Summer internship blog series: fighting frontotemporal degeneration

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Colgate students have fanned out across the globe to apply their liberal arts know-how in a variety of real-world settings. They are writing back to campus to keep our community posted on their progress. This article was written by Laynie Dratch ’17, a neuroscience major from Ambler, Pa., conducting research at the Penn Frontotemporal Degeneration (FTD) Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

This is my second summer at the Penn FTD Center, which brings together an interdisciplinary team of clinicians and researchers with common goals of studying frontotemporal degeneration spectrum disorders as well as providing care and support to patients and their caregivers.

Frontotemporal degeneration is a term used to describe a continuum of disorders marked by progressive brain cell loss in the frontal and temporal regions of the brain — the most recognizable disorder is Alzheimer’s disease. Few realize that similar dementias exist. Disorders such as primary progressive aphasia and corticobasal syndrome often present as changes in personality, gait, or language, rather than memory loss, and are challenging to diagnose. These atypical dementias, which can be confusing and frustrating for patients and their families, often appear in people in their 50s and 60s.

Places like the Penn FTD Center are rare, and I am proud to be part of a team that is leading the research and patient care for this struggling population that is still looking for a cure. A bonus: I have the pleasure of working with Meghan Healey ’11, a graduate student in the center.

This summer, I am involved in a project that compares typical Alzheimer’s to its atypical variants by studying differences in imaging biomarkers throughout disease duration. Working at the Penn FTD Center has provided me with countless other educational opportunities: I have participated in lab meetings, presented papers, served as a control in experiments, learned computer skills, observed a brain autopsy, and attended the center’s annual FTD Caregiver Conference, bringing together patients, caregivers, researchers, clinicians, and advocates for a day focused on practical information and the state of the science.

There are few, if any, centers that can match the resources, ability, and compassion that allow the Penn FTD Center to both care for and learn from its patients. The underlying themes of Penn’s success are collaboration and compassion. Every member of the team is important, and everyone contributes. Working at the center among the field’s brightest doctors, researchers, and nurses has taught me so much, both professionally and personally. I entered the center with absolutely no biomedical research experience, and now understand all of the different contributors to what is a much bigger and more complicated process than I ever imagined. I learned that my strengths include collaboration and analysis, while coding and statistics are my next areas to focus on improving. Most importantly, my time at the center has shown me that I work best in a collaborative environment, and has provided me with a network of support comprised of some of the field’s top academics and medical professionals. This experience has also shown me that I want to work in a sector of the field that has contact with, or direct impact on, the lives of patients and their families.

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