Contributed by Brenda Mackey
Graduate Assistant, Research Publications
Sponsored Programs Office, Ball State University
The police pull over a driver, worried that he is drunk. He seems confused and unable to concentrate. However, he has no alcohol in his system. What’s going on?
It turns out that this driver has diabetes and has become hypoglycemic. Bart Pederson, Associate Professor of Medical Education, explains that this is something people with diabetes deal with on a regular basis – especially those who have Type 1 diabetes, where they are taking insulin every day. “There’s a good chance of them going hypoglycemic. They give themselves too much insulin and their glucose drops too low. Some papers say this happens as much as twice a week. It has major effects on their ability to think clearly. It makes them tired, confused,” Pederson explains. “There’s definitely a need to understand this disorder better and how to treat it.”
Understanding hypoglycemia is what Pederson is working to do. While studying glycogen metabolism during his post-doctoral research, he investigated genetically engineered mice whose bodies couldn’t make glycogen. Having that resource available led Pederson to his current project, which involves studying the importance of brain glycogen in memory formation and the protection it may provide for the brain under hypoglycemic conditions. “Hypoglycemia is the major obstacle preventing the benefits associated with intensive insulin therapy in individuals with diabetes. Low glucose levels can lead to cognitive impairment and even brain damage,” he says.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) have seen the value in Pederson’s work, awarding him grants in 2008 and 2013. His current project pursues two aims. “The first aim is investigating the less severe cases, where people can’t think well,” he explains. “We’re using these mice, we give them insulin, make them hypoglycemic, and there’s different sorts of memory or learning tests we can do.”
How does one determine if a mouse is learning? One test, which Pederson calls “log rolling for mice,” measures motor learning skills. Mice are put on a rod that rotates and they try to stay on it. A normal mouse gets a little better at this every day. But a hypoglycemic mouse does not perform nearly as well. It has a harder time with coordination and learning to adjust for the rotation.
The second aim of the grant involves looking at severe conditions. “These are conditions that in humans can actually lead to coma. Brain cells are dying off because there’s not enough fuel for them to survive – they’re just deprived. And so in that case what we do is make our mice hypoglycemic and then again we compare – does it make any difference whether you have glycogen in your brain?” Pederson says. “Under these conditions where you basically can’t measure any glucose in their brains, the only fuel left would be glycogen. So you’d expect that if you don’t have any glycogen you don’t have any fuel, so more brain cells would die. And that seems to be the case from what we’ve seen so far.”
Working with students has become essential to Pederson’s research. “When I first came, I did a fair amount of things in the lab,” he says. “But now my role is mainly teaching the students the techniques and helping them to troubleshoot problems that arise, teaching them the background behind what we’re doing and the relevance.”
Immersive learning with students in research can lead to some interesting results. “I joke with them that I’m always rewriting my protocols because they come up with some way to do things wrong that I never would have thought of before!” Pederson says. “It just shows that you can’t assume things.”
Despite any hiccups the students may cause, they are essential to Pederson’s research. “If I didn’t have any students, nothing would get done! They’re the hands that do everything.”
Pederson was inspired to study diabetes because of the sheer number of people with the disease – 350 million worldwide. He was also inspired by one specific person – his grandfather, who struggled with diabetes throughout his life.
Pederson also just enjoys conducting research. “You’re getting to explore something that’s new. People haven’t been able to answer this question. You get to study it and hopefully find some answers. It’s exciting to make a new discovery.”