From The Experience Magazine - Summer 2008
Ask graduate Eric Alston ('08) why changes in the body following a heart attack can be more dangerous than the attack itself. This past year, the Biology major from Medford, Ore. contributed to research at Oregon Health and Science University that examined how the sympathetic nervous system – which causes the heart to speed up when a person is scared or excited – may contribute to abnormal heart rhythm, or "arrhythmia," following a myocardial infarction (MI), the medical term for a heart attack.
"Hundreds of thousands of people die each year because of arrhythmias after they've survived the heart attack, so we assume the sympathetic nervous system is involved," Alston said.
Alston worked in the lab of principal investigator Dr. Beth Habecker in OHSU's Department of Physiology and Pharmacology as part as the Murdock Collaborative Undergraduate Research Program, whichallows top undergraduate students in Oregon to gain practical research experience in OHSU labs. He is the fifth WP student in as many years to qualify for the program.
The Habecker lab was examining the cause of increased sympathetic nerve density – or hyperinervation – in the heart tissue of mice that had undergone medically-induced MI's. The lab team wanted to see if a particular receptor found in cardiac sympathetic neurons, called p75, contributes to the hyperinervation. To do so, they used tissue samples from mice genetically bred to be born without p75 to see whether hyperinervation would take place, regardless.
Alston compared minute sections of the mouse hearts using a technique called immunohistochemistry. He "tagged" the sym-pathetic nerves in the tissue samples with antibodies that were treated with a chemical that glows under fluorescent light, making the miniscule nerves more visible under a microscope.
"It looks like lightning bolts across the tissue," Alston said.
The study found an increase in nerve density in the mice without the p75 receptor, which suggests that a different neuron receptor is involved. When Habecker's team publishes a paper on the study, Alston will be the second author listed.
"That's a pretty big honor," Alston said.
Alston hopes to pursue a career in dentistry and believes the lab experience he gained at OHSU will enhance his skills as a dentist. In the meantime, he will work in the Habecker lab through the summer while he applies to dental schools.