Dr. Barbara Karten
"Good cholesterol" :
The brain is home to a quarter of the cholesterol in the body. This cholesterol must be kept at the right levels at all times, to facilitate proper brain function. Cholesterol from the circulation, however, cannot get into the brain. Everything the brain needs, it must make itself.
"Most of the cholesterol in our brains is made in the glial cells, which surround the neurons," says Dr. Barbara Karten, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology at Dalhousie Medical School. "But some nerve cells make their own cholesterol. This takes a lot of energy, so there must be an important purpose."
Dr. Karten and her team are studying these nerve cells in culture, to learn more about their function and how and why they make cholesterol.
“These nerve cells are involved in learning and memory," she notes. "We want to know if the cholesterol they produce plays a role in synaptic plasticity, which is their ability to adapt changes and strengthen or weaken connections between nerve cells to enable learning and memory."
Disturbances in cholesterol production and distribution in the brain could play a role in neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer's disease and Niemann Pick Type C, as well as age-related cognitive decline.
Dr. Karten is intrigued by the insights to be gained by examining sections of real brain tissue, which would allow her to study not just the nerve cells themselves but the glial cells that surround and nourish them.
Understanding how neurons and glial cells work together in cholesterol production and transport would give us a more complete picture of cholesterol's role in the brain," she says.
This kind of tissue analysis can be accomplished with the aid of sophisticated tissue processing equipment like the Leica HistoCore PEARL, being purchased through the proceeds of the 2018 Spring Molly Appeal.
"At some point, we may be able to intervene and correct problems with cholesterol production and distribution to protect brain function," says Dr. Karten. "But first we need to uncover precisely how cholesterol metabolism changes with age and disease, and how this affects brain function."