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Doctoral Student Studying Multiple Sclerosis Earns NIH Fellowship

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

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

Taking an interest in the science of memory as an undergraduate, Zuppichini worked in a lab studying working memory in both healthy subjects and in those with MS while earning his master’s degree at Montclair State University in New Jersey.

“I’ve been working with the MS population for five or six years now, and I’ve become really emotionally involved in helping them,” he 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.”

Dr. Bart Rypma, the Meadows Foundation Chair in Behavioral and Brain Sciences and a professor of cognitive neuroscience and cognitive psychology at UT Dallas, said Zuppichini’s NIH grant will permit him to acquire the experimental, statistical and neuroimaging training needed to become an independent cognitive neuroscience researcher.

“Mark came to my lab with first-rate training in experimental psychology and neuropsychology,” Rypma said. “To continue on his path to becoming an independent researcher, he must develop his neuroimaging skills to the highest level of proficiency.”

McDermott Graduate Fellows

In addition to receiving this fellowship from the National Institutes of Health, Zuppichini has also been named a Eugene McDermott Graduate Fellow at UT Dallas.

The Eugene McDermott Graduate Fellows Program is designed to prepare outstanding doctoral students for careers in leading research enterprises. Highly qualified students admitted to the University’s research-intensive doctoral programs may be nominated by their academic unit.

Zuppichini praised Rypma’s mentorship, singling out Rypma’s experience on both sides of the grant-writing process.

“I have been fortunate to get to work really closely with Dr. Rypma,” Zuppichini said. “Getting his perspective as both an applicant and a grant reviewer was truly invaluable.”

Zuppichini said the fellowship will allow him to focus on his dissertation free from some of the typical responsibilities of a doctoral student.

“I’ve worked for a couple of years as a teaching assistant, and I do want to teach courses later in life, but being able to focus on my dissertation will allow me to foster the analytical skills I’m going to need as an independent research scientist,” he said.

Citing the “culture of science at UTD,” Zuppichini described the University as “extremely fertile ground for a young scientist,” praising the BBS postdoctoral researchers at CBH from whom he has gathered valuable expertise.

“There are plenty of grant-writing opportunities for internal grants, which are great training,” he said. “The faculty are extremely supportive and collaborative.”

Among the other advantages of studying at UT Dallas are the latest imaging technologies available at the UT Dallas BrainHealth Imaging Center, including dual-echo imaging, which is increasingly being used in neuroscience to measure neural activity and blood flow simultaneously.

“In my lab, Mark is learning traditional functional neuroimaging methods as well as the novel dual-echo fMRI methods that we are developing in the context of investigating MS-related changes in neural-vascular coupling,” Rypma said. “We have tailored a training program that will permit him to cultivate expertise in the most advanced neuroimaging methods used to explore human cognitive neuroscience in healthy and diseased populations.”

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].