Nicole Sabaliauskas '04 Co-Authors Paper Published in Science

Just six years after graduating from Moravian with a degree in biology with honors, Nicole Sabaliauskas has made the pages of one of the world's most prestigious science journals. Last week (March 19, 2010), Science published a paper of which Sabaliauskas is a co-lead author. The buzz is more than academic: recent issues of Time, Scientific American, and other magazines have reported on the research team's findings that certain brain changes during puberty make learning more difficult.

"To find out what causes the decrease in activity in the area of the brain related to learning, we looked at the expression of certain proteins," said Sabaliauskas, a Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience at New York University. In the paper "A Critical Role for a4bd GABAA Receptors in Shaping Learning Deficits at Puberty in Mice," Sabaliauskas and her fellow researchers report that a novel neurotransmitter receptor, which inhibits nerve signals, is at its peak during puberty, making learning more difficult for female mice.

They also found that the hormone THP, a stress steroid, boosts learning during puberty by increasing activity in the hippocampus, an area of the brain related to learning. (Sabaliauskas's work focused on the subcellular localization of the GABAA receptors; her electron microscopy images appear in Figure 1 of the paper.)

"We submitted the paper in November, and it's been a whirlwind of publicity since then," said Sabaliauskas. The researchers' goal is not to create a magic pill that will make teenagers smarter, she assures. "But the research could be used to mitigate certain learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, that have onset at puberty, or to bolster learning for those with performance anxiety, for instance."

Sabaliauskas is already at work on a new behavioral research project, this time looking at the way fluctuations in hormones during the menstrual cycle affect learning in female mice.