Naila Kuhlmann,
PhD student, University of British Columbia
Graduate Student Award: $30,000 over two years

Morphological and electrophysiological investigation of the role of LRRK2 in activity-dependent striatal synaptic plasticity

One of the most fascinating areas of neuroscience concerns the plasticity of the brain – its ability to adapt and to form new connections in response to new information, or damage from injury or illness.
At the University of British Columbia’s Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health, graduate student Naila Kuhlmann studies the plasticity of neurons in the area of the brain called the striatum, which is affected in Parkinson’s disease.

Kuhlmann examines the structure of the neurons themselves. She focuses on parts of the brain cells called dendrites, which look like tree branches, and the knobs on the cells called spines, where connections form to other cells. Kuhlmann studies the way changes in a gene called LRRK2 affects these neurons. Mutated forms of LRRK2 are the most commonly known genetic cause of Parkinson’s disease. Kuhlmann investigates whether changes in the LRRK2 protein affect the transmission of chemicals among brain cells, and the structure of dendrites and spines.

“I’m looking at whether that mutation is having a direct effect on the structure of the neurons,” Kuhlmann says. “Structure is related to function. We know that there’s some kind of altered function in the pathology of Parkinson’s disease.”

If Kuhlmann can figure out how the mutated LRRK2 and its associated protein alter the structure of the other brain cells that regulate dopamine, the brain chemical required for muscle movement, that fundamental knowledge might help researchers design new drugs. They could then stop the progression of Parkinson’s disease at a very early stage.

“Sometimes just varying the amount of protein could fix the problem,” Kuhlmann says.

Identifying problems at the cellular level is important because if researchers determine where Parkinson’s disease originates, they may be able to intervene at that point.

Growing up, Kuhlmann had a family friend with Parkinson’s disease who was a fellow piano student. She was struck by how he gained better control of his movements when he played piano. She has thought often of her friend as she conducted her research – and his email encouraging her to keep going has inspired her.

“That was a really good moment to see who I’m affecting, and to know that people actually care about my research,” she says.

Update: At the end of the first year of her PSC National Research Program project, Naila Kuhlmann successfully secured a three-year CIHR Canada Graduate Scholarship funding award to continue with the Parkinson’s research she is pursuing.