Dr. Barbara Karten
Keeping it flowing:
Dr. Barbara Karten explores brain cholesterol and its role in Niemann Pick Type C. The brain is home to a quarter of the cholesterol in the body. “Cholesterol plays a vital role in helping nerve cells send the necessary signals for functioning,” explains Dr. Barbara Karten, assistant professor of in the Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology at Dalhousie Medical School. Dr. Karten is exploring the relationship between how cholesterol is distributed in the brain and neurodegenerative disorders like Niemann Pick Type C and Alzheimer Disease.
“Cholesterol is synthesized in one part of the nerve cell and then distributed to the rest of the cell. How the distribution happens and in what quantities throughout the cell may play a part in neurodegenerative disorders,” says Dr. Karten. “If the distribution of cholesterol breaks down, it may affect the signals cells send to each other, which directly affects how the brain functions.”
Dr. Karten is focusing on Niemann Pick Type C, a rare genetic disorder which is, however, more frequent in Nova Scotia than in other regions. “We know that cholesterol is not distributed properly in nerve cells in people with Niemann Pick Type C,” says Dr. Karten. “Cholesterol accumulates in pools in the cells and does not then reach other areas of the cell. We don’t know how or why this has such a devastating effect.”
Answers to these questions could lead to treatments for Niemann Pick Type C and improve understanding of cholesterol distribution in other neurodegenerative disorders. Through her unique approach – which uses actual nerve cells instead of the more widely used models – Dr. Karten and her team study and compare cholesterol distribution in normal cells and in cells affected by Niemann Pick Type C in search of the vital answers.
“At some point, we may be able to intervene and correct the nerve-cell function but we have to understand more before that could happen,” says Dr. Karten. “If we could discover what happens after cholesterol accumulates, for example, this might help us to reduce the impact of the cholesterol-transport defect on the brain’s functioning.”