HDSA Research Spotlight: Dr. Natalia Pessoa Rocha

Meet Dr. Natalia Pessoa Rocha, who is supported by HDSA’s Human Biology Project. Dr. Rocha is using brain imaging techniques to study inflammatory cells in a clinical study at the University of Texas, Houston, in collaboration with an HDSA Center of Excellence. Learn why she loves her work and what she’s finding out through support from the Human Biology Project.

What has the grant support from HDSA meant to you?

The HDSA grant support allows me to do what I most love in life (i.e., research) and gives me the motivation necessary to successfully carry out my research project. In addition, being awarded with the HDSA HD Human Biology Fellowship made me feel recognized as a good researcher, deserving the trust and support of a prestigious organization. This grant support will help me to become an independent investigator and increase my chances to be a Professor, which, overall, is my main professional goal.

What could the community do to attract more dedicated researchers such as yourself to pursue HD research?

I am very grateful for working with HD because I feel that the work I do matters, that is very important to me. People affected by the disease are my great inspiration and my motivation to carry out my research project. I have my energy and will to do research increased every time I talk to someone from the HD community (including patients with HD, people at risk of HD and family members), when they give me examples of strength, perseverance and will to win. We need financial support to carry out our research projects and the community can keep helping us promoting ways to raise funds for research.

Can you tell us a little about your academic background and how you got involved in HD research?

I am a Pharmacist and I graduated in 2008. I finished my Master in Neurosciences in 2011 and my PhD in Physiology and Pharmacology in 2014. All my degrees were obtained in the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (UFMG, Brazil). UFMG is one of Brazil’s largest universities, being the largest federal university. UFMG is one the five best universities in Brazil, and the tenth in the rankings of best universities in Latin America.

I have conducted basic, translational, and clinical neuroscience research over the past eight years. During this period, I have focused my research activities on the evaluation of biomarkers for human diseases, especially neurodegenerative disorders. In this regard, my main focus has been peripheral blood biomarkers related to inflammation/immune response. I have also been involved in translational research in psychoneuroimmunology, especially aiming to understand how inflammatory cytokines are associated with cognition and behavior. During this period I was granted with two important awards: i) the travel grant to participate in the XX World Congress on Parkinson’s Disease and Related Disorders in Geneva, Switzerland (2013); and ii) the travel fellowship to join the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference® (AAIC®) in London, England (2017). It is worth mentioning that during my Ph.D. I was granted with a fellowship from The Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) to spend one year at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, in Leuven, Belgium, where I could learn molecular biology and microscopy techniques.

In January 2016 I was invited by my mentor in Brazil (Professor Antonio L. Teixeira) to join his research group at UTHealth as a postdoctoral fellow. Since then, we started a scientific collaboration with Dr. Erin Furr Stimming, Director of the Huntington’s Disease Society of America (HDSA) Center of Excellence at UTHealth, Houston. We are investigating immune/inflammatory mechanisms associated with Huntington’s disease (HD) pathophysiology. In this project, we evaluate the association between peripheral (blood-derived) inflammatory markers and central nervous system changes (based on PET scans and MRI analyses). We aim to combine blood and neuroimaging biomarkers with clinical findings (motor, cognitive and psychiatric assessments) in different stages of HD, by comparing pre-manifest, mild, moderate and severe manifest patients with HD. The project I am currently working on is a natural extension of my previous work and allows me to be trained in neuroimaging. Investigating blood-derived biomarkers in combination with clinical (cognitive and behavioral) and neuroimaging data in HD will advance our understanding of this devastating neurodegenerative disease and ultimately lead to improved therapeutic strategies. Future research may provide additional information that will be helpful in understanding the pathophysiology of HD and aid in the search for disease-modifying therapies. Insights from this research may be translated to other neuropsychiatric disorders.

What do you like most about the field of HD research?

People working on the field of HD are very friendly and engaged in the HD research. People affected by HD (including patients and family members) are well informed about the disease and the relevance of research and very committed in helping us to improve the knowledge about HD.

What is your biggest challenge or struggle in the lab?

It has been very difficult to perform the PET scans. The exams are extremely costly and we need the expertise of people outside the HD group.   Facing this problem, we are using other technique, i.e. magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), to obtain neuroimaging data from participants. MRI exams are easier to perform and more affordable than PET scans, not exposing subjects to radiation. Besides assessing structural parameters, MRI data are being used to evaluate blood–brain barrier (BBB) integrity and cerebral blood flow, providing indirect measures of inflammation and, hence, microglial activity in the brain.

Have you had a mentor that stands out to you? Tell us how they have helped you.

I am very lucky to have such generous mentors that guided me and helped me throughout my academic life. I will talk about my current mentors. Dr. Antonio L. Teixeira co-mentored my Master and PhD thesis. He is now my Postdoctoral mentor and one of the most talented scientists I have ever known. He has always encouraged me to perform ambitious projects, letting me find my own way, while being there if and when I asked for help. Antonio taught me to think, question, and write as a scientist. Dr. Erin Furr Stimming put me on the path of HD research. She is a very generous person, involved in HD care and research. Erin opened the HD clinic doors for me and trusted on my abilities as a scientist, guiding and advising me every time I need. The third person is Dr. Leorah Freeman, a neurologist with expertise in neuroimaging. Leorah is supervising me regarding the neuroimaging acquisitions and analyses, something totally new for me. My expertise complements that of my mentors, and is allowing me to develop my own research niche in HD inflammation-based biomarkers and advance towards an academic research career as a Principal Investigator, which, overall, is my main professional goal.

In layman’s terms, please tell us some highlights about your project funded thru the HDSA HD Human Biology Project.

The objective of this study is to investigate (try to figure out) the role played by microglia in different stages of Huntington’s disease (HD). Microglia are the brain’s immune cells. They play an important role as mediators of inflammatory response to infection and injury inside the brain. For this, we intend to do neuroimaging exams (i.e. PET or MRI) to evaluate inflammation in the brain. In addition, we will collect peripheral blood in order to analyze the profile of blood immune cells. Then, we will try to analyze whether inflammation in the brain (through neuroimaging) is associated with inflammation in the blood (through blood exams). This will help the researchers to understand the immune / inflammatory mechanisms that are involved in HD. The results obtained from patients with HD in different stages will be compared with controls (i.e., individuals with no neurological disorder). The researchers expect to increase the understanding of physiological changes associated with HD (mainly immune system-related changes). Our results can foster the development of new therapeutic interventions targeting inflammation in HD.

What is the potential impact of your project on HD research?

Evidence from previous studies strongly supports a role played by inflammation in neurodegeneration. Inflammation is likely an early event in HD pathological process given that immune activation is shown to be present up to 15 years before motor symptoms onset. However, the role of both central nervous system and peripheral inflammatory changes in HD is still poorly understood. It remains a matter of debate whether the inflammatory response is an active or a reactive (or both) mechanism in HD pathophysiology. Herein, we aim to investigate structural and functional changes in microglia (the brain immune cells) in different stages of HD. It is important to refine the understanding of the more specific immune / inflammatory mechanisms that are involved in HD. This will allow the development of new therapeutic interventions to halt the progression of HD.

When you are not locked away in the lab, what do you do for fun?  Do you have a special talent that most people would not know about you?

I spend most of my free time having fun with my friends. I love travelling to experience new cultures, new food, etc. When I have the opportunity, I go to Brazil to stay with my family and friends there, I love my country. I play guitar and now I am taking drum lessons.

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