Davidson Fellows - 2012 Fellow Vaishnavi Rao


Vaishnavi Rao

$10,000 Scholarship Recipient

Age: 17
San Diego, CA
Category: Science
Project Title: “Activity-dependent Regulation of Nitric Oxide Expression: Novel Form of Neurotransmitter Plasticity.”


As a ubiquitous gaseous neurotransmitter, nitric oxide (NO) plays a key role in motor and sensory functions, and has both neurotoxic and neuroprotective properties. Imbalances in levels of nitric oxide are implicated in the pathogenesis of several neurological disorders including stroke, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. Vaishnavi’s findings suggest that nitric oxide levels can be regulated through alterations in electrical activity, ultimately restoring homeostasis. Nitric oxide plays an essential role in physiological functions including sleep, feeding, memory, vision, olfactory regulation and sensorimotor integration. In the central nervous system alone, both nitric oxide (NO) and nitric oxide synthase (NOS), the enzyme that generates NO, are involved in the regulation of blood flow, long term potentiation (formation of memories due to strengthening of synapses), mediation of other neurotransmitter release (glutamate, serotonin, GABA, dopamine, etc), formation of cGMP/initiation of signal transduction pathways and formation of synapses. Therefore any abnormalities in these functions could contribute to an array of cognitive and neurodegenerative pathologies. Vaishnavi’s work demonstrates the plastic behaviors of neurotransmitter nitric oxide and identifies for the first time, the possibility of its regulation via an external stimulus, e.g. electrical activity. This opens up novel possibilities with regards to curbing NO’s neurotoxic properties without eliminating its neuroprotective properties. It also suggests a transformative approach to triggering and exploiting reserve pools of neurons in brain circuits, which can potentially “correct” the neuronal abnormalities and restore homeostasis.

Vaishnavi’s work marks the first time that the plasticity of gaseous neurotransmitter nitric oxide has been uncovered through alterations in electrical activity. This has far reaching implications in the treatment of various neurological conditions. One can now envision the development of effective brain stimulation-based therapies targeting nitric oxide imbalances within specific regions of the brain. Such localized respecification of nitric oxide expression, through electrical activity, could aid in the restoration of normal functioning in the cases of stroke, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, depression, multiple sclerosis, and other neurological disorders. Since the neurotransmitter nitric oxide is involved in the modulation of dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine and glutamate, all of which have been implicated in these specific disorders, electrical activity for NO regulation could truly help us develop transformative non-invasive therapies.

Vaishnavi is a senior at Canyon Crest Academy in San Diego; she aspires to become a neurosurgeon.

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Click here to view the full listing of the 2012 Davidson Fellows. 
Click here to view Vaishnavi's press release.

For all media inquiries, please contact DavidsonFellowsMedia@davidsongifted.org

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