My name is Aditi Nayak, and I am from West Windsor, New Jersey. I am currently a rising sophomore at Amherst College, majoring in Neuroscience and Mathematics. Through the STEER program, I worked with Dr. Veasey to determine if developmental lead exposure caused lasting changes to sleep-related neurons and microglia in the lateral hypothalamus.
What is your summer research project?
Recent studies associate early childhood lead (Pb) exposure with sleep issues as early as preadolescence. The Veasey lab is trying to explain this correlation by identifying the mechanisms through which developmental lead exposure impacts the nervous system in utero. To determine this mechanism, we must figure out which portions of the brain are (and are not) impacted by lead exposure. This summer, I analyzed images of the lateral hypothalamus in mice models to see if its orexinergic neurons (neurons related to the sleep/wake cycle) and microglia are injured by lead exposure. My analysis demonstrates that there are enduring changes in the projections of orexinergic neurons and microglia, which corresponds to lasting sleep issues.
What are the implications of your research?
Despite regulatory efforts, lead remains prevalent in our environment. As a neurotoxin, lead exposure can impact brain development in children, potentially leading to permanent neurological damage that manifest into lasting lifestyle changes. If we can understand the mechanisms by which lead exposure in utero injures sleep-related neurons, then we can prevent early childhood lead exposure from inducing lasting sleep problems. Through my research, we know more about which neurons and regions of the brain are (and are not) injured by lead exposure. This information serves as clues to what the exact mechanism is.
What new skills have you gained through your research?
Although this year’s STEER program was entirely remote, I had the opportunity to gain new research skills for which I am extremely grateful. For example, I learned how to use ImageJ to analyze images of the brain. The remote nature of this internship also opened my eyes to the possibilities of remote research. Learning about my fellow STEER participant’s research, I now know more public data sources and how you can use RStudio and GIS to draw conclusions from publicly available information.