Breaking Research

Understanding brain receptors and cognitive disorders

Gabriela Popescu

Gabriela Popescu is studying how certain brain receptors work in order to improve treatment of neurodegenerative diseases. (Photo by Douglas Levere, BA ’89)

Only one drug is approved to treat persons with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s symptoms. This despite the fact that the brain protein at the core of this disease—the NMDA receptor—is known to play a central role in several acute and chronic neurodegenerative conditions that impair learning and memory.

Gabriela Popescu, assistant professor of biochemistry in the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, is hoping to help change that situation. She is beginning a new study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, to investigate the mechanisms that control these receptors, and to learn how to disrupt certain damaging NMDA receptor functions, while leaving its other important functions intact.

“Understanding how NMDA receptors work will help neuroscientists address, rationally, neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s, and may provide novel therapies for stroke and schizophrenia,” says Popescu, a member of the Neurodegenerative Group in the New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences at UB.

“Ninety percent of all excitatory neuronal signaling in the brain is controlled by glutamate, and half of it requires NMDA receptors,” Popescu explains. “We need these proteins for the correct wiring of our brains and throughout life to form and retain memories, to learn new skills and behaviors. We cannot function properly without them.”