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Tricia Thornton-Wells: Into the Brain

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Title: Assistant professor, Vanderbilt University
Education: PhD, Vanderbilt University, 2006
Recommended by: Jonathan Haines and Dana Crawford, both at Vanderbilt University

When Tricia Thornton-Wells' great-uncle and great-aunt suffered from Alzheimer's, she found herself interested in learning more about the neurological disease — and others — in the hopes of developing better diagnostics and treatments.

Thornton-Wells focuses on the genetic and neural basis of psychiatric and developmental disorders, using magnetic resonance imaging to study the functional and structural brain-based phenotypes related to those disorders. She uses quantitative, Alzheimer's-associated phenotypes in her search for disease-associated genes. "We employ a number of statistical and computational methods that allow us to look for complex genetic interactions that may be leading to those phenotypes," she says.

"We're using some novel MRI sequences that will hopefully be able to detect the pathology of Alzheimer's much earlier than it currently is," Thornton-Wells adds. These methods could also be used in clinical trials of Alzheimer's treatments to gauge whether or not the treatments are slowing disease progression or perhaps even halting it.

But brain diseases are some of the hardest to study, Thornton-Wells says. It's difficult to do a brain biopsy or directly measure the proteins in the brain. "We're constantly trying to find ways to get at the underlying biology," she says. If there were anything that could make her job easier, she adds, it would be a way to accurately measure the levels of proteins in the brain in one simple test.

Looking ahead

Despite these challenges, Thornton-Wells expects to see be more progress in the next few years. "I think we will see a number of early biomarkers ... that are going to truly make early identification of diseases feasible," she says. In 10 years, she adds, there could be a better handle on predicting a person's risk for a certain disease.

And the Nobel goes to ...

Were she able to develop a technique to "diagnose brain disorders early on and know which genes we needed to target pharmacologically, that would be really cool," Thornton-Wells says. If she could invent a method that would allow doctors to routinely and reliably diagnose Alzheimer's years before the disease was supposed to manifest, she hopes that would be considered worthy of a Nobel Prize.

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