Breaking New Ground

Neuronal studies on fruit flies can tell us more about brain plasticity.

Life Sciences

We may not have flying cars today — even if we do have hoverboards — but some of the work currently being done in the life sciences at NYU Abu Dhabi sounds like it’s straight out of the future, such as insects that can tell time.

Justin Blau, professor of biology, studies sleep-wake cycles in fruit flies. These cycles, or circadian rhythms, are determined by a small number of neurons in the fly brain — about 150 out of a total of 100,000 — and of these 150 neurons, eight are the most important in setting the time of day for the fly.

“The brain — in flies and in humans — is able to predict the time of day,” Blau said. “This allows animals to be harmonized with the external world and anticipate what’s going to happen ahead of time.”

Through sophisticated techniques, Blau and his team separated the eight key neurons from the rest of the fly brain and analyzed the genes these neurons express at different times of day. This allowed Blau to get a sense of what happens in the clock neurons over time. “Because they fire at specific times of day and because they grow and retract with a 24-hour rhythm, we can analyze the basic neurobiology that drives the excitability and structure of the neurons,” Blau said.

This work has implications for the wider field of behavioral science, because it teaches the researchers something about neuronal plasticity, the idea that neurons can change shape.

“Plasticity helps humans learn new things during critical periods of development, when the brain is more plastic than during other times,” Blau said. What’s more, plasticity has been associated with keeping the brain young and healthy into adulthood and beyond. “If we keep learning new things into old age, it’s thought that we can keep mentally alert, and perhaps learning may have some correlation to overall brain health,” Blau said.

Disease Intervention

Tim Dore trained as an organic chemist, but the lab he runs at NYUAD integrates chemistry and biology in a deep and important way to address challenges caused by disease.

“Everything is dynamic in physiology, and the more you understand the dynamics, the more you can understand how the body functions,” said Dore, associate professor of chemistry. “This will give us new ideas about how to make interventions in the case of disease."

His lab is working on a project that may help in the fight against cancer. A cancer-causing gene called Ras plays an important role in the runaway cell division that leads to tumors. Instead of trying to poison, burn, or remove a tumor, the team's approach is to disrupt the action that leads to cancerous cell growth.

They have created a molecule that disrupts the flow of an enzyme that activates Ras, blocking the signals that tell a cell to divide uncontrollably.

“Our strategy is to look at the beginning of the process of forming a cancerous cell," Dore said. "If we could somehow turn off Ras, we could stop these cells from rapidly dividing because the signal would stop."

NYUAD has given Dore the flexibility to hire scientists who have diverse training. This has enabled his lab to conduct different kinds of research in house. “The difference between working here and somewhere else is that here I can bring people with a range of scientific skills into my lab instead of collaborating with labs, so we are able to conduct research that we would not be able to otherwise," Dore said.

Science with a Story

Youssef Idaghdour’s lab is conducting an important study in the field of malaria, a disease that killed 438,000 people worldwide in 2015, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa. Malaria is caused by a parasite that is transferred to humans by mosquitoes. It causes symptoms similar to the flu, such as fever, chills, vomiting, fatigue, and headaches, and it can be fatal if left untreated.

Malaria is a complex disease that is challenging to study. “There is the mosquito, the human host, and the parasite, and each of these variables affect the process of malaria infection,” explained Idaghdour, assistant professor of biology.

Idaghdour’s team conducted a field study in Burkina Faso of 150 children. The design of their experiment will provide new insights into the study of malaria. In a rural area 500 kilometers southwest of the capital Ouagadougou, blood and saliva samples were collected from the children before, during, and after they were infected by the disease.

NYUAD conducts research in a rural area of Burkina Faso to study malaria at different stages of infection in children.

This will allow the researchers to see how the parasite interacts with humans during different stages of infection.

The researchers performed a genetic analysis on both the human host and the parasite to figure out what genetic variables may be responsible for the wide variation in the severity of the disease. “The genetic makeup of both host and parasite plays a large role in determining how a human will respond to infection,” said Idaghdour, “and that’s the main reason we are performing a joint analysis of both host and parasite with this study."

Sometimes when we work in the lab, we don’t know the stories behind the samples we analyze. But on this project we met the kids, we knew them, and it was an important experience because it humanized the project.

Aïssatou Diawara, postdoctoral associate

Aïssatou Diawara, a postdoctoral associate in Idaghdour’s lab, spent a month in Burkina Faso where she oversaw the collection of samples from children. “Working in the villages enabled me to see where the people affected by this disease lived and helped me to better understand the risks of getting infected,” Diawara said.

Aïssatou Diawara, postdoctoral associate, spent a month in Burkina Faso where she oversaw the collection of samples from children.

“Sometimes when we work in the lab, we don’t know the stories behind the samples we analyze. But on this project we met the kids, we knew them, and it was an important experience because it humanized the project."

Idaghdour hopes that this NYUAD-led project can make a contribution, however small, to better understanding this disease that infects hundreds of millions around the world every year. “The idea is not only to do this kind of important research, but also to somehow give back to those communities that are affected by this disease."