Sept. 25, 2012

M.D./Ph.D. student Adam Deardorff recognized at motoneuron meeting in Australia

adam deardorff in AustraliaDAYTON—A Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine M.D./Ph.D. student is providing invaluable research that will eventually help doctors better treat a variety of conditions, including spinal cord injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome, vascular and kidney disorders, autoimmune disease and diabetes, among others.

Researchers worldwide are taking note of his research. At an International Motoneuron Meeting held in July in Sydney, Australia, Adam Deardorff presented his findings and was recognized by leading scientists and clinicians from North America, Europe and Australasia with an award for the best oral presentation by a student.

The conference, which is held every two years, focuses on neuroscience research. Deardorff presented research that he had conducted in the WSU labs of Robert Fyffe, Ph.D., university professor and vice president for research and graduate studies, and Timothy Cope, Ph.D., chair and professor of neuroscience, cell biology and physiology, and director of the WSU and PHP Neuroscience Institute.

“For Adam to be able to present his work and be recognized with an award confirms that Wright State University is a major player in neuroscience research,” Fyffe said. “Adam’s leadership and scholarly activities span both scientific research and medical education. He has published in both these areas and has presented papers at national and international meetings.”

At the International Motoneuron Meeting, Deardorff presented his research on traumatic peripheral nerve injury (PNI). Peripheral nerves are the nerves that connect skin, muscles, joints, eyes, ears or any internal organ with the brain or spinal cord. Patients with PNI rarely experience full recovery, in part because the injury irreversibly alters neurons and circuits in the central nervous system – the part of the nervous system that integrates and coordinates the information it receives from all parts of the body — in ways researchers do not fully understand. These alterations interrupt the precise timing of electrical impulses from the brain to the body and vice versa. They interfere with normal movement or sensation.

Deardorff’s findings, along with those of other Wright State researchers, provide insight into underlying changes following PNI that are critical in developing new clinical interventions aimed at reestablishing normal neuronal circuitry and communication for many common conditions, including spinal cord injuries.

“Adam’s work is answering some of the fundamental questions of how the central nervous system controls movement. The information he is providing is absolutely necessary to diagnosing the mechanisms underlying movement disorders,” said Cope, who has been involved in training doctoral students at Wright State and other research institutions for 35 years. “The faculty here have a strong sense that Adam is going to achieve some noteworthy success. He has all the earmarks of someone who is going to make significant contributions to clinical science.”

Deardorff’s research activities also include studies of neurons and neural networks, groups of neurons that perform a specific physiological function, in the brainstem that are involved in hearing. Because hearing is a complex sense, the brain requires multiple, highly specialized networks of interconnected nerve cells to analyze the pitch, intensity, location and phonetic syllables of incoming sound. The auditory brainstem represents the starting point for many of these neural networks and is critical in the ability to locate the source of a sound.

He studies how these cells are affected by congenital deafness caused by cochlear dysfunction. With cochlear dysfunction, the brain does not receive the appropriate sound-evoked electrical signals from the ear, which can lead to difficulties in processing auditory information even after patients have had their hearing restored with cochlear implants.

This work is part of a collaboration with Fyffe and Bruce Walmsley, Ph.D., from Australian National University (ANU). ANU is a recognized leader in neuroscience research.

After the International Motoneuron Meeting, Fyffe and Deardorff went to ANU in Canberra to meet with Walmsley to discuss the project. In addition, Deardorff met with several other neuroscientists at ANU individually, including Greg Stuart, Ph.D., the head of the neuroscience department. Deardorff also gave a seminar on his work on spinal motoneurons at ANU.

“While it may seem as though researching both the auditory neurons in the brainstem and motoneurons in the spinal cord is very different, they are two sides of the same coin,” Deardorff said. “Both systems allow us to understand how dysfunction in the peripheral nervous system affects neurons in the brain and spinal cord so that new clinical interventions can be developed for patients with various neurologic deficits.”

Deardorff is one of a select few at the school of medicine enrolled in the M.D./Ph.D. program. “Adam’s recent award attests to his dedication and hard work and the quality of the research programs at the school of medicine,” said Arthur Pickoff, M.D., professor and chair of Community Health and Pediatrics and acting associate dean for research affairs. “It also is a direct recognition of the school of medicine’s commitment to producing not only the next generation of physicians but also the next generation of clinician-scientists who will, by virtue of their unique training, develop the cutting-edge treatments and cures of tomorrow.” 

Deardorff enjoys learning about medicine and doing research. “I’ve never woken up and said ‘Oh man, I don’t want to do this today.’ It’s always fun,” said Deardorff, who sometimes unwinds by playing his guitar or the ukulele after a 12-hour day in the lab conducting complicated experiments.

In addition to his research, Deardorff has made a difference at Wright State through his participation in various curriculum committees. He also has published articles in educational journals on incorporating research into medical education, active learning practices in medical education and team-based learning, among other topics. The scientific work he presented in Australia has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Physiology, a biweekly peer-reviewed scientific journal published by The Physiological Society.

Through the Medical Student Research Club, he has promoted research opportunities for Wright State medical students. Deardorff organizes meetings, lectures and workshops throughout the academic year. The programming culminates in April with the annual Medical Student Research Symposium.

“His work with the Research Club has been the catalyst that has taken it to new heights of involvement by both students and faculty,” said Gary LeRoy, M.D., associate dean of student affairs and admissions.

Through the Research Club, Deardorff has worked with the medical school Office of Research Affairs to develop a series of research elective courses for medical students. “Adam’s leadership has been instrumental in the evolution of the Research Learning Community, a dynamic collaboration among students and faculty at the school of medicine,” said Mark Willis, assistant clinical professor of community health, who coauthored an article with Deardorff about developing a research-focused learning community in Medical Science Educator, a peer-reviewed publication of the International Association of Medical Science Educators (IAMSE).

Dean Parmelee, M.D., associate dean for academic affairs, considers the Medical Student Research Club Deardorff’s greatest contribution to the School of Medicine.

“Adam, along with Mark Willis, has inspired students to become scholarly in their studies and investigate important questions,” Parmelee said. The club has become a model for a student-led course. “Both students and faculty have benefited enormously.”