Alexandra Moussa-Tooks, Neuroscience student
Alexandra ‘Alex’ Moussa-Tooks has been, for as long as she can remember, intrigued by the human brain. In fact, an interest in horror films beginning at a young age helped foster this curiosity.
“I was always asking myself questions,” she said. “I wanted to know why characters behaved the way they did and made certain decisions during periods of intense stress.”
Alex began studying neuroscience during her undergraduate years at Vanderbilt University and she fell in love with the field. Alex is now a fourth-year graduate student here at Indiana University, obtaining dual PhDs in Psychological and Brain Sciences and the Program of Neuroscience. Her research focuses on cognitive deficits in schizophrenia and related psychoses, particularly understanding risk factors and neural circuits contributing to such deficits. Recently, she published a neuroimaging study looking at differences in neural activation during a sensorimotor task called finger tapping, in Schizophrenia Bulletin.
What makes Alex’s approach to research special?
Alex works with animal models in addition to her research in human samples. Specifically, she investigates how early life stress in young rats may remodel neural circuits important for basic functions, like learning. She has been using rats because their neural circuit for eyeblink conditioning, a particular associative learning task that her lab also investigates in humans, is almost identical to the human circuit. Alex hopes her research will eventually lead to better animal models of deficits, rather than disorders.
“The disorder-focused animal models that scientists have been trying to make for years have limitations, and I would like to embrace a new way to understand the features of these disorders. Understanding a specific deficit rather than a cluster of symptoms may lead to a clearer understanding of the contributing neural circuits and processes and, in turn, help identify more specific drug targets.”
Alex also mentioned the lack of treatments there are for schizophrenia. Pharmacological treatments are few and can have many aversive side effects, and even then none currently target the cognitive deficits observed in the disorder. Arguably, these cognitive deficits contribute to the majority of functional impairments, making it difficult for anyone diagnosed with the illness to do simple things like maintaining social connections or performing daily or work-related tasks. Ultimately, she hopes to improve the quality of life for those with schizophrenia .
When asked what she thought was special about her work, she said, “In a time when scientists are receiving a lot of pressure to make direct improvements in peoples’ health, my work strives to bridge the gap between animal models and human application, which can be a slow process. My work is very translational, and that is what really makes it unique.”