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Debra Ann Fadool, assistant professor in the Program in Neuroscience, was recently honored with the first Merck/WIN Young Investigator Award from the Society for Neuroscience. A Kentucky native, Fadool holds a doctorate from the University of Florida’s Whitney Laboratory.

Plato’s allegory of the cave observed that humans experience the world through their external senses. And neuroscientist Debra Fadool thinks a close reexamination of the sense of smell will reveal more effective ways to fight diseases.

Fadool, an assistant professor of biology and neuroscience, studies how aromas are processed into the electrical signals that make up the language of the brain. She manipulates molecules from the olfactory bulb, the region of the brain responsible for generating the sense of smell. Fadool studies how these molecules alter electrical signaling with the hope of understanding how nerve cells communicate. That information could provide clues to improper electrical signaling during the onset of certain diseases, she says.

By directly stimulating a cell with electricity, Fadool is able to focus on changes in what are called ion channels—tiny tunnels embedded in the walls of cell membranes. These structures regulate the amounts of charged particles of sodium, chlorine, calcium or potassium that get passed into and out of cells. Changes in these channels’ structure can alter brain function, and scientists such as Fadool suspect that the mechanisms that drive the behavior of ion channels may offer clues to the origins of such diseases as cancer and diabetes.

Fadool’s experiments are short and require her to quickly adapt when the unexpected occurs.
“It’s like working with a live recording of the electrical pattern that flows throughout the brain,” she said. “You have to think on your feet because once you attach an electrode to a cell it lives for 30 minutes, at most.”