October 25, 2011

The Scientist: Strupp ’82 Studies Down Syndrome

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According to the National Down Syndrome Congress, approximately one in every 800 to 1,000 children is born with Down syndrome. Current research by Prof. Barbara Strupp ’82, nutritional sciences and psychology, is shedding light on the neurological bases for Down syndrome and other developmental cognitive disorders.

Strupp and her research group are studying the relationship between maternal intake of essential nutrients and these disorders. One nutrient, choline, is suggested to have powerful, long-lasting effects on mice. Strupp found that if choline levels in a mother’s diet were increased, the offspring would have improved attention, learning and memory abilities throughout their lives. These findings have important implications because Down syndrome is characterized by severe problems with these particular cognitive functions.

“If these results pertain to humans, they provide a means of improving cognitive abilities in individuals with Down syndrome.  Specifically, if a woman finds out that she is carrying a child with Down syndrome, she may be able to significantly improve the cognitive abilities of that child by increasing her intake of choline during the pregnancy,” Strupp said.

Individuals with Down syndrome develop the same neuropathological changes apparent in Alzheimer’s disease. All people with Down syndrome exhibit neurological and cognitive signs of dementia as early as their 40s. It is known that a wide array of biological factors can contribute to a person’s predisposition to Alzheimer’s. Because all individuals with Down syndrome eventually exhibit Alzheimer’s symptoms, it is likely that Down syndrome is one of these biological pathways.

“Based on these findings, we hypothesize that if a woman increases her choline intake during pregnancy, she may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease in her children,” Strupp said. “We have shown that increased maternal choline intake improves cognitive functioning in a mouse model of Down syndrome, during the period of life when they would be experiencing Alzheimer’s disease. We are now assessing whether the Alzheimer-like neuropathology is also prevented or lessened by the increased maternal choline intake.”

Lasting cognitive benefits of fetal exposure to choline have been shown in rodents, but there is still no data for humans. Strupp is currently working on a grant proposal with her colleagues to try and conduct a parallel study with human subjects.

“Animal models have been shown in a variety of cases to be good models for human cognitive disorders. The basic brain structure and chemistry is very similar across mammals,” Strupp said.

Strupp aims to discern the extent of choline’s influence during the period when a mother is carrying her offspring. By understanding the neurological changes caused by choline, scientists can more effectively treat people suffering from Down syndrome.

Strupp conducts her research with the help of student assistants. She meets with her ten undergraduates, two graduate students and postdoctoral fellow often to discuss data and statistical analysis. Her lab group tests about 70 to 80 animals on a given day. Strupp works with two collaborators in Chicago and New York in studying the neurological bases of Down syndrome, and the mechanisms by which increased maternal choline intake improves cognitive functioning in this disorder. After her lab conducts various cognitive tests on the animal subjects, she sends brain tissue samples to her collaborators. Strupp’s behavioral findings are then correlated with the neural findings of her colleagues to make inferences about the underlying neural mechanisms for the cognitive dysfunction and the cognitive benefit of the increased maternal choline intake.

Strupp said she most enjoys working with students in the research process. She gains much satisfaction from mentoring and helping students grow as scientists and as people.

“I love working with my students to discover things that will be important for improving human health. My end goal is to help improve peoples’ lives, she said.”

Original Author: Nicolas Ramos