A professor's focus on chronobiology opens up new possibilities
Akanksha S. Mathivanan is a Rutgers sophomore and an aspiring physician-scientist who intends to forge a career in medical research.
She is also living with a traumatic brain injury.
A collision with another player, and then a ball to the back of her head during a high school basketball practice took a steep toll on this driven, accomplished student. Suddenly she was struggling academically and socially at Montgomery High School.
“The injury changed everything about me,” says Mathivanan, a cell biology and neuroscience major in the School of Arts and Sciences. “And because traumatic brain injury is an invisible injury, no one can tell that you have physical pain or that you are dizzy, or that you are experiencing complete chaos in your head.”
It was four years ago this month that she was injured. And though her health has improved, she continues to experience debilitating symptoms including chronic migraines, insomnia, and nausea.
But in the lab of Rutgers professor Annika Barber, Mathivanan has found a place where she can flourish, doing the research she loves while studying the science behind her illness. Barber is a chronobiologist, studying the “master clock” in the brain that regulates an array of essential functions including decisions such as when to eat, sleep, or exercise.
“I study the master clock in the brain and how information gets out of that clock to everywhere else in the body,” says Barber, a professor in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, SAS, and the Waksman Institute of Microbiology. “How does information go from your brain to your pancreas to release insulin, or go to your intestines to tell your guts it’s time to be more mobile?”
The study of chronobiology, with its focus on the body’s circadian rhythms, has wide applications in human health, from treating psychiatric disorders to better timing and delivery of medication to the body. The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to three scientists for their discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm.
Like those Nobel laureates, the Barber lab’s experiments are focused on one of nature’s most common creatures: the fruit fly.
“Flies are big enough to have interesting behaviors like memory, circadian control, mating, and courtship,” Barber says. “But their brains are really small, only about 150,000 neurons.”
Hence, the lab’s motto: “Time Flies.”
Last summer Mathivanan joined Barber’s lab as part of an Aresty Research Center program, exploring the impact of brain injuries on the ability to sleep. In the experiments she conducted with senior researcher Michael Fetchko, fruit flies with moderate to severe brain injuries were placed into activity monitors where an infrared beam is used to measure their activity and determine how much they are sleeping.
“Akanksha’s work with Michael shows that in fact we do see progressive change in sleep architecture,” Barber says. “Flies don’t just lose sleep right away in this short period after the injury. They continue to have this persistent change in when they sleep and how much they sleep. That is something we are really interested in because it captures aspects of the human experience.”
That certainly reflects Mathivanan’s experience.
After the injury, she was often unable to attend class, either staying at home or sitting in the nurse’s office. She had chronic insomnia and severe migraine attacks.
“It would be crazy headaches that felt like pounding, throbbing, sharp electrical shock waves,” she said. “You can’t tolerate any light or noise, you can’t eat, and you can’t stand up.”
At Rutgers she is reemerging, bringing a strong sense of purpose to her life as an undergraduate. She wrote a research paper in her first year exploring how sports culture perpetuates a warrior mindset that can lead to head injuries going underreported. She also spoke at a local high school about her own journey, teaching students about the importance of recognizing and reporting head injuries.
“It became really important for me to talk about this,” she said. “A lot of people talk about football players getting injured, but no one talks about the kids in high school sports who are getting concussions and not getting the proper and tailored attention and treatment they need right away from their coaches and even their teammates.
“It’s seen as something so common, but it's not well understood because of the variability in how it affects people; so it’s just pushed aside, and so the kids learn to deal with it silently.”
In addition to raising awareness in the public realm, Mathivanan is continuing to seek answers in the lab and through science communications. She is a board member of the Cell Biology and Neuroscience Society at Rutgers, where she drives the conversation about traumatic brain injury and the literature in the field.
Her work in the Barber lab has felt liberating and even life-affirming because she is taking action, conducting research to grapple with the questions she has long harbored about her illness. After graduating, she intends to pursue an MD-Ph.D. program. For now, she is determined to learn all she can about traumatic brain injury, furthering her own recovery while gathering the knowledge she needs to help others.
“I want to understand my own injury: how it happened, all the stages, how to effectively manage the issues that I am still dealing with,” she said. “But I also want to pass that on to others suffering with a traumatic brain injury.
“It truly pains me to see people enduring the same pain I have, because I know things could be even the slightest bit better for them if I can create some change and speak up about it.”