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How Fear Changes Kids’ Brains

Graduate Center Ph.D. student Roseanna Zanca in the lab Graduate Center Ph.D. student Roseanna Zanca, a member of Hunter College's RISE program

Researchers have made significant strides to understand PTSD since the American Psychiatric Association added it to the DSM-III in 1980. But there’s still much that they don’t know. Roseanna Zanca, a psychology doctoral student at The Graduate Center, CUNY and a graduate student in Hunter’s RISE program, is working at the molecular level to understand more.
Zanca has co-authored several papers investigating the biology of fear, trauma, and memory. Her most recent, published in the journal Neurobiology of Stress, pinpointed a specific mechanism that could help explain why juveniles aren’t as capable of retrieving fear memories as adults several days after a traumatizing event. It may have something to do with the protein known as PSD-95, and the surprising results could help with developing new treatments for PTSD. 
Gradaute Center: There’s a big push to encourage women in STEM, and RISE seems to be helping with that.
Zanca: It’s really motivating because there are times where you really feel like you have imposter syndrome, and you’ve got to step back and say, “I got this. I can do it.”
GC: How do you personally combat imposter syndrome?
Zanca: I always struggle with it, honestly. My mentor, Peter Serrano, is very motivating, and always pushes me. It’s really about having a good community and support. There were many times where I really felt lost or I felt, “I don’t think I belong here,” and the RISE program lifts you up. It’s great.
GC: Three of your recent publications have to do with fear and memory. What about that area do you find particularly fascinating?
Zanca: I’m really interested in post-traumatic stress disorder; it’s something that I’ve seen from family and firsthand experience. How PTSD evolves is purely societal, but getting rid of PTSD is what’s hard. I think, on the scientific end, finding the right treatment for preventing the sustainment [of PTSD] is key because basically the longer you have untreated PTSD, the harder it is to treat.
GC: Would it require both medicine and therapy?
Zanca: Yes, it’s definitely both. Right now, people have been focusing mostly on exposure therapy, but the problem is that you can get rid of the memory or delete the association between the memory and whatever’s triggering it, but the memory isn’t necessarily deleted. It’s more of a suppression. As soon as you’re in a similar environment as the event occurred, you can relapse.
GC: Your paper mentions the importance of GLuA1 and GLuA2. Can you explain what they are, and how they’re related to memory?
Zanca: GLuA1 and GLuA2 are AMPA receptor subunits that are very common in long-term memory formation and sustainment. With the juveniles, at 24 hours exposure, you have this increase in GLuA1 and GLuA2, but after seven days, we see that this increase is lost. While the juveniles are having increased activity, they, unlike adults, never have a detectable change in PSD-95, the protein that helps stability and the anchoring of AMPA receptors to the synapse. Without this stability at the synapse, these AMPA receptors become fragile. You see that with the juveniles because after seven days, you no longer see those changes. In fact, you see a decrease in GLuA1.
GC: Does that suggest that juveniles have a more resilient brain when it comes to trauma?
Zanca: It would show some type of resilience, but this decrease in GLuA1 shows the long-term dysregulation that’s going to happen. Maybe now it’s acting as a protective mechanism, but the brain might be generalizing and creating dysregulation in a lot of memories as a result.
GC: What’s the most compelling takeaway from these results?
Zanca: Because PSD-95 is such a common scaffolding protein — it’s kind of a general protein that’s there in the membrane and anchors a lot of different protein — you wouldn’t have thought it would be so important at such an early age. A takeaway is that while it seems like the brain is adapting, developing a protective mechanism. In the long term, this can become maladaptive.

Submitted on: MAR 22, 2019

Category: General GC News | Psychology | Student News