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Researcher examines cellular function for clues to brain disorders

February 1, 2019 — 

Dr. Jillian Stobart’s computer monitor displays what looks like an array of stars: thousands of tiny green lights on a vast field of black, like an entire galaxy pulsing and twinkling.

Stobart [B.Sc.(Hons.)/06, PhD/12] sets the scene, explaining that the lights are astrocytes. They’re a type of glial cells – the supporting cells of the nervous system – not celestial bodies. “They do look a lot like stars, though,” she laughs.

The video shows a live mouse brain responding to stimulus, precisely targeted and highly magnified. The cells have been treated to fluoresce when they sense a particular chemical, calcium.

And the twinkling? That’s when the brain cells she’s targeting are activated. “They’re releasing the chemicals that signal to the next cell,” Stobart says. When the sensors fluoresce, that’s when the secrets of the brain’s universe are revealed.

Stobart, an assistant professor in the College of Pharmacy, once thought she’d like to be a high school teacher. With an easy manner and the ability to make even the most complex ideas come to life, she’s a natural for the classroom.

But while earning her bachelor’s degree, she fell in love with research – specifically, the unexplored reaches of the brain.

Stobart worked in three different labs during her time as a U of M undergraduate, including the National Microbiology Lab, where she studied mad cow disease. That’s where she first encountered astrocytes. “I really became fascinated because there’s so much that we don’t understand about these cells,” she says. Not only did the opportunity fire her curiosity, it also helped solidify her professional ambitions. “I experienced firsthand what research life was like,” she says.“We have the freedom to ask big questions that could potentially redefine our views of the brain or brain disorders, but we must also be tenacious because our ideas and experiments don’t always go to plan.”

After a term studying with Christopher Anderson [PhD/98], director of the U of M’s neuroscience research program, Stobart was hooked. She completed her PhD in pharmacology with Anderson, then went on to a postdoctoral fellowship in Zurich, Switzerland.

In the spring of 2018, she joined the College of Pharmacy and embarked on a career that gives her both time in the classroom and a lab to pursue her research. “It’s the best of both worlds,” she says.

Born in Moose Jaw, Sask., Stobart and her family moved often during her childhood, following her father’s assignments as an RCMP officer. She has lived in Winnipeg the longest and now considers the city home.

As her research unfolds, it seems that one discovery always leads to new avenues of exploration. “I’m applying a lot of the tools used to study astrocytes to now look at pericytes,” says Stobart, referring to another type of brain cell. “I’m trying to study how these cells regulate what the neurons are doing in the brain and how this changes in disease.”

She has received a two-year grant from Research Manitoba of $65,000 per year to study pericytes.

When she has deepened her understanding of cellular activity in the brain, Stobart plans to shift her focus to treatment. “I’m an astrocyte biologist, but I’m also a pharmacologist,” she says. “My long-term goal is something tangible – developing drugs to target cells and to treat disease.”

She’s not thinking small, either. She’s interested in conditions that are impacted by damage or loss to the pericytes and astrocytes – that’s major illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease and stroke.

“The neuroscience community is only just beginning to consider astrocytes and pericytes in disease. It wouldn’t surprise me if ultimately, my research could be applied to a number of different brain disorders where these cells have been the missing link.”

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