2015 Winners of “Design a Brain Experiment” Competition

For the past four years, the Dana Foundation has received countless submissions for its annual “Design a Brain Experiment” competition. In the fall, high school students all across the country are asked to come up with innovative theories that challenge our knowledge about the brain. The proposed experiments are judged on originality, innovation, and scientific accuracy (students are not asked to complete their experiments, so creativity is encouraged).  For this year’s Brain Awareness Week, we are happy to announce the two participants that have taken home the first and second place awards!

From Alabama, home-schooled ninth grader Christian Gonzalez was awarded second place for his exploration of a potential cure for multiple sclerosis (MS). Just this past fall, he discovered the state-wide Alabama Brain Bee and won second place, sparking his interest in neuroscience. When asked how he decided on a topic for submission, Christian says he was inspired to help fight the disease by an article about its devastating effects on patients.

Christian Gonzalez

Second place winner, Christian Gonzalez

MS is a debilitating immune-mediated progressive disease of the central nervous system with limited treatment options and no known cause. A protein called HMGB1 has been associated with inflammation in MS, and therefore serves as a “biomarker”, or target, for drugs.  Christian’s proposed study focuses on glycyrrhizin, an agent that binds directly to the HMGB1 protein biomarker and shuts down the immune response that produces symptoms in MS. While this proposal uses an animal model of MS called experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE), the symptoms produced in rats closely resemble those of MS.

Over the course of twelve months, Christian hypothesizes that the desired results of his experiment could be used to develop a novel drug that would be able to treat, if not cure, the devastating effects of MS. Christian hopes to continue studying science and expresses an interest in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) field in college.

For the second year in a row, our first place winner is a student from Bard High School Early College Queens in New York City. The $500 cash prize will be awarded to Moie Uesugi’s school, on behalf of her submission, titled, “Oxytocin as a Treatment for Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD),” which proposed a new form of treatment for the condition. A severe form of premenstrual disorder, PMDD has been thought to occur from low levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that may play a key role in regulating mood. It is both physically and emotionally debilitating and significantly impacts women’s lives and relationships. PMDD is currently treated with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) that elevate serotonin levels; however, according to Moie’s research, only about 60 percent of patients have a positive response.

Moie’s study would span over the course of six months and closely monitor females with PMDD to see if intranasal oxytocin could be used as a more effective treatment and alternate solution without the side effects of SSRIs. If this treatment of PMDD were successful, results of this study would advance our understanding of brain mechanisms underlying PMDD, challenge the current widespread stigma surrounding women and premenstrual disorders, and provide symptom relief.

Moie Uesugi

First place winner, Moie Uesugi

“I first started brainstorming for this grant proposal without any sort of direction,” says Moie. “As a student, however, I realized that major depression was something that I unfortunately saw more than I should. Thus, starting from major depression as well as a desire to help women in particular…I eventually ended up learning more about PMDD.”

Moie is currently in her senior year and takes part in clubs such as “Girls Who Code” and “Girls Write Now.” With a passion for creative writing, comparative literature, and computer science, she plans to be involved in natural sciences in college, whether it is through “designing computer software for accurate brain modeling or writing a short story about the complexities of living with a neurological disorder.”

Congratulations to both winners, as well as all participants, of this year’s competition for their impressive submissions. Stay tuned for our fall announcement for next year’s “Design a Brain Experiment” competition. More information can be found on our website or by emailing competition@dana.org. BAW 2015_DABI This year celebrates the 20th Anniversary of Brain Awareness Week! To find a list of events happening all over the world, click here.

-Seimi Rurup

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