Darcie Moore, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Neuroscience at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. Dr. Moore is the recipient of a New Investigator Award from the Wisconsin Partnership Program focused on understanding the role of nesprin-3, a protein found in the nuclear envelope, in keeping neural stem cells “young.”

Her work addresses the Partnership Program’s vision in that it leverages basic scientific research to help improve the health spans of older Wisconsinites and people around the world. Recently, the Partnership Program sat down with Dr. Moore to learn more about her research.

Q: Tell me about your lab’s current work on neural stem cells and aging.

A: My lab focuses on understanding aging in adult stem cells. Even though “stem cells” might sound “immortal,” they still undergo aging. We’re interested in adult neural stem cells, which are present endogenously in our brains. These cells need to regulate their levels of damaged proteins — you can think of them as trash, even though that’s not necessarily the case. We’ve learned recently that one of the ways they do this is by asymmetrically segregating these proteins when the cell divides. One daughter cell inherits the damaged proteins, while the other is “clean,” and able to go on and rejuvenate the population. But, as the cells get older, they aren’t able to do this as well, so both daughter cells may inherit some damage.

Darcie Moore
Darcie Moore

That’s the basis of what my lab is working on: trying to understand how they segregate the damaged proteins and how that changes with age. To do this, we use fluorescent markers that are inserted into the cell’s DNA to tag the proteins. This way, we can actually see what’s happening with the proteins that we’re interested in under a microscope. Most recently, our focus has been on identifying some of the molecules that are regulating the passive diffusion barrier, which separates the side with the damaged proteins from the “clean” side. Nesprin-3 is one candidate molecule that we’ve been investigating.

Q: What are the impacts for Wisconsin, and the field of aging research?

A: Unfortunately, aging happens everywhere, including in Wisconsin. And as we get older, it’s normal to start being a little more forgetful. The type of learning and memory that helps us remember where we placed objects, for example, requires a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is also where the stem cells that we study are present. The hippocampus also may play a role in preventing anxiety and depression. So, the more we can understand about how stem cells make new neurons in this area through our basic research, the more we can help the aging population have better cognitive function into old age.

Q: What else about your work would you like to share?

A: One of the pleasures of being in scientific research is the unknown, and how curiosity leads you to find out what’s working and what’s not. I appreciate that the Partnership Program’s New Investigator Program takes great ideas that are well-supported by evidence and gives us the opportunity to try to find the answers.

Q: Did you always want to be a neuroscientist?

A: I actually have a very different background — I was a performer! I was an opera singer, and have two degrees in music from a conservatory, but always had an interest in science. Then I went back to school for an MS and PhD in neuroscience.

Q: That’s interesting! What’s your favorite opera?

A: La Traviata is my favorite, because I’m a big Verdi lover. I was a classically trained singer for 17 years, so I think I have a different viewpoint than others who have come from a more “traditional” track. It helps me look at scientific questions in a different way.

But to answer your original question: I’ve always been very interested in science, and when I was coming back to graduate school, I knew I was most interested in the brain. I felt that the brain was the last frontier, where we knew the least. And the brain also is at the center of so many big questions: the relationship between the soul and consciousness, why personalities can change when people suffer brain injuries, etc. I was fascinated with the brain, and continued to study it during my PhD and postdoc. The common trajectory in my work has been playing with time and age and seeing how that changes cell behavior.