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Biological sciences professor receives $1.24 million to study memory 

Annalisa Scimemi, pictured with a SUNY Oneonta student who interned in her lab in 2017, received over a million dollars from the NSF to answer a fundamental question in neuroscience.

ALBANY, N.Y. (July 30, 2020) — The National Science Foundation has awarded $1.24 million to an associate professor working to answer a fundamental question in neuroscience: How are different types of memories formed and stored at different times of the day, and how are they modified by different types of cells?

Annalisa Scimemi, an associate professor in biological sciences and adjunct professor in physics, is leading the 5 year project. Scimemi explains that the nervous system is highly dynamic and changes in response to different types of stimuli. Synapses, the building blocks of the brain, undergo these changes through a phenomenon called synaptic plasticity. One of the regions of the brain where synaptic plasticity is most prominent is the hippocampus, the area that is key for the formation and storage of memories (and one of the brain areas damaged by Alzheimer’s disease). When plasticity is disrupted, learning is prevented and memory becomes impaired.

There is an increasing understanding in the scientific community that astrocytes, a group of glial cells in tight contact with synapses, control various aspects of this process. Just like neurons, astrocytes can undergo structural and functional plasticity — but the implications of these phenomena on memory remains unclear. This study will work to understand how hippocampal neurons and astrocytes encode information at different times of day and their implications for learning and memory.

“Our current findings indicate that while our ability to learn new things changes with circadian rhythmicity, memory retrieval does not,” Scimemi said. “We may all have an ideal time of day when we learn things most efficiently, but we will always have a clear memory of some notable life event no matter what time you ask us about that.”

Scimemi works closely with the Alzheimer’s Association of Northeastern New York, having added a public engagement component to her undergraduate neurobiology class. Students have helped with the annual Walk to End Alzheimer’s fundraiser and staff from the Association have presented to her classes.

“As the incidence of Alzheimer's disease continues to grow, it is important that we take the opportunity to relate college classes on brain function to a disease that affects millions of people around the country,” she said.

Scimemi’s project team, including undergraduate and graduate students, will use a wide range of experiments, including electrophysiological, molecular, imaging and modeling approaches that incorporate her expertise in both biology and physics. The students who Scimemi employs are often from the Honors College and are under-represented minority students she’s recruited with the help of the Summer Research Program and the Collegiate Science & Technology Entry Program.

“The beauty of neuroscience projects like this is that they are a bridge across multiple disciplines, so we are only limited by our own imagination. Our approach comes with inevitable technical and conceptual challenges, as we need to pioneer new experimental approaches, learn from trials and errors, as we venture into the unknown.”

The project is also supported by NYCAP, a research alliance between Albany Medical Center, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University at Albany. NYCAP creates a capital investment program for researchers across the alliance's partnering institutions to attract increased federal and industry funding, create new jobs and spur economic growth.

 

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