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Weaver Models Cognitive Decline with NIH Grant
Christina Weaver, assistant professor of mathematics, with a three-dimensional representation of a neuron in the background
Inside her office in Franklin & Marshall’s Stager Hall, Christina Weaver picks up a piece of chalk and begins to draw on a blackboard. She creates a rough sketch of a neuron, the cellular building block of the nervous system. As she draws, Weaver raises questions about the relationship between the cell’s structure and function.
It would be easy to mistake Weaver for a member of the Department of Biology, but she is actually an assistant professor of mathematics—one with a strong interest in modeling biological data. She recently began a five-year grant project with collaborators at Mount Sinai School of Medicine (New York, N.Y.) and Boston University School of Medicine titled “Modeling Cellular Determinants of Cognitive Decline in Aging.” Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the project’s total budget at F&M is $352,000.
“It’s an exciting, multidisciplinary project that studies aging by looking at the structure and function of neurons using computational modeling,” Weaver says. “With aging, the shapes of neurons change, and so do their firing rates. We’re trying to figure out the relationship between shapes and rates.”
Weaver is co-principal investigator on the project with Patrick Hof, Regenstreif Professor and Vice Chair of Neuroscience at Mount Sinai. She is also collaborating with Jennifer Luebke, associate professor in the Department of Anatomy & Neurobiology at Boston University.
The project marks a new chapter in Weaver’s research in computational modeling. Prior to arriving at F&M in the fall of 2009, she worked on related projects modeling brain cells from microscope images as a postdoctoral fellow and instructor of biomathematics at Mount Sinai. Both her previous and current research projects explore how the shapes of brain cells affect the way the cells “talk” to each other. The work has far-reaching implications for designing therapeutic interventions in brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
In the NIH project, Weaver will model electrical data of neurons from monkeys. As she draws on her blackboard, she explains “optimization methods” in her work.
“You can take a basic understanding of a math equation that describes an event and decide which values best capture the data,” she says. “When we have a model that’s a good fit, we can analyze the importance of biological parameters.”
To compare her research questions to an everyday example, Weaver asks which is better for lowering cholesterol: diet or exercise? “For an older person and a younger person, the answers might be different,” Weaver says. “It’s the same kind of question with the neurons. Which biological parameters in the cells affect the firing of neurons the most?”
Weaver says that the NIH project already benefits F&M students, even though they might not participate directly in the research until next year. “I make it a point to mention my research in all of the mathematics and statistics courses that I teach. We’re asking big, complicated questions in this project,” Weaver says. “It’s multidisciplinary, and without the mathematics we couldn’t do this project. I hope it helps students understand broad questions about biological function and introduces them to computational modeling.”