Virginia Tech graduate students selected to join competitive Society for Neuroscience program

ric_adminFralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC

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Amnah Eltahir and Alyssa Brunal-Brown, Virginia Tech graduate students at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, were accepted into the Society for Neuroscience’s fellowship and associate programs, respectively.

For more than 30 years, the Neuroscience Scholars Program has offered training, mentorship, and educational resources to underrepresented graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.

“Amnah and Alyssa are exceptional early career scientists who are already making their neuroscience research impact felt well beyond our university and region,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director for the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and vice-president for health sciences and technology at Virginia Tech. “The Society for Neuroscience is the world’s premiere professional society for brain research, education and outreach. We are proud that our students from Virginia Tech have been recognized through this very selective and prestigious program and that they will have the opportunity to represent the research institute, as well as their mentors, Dr. Read Montague and Dr. Albert Pan, whose research on human computational psychiatry and animal models of human neurological diseases, respectively, is amongst the very best.”

Eltahir, raised in Fairfax, Virginia, completed a bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s in biomedical engineering from Virginia Tech. Enrolled in Virginia the Tech – Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences graduate program, she was one of 18 graduate and postdoctoral researchers named as a Society for Neuroscience fellow this year.

Eltahir is mentored by Read Montague, the Virginia Tech Carilion Vernon Mountcastle Research Professor and director of the research institute’s Human Neuroimaging Laboratory and Computational Psychiatry Unit.

Montague, a world-renowned neuroscientist working at the frontiers of computational psychiatry and human neuroimaging, identified a way to measure sub-second fluctuations in the brain neurotransmitter chemicals dopamine and serotonin during a deep brain stimulation neurosurgery. His lab was the first in the world to develop and implement the probe technology used in this new technique.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions about the dynamics of neurotransmitters and how that relates to brain health and disease in humans,” said Eltahir. “Under Dr. Montague’s leadership, we’ve been able to uncover this large and exciting area of exploration.”

Eltahir was one of 18 graduate and postdoctoral researchers named as a Society for Neuroscience fellow this year. Drawing on her quantitative physics training, Eltahir is developing faster ways to track neurotransmitter concentrations using a reduced voltage range. She hopes that, one day, this technology can be offered commercially to neuroscientists.

“This probe technology has all sorts of applications – from psychiatric diseases and human cognition to tumor detection and drug discovery,” said Eltahir.

While Eltahir studies how the brain uses chemical molecules to convey modulatory signals between neurons at chemical synapses, Brunal-Brown, who was accepted into the Society for Neuroscience’s associate program, is interested in how brain cells share signals through a different type of communication site – the electrical synapse. These synapses rely on the presence of gap junctions, structures that transfer electrically charged ions and small molecules between two cells.

“Many normal brain processes require synchronous firing and fast firing from one cell to the next,” said Brunal-Brown, a Virginia Tech Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health (TBMH) graduate student. “In our lab, we want to know if the brain is at greater risk of developing a seizure when gap junctions are disrupted.”

Brunal-Brown works in the lab of Yuchin Albert Pan, the Commonwealth Center for Innovative Technology Eminent Research Scholar in Developmental Neuroscience at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. Using zebrafish, which are transparent, researchers in Pan’s lab can visualize neural anatomy, circuitry development, and neuronal connectivity in both healthy and abnormal neurological states.

Brunal-Brown completed a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Virginia Tech and spent her summers training in neuroscience labs at the University of Virginia before joining the TBMH program.

“This Society for Neuroscience program is important to me because it will give me access to a variety of resources, mentors, and learning opportunities that are going to help advance my career,” said Brunal-Brown.

Eltahir and Brunal-Brown expect to complete their doctoral degrees within the next two years. After graduating, Eltahir hopes to continue her research in computational neuroscience, while Brunal-Brown wants to pursue a career in science policy and advocacy.