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A behavioral neuroscience major hopes to reveal secrets of epilepsy using fruit flies that combines the disciplines of biology and neuroscience.

As an EXCEL Scholar with Elaine Reynolds, assistant professor of biology, Laura Feeney ’02 (Churchville, Pa.) is studying a mutant strain of Drosophila melangaster that goes into a seizure after being vibrated.

“Over the past semesters, I have been feeding the flies anti-epileptic drugs in hope that the drug will lessen the latency of seizure and paralysis,” says Feeney. She has tested the drugs gabapentin, topiramate, vigabactrin, ethosximide, and carbamazepine.

Sold as anti-epileptics for humans, those drugs’ effectiveness comes from their ability to alter the concentrations of chemicals in the brain.

“These chemicals are neurotransmitters and are the means by which our nervous system communicates with itself and with our body,” says the student. “Epilepsy is a disorder in which too much electrical activity is going on in the brain. It has been linked to too much excitatory, and not enough inhibitory, neurotransmitters.”

She explains that gabapentin’s means of treating epilepsy is unclear, but scientists do know that it increases the concentration of GABA, the major inhibitory neurotransmitter.

“By increasing GABA, hopefully excitation can be decreased and/or eliminated,” says Feeney. This semester, she is looking at the location of GABA in the fly’s brain and how it may be altered in the mutant flies.

Last semester’s results consistently showed that gabapentin is an effective drug, significantly reducing the seizures in two types of fruit fly mutants that have different defects, suggesting that Gabapentin may have more than one mechanism for treating epilepsy. Feeney also found that a higher dose of the drug increased the fly’s offspring.

“Once I started research here at Lafayette, I quickly came to enjoy it,” says
Feeney. “I love the twists and turns it takes. Research in this field is so unpredictable. I have grown so interested that I plan on pursuing research as a career.”

Feeney is looking into job opportunities at chemical companies with strong pharmaceutical research divisions and may pursue a master’s in clinical health psychology.

“After working here, I see the importance of accurate and reliable data,” she says. “It’s very important to test the effectiveness of drugs and continue to test them even after they are available to the public.”

Calling her “a rare student,” Reynolds says the EXCEL research has helped Feeney gain confidence in her ability to conduct research to the point where she is designing experiments and planning for a postgraduate education.

“I don’t have to help her every step of the way,” the professor adds.

Feeney says EXCEL is been excellent for students, allowing them to get one-on-one interaction with a knowledgeable professor and “to really deepen our understanding of the discipline we choose to study. It also is a very challenging experience that allows students to grow and mature as young adults in the field. It’s great that Lafayette provides such opportunities. I’m very satisfied with my experience as an EXCEL Scholar.”

A graduate of Council Rock High School in Newtown, Pa., Feeney is attempting to earn her bachelor of science degree in three years. She is a cellist in the orchestra ensemble and a Bible study leader in Lafayette Christian Fellowship.

Categorized in: Academic News