The vibrant, diverse neuroscience community at Illinois is working to find solutions to some of today’s most pressing societal health challenges in fields including aging; learning, memory and plasticity; nutrition and cognition; neuroengineering; neuro-and socio-genomics; bioinformatics; and more. More than 300 faculty and staff on the Urbana-Champaign campus identify as researchers in the neuroscience space—regardless of their home department affiliation. These researchers are using leading-edge imaging tools, pioneering studies that progress from the lab to clinical applications with the goal of improving the health and lives of people everywhere.
Sepideh Sadaghiani, PhD
Assistant Professor of Psychology
The research in Dr. Sadaghiani’s CONNECT Lab involves neurocognitive networks, neural communication and connectivity, and cognitive control. She and her team focus on how distant brain regions communicate with each other—called functional connectivity—and how that connectivity is organized and ordered to flexibly process internal and external (sensory) information, called flexible cognition. They use various imaging technology, including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), electroencephalography (EEG), and simultaneous EEG-fMRI, and genetic analyses to study healthy younger adult brains with the goal of better understanding flexible cognition.
Recently, Sadaghiani and one of her graduate students, Richard Oliver Bido-Medina, traveled to a conference in the Dominican Republic, where Bido-Medina was born and raised. There, she was struck by reports about severe effects of Zika virus on the adult central nervous system in certain rare cases. Until now, the majority of Zika virus-related research has focused on perinatal Zika transmission and infants diagnosed with microcephaly and a host of other severe fetal birth defects. Working with a small grant from the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS) at Illinois, Sadaghiani and Bido-Medina undertook one of the first longitudinal group case-control neuroimaging studies of Zika virus-infected adults presenting severe neurological complications.
Pilot work in Zika virus-infected adult population
Working with Salvador B. Gautier hospital in Santo Domingo, D.R., Sadaghiani and Bido-Medina began studying a small group of nine adult patients, reviewing their functional and structural MRI scans and spinal fluid samples to track changes in the brain, over several months, post-Zika virus exposure.
“Given that severe neurological complications of the central nervous system from Zika virus exposure are not restricted to the developing nervous system, it is crucial to investigate brain changes in adult patients.” says Sadaghiani. “Network structure at the anatomical and functional level is much easier to investigate in the adult than the infant brain. And the information gained from the study of adult Zika patients may inform research on the developing brain.”
Sadaghiani’s lab is measuring the brain’s gray matter volume changes in these Zika patients—specifically, long-term shrinking and expanding of the gray matter due to inflammation. She is further studying the effects on functional connectivity. Even with a small patient group compared to most imaging studies, her lab at the Beckman Institute has a paper in progress that reports significant findings with respect to functional networks. Additionally, IHSI research development manager Gill Snyder identified that Sadaghiani’s work with neurologically-affected adults with Zika virus matched an NIH funding opportunity. The lab wrote and submitted a grant, with Snyder’s support, and is awaiting NIH council decision.
As unique as studying the brain scans of Zika-infected adults is, Sadaghiani is extremely grateful for being connected to helpful clinical and translational neuroscience resources a bit closer to home.
“The Carle Illinois Collaborative Research Seed Grant I received a couple of years ago really gave me the ability to even begin working with neurological patients. Just working alongside Carle neurologists has been so valuable, even more so than the funding. Getting to do research collaboratively with psychologists and clinicians would have been pretty much impossible without IHSI facilitating this,” says Sadaghiani.