Vol 9. Issue 36 / November 23, 2009
Nationally Known Memory Researcher Appointed to Metabolism and Aging Faculty at Scripps Florida
By Eric Sauter
The Scripps Research Institute has appointed Courtney Miller as an assistant professor in the Department of Metabolism and Aging and the Department of Neuroscience on the Scripps Florida campus.
Miller, 31, is focused on research that seeks to understand the neurobiology of memory disorders, ranging from aberrations closely associated with drug addiction to age-related memory decline, with the goal of developing novel therapeutics. She was a scientific director and instructor in the Department of Neurobiology and McKnight Brain Institute at the University of Alabama before arriving at Scripps Florida.
"Courtney's breakthrough studies into the role of DNA in the formation of long-term memory opens new doors to understanding how aging affects cognition," said Roy Smith, chair of Metabolism and Aging at Scripps Florida. "Her research may also one day lead to solutions that will help keep our memories intact, even in the face of aging or such devastating diseases as Alzheimer's. We're extremely pleased to have her in our department and welcome her to Scripps Florida."
Miller said, "I'm very excited about joining Scripps Florida. This is a great opportunity to advance my work. I fell in love with Scripps Florida for a lot of reasons. The culture is very collaborative and the people are remarkably interesting. I am looking forward to developing some new collaborative studies, particularly in the area of addiction. The other draw was the drug discovery angle. My laboratory is interested in memory and we want to develop some novel targets for cognitive enhancers."
Earlier studies have shown that addiction and mild cognitive impairment represent opposing disorders of the normal cognitive processes that Miller has been studying to date: the alterations produced by drugs like cocaine produced particularly strong memories, while aging weakens them. Now Miller is focused on solving both issues, possibly through a greater understanding of the same series of mechanisms, many of which remain unknown.
Miller and her husband plan to live in Jupiter. In addition to her work at Scripps Florida, Miller is a biopharmaceutical consultant, helping companies design studies to test lead compounds in models of memory, addiction, and mental illness.
Early Memory Work
After undergraduate work in biopsychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Miller received her Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of California, Irvine, where she worked with Professor John Marshall on the neural circuitry of drug addiction. She conducted postdoctoral studies in the laboratory of Professor David Sweatt at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, investigating the role of epigenetics—changes in gene expression caused by something other than a change in the DNA sequence—in learning and memory.
In particular, Miller and Sweatt explored the role of DNA methylation in memory formation. In methylation, a specific section of DNA has a methyl group or molecule added to it. Once attached, the methylation process cuts the gene off from any possible transcription, repressing its function.
Traditionally, methylation has been studied in terms of development—the process helps during embryonic cell differentiation, allowing cells to pass on their phenotypes from one cell to another during early development. But Miller and Sweatt thought the process might have other roles.
"We believed that there could be environmental influences in an adult mammal's life that could have an epigenetic impact," Miller said. "We found that learning could actually alter methylation in the hippocampus. It goes back to the question 'how do you physically maintain a memory?' The proteins that encode these memories are being constantly turned over, so one way to preserve them could be epigenetics and methylation—because of the ability to permanently mark DNA during development and beyond."
Miller and Sweatt's study, which was published in 2007 by the journal Neuron, was the first to show that, in fact, methylation played an integral role in regulating gene activity involved in memory formation. At Scripps Florida, Miller looks forward to extending this work.
Send comments to: mikaono[at]scripps.edu