Studying Night Blindness
Molecular Biology Student Studies Human Eye Disease in Mice
During her sophomore year, Ren Dimico worked alongside Associate Professor Peter Fuerst, mapping cell densities in mouse brains for one of the Department of Biological Sciences lab’s major projects, ‘The Brain Project.’
According to the 21-year-old senior from Spokane, Washington, the researchers used mice as a model organism to track how the brain is organized with mutations that are known to cause diseases in humans. By comparing development and aging of the retina in mice, the scientists hope to understand diseases in people.
If I didn’t have this direct research experience, I don’t think I would have realized how much I still wanted to be able to have patient interaction.
MOLECULAR BIOLOGY STUDENT
The gene Dimico studies, called Down syndrome cell adhesion molecule like-1, or Dscaml1, plays a critical role in the formation of dendrites, which are branches of a nerve cell important for neuron-to-neuron communication.
Dendrites branch from the neurons they’re attached to like a sea of cobwebs, receiving communications from neighboring neurons and sending the impulse down the line.
The gene Dscaml1 helps prevent the dendrites from becoming tangled. This tangling then results in the breakdown of the visual pathway, which can lead to the development of night blindness.
Previous work in the College of Science lab found mice with a mutation in the Dscaml1 gene had an increased number of unsuccessful connections of the neurons, Dimico said.
“We want to know if night blindness in humans occurs because development is abnormal or if the retinal cells degenerate over time,” she said.
The nature of this question requires Dimico to analyze retinas collected from mice at different ages. Dimico images the neurons and measures how many of them are properly connected, comparing normal mice and mice with a mutation in the Dscaml1 gene.
“Our hope is that by understanding how the retina develops and how this goes wrong in a disease model, we can help people with disease,” she said.
The research is important because many people develop diseases that can cause blindness as they age. For example, macular degeneration occurs in more than 14% of white Americans — the race most likely to develop the disease — in their 80s, according to the National Eye Institute.
After working in a research lab, Dimico said she has discovered that there’s less human interaction than she was hoping for.
“I do love the collaboration and teamwork aspect that comes with working in a lab and with other researchers, but I also have a passion and desire to work more directly with people,” she said.
This led Dimico to pursue a career in which she can do clinical and research work. She is a certified nursing assistant and is becoming an emergency medical technician so she can volunteer for the Moscow Volunteer Fire Department. She hopes to earn an M.D./Ph.D.
“If I didn’t have this direct research experience, I don’t think I would have realized how much I still wanted to be able to have patient interaction and see the end result of what the research is actually going to do,” she said.
Article and photos by Braden Farrar, a junior from Coeur d’Alene, who is studying biological engineering.
Ren Dimico is an OUR Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship and Travel Grant recipient.
This project was funded by the National Institutes of Health award R21EY028297. The total project funding is $420,976, of which 100% is the federal share. This project was funded by the National Science Foundation award 1757826. The total project funding is $363,930, of which 100% is the federal share.
Published in March 2020.