A University of Texas at Dallas doctoral student has received a National Institutes of Health (NIH) fellowship to help propel him along his path to becoming an independent research scientist.

Mark Zuppichini, a student in the cognition and neuroscience PhD program in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences (BBS), received the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award Individual Predoctoral Fellowship — a two-year, $41,000 grant intended to allow him to conduct dissertation research and obtain mentored research training.

His research examines how connectivity changes in the brains of people with multiple sclerosis (MS) relate to the cognitive deficits that come alongside physical symptoms of the disease.

“MS can be genuinely challenging — its onset typically occurs in the prime of one’s life,” Zuppichini said. “It affects mobility, cognition, quality of life, and is highly correlated with vocational ability — the ability to work. And to date, there aren’t many effective rehabilitation techniques for cognitive impairment.”

Working with BBS faculty researchers in the Center for BrainHealth (CBH) at UT Dallas, Zuppichini will use functional MRI techniques to measure neuronal, glial and vascular activity in the brain while study participants complete cognitive tasks, allowing the scientists to investigate the underlying neurological changes.

“We know that multiple sclerosis degrades the white matter that mediates function and communication between nerve cells and blood vessels,” Zuppichini said. “We think this degradation impedes neurons from firing persistently, which is critical for executing working-memory tasks.”

Zuppichini and his colleagues hope to provide information that could point the way to effective MS treatments down the road.

“We need to better understand the mechanisms by which MS impairs cognitive function to be able to help people,” the third-year doctoral student said.

“It has been notoriously difficult to find a form of cognitive rehabilitation to help MS patients. If I can help even in an incremental way to get us closer to understanding how memory dysfunction occurs in MS, then I’m super interested in doing so.”

Mark Zuppichini, a cognition and neuroscience doctoral student in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences

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Published on UTD Today July 31, 2020