. These astrocytes occupy the space between neurons and provide support to the proper working of the neurons.
Neurons are structures that transmit messages and information throughout the central nervous system. Therefore, both astrocytes and neurons together make an interconnected system and the proper functioning of both is essential to normal brain function. They are pretty much interconnected.
When a brain injury occurs, it primarily affects these star-like astrocytes. The process of damage to astrocytes is called astrogliosis during which these astrocytes stop taking up a chemical called glutamate, which is a neurotransmitter and is toxic to neurons. Its accumulation in the neurons starts the process of death. And as stated earlier, neurons cannot regenerate.
Thus, their death causes loss of proper brain and body function since every single neuron is associated with some function in the body. Thus, it is of vital importance that the death of neurons must be slowed down, stopped or reversed. Das’s research is exactly about that.
In hopes of using a proxy for the damaged astrocytes, Das used microRNA. The microRNA would simply mimic the work of the defective astrocytes and prevent neurons from being killed by toxin accumulation. The procedure she used worked! “Neurons are surviving. This is pretty decent,” she said in a video online.
This is a major finding and is a ray of hope for brain injury patients.
For her research, Indrani Das won $250,000 as the top prize in the Regeneron contest. She plans to use this money to help pay for college and medical school.