Rita Cowell, PhD has joined Southern Research as Chair of the Neuroscience Department. Cowell is examining the mechanistic underpinnings of why people develop neurodegenerative diseases.
"Some of these disorders actually converge on similar pathways in the brain. Even though they look different on the outside, if you look at one region of the brain, the process at the cell level is very similar," Cowell said. "If we could understand what that process is, we could use one drug to target one set of symptoms that is common to these diseases."
Neurodegenerative diseases affect millions of people worldwide. Alzheimer's and Parkinson's are the most common types in the U.S., with Alzheimer's affecting more than five million people while Parkinson's affects at least 500,000, according to the NIH. These diseases occur when nerve cells in the brain lose function and eventually die. Other disorders in this group include Huntington's and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). In addition, schizophrenia is a disorder with some similar characteristics that have been examined in Cowell-led targeted investigations.
Cowell's research has focused on how cellular pathways in the brain are disrupted in these diseases.
"All these diseases have characteristic symptoms. Someone will go into a clinic with a memory problem or they have a problem with uncontrolled movements," she said. "What distinguishes these diseases and their symptoms from each other is the cell types in the brain that are dying."
In Parkinson's, for instance, the neurons in the brain producing dopamine are dying, whereas the neurons producing acetylcholineare are dying with Alzheimer's.
"We're trying to use our understanding of the basic biology of how neurons work to understand how they're aging and how they're dying in people who have these disorders," Cowell said.
Cowell joins Southern Research after 10 years at UAB, where she last served as associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurobiology.
Southern Research and UAB are close collaborators and joined together to form the Alabama Drug Discovery Alliance, which is currently funding three neuroscience projects.
Cowell said Southern Research's extensive drug discovery capabilities allow her to pursue her goal of developing a small-molecule drug that could prove useful against a number of neurological diseases. Her laboratory has identified a target that could play a role in the development of these disorders - a protein named PGC-1 alpha.