INSIDE Chico State
0 February 28, 2002
Volume 32 Number 11
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
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New Light on the Old Synapse: Resident neuroscientist takes a closer look

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Holt Hall’s upper level, crammed with hidden laboratories and office warrens for the scientifically inclined, resembles a rat’s maze. Certainly a superior sort of logic is required to find Professor Jonathan Day’s digs there, but once located, the research scientist and human physiology professor within turns out to be a relaxed, articulate individual reassuringly lacking clipboard, stopwatch, or lab coat.

Day, who this spring begins his fourth semester at CSU, Chico, is the university’s resident neuroscientist. Beginning next fall, his teaching duties, which up until now have concentrated on enlightening nursing, physical education, and nutrition majors on the intricacies of vital biological functions, will include a graduate-level course in neuroscience. He’s also lead author of a paper recently submitted to Nature Neuroscience titled “Calcineurin Expression Increases Following Hippocampal Lesion: One of Seven Markers of Synaptogenesis.” It represents five years of research into congruent regeneration and offers interesting evidence that should prove helpful in understanding and combating diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, whose symptoms occur after substantial neuron loss.

“There’s a naturally occurring mechanism that takes place when synaptic connections die,” explained Day. “What happens is another neuron will make an additional connection to replace the missing one. It’s called synaptogenesis. And that’s actually the process we study. We’re interested in what kind of molecular signals, often an increased presence of genes such as calcineurin, control this synaptogenetic response. We know that this process takes place in brains undergoing Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s diseases. We know it takes place in brains damaged by trauma or subjected to some sort of toxic insult. What we’d like to be able to do is say to someone suffering this type of nerve damage, ‘What you need over here are some more synapses; here’s something that will make you more.’”

That “something” could quite possibly be a group of naturally occurring and synthetic compounds that mimic the action of neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers that send signals from one nerve cell to the next. For instance, Parkinson’s patients given L-Dopa, a precursor to the neurotransmitter dopamine, notice an alleviation of their symptoms. Glutamate serves much the same function with Alzheimer’s symptoms, but since too much of it induces seizure, it can’t be used to treat patients. Day’s study of the molecular “markers” that are present during synaptogenesis represents a possible avenue for determining where the process is taking place, and treating it, well before the degenerative symptoms of nerve-related diseases manifest.

Funding for his research comes primarily from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. NIH oversees “a small pot of government money” known as Academic Research Enhancement Awards, which it doles out to qualifying undergraduate universities such as CSU, Chico. The National Science Foundation’s Research for Undergraduate Institutions grants offer similar funds.

“These institutions feel that in order to get good graduate students and researchers, they have to start at the undergraduate level, at schools like this,” observed Day. “There’s an interest in making sure these kids have an opportunity to do research at a competitive level and see whether they have a taste for it. So we design experiments and keep our level of research effort focused on things students can do in a laboratory. We use some very classical and basic techniques to look at these questions.”

Before coming here, and bringing along his laboratory’s worth of reconditioned equipment that Chico State purchased, Day spent seven years as an assistant professor at Penn State, serving half his time in the biology department and the rest as an assistant director for the university’s gerontology center. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Maryland, where his study of neurohormones focused on the semilunar spawning cycle of an inner-tidal minnow known as Fundulus heteroclitus.

Chico State’s “been good to him,” he said, and pursuing his research at a university not particularly known for it doesn’t bother him in the least.

“Just about everybody on the faculty does some kind of research,” he commented, “and most do it out of inclination rather than obligation.”}

Taran March

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