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UAlbany Students, Faculty Researchers Participate in SUNY Brain Program

ALBANY, N.Y. (Sept. 2, 2014) – Two University at Albany students and three faculty researchers were among the first class of the SUNY Research Foundation’s Brain Summer Scholars Program, an initiative of the SUNY Brain Network of Excellence.

Thirteen students were chosen from 70 applicants to partake in an intensive 10-week program, including UAlbany students Thomas Yocono ’15 and Roi Ankawa ’16. Research conducted was in support of President Obama’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN), an initiative to develop new ways to treat, cure, and prevent brain disorders.

A Clifton Park, N.Y. native and physics major in UAlbany's honors program, Yocono was selected to develop research at Stony Brook University with professor Hoi-Chung Leung in her Cognitive Neuroscience Lab. He focused on the functional connectivity of the amygdala; located under the brain’s prefrontal cortex, the amygdala plays a strong role in emotional processing and reactions. It has a direct association with stress, depression and anxiety.

Yocono, a psychology minor, analyzed data from 44 children, ages 9-12, to measure interaction between the amygdala’s three subdivisions and other areas of the brain. Studies have concluded that prolonged stress and anxiety during childhood increase the risk of developing anxiety disorders and/or depression later in life. His findings concluded the age group already having connectivity patterns similar to young adults.

“By combining my background in physics and love for psychology, I felt this opportunity was a great fit for me,” Yocono said. “Developing and reporting on neuroscience research has given me an entirely new skillset I can apply to my major and future career.”

On the UAlbany campus, Ankawa, currently residing in Harrison, N.Y., and honors biochemistry/molecular biology major, was assigned to support the research efforts of assistant psychology professor Ewan McNay. She focused on the link between type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia. Though the connection is not fully understood, recent studies have indicated a direct correlation between lack of insulin - the underlying cause of diabetes - and brain cell deterioration.

Under the mentorship of McNay and his neuroscience research lab manager, UAlbany senior Kelsey O’Leary, Ankawa was tasked with analyzing the brain, specifically the hippocampus, of lab rats in a cell culture environment. Her research aimed at understanding the similar dysfunctions of patients with Alzheimer’s and type 2 diabetes on a cellular and behavioral level. She also analyzed the use of an antioxidant supplement for potential Alzheimer’s treatment. Results are ongoing.

“The complexity of the brain and its control of almost all bodily functions and behaviors make it such an interesting and diverse research topic,” Ankawa said. “Understanding this neurodegenerative disease [Alzheimer’s] will ultimately make it more likely that we will find a cure or better treatment. While some of our findings may be minor, they all help contribute to the global understanding of the brain by revolutionizing and challenging ideas.”

UAlbany assistant biology professor Annalisa Scimemi and neuroscience researcher Gerwin Schalk also served as SUNY Brain mentors. Scimemi hosted SUNY Oneonta student Marvin Rodriguez on campus while Schalk worked with Stony Brook student Vyassa Baratham at the New York State Department of Health’s Wadsworth Center.

The SUNY Research Foundation recently awarded UAlbany and Stony Brook $106,500 for neuroscience projects supported by the SUNY Brain Network of Excellence. Read more on awarded projects.

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A comprehensive public research university, the University at Albany offers more than 120 undergraduate majors and minors and 125 master's, doctoral, and graduate certificate programs. UAlbany is a leader among all New York State colleges and universities in such diverse fields as atmospheric and environmental sciences, business, criminal justice, emergency preparedness, engineering and applied sciences, informatics, public administration, social welfare, and sociology taught by an extensive roster of faculty experts. It also offers expanded academic and research opportunities for students through an affiliation with Albany Law School. With a curriculum enhanced by 600 study-abroad opportunities, UAlbany launches great careers.