The University of Iowa

PhD student investigates amygdala's role in storage of spatial memories

Krista Wahlstrom on a cloudy day in Scotland

PTSD and Alzheimer’s are two devasting neurological conditions that impact millions of people with no readily available cure. To solve these memory mysteries, scientists must first understand how the brain functions at a more basic level.

Krista Wahlstrom, a doctoral candidate in Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Iowa, is investigating how the almond-shaped brain region called the amygdala plays a role in the storage of spatial memories. She uses a technique called optogenetics, which allows her to stimulate brain regions and pathways using light, to excite or inhibit certain neural circuits. Krista Wahlstrom on a cloudy day in Scotland

In a 2018 edition of the Journal of Neuroscience and a recently accepted paper in Neuropsychopharmacology, Wahlstrom stimulated a pathway from the amygdala, known as the brain’s fear sensor, to the entorhinal cortex, the brain’s hub for memory and the perception of time, which improved a rat’s ability to navigate a special environment.

“My research has helped elucidate the mechanism by which the amygdala modulates memory consolidation,” Wahlstrom says. “I have discovered that by stimulating an amygdala-hippocampal pathway I can enhance spatial memory in rats. This is one small step at mapping the different memory-related pathways of the brain in attempt to better understand how we remember what we learn.”

Ryan LaLumiere, associate professor in the UI’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, describes his graduate student’s research as forward-looking.

“The innovation in Krista’s work comes from her focus on the long-standing question in neuroscience of how a single brain region can be involved in so many different kinds of memories and through her work she’s showing how this actually occurs in the brain,” LaLumiere says. “I think her creativity and resourcefulness in addressing these fundamental questions about the brain stand out, along with her dogged determinedness to do her experiments right.”

Wahlstrom also is currently studying the memory-associated protein ARC (activity-regulated cytoskeletal-associated protein) and how it is expressed following optogenetic light stimulation.

Even though her research could be considered a building-block, its significance is no less important.

“Basic neuroscience research is really critical to understand larger and more complex brain-related problems that can arise,” Wahlstrom says. “I hope my research eventually leads to solutions for memory disorders like Alzheimer's disease. Although my current discoveries are very distant from this, all solutions and cures start out with small and simple findings.”

NIH Outstanding Scholar

Wahlstrom’s research findings have not gone unnoticed by prominent national organizations.Portrait of Krista Wahlstrom

In 2019, she received a prestigious National Research Service Award (F31 NRSA) from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to support her work. Then, in spring 2020, NIH awarded Wahlstrom with an Outstanding Scholars in Neuroscience Award. The award is presented to graduate students who demonstrate great research potential in their scientific doctoral programs. Under the award, she will travel to the NIH campus in Bethesda, MD, to meet with NIH leadership and researchers to learn about their unique research and resources that exist for students like herself.

Wahlstrom’s future research lies in the partnership between the NIH and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which allows scientists to utilize the International Space Station to answer questions about human health and disease.

“The NIH’s partnership with NASA provides a unique environment where researchers can explore fundamental questions about human health issues,” Wahlstrom says. “Presenting my research as part of this award will allow me to discover how my research and specialized skillset can enhance the mission of the NIH-NASA partnership to pioneer the future in space exploration and scientific discovery with the purpose of improving human health.”

Mentoring is key to success

Wahlstrom credits LaLumiere for helping her reach great heights in her graduate program. His enthusiasm for neuroscience is contagious to his mentees.

“He truly believes that our research is important for the field, and he strives to design well-constructed experiments that will impact the future of neuroscience,” Wahlstrom says. “Ryan provides guidance, gives excellent feedback, and values our opinions as trainees new to the field, and I can say without a doubt that I would not be a successful PhD student without his leadership.”

Graduate students can find it difficult to succeed in their programs without hobbies and interests outside of their academic fields. Her mentor also encourages his graduate students to pursue interests beyond his laboratory.

Wahlstrom is a member of the University of Iowa’s Graduate Women in Science (GWIS) student organization. She also is part of the Camerata Singers, a UI choral ensemble, and plays soccer on multiple adult recreational co-ed teams.

“(GWIS) has allowed me to network with other women in science as well as participate in outreach activities aimed at increasing scientific literacy in the community,” Wahlstrom says. “Being part of this organization has supported my academic goals as a woman in neuroscience and provided a vast network of supportive women to interact with.”