2023 PhD grad hopes to 'be part of a big win' in neurodegenerative disease
Laura Gates May 08, 2023
Lauren Hirschfeld’s earliest days as a freshman at Purdue University were mostly carefree as she tried to determine her major—possibly fashion design, maybe psychology. She never saw herself as a scientist.
On May 8, she graduated from Indiana University School of Medicine with a PhD in medical neuroscience and was selected to speak at the commencement ceremony. The shift from fashionista to neuroimaging researcher began with a “pins and needles” sensation she awoke with one morning during her second semester at Purdue.
Hirschfeld attributed the strange feeling to sleeping wrong, wearing clothing that was too tight or pinching a nerve while working out. But over the course of the next month, the numbness and tingling spread and intensified to the point she couldn’t hold a pencil or walk normally. An initial MRI revealed a lesion on her spine; further testing would reveal lesions in her brain and lead to a diagnosis—multiple sclerosis (MS), a neurodegenerative disease that disrupts communication between the brain and the body.
Hirschfeld’s immediate thought was, “Why?” Not as in, “Why me?” but rather, “Why isn’t my brain working the way it’s supposed to?”
Scientists aren’t sure what causes MS, but studies support the opinion that the disease affects people with a specific combination of genes when they are exposed to some trigger in the environment. Hirschfeld wanted to learn more.
She switched her major at Purdue to brain and behavioral sciences. Her research career began as an intern with the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Maryland, where she worked in the leading translational multiple sclerosis research lab of Daniel Reich, MD, PhD.
During her time at IU School of Medicine, Hirschfeld worked in the lab of Andrew Saykin, PsyD, MS, where she conducted analysis of large cognitive and imaging data sets to study neurodegeneration related to Alzheimer’s disease.
“Much like multiple sclerosis was 20 or 30 years ago, there are very few effective treatments for Alzheimer’s right now,” Hirschfeld said. “I think we’re at an important point in scientific discovery where we’re going to get there soon, and I really wanted to contribute to that.”
The drug she has been using now for a decade to help manage her disease was approved for use in MS the year before her diagnosis. If Hirschfeld had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis even a few years earlier, there would have been fewer, less effective treatments for her to choose from.
“I really want to be involved in supporting clinical trials because I saw how much that new medication helped me,” said Hirschfeld, who has a minor in clinical research. “I still deal with some mobility issues and chronic pain, but I was able finish college in 3-½ years, met and married my husband, and got a PhD.”
Research & advocacy for ‘something big’
Hirschfeld has been a district activist leader with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society since 2021, advocating for research funding and policy changes, including capping prescription drug costs for patients.
“I was having insurance issues myself, and I wanted to figure out a way to do something,” said Hirschfeld, who was on Capitol Hill two months ago meeting with legislators. “They appreciate hearing from actual patients. I have a lot of friends in the MS community, and it’s nice to be able to use my voice and my scientific knowledge to represent them and help the whole community.”
At IU School of Medicine, Hirschfeld has served in leadership for the Medical Neuroscience Graduate Organization and spearheaded the formation of a medical neuroscience alumni program.
Her research interest is in cerebral white matter and myelin, which helps facilitate vital brain connections. Scientific discovery in this area could lead to breakthroughs in the prevention and treatment of many neurodegenerative diseases.
“I think this is both a strong personal interest and a strong scientific interest that has led to a deep dive into the literature, working with multiple available neuroimaging data sets, and is all in service of her great desire to see drug development that would protect white matter pathways in the brain,” Saykin said.
For the past two years, Hirschfeld has worked part-time as managing editor for Brain Imaging and Behavior, a scientific journal Saykin launched in 2006. As Saykin sees it, in five or 10 years, Hirschfeld could be “anywhere she wants to be.”
“I just really hope to be a part of something big—even if it’s just a small piece I’m contributing,” Hirschfeld said. “I hope that in five years, the scientific community is celebrating a big win for some community within neurodegenerative therapeutics—whether that’s Alzheimer’s or another disease—I just want to be a part of that.”
The message she has for her graduate school colleagues as they go out from IU School of Medicine to work in numerous areas of medical science is this: Never stop asking, “Why?’”
“Challenge what you know and remember that each failure brings you closer to success,” she said. “We have learned so much, and yet, there is still so much to learn.”