Q&A with Patrizia Casaccia, Director of the ASRC's Neuroscience Initiative

May 24, 2017

A Q&A with Patrizia Casaccia about her goals for the initiative and her current projects.

In 2016, Patrizia Casaccia (GC/Hunter, Biology) was named the founding director of the Neuroscience Initiative, part of the Advanced Science Research Center (ASRC) at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She holds both an M.D. and a Ph.D., and serves as a professor of Neuroscience and Neurology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

The Neuroscience Initiative at the ASRC will be the first biology center in New York City to focus on glial cells, which are the most prevalent type of cell in the central nervous system and play a substantial role in brain function and metabolism. She recently spoke to the GC about her goals for the initiative and her current projects.

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GC: What drew you to the ASRC?

Casaccia: I was drawn to the ASRC by the possibility of pushing the boundaries of traditional science and creating new experimental paradigms. The most critical aspect of the ASRC is its interdisciplinary nature. We are integrating disciplines that are traditionally so disparate and range from Nanoscience and Structural Biology to Environmental Science and Photonics. The Neuroscience Initiative acts as the biological intersection of these disciplines to study mechanisms of homeostatic control.

What are your goals for the Neuroscience Initiative?

Neuroscience at the ASRC is centered on Glial Biology and Environmental control of brain function and dysfunction. At the organism level, we are interested in exploring the effect of social experience and geophysical locations on behavior and brain health. At the microscopic level, we intend to study the effect of mechanical forces and nano-patterned materials on neural cells, while developing new molecular sensors and engineering tools for brain repair.

What projects are you working on now?

The first project seeks to define the molecular mechanisms responsible for the acquisition of oligodendrocyte progenitor cell identity in development and in physiological repair. Oligodendrocytes are the myelin-forming cells of the Central Nervous System. We study how these cells correctly acquire their identity from progenitor cells and generate new myelin as the brain develops. We are also interested in determining why and how these cells lose this ability during physiological aging. Finally, because glial progenitors can go rogue and transform into glial tumors, we want to define what is responsible for this dangerous transition, in order to design better therapies.

The second large project is about neurodegeneration in demyelinating disorders. Multiple Sclerosis is a devastating demyelinating disorder affecting young adults in the United States. The hallmark of the disease is an immunological attack to myelin, resulting in clinical symptoms that impair the patients' ability to conduct a normal life. Despite the successful identification of several immunomodulatory therapies, the progressive degeneration of neurons is thought to lead to progressive clinical deterioration over time. We want to understand the causes for this progression. Studying patients' samples and experimental models we hope to identify molecules that can be targeted to protect neurons and keep the patients clinically stable and able to conduct a normal life.

Finally, I'm very excited about current projects exploring the relationship between the gut microbiome and the brain. We are becoming increasingly aware of how microbial DNA and metabolites affect our health. We are defining whether and how the composition of the gut microbiota shapes metabolism and creates a dialogue with the immune system and the central nervous system to affect behavior, disease susceptibility, and responsiveness to therapies.