Professor Flaherty, students doing research in James Center

Sophie Ackerman, Abby Scott, and Professor Flaherty (from left to right) watching Claire O’Connor observe C. elegan specimens under a microscope.

Eckerd students and faculty are collaborating to research Alzheimer’s disease this semester by testing various compounds on very tiny worms.

The worms, C. elegans, are transparent, one millimeter in length and live on temperate soil environments.

Since these worms are translucent, their neurons can be seen using fluorescent microscopy, a process that involves illuminating them with fluorescent lights while under a microscope. They also have short lifespans that allow research to be replicated quickly when using them. These factors mean that the use of this smaller model is actually more beneficial for Professor of Biology Denise Flaherty and her team.

While it may be surprising that a tiny worm could be used as a model for human memory loss, Flaherty, ensured the validity of her model.

“The reality is, the model genetic system that we use is used by thousands of investigators all around the world,” Flaherty said. “And in fact, this animal is one that investigators have won three different Nobel Prizes in either chemistry or medicine utilizing this organism.”

Alzheimer’s disease has multiple different pathologies, but Flaherty and her team are using the worms to test one of them. The pathology they’re looking at is the beta-amyloid plaques that build up in certain neurons of the worm. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, beta-amyloid is a plaque that accumulates in the brain, disrupts communication between neurons and eventually kills them.

This process is called neurodegeneration, the main hallmark of Alzheimer’s that leads to dementia, according to Flaherty.

“We have that model and sure enough, as the animal ages, the plaque builds up in the neurons and it leads to the neurons dying just like you’d expect in alzheimer’s disease,” Flaherty said.

Neurodegeneration of the worms is measured through fluorescent microscopy. Basically, the researchers wait to see if the five neurons in the worm’s tail begin to degenerate, a process that takes about nine days. These neurons glow green under fluorescent light when they’re working, but if the neurons are dying, the green glow dims. Once dead, they don’t glow at all.

Researchers test various compounds on C. elegans and determine if these compounds have an impact on the neurodegeneration of the worms as a result of plaque build-up.

Currently, the most effective compound that Flaherty and her team have used came from Associate Professor of Chemistry Joseph Larkin. Some of the other compounds they test come from the Tampa Bay Research Institute.

For Flaherty, one of the most important takeaways from her work is the importance of students working on research like this.

“I know a lot of schools don’t give you the opportunity to do research as an undergraduate, and so far I’ve been able to do so many things with Dr. Flaherty,” junior Claire O’Connor said. “It really helped me build my skills, and we’ve figured out a lot of cool stuff about the project that we’re working on.”

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