Behind every publication lining the pages of Cell and Nature, there’s a scientist. A tinkering mad(wo)man with an insatiable lust for knowledge and also just being really cool. Sometimes, being cool just seems to run in the family, as it does for my PI, Dr. Carol Colton (or maybe its the self-professed madness slowly taking her). A perky yet wry neurobiologist, she is a pioneer in the immunological field of Alzheimer’s disease with an dignified, open attitude, and I fear the day she reads this.
Belonging to a family of scientists, Dr. Colton has always desired to do STEM research, particularly in Biology. Initially, she planned to enter paleontology at the University College London, but science is never a straight road, and that goes for the scientist too. While excelling in all her studies, there was one occasion that she could only describe as career-ruining. To this day, the trauma and shudders from the experience haunt her, and she still has a bone to pick with fish paleontology. On a fateful lab day for a class, the assignment happened to be to take rotting fish-market rejects, to boil their carcasses, to pick the meat apart, and to piece back together the skeleton and identify the fish. Nauseating.
After a prompt and well-deserved department shift, Dr. Colton found herself in a neurology lab. At the time, neuroscience focused heavily on studying the function of neurons, and so the most lending model to study using patch-clamps was of course the squid giant axon. After continuing her research and career at Rutgers University and the National Institute of Health, she began to discover the voice of dissent among scientists when she became interested in microglia.
Microglia, commonly summarized as brain’s immune cells, not too long ago were considered a myth. The brain was just a brain with many neurons, surrounded by a network of blood vessels. However, Dr. Colton found some research indicating a strange possibility of there being something more. After consulting with a fellow researcher who was centrifuging down brain cells to study, she discovered something strange about the heaviest layer which expressed traits common to those of macrophages. But others disagreed, there was opinion that those were just impurities of the sample from the nearby vascular system, pouring with immune cells. Nonetheless, Dr. Colton ignored symposium introductions “humoring” her microglia work, and studied these cells further, and later contributed to the slow recognition of the existence of microglia. An astonishing amount of work has been done since then on the cells, as it turns out, they are essential in many diseases and neural interactions, controlling many inflammatory and metabolic pathways in the brain.
Since then, Dr. Colton has worked at Georgetown University on one inflammatory factor released by microglia: Nitric Oxide. An important component in many neurological diseases, nitric oxide is used both as a neurotransmitter and a player in Alzheimer’s disease. However, the study of its levels in Alzheimer’s disease was scant because of Alzheimer’s posthumous diagnosis and the inability to collect brain samples from living humans. Therefore, for a long time, mice models were used to simulate human neural pathologies, but after a strange virus kept plaguing Dr. Colton’s mice colonies, she abandoned mice for hamsters. Oddly, her new data matched with none of her previous work and even conflicted with other research done on nitric oxide levels prior. After months of confusion and frustration, she discovered that hamsters actually have a different nitric oxide processing enzyme (known as NO synthase 2 as opposed to NO synthase 1) that actually mirror human immune systems much more accurately. This finding slammed her once again into the neuroscience spotlight, as she began working towards replicating the human neural system more and more accurately within rodent models.
More recently, Dr. Colton’s work has ranged from developing patented mice lines for research to studying various metabolic pathways related to Alzheimer’s disease, piecing together different mysteries found in more general brain tissue scans. Now residing at Duke and working with its Kathleen Price Bryan Brain Bank, she has investigated the various functions of arginine and other immuno-regulated chemicals in cell cultures, mice colonies, and even human samples. Her latest challenge to the field of science: viruses are the missing link to Alzheimer’s disease. Of course, the specifics are confidential, but I am sure she will be both excited and also apprehensive that her theory just recently got the Alzheimer’s field clamoring once more, as a heavily controversial study became published by Neuron last Wednesday supporting the possibility of viruses being a key factor to the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. I can already see her laughing at everyone’s face next week.
“I’m smart and your minds are decaying. I’m going to tell you why.”-Joan Wilson imitating Dr. Colton at an Alzheimer’s Talk
“I told him about my idea on viruses, and he was like ‘naahhh.’ Well, when we have proof, I’m going to shove it up to him and be like ‘HA. Ha ha. Ha.'”-Dr. Carol Colton
“How was your vacation, Joan?”-Dr. Carol Colton
“Well on Monday a TV fell on me. There’s the bruise right here. I also got my ankle really swollen, that was my Tuesday.”-Joan Wilson, a survivor
“I do EVERYTHING?!”- Hui Fang finally realizing she doesn’t get paid enough for the 6 roles she plays across 2 labs
“The plasmids arrived!”-Dang Nguyen
“Good! We can start tomorrow.”-Hui Fang
“There’s two”-Dang Nguyen
“What.”-Hui Fang, as the next half hour is spent reading through both DNA sequences to find the right one