Dr. Ying Zhang
A new territory in exploring ALS:
One of Canada’s top-ranked spinal cord researchers, Dr. Ying Zhang is known for her work to unravel the complex web of neural networks that enable us to move. Her findings will expand our view of what is happening in ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a fatal neurodegenerative disease that destroys motor neurons, specialized neurons in the brain and spinal cord that initiate and control movement.
Dr. Zhang is one of the first scientists in the world to explore the role of interneurons in ALS. “This is a brand new territory in ALS research, a blank slate,” says Dr. Zhang, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Medical Neuroscience at Dalhousie Medical School. As she explains, “the interneurons form a network that controls the motor neurons, which in turn connect to and control the muscles - but knowledge is very limited about how they’re implicated in ALS.”
While Dr. Zhang s looking upstream to understand the role of interneurons in ALS, her colleague, Dr. Victor Rafuse, is looking downstream to understand the role of synapses that connect motor neurons to muscles.
Dr. Zhang is developing a new technology for screening potential treatments for ALS, based on Dr. Rafuse’s discovery that the loss of synaptic connections is as much a problem in ALS as the death of motor neurons. The new technology uses a “test tube” model of ALS to see if a drug is able to preserve both the motor neurons and their synaptic connections to muscle cells. She and Dr. Rafuse are now part of a Canadian-led collaboration that’s using this technology to rapidly screen promising new agents for treating ALS.
Dr. Zhang is looking forward to the expansion of the Maritime Brain tissue Bank to include brain and spinal cord tissues donated by people who had ALS. “When we find proteins in lab studies that could be involved in ALS, we can go to the tissue bank to see if the same proteins are found in human ALS tissues,” she says. “this will be very helpful.”