For years, scientists from around the world have tried their hand at cracking the mystery that is the human brain. Now, Dr. Jason Askvig and his team of student researchers are analyzing how the brain reacts in response to injury.

“Our research is trying to understand how cells in the brain communicate with each other to keep neurons alive following injury,” says Askvig, assistant professor of biology.

The ultimate goal is to develop a drug that would make the effects of a concussion or traumatic brain injury less detrimental. However, that is many years down the line. For now, Askvig and his student researchers are starting small.

Our research is trying to understand how cells in the brain communicate with each other to keep neurons alive following injury. – Dr. Jason Askvig

Their research involves measuring levels of proteins found in the brains of young rats. A rat’s brain is similar to a human’s, which makes the tissues particularly useful for research. The different levels of proteins found can tell researchers a lot about the plasticity of the animal’s brain or how much the brain is changing and adapting to accommodate an injury.

For example, the brain of a 1-month-old animal has a lot of plasticity. The brain of a 4-month-old rat has much less.

“Something changes between the young and older brain that makes the brain less likely to recover from injury, almost like a light switch is turned on or off to cause this change to occur,” Askvig says.

He and his student researchers, Erik Bye '16 and Ali Al Saegh '18, are trying to figure out what causes that change and how they can help make an older brain become more “plastic” again.

Bye and Al Saegh are enjoying the research. They are two of many student researchers working on more than 20 different faculty-mentored projects during the summer. Both Bye and Al Saegh are heavily involved in their research, using processes such as gel electrophoresis and Western blotting to measure protein levels and accomplish their goals. 

“I really enjoy how open ended it is. We don’t know what our results will be exactly, which keeps us on the lookout for clues that will lead us to the answer we are looking for,” Al Saegh says.

Bye is appreciating taking a closer look at one specific topic. “One of the most important things I’ve learned is how much of the world we don’t actually know about and how vital research is to today’s society.”