Friday, December 8, 2023
Alex Petrucci
Dr. Alex Petrucci, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Utah

After being diagnosed with epilepsy as a preteen, Alex Petrucci wrote off epilepsy research as a scientific endeavor.

“I wanted nothing to do with epilepsy,” Petrucci says. “As a preteen, epilepsy made me stand apart, which was especially difficult in a time where you're trying to be integrated with your peers.”

Despite her initial resistance to epilepsy research, as a doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Iowa, Petrucci found herself drawn to Professor Gordon Buchanan’s lab which focuses on epilepsy research.

“I made a full circle. At first, I was trying to avoid epilepsy at all costs and deny that part of me, but then I found a way to reintegrate it as a core component of my life,” Petrucci describes.

Petrucci excelled in her epilepsy research and is the winner of the Graduate College’s 2023 Rex Montgomery Dissertation Prize Award. After receiving her doctorate in neuroscience last December, she is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Utah where she continues epilepsy research.

Research within a tight-knit community

At the University of Iowa, Petrucci’s research focused on the potential risk factors for sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP). One aspect of her research with SUDEP involved the signaling molecule, serotonin.

“Serotonin is important for mood regulation, but it is also important for things like breathing, alertness, and consciousness,” Petrucci explains. “In the Buchanan Lab, I was looking at how we could modify the signaling of serotonin in the brain and maybe reduce the suppression of brain activity after a seizure.”

Petrucci’s research and experience at Iowa were impacted by peer support and the tight-knit community within the Neuroscience Graduate Program.

“I think the biggest and most useful resource at Iowa was having a large group of peers who are linked through a well-organized program,” Petrucci says.

Reminiscing on her experience at Iowa, Petrucci highlights the importance of collaboration and connection between lab members.

“You can always ask your PI (principal investigator) for advice, but it’s useful to have somebody you can text early in the morning or late at night to check in to see if you’re doing something right,” Petrucci says.

Petrucci explains how this kind of close departmental relationship was fostered by Professor Daniel Tranel, director of the Neuroscience Graduate Program.

“Every year Dan invites people to get together on his farm,” Petrucci describes. “Dan is dedicated to making the program feel more like a family.”

Epilepsy research with a global impact

At the University of Utah, Petrucci’s research focuses on the development of chronic epilepsy after a person has a viral infection.

“A major cause of epilepsy worldwide is viral infection,” Petrucci explains. “There are parts of the world where a lot of people developed epilepsy because they had a brain infection.”

Both humans and mice can experience seizures during the active period of a viral infection, but a small subsection of both populations develop chronic epilepsy once the virus passes. Petrucci elaborates, “We don't really understand what happens during active infection that predisposes somebody to randomly develop epilepsy for the rest of their life.”

As a member of the Wilcox Lab, Petrucci examines where in the brain the seizures originate during the chronic phase, post-infection. Then she compares this information to where the seizures emanated from during the active period of the infection.

“Once we understand what kind of rewiring is happening that makes these mice seize after the infection we can begin to inquire into interventions,” Petrucci says. “Can we do interventions that help prevent seizures before the mice have a viral infection? Can we do an intervention in the first day or two before the infection gets too bad? Can we do an intervention after the fact?”

Petrucci’s research into these chronic seizures can lead to important discoveries for intervention research which carries an impact for people who develop chronic epilepsy across the world.