Cody Tucker is studying two factors that may indicate a predisposition toward dementia.
A Texas Tech University student's research project on dementia has been chosen for the prestigious 20th annual Posters on the Hill research conference Tuesday and Wednesday (April 19-20) in Washington, D.C.
Cody Tucker, a senior cell and molecular biology major with a minor in chemistry, is investigating two factors that could indicate a person's predisposition to dementia, such as Alzheimer's disease.
The first is a bodily hormone called cortisol, which is released during stress. Previous research has shown it negatively impacts cognitive ability over time, so Tucker measured cortisol levels in 193 participants in the long-term Project FRONTIER epidemiological study at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center and compared those levels to scores on two cognitive examinations at two appointments three years apart.
“Unfortunately we found their cortisol levels didn't change over time, contrary to our predictions,” Tucker said. “In general, as people age their cortisol levels are expected to increase. We also found cortisol levels don't relate to any cognitive exams, so we've hit a little bit of a dead end there.
“The second possible marker, which I am working on this year, is a gene called FKBP5,” he said. “A specific variation of this gene has been shown to increase the amount of cortisol released during stress. So we predict it may be causing stronger decline in patients' cognitive function over time. I am processing each patient's DNA to look for that specific cortisol-increasing variation and will have that work completed for Posters on the Hill.”
Tucker is passionate about the research because he has a personal connection to it.
“My great-grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and so, as a child, I got to visit her in a nursing home, but even at that age, I never actually met her because of how advanced her disease was,” he said. “So part of my research and the big impact we're hoping to have is whether the things we're looking at can be markers for dementias like Alzheimer's disease.”
Tucker has been working for nearly two years in the lab of Breanna N. Harris, a research assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences who earned her doctorate in evolution, ecology and organismal biology.
“Cody has been an incredibly hard-working, determined and studious lab student,” Harris said. “In many ways, Cody has surpassed my expectations of an undergraduate researcher. His work ethic, initiative and maturity make him more like a graduate student, and I treat him as such. I have noticed marked increases in Cody's analytical skills, critical thinking skills, self-reliance and confidence over the past year. I feel comfortable giving him a task as I know that he will complete it correctly, carefully and efficiently. Cody has been an excellent addition to my research program and has contributed greatly to our research progress.”
About Posters on the Hill
Posters on the Hill is an annual conference hosted by the Council on Undergraduate Research. It helps raise awareness of the high-quality research undergraduate students undertake, the impact of this research on students' professional preparation and the importance of continued investment in and expansion of undergraduate research support. Out of hundreds of applications from throughout the nation, only 60 projects were accepted for presentation at the 2016 event.