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ARRA @ Work: Tara DeSilva – Probing White Matter

Many neurological diseases result from damage to the brain’s white matter, the nerve fibers that handle communications across the central nervous system.  White matter gets its name from myelin, a light-colored substance that coats and protects nerve cells much like the insulation shielding electrical cables in a computer.

Photo of white matter in brain

Myelin is produced in the brain by oligodendrocytes (OLs).  These specialized brain cells are the research focus of Tara M. DeSilva, Ph.D., a new assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and the Department of Neurobiology.

Dr. DeSilva completed her postdoctoral research at Children’s Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School. “I had reached a point in my career where I was ready to move forward with my own projects,” she said, but in the economic climate few programs were ready to commit to new faculty. 

UAB hired Dr. DeSilva after receiving a P30 grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), part of the National Institutes of Health. The grant program supports faculty positions and was made possible through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).  She now directs a new laboratory within the university's Center for Glial Biology in Medicine.  “I am very grateful for the P30 grant,” she said.

Her lab explores the proteins and properties of oligodendrocytes as they mature.  Oligodendrocytes develop more slowly than other brain cells. “In our research we isolate these cells at various stages of development,” explained Dr. DeSilva, which allows her to examine how these cells change as they mature.  She added that oligodendrocytes are very vulnerable. “This is seen in premature infants, where injury can give rise to cerebral palsy.”  Dr. DeSilva’s lab also investigates multiple sclerosis and other myelin-associated diseases seen in adults.

Photo of Dr. Desilva (left) and staff

She said the ARRA funds helped pay for the infrastructure essential for her work, including incubators, microscopes, and a separate room for tissue cultures. She was also able to hire two additional research staff members and hopes eventually to recruit several graduate students to her team.

The stimulus funding also allowed Dr. DeSilva to maintain a translational research component for her work. Her lab is housed alongside some of UAB’s clinical programs, an arrangement that will facilitate opportunities to discuss projects with clinicians treating patients with neurological diseases.

That cross-disciplinary aspect is an important advantage, said Dr. DeSilva. She noted that neuroscience has recently begun focusing not just on neurons but also on oligodendrocytes and related support cells (collectively called “glia” cells) that sustain the nervous system. “Glia clearly play an important role in many neurological diseases. More research is needed to understand their function, and that is something I am very interested in pursuing,” said Dr. DeSilva.

Photo captions: Upper right: Part of Dr. DeSilva’s research involves examining differences in oligodendrocytes (OLs) as they develop and mature over time.  Lower left: Dr. DeSilva (left) and staff discussing a slide.

Last updated December 23, 2013