Their co-op contributed to advancing new research on Alzheimer’s and brain health

man in a blue jacket running on a bridge
For their co-op, Northeastern students Sabrina Bond and Sofia Mazuera conducted research for a study that found exercise may produce a protein in the brain secreted by muscles that may stave off cognitive decline. Photo by Getty Images

It isn’t unusual for Northeastern’s behavioral neuroscience students to be included as co-authors of medical or other research studies. But it’s not every day that they are a part of a groundbreaking study on brain health that is receiving national attention.

Sabrina Bond and Sofia Mazuera, fourth-year students, are listed by name as co-authors of a study that may have significant implications for Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases. They found that irisin, a protein in the brain secreted by muscles during exercise, may stave off cognitive decline through research that was conducted by scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital, where Bond and Mazuera worked on the study as co-ops.

The research involving mice showed that irisin can improve memory in healthy animals as well as those that received the Alzheimer’s gene. The findings could have implications for humans where therapy typically starts after patients have begun showing symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

Bond (l) and Mazuera (r) are fourth-year students who are listed by name as co-authors of a study that could improve understanding of Alzheimer's and other brain diseases. The research was conducted by scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital, where Bond and Mazuera worked on the study as co-ops. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

The findings were published in the online journal Nature Metabolism and covered in The New York Times.

“What makes Sabrina’s and Sofia’s experience unique is the high caliber of the publication and the national attention it is receiving,” says Jenn Ingemi, an assistant teaching professor of psychology at Northeastern. “It is clear that their contributions to the work were significant and the outcome is groundbreaking in the field of neurodegenerative disease.”

Bond, a behavioral neuroscience major who was originally interested in astrophysics, did a Mass General co-op in 2020, the year before Mazuera did hers. Bond knew that Mazuera was looking for a hands-on, wet lab research co-op, so she put her in touch with the lab’s principal investigator, Christiane Wrann, an assistant professor in medicine at the Cardiovascular Research Center at Mass General and Harvard Medical School.

“Sabrina and Sofia brought two very important qualities: drive and diligence,” Wrann told News@Northeastern. “They quickly became essential members of the team.”

Bond says she initially didn’t plan to do a co-op at all before starting her search a little late in the cycle when she came across an opportunity to be a research assistant in Wrann’s lab. Despite not having wet lab experience, “I feel like Dr. Wrann and the postdocs kind of took a leap of faith with me,” Bond says.

“I got a lot of attention from both her and the postdocs, which was pretty special” because newcomers usually get trained by other postgrads, not the supervisors, Bond adds. But just as she was getting into the swing of things and doing more independent projects, “COVID-19 hit and I had to go home” to Miami, she says.

The time away from the lab had a silver lining in that it allowed her to learn more about the irisin research and engage in intellectual conversations with one of the postdocs. By this time Bond’s mother was contemplating a return to their native Brazil but the daughter didn’t want to go.

Later, Mass General said employees could return to the lab in late May, and Bond jumped at the chance to work full-time there while waiting for fall classes to begin at Northeastern.

She then had a “very intense” summer that included late nights talking about the study, carefully reading paragraphs line-by-line, and working with others to solve any problems that were found in the data and trying to reconcile them.

Recently, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first new medication for Alzheimer’s in nearly two decades despite opposition from some Alzheimer’s experts who said there was not enough evidence that the drug can help patients.

For Bond, she hopes that the mice research may lead to a breakthrough discovery.

“As a young scientist, I do understand the progress of science is slow,” she says. “I like to think that medicine in the future will be more preventative rather than just remediating already existing problems.”

By the time Mazuera’s co-op at Mass General started in January of 2021, scientists at Mass General were in the midst of trying to publish their work, a lengthy process given the additional experiments that were being added.

“And it just so happened that one of the projects that I was tasked with ended up being part of the paper,” recalls Mazuera, who was trained on RNA extraction and quantitative polymerase chain reaction―methods used to find levels of irisin in different tissues of the mice.

Hearing that she was going to have her name added to the study “was a bit overwhelming,” Mazuera confides. “It was a pretty special opportunity, I have to say.”

While the team had a hunch that exercise had a role in improving cognition, what made the project so special was that “now we know that irisin is one of the components that is making it happen. That was pretty amazing.”

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