Upstate student takes schizophrenia research one step at a time

Walking long distances is more than just exercise for Upstate graduate student Parisa Afshari, MD, who is working toward a PhD in neuroscience.

“I’m very happy when I’m walking,” said Afshari, who walks four miles to Upstate and four miles home each day unless the weather is too severe. “I can daydream but I also concentrate and make decisions about studying and my research, and think about what’s going on in the lab.”

Afshari is studying a specific genetic component of schizophrenia in the lab of her principal investigator, associate professor Frank Middleton, PhD. She’s already an MD, and wants to pursue a career in psychiatry.

“My mind is wired to psychology,” Afshari said. “I analyze events with friends and co-workers, and I listen to TED talks on neuroscience.”

For now, however, Afshari is immersed in a potentially groundbreaking genetic study of schizophrenia. “I love what I’m doing,” she said. “It’s very fulfilling.”

Afshari is studying genetic variations in schizophrenic patients on the Pacific island of Palau, which has two to three times the rate of schizophrenia as the rest of the population.

These patients have a genetic deletion that was discovered by her advisor, Middleton. The deletion is in a gene which encodes for a glutamate transporter. Glutamate is the main excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain that is important for cognitive functions.

On the island of Palau – which was isolated until 230 years ago – the segment of a particular extended family with the deletion has a significantly higher incidence of schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia is a debilitating disease with no cure, affecting about 1 percent of the U.S. adult population.

It is characterized by three main classifications of symptoms – positive (delusions, hallucinations), negative (social withdrawal, loss of motivation) and cognitive (difficulty processing information, impaired attention and memory).

“It’s very disabling, and a huge burden on the health care system,” Afshari said. “It’s very difficult to care for people at home, and there’s no effective medication. There’s a huge need for drugs. Current drugs can improve the positive symptoms, but they don’t help the negative or cognitive symptoms.”

Schizophrenia has conventionally been linked to an imbalance in dopamine – a neurotransmitter that regulates many functions — but there’s more recent evidence linking it to glutamate. The deletion evidence backs up that hypothesis.

“I hope to be able to show how the deletion leads to schizophrenia in that population,” Afshari said. If she can help uncover the mechanics of the process, ideally that will lead to the development of better drugs to treat the disease.

Afshari fell in love with walking and hiking while in Iran, where she earned her medical degree and worked in emergency medicine and sports medicine until 2008.

She lived and worked in a mountainous region of Iran, and her colleagues on the pediatric night rotation invited her to join them for an overnight hike.

Afshari handled it so well and enjoyed it so much that her next hike was to the country’s highest peak, Damavanad (19,000 feet), in northern Iran.

On flat terrain, she can go seemingly forever. In San Diego for a conference, Afshari went for a seven-hour walk, stopping just once. She figures she covered more than 20 miles.

Afshari walks fast, and now she’s added treadmill runs of four to eight miles to her regimen, with a goal of entering her first road race in the spring.

When she slows down enough during her down time, Afshari keeps up with another passion that began in Iran – painting. She started out with pencil drawings, but now uses acrylics to create a variety of images, many of which become gifts to friends.

Taken from With Distinction

Caption: Upstate graduate student Parisa Afshari, MD. She is conducting research on schizophrenia in the lab of her Principal Investigator, Frank Middleton, PhD.

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