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Alena Savonenko on Investigating the Role of Aging in the Development of Alzheimer’s Disease

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Alena Savonenko on Investigating the Role of Aging in the Development of Alzheimer’s Disease

Interviewed by Jennifer Wicks
Alena Savonenko on Investigating the Role of Aging in the Development of Alzheimer’s Disease

Alena Savonenko, is an associate professor of pathology and neurology. She investigates the neurobiological mechanisms of aging, learning and memory. Her current research studies the mechanism of aging and why it is fundamental in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

What is the focus of your research?

Savonenko: The focus of my research is studying functional consequences of mutations and other genetic modifications related to human neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s disease. I also study the consequences of traumatic brain injuries.
The overarching goal for all Alzheimer’s-related science is, of course, finding a cure. Since this is too big to grasp at once, my group exclusively studies the mechanisms of aging and why they are fundamental in the development of this disease, since aging is the biggest risk factor.

In this research, our group uses animal models such as mice and sometimes rats, with different genetic mutations that model disease. We study the effects of hallmark pathologies of Alzheimer’s—amyloid plaques and tangles—on their behavioral and cognitive abilities. These models give us clues to biomarkers that can eventually be tested in people. We want to be able to correctly diagnose people earlier before the clinical symptoms of Alzheimer’s appear, so using the appropriate models of aging rodents to determine the correct mechanisms and biomarkers is important.

What are the most challenging aspects of your research? The most rewarding?

Savonenko: The major challenges have been understanding that none of the animal models will fully represent the disease in humans. The most rewarding part is actually having the opportunity to conduct these experiments. Much of my other work involves planning and writing grants and papers about conducting research. These experiments are like a reward for me, and I treasure the times I can actually prepare equipment and receive data. I also enjoy the participation and collaboration with people from different departments. It’s exciting in that it allows me to gain a new world of views on certain diseases.

When did you know you wanted to be a scientist?

Savonenko: I was always interested in learning new things, particularly in physics and psychology, and I wanted to figure out how to combine these two fields of my interests. When the medical school I attended in Russia added a biophysics department, I thought, “That’s it!” Joining the department was the first step in combining my interests of medicine and physics-related disciplines. While studying biophysics, I became particularly interested in behavior and mechanisms of learning and memory.  

testimg Alena Savonenko with her new found hobby - sculpting.

What are your hobbies?

Savonenko: I used to run professional track and field—400 meters with hurdles. I still run to stay healthy and I encourage my 6-year-old son to adopt a healthy lifestyle as well. Recently, I discovered a new hobby. While attending classes at the Schuler School of Fine Arts in Baltimore, I started with charcoal and then oil painting. But then I decided to try sculpture. It was amazing—I discovered that I love it. And now I make busts and portraits of members of my family. My cousin is a sculptor, so maybe it runs in the family.