Alex Petrucci

Alex Petrucci, PhD student, neuroscience

Identifies risks for seizure death

“Alex is a truly exceptional graduate student. She is well on her way to making research advances to positively affect the lives of patients with epilepsy and will be a staunch advocate for the patients.” -Gordon Buchanan, associate professor, neurology

Hometown: Austin, Texas

Faculty mentor/advisor: Gordon Buchanan, MD, PhD, associate professor, neurology, Carver College of Medicine

What is your degree program and expected graduate date? Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Neuroscience; Dec. 2022

Please describe your research: My research has focused on identifying brain mechanisms underlying sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP) and potential SUDEP risk factors. I have examined how the signaling molecule serotonin and the dorsal raphe, a brain region that sends serotonin signals, might influence recovery of normal brain activity following seizures. After a seizure, there is a protracted period of low brain activity that may increase SUDEP risk. It is my goal to examine the interplay between serotonin, the dorsal raphe, and the downstream targets of the dorsal raphe to determine how this low brain activity occurs and how best to reduce it.

In simple terms, why does this research matter? Over one-third of epilepsy patients will continue to experience seizures despite medical treatment. This patient population is at greatest risk for sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP), which is the leading cause of death in patients with uncontrolled seizures. We cannot predict if SUDEP will occur, determine when it will occur, or prevent its occurrence. Thus, identification of potential risk factors and underlying brain mechanisms is critical to better our understanding SUDEP and save lives.

How soon after starting at the University of Iowa were you able to participate in research? I started participating in research my first semester of my PhD.

How has being involved in research made you more successful at the University of Iowa? Many of the skills needed to be a successful scientist translate to success in other domains. You are accustomed to thinking critically. You are ready to brainstorm solutions to unexpected problems. You are tenacious and continue forward despite setbacks. You can work collaboratively and independently as needed. These are skills I’ve utilized as a researcher, but that I also use in everyday life. Whether I’m troubleshooting housework, organizing an extracurricular event, or preparing an experiment in the lab, my research skills are close to my heart and first on my mind.

What are your career goals and/or plans after graduation? After graduation I will be pursuing postdoctoral research at the University of Utah. I will be staying within the epilepsy research field!

Read more about Alex: An aim to better understand the unexpected

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