University of Vermont

University Communications

Graduate Student Receives NCCAM Grant to Study Connective Tissue

Release Date: 11-18-2009

Author: Jennifer Nachbur
Phone: 802/656-7875 Fax: 802-656-3961

Like the connecting pathways of the peripheral nervous system she studies, University of Vermont neuroscience graduate student Sarah Corey's scientific career has followed inter-related foci, from work on neurological aspects of AIDS, to immunology, to neuro-immunology and Alzheimer's disease. Her latest venture as a National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) predoctoral fellow is the development of an animal model of connective tissue inflammation.

Connective tissue, located between muscle, fat, and skin throughout the body, has the ability to become stiff in response to injury or remodel if stretched. Working with mentors Helene Langevin, M.D., research associate professor of neurology, and Margaret Vizzard, Ph.D., professor of neurology, Corey aims to determine whether connective tissue is innervated — possesses nerve fiber terminals that transmit a sensory response such as pain — and how the connective tissues of the low back are altered with injury and inflammation. To date, no investigator has demonstrated that the connective tissue of the low back contains sensory nerve fiber terminals.

In preparation for her NCCAM project, which is funded by a two-year, $84,352 award, Corey developed methods for identifying nerve fibers and terminations in the connective tissue, which will provide the foundation for her research. Currently she is analyzing cytokines — proteins that function as intracellular communicators and are involved in inflammation — to establish their role in connective tissue under inflammatory conditions.

For Corey, whose previous work examined neuroimmunology in the central nervous system, her current work has been quite different from past endeavors.

"It's more challenging for me to look at the interface between inflammation and the nervous system in the periphery," admits Corey. "There are so many different cells and tissues involved in the process."

Langevin's lab allows Corey exposure to clinical work and both Langevin and Vizzard also conduct basic science laboratory work. The co-mentors share assisting Corey with specific aspects of her research; Langevin advises on issues relating to connective tissue remodeling and Vizzard guides her with the development of an animal model from the perspective of nerves and inflammation.

"It's nice to sort of be on the edge of both worlds," says Corey.

Ultimately, Corey hopes her research will provide answers to two questions: One, are there sensory nerve fibers in connective tissue? Two, could this connective tissue and its innervation contribute to chronic low back pain? She also plans to apply a form of simulated manual tissue stretch in her animal model and measure its effect on the inflammatory response of these connective tissues. The hope is that her findings can be applied to clinical research examining low back pain and the effect of body-based treatments, such as yoga and massage, on that inflammation.