“When I first started at IU, I thought I would go to med school,” said Crowe. “I broke my arm in first grade and decided then that I wanted to be a doctor. But once I started doing research, I realized that was my passion.”
Crowe’s aunt, Sister Jean Patricia Crowe, was the pharmacist at Camilla Hall and one of the people who urged Crowe to apply to IU. “My Aunt Maryanne also took some courses at Immaculata when she was finishing her degree, so I heard all sorts of wonderful things about the school.”
Crowe was looking at many colleges but, after participating in IU’s Amethyst Night, a sleepover event for interested students, she made her decision. “I just knew,” she said. “There was such a home-like feeling at Immaculata. Everyone was so nice, and it was such a welcoming place.”
Crowe credits her research experiences with Kathryn Lysko, Ph.D., for preparing her well for the work she does today. “I adapted really well to a very small lab in graduate school,” she said. “You received so much one-on-one attention at Immaculata, and when you’re the only student in the lab, you can’t hide in the crowd. Today, sometimes I’m the only one in the lab except for my boss, and my undergrad education really made me comfortable with that environment.”
Crowe entered Drexel Medical School right after graduation, and it was there that she identified her specific area of interest. “When you start your Ph.D., you do rotations in different labs to get a feel for what you want to do,” she said.
When Crowe was introduced to the cutting-edge technology being used to study Alzheimer’s disease, she knew she had found her path. “I worked in Camilla Hall all throughout college as a pharmacy tech, and we have Alzheimer’s in our family,” she said. “I really felt drawn to do research in this area.”
Though Alzheimer’s was identified more than a century ago, there are no viable treatments and no known cure. “There are some drugs on the market to slow down the initial stages of the disease,” said Crowe, “and lots of things in clinical trials, but so much is still unknown. It’s a very complicated disease, and we still haven’t made much headway.”
There are two forms of Alzheimer’s: sporadic, found in 90 percent of patients, and the genetic form, the result of a mutation, which manifests as early onset. Crowe’s pioneering research involves the use of 2-photon microscopy—what she refers to as “fancy optics”—to study the brains of mice who have the genetic form of the disease. Specific proteins that cause the mutation responsible for AD are introduced into the mouse’s genetic code, and Crowe studies the disease process as it progresses in the brains of the mice.
“No one has been able to study the neuron degeneration,” said Crowe. “If we know the sequence of events in the mice, hopefully the mechanisms behind that can be discovered, and that could generate new information for clinical applications. And one of the things you can do in mice is make specific neurons fluorescent so you can observe them.”
Those observations are made possible by implanting a window in the skull of the mouse to image the same cells from week to week. “In my mouse model, I’m studying the death of the neurons,” she said.
There are two parts to a neuron—the pre-synaptic and post-synaptic—and, according to Crowe, “One of the big things that was unknown about the degeneration process in AD is which is the first to die? Pre- or post? Everyone thought it was the post-synaptic side, but in our longitudinal imaging I found the pre-synaptic side is degenerating first. That information might provide new targets for drugs. If we can preserve the pre-synaptic side of the neuron, that might either slow or halt the disease.
“To know what I’m doing could potentially help patients in the future, knowing that I have some sort of helping hand in furthering the knowledge of this disease—just the thought of that is very rewarding,” she said. “No one has ever imaged neuron degeneration in live mice, showing the sequence in a mice model. It’s very thrilling to discover something new.”
Crowe hopes to submit her thesis in the fall and then go on to a teaching fellowship. “I would love to teach at a small school,” she said, “sort of like Immaculata. I want to inspire someone else to go into science and help figure these things out.”