Upstate grad student lands prestigious NIH fellowship to study dementia
An Upstate Medical University doctoral student has been awarded a competitive and prestigious fellowship from the National Institutes of Health to continue her work studying the second most common form of dementia.
Hannah Phillips is a PhD candidate in the departments of neuroscience and psychiatry at Upstate. She has been awarded a two-year, Ruth L. Kirschstein Predoctoral Individual National Research Service Award (NRSA) from NIH (called an F31) to study frontotemporal dementia (FTD), which is the second most common form of dementia after Alzheimer’s disease. The fellowship is competitive nationwide and requires a lengthy application. Only five Upstate students have been awarded an F31 grant in the last 10 years and Phillips is the only student from the PhD program to receive one.
The fellowship is meant to “enable promising predoctoral students with potential to develop into productive, independent research scientists, to obtain mentored research training while conducting dissertation research,” according to NIH.
FTD is a fatal, progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects upwards of 60,000 Americans age 45 to 65 each year. There are no treatments to slow or stop the disease, which causes changes in personality and social conduct, social indifference, overeating, anxiety and in later stages, profound cognitive impairments including compulsive-like behaviors, loss of memory and parkinsonism, or motor neuron disease. In addition, FTD is linked to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and to Alzheimer’s disease, the most common neurodegenerative disease.
Phillips’ work studies how neurons in the brain that control behaviors such as sociability are disrupted by FTD. Using a variety of tools, Phillips is working to understand how the disease changes the way the neurons fire and communicate with other neurons. She is using a tool called chemogenetics to target the diseased neurons and improve impaired social behavior in FTD.
“These results are novel and fundamentally important for understanding the mechanisms of behavior deficits associated with FTD and help to design early therapeutic intervention to slow the progression of the disease,” Phillips wrote in her project description.
The two-year award is $90,032 and extends into May 2021, which is when Phillips hopes to complete her doctorate.
Phillips’ work is personal as her great-grandmother suffered from dementia and had trouble recognizing family members at the end of her life.
“I’m really close with my grandma and I saw the toll that it took on her and the whole family,” she said. Phillips said she feels lucky to be able to continue her work thanks to the NIH support.
“It’s exciting. I feel determined more than ever,” she said, noting that her grandmother is also quite motivating. “My grandma is always calling me up and asking if I’ve found the cure yet.”
Phillips is originally from Saegertown, a small town in western Pennsylvania. Her graduating high school class had about 90 students. She received her bachelor of science in neuroscience from Allegheny College under the supervision of Jeffrey Cross, PhD.
“Syracuse was a big move for me; it felt like a big city,” she said. “Upstate has been a really good program for me to grow and build, especially with Dr. Yao. He’s been an amazing mentor.”
Professor Wei-Dong Yao, PhD, serves on an NIH panel and stressed how difficult it can be to land an F31 fellowship. He said Phillips, who has worked in his lab since 2015, is one of the best students he’s ever had.
“She’s a very special student,” he said. “The most important thing is to see the student succeed and when they are successful, they can make great contributions to the field.
“Her discovery has the potential to be translated into novel therapeutic treatments for this disorder and related neurodegenerative diseases including ALS and Alzheimer’s disease.”
Caption: Upstate doctoral student Hannah Phillips has been awarded a two-year, Ruth L. Kirschstein Predoctoral Individual National Research Service Award (NRSA) from the National Institutes of Health to study frontotemporal dementia (FTD), which is the second most common form of dementia after Alzheimer’s disease.