Since its creation, the Civitan International Research Center (CIRC) has been a point of pride and a unifying cause for Civitan members globally. In the 1950s, service to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities became a primary focus of the organization and, as such, the center is a physical manifestation of the very mission of Civitan.
This year, the research center celebrated a milestone birthday. Although the CIRC officially opened in 1992, the resolution to create it was passed in 1988—exactly thirty years ago.
The Center for Disease Control estimates Intellectual and developmental disabilities affect one in six Americans. In reality, no member of our society is unaffected. For many Civitan members, the impact of I/DD is the reason for their service because they have a friend or family member with autism, alzheimer’s, Down syndrome or another issue closely tied to the mission of Civitan. It’s personal.
Just as the definition of I/DD has expanded over time, the scope of the research center has grown over the three decades since it was first conceived. Today, there are more than 100 scientists working under the banner of Civitan looking to find answers for a variety of concerns. With each issue of Civitan Magazine, we like to highlight some of the amazing work being done by the researchers supported by Civitans around the world.
Dr. Farah Lubin is one of many Civitan scientists working hard to make a difference. As the leader of the Lubin Lab, she takes on a variety of roles from hands-on research work to serving as a mentor for students seeking to begin their careers.
“My lab is a memory lab,” says Lubin. “I study how the brain learns and retains memory. I like to do it because this is what happens in a healthy brain.”
Dr. Lubin explains how the brain adapts to circumstances and compensates for changes naturally. Understanding how a healthy brain works is important because it helps researchers determine when something needs to be treated or when the body is actually repairing itself.
“I’ve become really interested in epilepsy,” she says, “because we know a lot about memory from patients with epilepsy, particularly temporal lobe epilepsy.” When patients no longer respond to drug treatments, doctors have to remove affected portions of the brains where seizures begin. “We learn the science of ‘blobology’ as I call it. Where this blob in the front is executive function, this blob is visual cortex, and so on.”
Her work with epilepsy intrigues her because much of the treatment for the disorder revolves around preventing seizures but, she says, addressing the memory loss that accompanies the seizures can lead to a higher quality of life for the patients.
“I study an area of molecular genetics called epigenetics,” she says, “epi is latin for above, so it means above genetics. These determine how your genetic code is read. Your cells all have the same DNA, for example, but external factors tell them which codes to turn on or off at the cellular level.” Dr. Lubin says epilepsy can be genetic but it is important to understand what factors play a role in causing the seizures and memory loss.
She recently had a study published in a peer reviewed medical journal which has drawn a lot of attention to the work at the CIRC. The study involves the supplementation of methionine, a basic amino acid attained in the diet, which has prevented memory loss in lab studies.
“Methionine is an essential amino acid which means you take it in through food,” she says. “It contributes to those epigenetic processes. It increases expression of certain genes and suppresses expression of other genes—and the body just takes it in and rescues memory.”
Dr. Lubin add a caution to say all seizures are not the same and not all seizures are epilepsy. This bridges the research across other areas of I/DD. For example, about 30% of autism patients experience seizures. So, the research could have a much broader impact in seizure control and memory retention.
Currently, she is waiting on approval for clinical trials in humans but is encouraged by the success in rodent studies and in human tissue. There are many variables to consider with human studies which can’t be explored with rats and mice, such as male and female specific epilepsy and how hormones might affect results.
The epilepsy lab has moved to UAB Highlands hospital where the Civitan International Neuroimaging Laboratory (CINL) is located. She says the MRI at the CINL allows her, and other researchers, to attain higher quality images much faster than other imaging equipment.
Visit www.civitan.org for more information from the Civitan International Research Center and updates on the exciting work of Dr. Farah Lubin and other Civitan scientists.