Neuroscience student, football player tackles early stages of Alzheimer’s

Hayley Shanks
(Megan Morris/Schulich Medicine & Dentistry Communications)

By Makaila Atsonglo

Hayley Shanks may be a wide receiver for Westerns womens football team, but when the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry student is off the field, shes tackling Alzheimer’s disease.

As a third-year PhD student in neuroscience, Hayley Shanks’ research focuses on analyzing clinical trial results of a drug that aims to help Alzheimer's patients by targeting the disease in its early-to-mild stages.

These stages are critical since substantial damage to the brain has already occurred before Alzheimer’s symptoms begin to show.

“If you can develop drugs that increase the resilience of the cells and prevent their degeneration in situations like Alzheimer’s, you might be able to improve outcomes for patients because brain cell degeneration is related to cognition. Cognition is ultimately what is important for patients’ ability to function on a daily basis,” said Shanks.

Shanks says the outcome of excessive cell deaths results in more clinical symptoms of Alzheimer’s, like forgetfulness and other types of deterioration.

“In the healthy brain, you want a balance in signaling between cell survival and cell death because there are instances where you would want cells to die if theyre sick,” said Shanks. “But in Alzheimer’s, too many brain cells are being destroyed and also potentially too early.” 

Current Alzheimers treatments temporarily improve symptoms. However, these treatments dont stop the underlying decline and death of brain cells, which results in the progression of the disease.

Drug aims to preserve neurons involved in memory, learning and attention

Under the supervision of Taylor Schmitz, PhD, assistant professor in Physiology and Pharmacology and researcher with Western’s Brain and Mind Institute, Shanks is analyzing the MRI data results of a drug — known as LM11A31 — that aims to preserve brain cells, including the cholinergic cells involved in memory, learning and attention.

Shanks and Schmitz are working alongside Dr. Frank Longo and Dr. Steve Massa from Stanford University and the University of California San Francisco who conducted the clinical trial in 2017. Shanks and her colleagues have been studying the protein P75 neurotrophin receptor, which plays an important role in determining whether neurons live or die. One particular type of neuron which produces the neurochemical acetylcholine—thus classified as a cholinergic neuron—is particularly important to cognitive functions such as memory formation and is also vulnerable to Alzheimer’s pathology. 

However, in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, the P75 protein tells ailing cholinergic cells to shed their synapses, axonal branches and ultimately to die completely. This results in eventual cognitive impairment, such as memory loss. 

Schmitz and Shanks suspect that cholinergic cells are vulnerable in diseases like Alzheimer’s due to age-related pressures on the metabolic resources needed to sustain them. 

“In the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s, multiple pressures in the aging brain such as genetic risk and lifestyle factors, may conspire to initiate the pathologies that ultimately lead to disease progression. Cholinergic dysfunction is one of these early conspirators,” said Schmitz.

The hope is that the drug will regulate the protein, targeting resilience and preventing neuron degeneration, and taking pressure off the genetic components of Alzheimer’s. 

If successful, the drug may be combined with patient-tailored lifestyle adjustments to potentially slow the progression of the disease long before symptoms begin to show.

Many hats and a helmet

With several projects on the go, including a mental health podcast and her research, Shanks wears many hats — one of which is a football helmet.

Until a few years ago, Shanks had no football experience and a laser focus on her research and school work. So, when her friend asked her to join the football team, Shanks wasn’t sure if she’d be cut out for it.

After coaching and support from her teammates, she decided she was ready.

“I never thought I would be playing football, but it's become one of my favourite hobbies,” said Shanks. 

Now she is hooked.

From 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., three days a week, Shanks isn’t just a PhD student. On the field, she has a stress-free outlet - she’s a part of the team.

With such a significant workload, stress is a feeling Shanks knows all too well.

This inspired Shanks to work with fellow PhD students to launch a podcast, Brain Matter Chatter.

“The podcast was created to be a safe space for people to talk about any struggles they're having with mental health and academia,” said Shanks.

Before becoming a researcher, Shanks considered a career in fashion design. She didn’t become interested in neuroscience until a high school biology assignment inspired her.

And the surprises have continued to inspire her. 

“The best things that have happened in my research career have been things that were kind of by chance… that I didn’t ever expect,” said Shanks. “I think it’s important to understand that good things will come if you take the opportunities that interest you.”