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$1.3 Million Granted to Helena Parfenova, PhD, to Study Damaging Seizure-Activated Mechanisms in Newborn Brains

Dr. Helena Parfenova has received $1.3 million to study the underlying mechanisms and functional consequences of seizure-related injuries in the neonatal brain. (Photo provided by Communications and Marketing/UTHSC)

The University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s Helena Parfenova, PhD, professor in the Department of Physiology in the College of Medicine, was recently granted a $1.3 million from the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Parfenova is studying the underlying mechanisms and functional consequences of glial cell, or astrocyte, injury caused by seizures in the neonatal brain.

A newborn’s brain is very sensitive to compromises in its blood supply because of the rapid development of neurons. Neonatal cerebral vascular disease caused by oxidative stress during seizures, hypoxia/asphyxia and ischemia is a major contributor to lasting neurological complications. Currently, there is no effective treatment available to prevent neurovascular dysfunction caused by neonatal seizures. Dr. Parfenova’s research will work to identify the mechanisms that cause cerebral vascular damage in order to stop the harm being done in a newborn’s brain.

“Our project is focused on novel mechanisms found inside the brain that promote astrocyte survival during oxidative stress caused by seizures and glutamate excitotoxicity in the neonatal brain,” Parfenova said. “In our preliminary studies, we have found that small concentrations of hydrogen sulfides (H2S) that are naturally produced in the brain exhibit antioxidation properties and prevent cell death in the neonatal brain, thus improving conditions both before and during seizures.”

Using a combination of complementary techniques in a large animal model, Dr. Parfenova is aiming to show that H2S produced by astrocytes is a vital component of antioxidant defense mechanisms that promotes astrocyte survival in the neonatal brain. Parfenova’s novel research project titled, “Astrocyte Functions in Neonatal Brain,” is unique as it combines functional and mechanical studies in intact cerebral circulation with cellular and molecular defense mechanism analysis counteracting astrocyte injury and cerebrovascular disease.

The discovery of the underlying mechanisms and functional consequences of astrocyte injury caused by seizures in a newborn’s brain will lead to better injury prevention and therapeutic approaches to neonatal neurovascular protection.

“I strongly believe that our research, targeted at uncovering novel endogenous antioxidant defense mechanisms in neonates, prepares a basal knowledge ripe for clinical studies,” Parfenova said. “Preventing perinatal brain injury is ultimately translated into improving the health of a new generation.”