Since becoming president of Trinity College last fall, I’ve heard President Berger-Sweeney speak on many occasions. I was fortunate enough to witness her eloquent speech at her inauguration, as well as at the most recent Trinity College graduation. I’ve overheard her speaking to classmates, and I’ve even had the pleasure of exchanging words with her while out on a morning walk with her dog. However, after hearing President Berger Sweeney’s scientific talk, it was very clear to me that she is most in her element when talking about her research. In a clear and passionate manner, President Berger-Sweeney shared details with those of us present at her opening talk for the 25 years of neuroscience program regarding her work with pervasive neurological disorder, specifically Rett syndrome.
Although it was evident that President Berger-Sweeney wanted her presentation to be comprehensible to all students, I found that my fellow neuroscience majors and I were particularly well equipped to understand the many facets of her research. In addition, as a student involved with behavior neuroscience research lab with autistic mouse models, I feel I had a unique appreciation for President Berger-Sweeney’s work.
To begin, President Berger-Sweeney spoke briefly about her choice to work with mouse models instead of rats due to the amount of information know about the mouse genome. President Berger-Sweeney then delved deeper into her interest with Rett Syndrome, a regressive developmental disorder that is associated with mutations in the gene encoding MeCP2, a transcriptional repressor. President Berger-Sweeney played a short video of a young female named Esme, who represented one of the many girls with Rett syndrome. Esme had difficult with commination, characteristic had flapping gestures, irregular breathing, and was predicted to develop more of the typical complications such as loss of mobility, seizures, and scoliosis.
It was then that President Berger-Sweeney began to talk more thoroughly about the many ways she sought to find an effective treatment for Rett Syndrome. An integral finding for her research team was the role of the cholinergic system and it’s relation to reducing the negative effectives of MeCP2 mutation. Her first experiments involved the delivery of choline into her pregnant mouse models via drinking water. Her research team then assessed the development and behavior of the offspring of the pregnant models. Although such results suggested that the choline helped with increased motor coordination, neuronal health, and brain volume, there was no significant indication that cognitive development of the models were improved. Such results lead to her next experiment in which a precursor of acetylcholine, ALC, was injected into the mice. After examining cells in the dendate gyrus, it was found that ALC was in fact improving the neuronal morphology in her mouse models by increasing dendritic branching and overall neuron density. Essentially, the general health, motor function, and cognitive development were improved just as her team had hoped, but only up to post-natal day 30. At this point, a general decline of such functions was found.
After discussing some other directions for her research, as she still plans of working to find a treatment for Rett Syndrome, President Berger-Sweeney took time to acknowledge all the students that played a role in her research journey. She specifically mentioned one of her female students who struggled after graduating from Tufts with balancing her passion for scientific research and her family life. President Berger-Sweeney mention to her audience, most directly to the females in the room, that a career in science is not an easy feat, but that with genuine intellectual curiosity, dedication, and love of your work it is possible to successfully balance it all.
Ultimately, I left President Berger Sweeney’s talk with a clear picture of her passion for neuroscience, for research, and for improving the quality of life for individuals with Rhett’s syndrome. It is rare that scientific talk is both intellectually stimulating and poignant, yet I feel President Berger Sweeney hit this sweet spot. Overall, I felt the presentation “Of Mice and Men and Girls and Autism: Insights from 15 years of studying the neurobiology of mouse models of autism spectrum disorders,” was a perfect way to kick start 25 Years of Neuroscience at Trinity College.