Photo: Megan Doczi peers into a microscope

Neuroscience Prof. Megan Doczi, PhD, nabs a four-year, $480K grant to mentor student researchers during her ongoing investigations of the neural pathways that regulate metabolism

NORWICH RECORD | Winter 2023

Since joining the Norwich faculty 11 years ago, Associate Professor of Biology Megan Doczi, PhD, has strived to understand how neural pathways in the developing hypothalamus, an area in the central nervous system, can be altered by exposure to insulin, glucose, and other metabolic factors. More specifically, she studies the way certain membrane proteins known as voltage-gated potassium ion channels can regulate brain activity by increasing or decreasing electrical signaling in neurons.

While Doczi uses chicken embryos in her experiments, their genetic similarity to human embryonic brains provides insight into the affect that human diets, health, and behaviors can have on brain development. She points to the real-world example of the influence pregnant mothers can have on the development of their unborn children, when they consume diets high in sugar, which can result in a spike in fetal insulin.

“What is that [insulin spike] doing to the metabolic pathways of the brain of that developing fetus?” Doczi asks. “Large concentrations of insulin could … [make] certain neurons hyperexcitable in the central nervous system.”

“If that happens in an area that is specialized for food-seeking behavior, then that could prime the organism to have some type of metabolic deficiency or disorder later in life.” Doczi notes that our hypothalamus plays a key role in establishing and regulating our “set point,” or homeostasis, and food-seeking behaviors, adding that what happens to people in the womb could be affecting them as adults.

Poor diet and excessive calorie intake in mothers “could be contributing to the reason why we have this … generational increase in obesity within our country and in the western world,” Doczi says.

“That’s a very broad picture,” she adds, noting that her lab does not study humans or obesity. “I’m looking at the very basic level of ion channel proteins in developing neurons and how they could play a role in regulating some of these metabolic processes later on in adulthood.”

The new NIH funding will enable Doczi to train 10 Norwich undergraduates in research skills involving molecular biology, biochemistry, electrophysiology, and fluorescent labeling of proteins to enable them to gather research data. “We work together to generate, analyze, and interpret that data, and then I have them write up the work for publication” with close editorial oversight from her, Doczi says.

Previous student research assistants have gone on to pursue medicine and others are now working towards PhDs at R1 research universities. “They have had these amazing [research] experiences at Norwich University and gone on to do some wonderful things of their own.”

Doczi says the NIH funding, awarded through the Support for Research Excellence (SuRE) Program (R16), is intended to involve students typically underrepresented in biomedical research, including women, minorities, and individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds. The grant, Doczi notes, would not have been possible without the support of numerous present and former colleagues, including Simon Pearish, PhD; Karen Hinkle, PhD; and President Emeritus Richard W. Schneider, RADM (USGCR, Ret.)

“All of my previous research has been a stepping-stone to get to this level of the project,” she says. “Now it’s just a matter of getting even more students involved.”

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