Brain Trust: Researcher Seizes the Moment-Department of Biological Sciences - Carnegie Mellon University

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Brain Trust: Researcher Seizes the Moment

It's a typical hot summer day in the Midwest, and four youngsters are growing restless two weeks into summer vacation. Their mother suggests that the school-aged children accompany their father to work - a fix for the overwhelming boredom that sets in early into break. One daughter, in particular, thinks the trek to her dad's research lab could be fun. After all, he has mice everywhere, and mice are always fun to play with and to name. While there, maybe she will look into the micrscope.

Those kinds of days in the lab give Alison Barth exposure to her dad's cancer research and also time to consider doing her own explorations. "I always had a lot of questions and asked about what I didn't know. I tend to be a concrete type of person, and I wanted to touch and see."

Now she uses her natural curiosity to study neural functioning with a specific interest in seizure disorders. "It's the flip side of learning," she says. "It's learning gone wrong. There are parts of the brain that can help you learn a large mathematical equation and then another that creates seizures."

After completing her Ph.D. and juggling the roles of mother, wife, and scientist, she had some tough, grownup decisions to make. A number of schools were interested in having her join the faculty. "A constructive and engaged neuroscience community made the decision to move to Pittsburgh and to become part of the Carnegie Mellon community very appealing," says the associate professor of biological sciences.

Her years of research and extended hours in the lab have paid off with a recent breakthrough - identification of a new anticonvulsant compound that eliminated seizures in a model of epilepsy. Epilepsy affects millions of people and is described as a chronic neurological disorder that causes recurrent, unprovoked seizures. The findings of Barth and her team were published in Epilepsia, a leading journal of epilepsy research. Barth believes that the discovery could have a significant effect on how epilepsy is identified, treated, and understood.

Her research, which began merely as an academic interest within her field, has become more personal as she meets people coping with seizure disorders. Barth knows that all of them are counting on scientists like her to create better treatment. "It gives my work a much more personal face," she says.

She notices that the same connection holds true for many of her students as well, particularly undergraduates, who are sometimes hesitant to undertake basic research projects. Once they learn more about how brain disorders affect everyday people, Barth says it changes their perspective. "When you talk to people who have epilepsy, and how they are begging scientists for effective treatment, it gives you clarity for why you do what you do."

Barth and members of her team see themselves as laying the groundwork for new drugs used to treat patients. "We will not be the ones to save lives in the clinics," she says, " but we will effect change."

From the October 2009 issue of Carnegie Mellon Today.
Written by: Lisa Kay Davis (HS' 09)