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A fascination with the brain

Alison Hamilton

When Alison Hamilton was looking around for a postdoctoral placement four years ago, she never imagined her search would take her to another continent.

Originally from Northern Ireland, the postdoctoral associate in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology started her two-year contract with Dr. Stephen Ferguson in 2011 — an agreement that was renewed two years ago so she could continue working on her research.

“At first, coming to Canada was a big change, but my husband and I got used to it pretty fast,” Hamilton said. “Now it’s even weird at times when we go home for a visit.”

Unlike the rest of her lab, who enjoy working more in physiology than in disease-based research, Hamilton specialized in Alzheimer’s disease. A lot of the interest in her lab is on a group of receptors called metabotropic glutamate receptors or mGluRs, and she works on a receptor called mGluR5.

She has spent the last three and a half years looking at how the mGluR5 receptor is affected in Alzheimer’s disease. The biggest project she worked on during that time involved breeding a stream of mice that were created by crossing mGluR5 "knockout" mice with an Alzheimer’s mice model, and testing their behaviour in different ways.

"It was really cool because when we knocked out the receptor, we actually rescued memory and found that we reduced beta amyloid plaques and beta amyloid oligomers," she explained. "There were certain modifications to the signaling pathway as well."

“At one point the project wasn’t going brilliantly, so when it turned and we started seeing these drastic differences with respect to cognitive function, we were shocked,” she said. “When we substantially reduced amyloid we were really shocked — we knew it would do something, but we didn’t expect that big of a reduction.”

While this specific aspect of the project was published in May 2014, Hamilton has continued working on this research by looking at the pharmacological rather than genetic intervention. She now wants to find out if they can medicate to block the receptor.

Even though Hamilton always knew she wanted to do something in neuroscience, she never planned on doing research on Alzheimer’s disease. However, the further she got into the work for her PhD, the more enthralled she became.

“The brain is fascinating to me. Neurodegeneration is a big thing now, and there’s so many people affected by it.”

After making the decision to work on Alzheimer’s, both of her grandmothers were diagnosed with the disease, which Hamilton explained added a personal aspect to her work.

“It was never why I started — I was well into what I was doing and I was sold on what I was doing by the time the personal side came into play,” she said. “It did add a personal aspect to it though, because it’s very easy to forget about the people the disease affects when you’re in basic research in a lab.”

While Hamilton and her husband are quite settled in London, Ontario for now, she knows that they will likely have to move again soon. Her next step will be to try and find a faculty position somewhere, and eventually she would like to run her own lab.

“As I’ve become more and more hooked on neurodegeneration, I would like to continue, at least in my early career, to run a lab where we are certainly exploring Alzheimer’s disease, and possibly Huntington’s disease or even Parkinson’s,” she said. “It’s a very big field and there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done to help people.”