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LAU professor leads groundbreaking neuroscientific research

Led by professor Sama Sleiman, LAU students contribute to scientific research set to become an important milestone in therapies for neurological diseases.

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Professor Sama Sleiman

Sama Sleiman began looking into the benefits of physical exercise back in 2014, while teaching at the NYU Langone Medical Center. Her aim was to synthesize the beneficial neurological effects of the BDNF protein into a pill that could be taken by those who are unable to exercise. The brain-derived neurotrophic factor protein ― also known as ‘Miracle-Gro’ for its role in the growth of nerve cells ― is naturally produced by the body during physical activity.

“Scientists have long tried to administer the BDNF protein into the brains of animals, but they have not found an effective way to make the brain absorb it,” she explains. What she set out to do instead was to study the mechanism which triggers the natural production of BDNF and create a pharmaceutical drug that stimulates its natural creation.

Sleiman has since brought her research to Lebanon, where she received the full support of LAU as well as assistance from NYU, Cornell University and a grant from the National Council for Scientific Research-Lebanon (CNRS-L). Three master’s students in molecular biology have been actively involved in conducting lab experiments and have contributed to the paper, published in eLife.

By monitoring the biological mechanism taking place in mice while exercising on the wheel, the team has successfully unraveled the mystery behind the production of BDNF.

Among the key findings of the research is a ketone body called beta-hydroxybutrate (BHB), which is produced by the liver and is responsible for activating the BDNF gene to produce more of its protein.

The next step will be aimed at identifying all the molecules which, together with BHB, will be combined into a pharmaceutical product that stimulates cognitive improvement and the alleviation of depression and anxiety.

“I feel very privileged to have been able to work on this paper in collaboration with universities abroad,” says Lauretta El Hayek. “I am so passionate about research because I believe this is the key to progress, especially in a country where neurological diseases are still taboo. It was a great experience to be involved in this project and to feel like I am contributing something to the world.”

Her colleague Edwina Tony Abou Haidar intends to take the research a step further in her master’s thesis. “I am now combining different diets with exercise to investigate how the former affects the latter,” she says. “We are having promising results and I hope to publish my paper soon.” Abou Haidar plans to apply for a Ph.D. and ― thanks to the hands-on research opportunities she had at LAU ― to present her candidature having already published in a scientific journal.

Aside from the research, what Rami al Haddad found greatly inspirational was the relationship that the students established with their tutor. “Dr. Sleiman was a role model for me in her research skills and analytical thinking,” he says. “My future plan is ultimately to have my own lab, and the research I am conducting now is allowing me to build the necessary skills and knowledge to do so.” 


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