At the end of 2014, 21-year-old Zala Skrbis completed an Honours Degree through the School of Biomedical Sciences (SBMS) at the University of Queensland. During the year she undertook a research project supervised by Dr J Bertran Gonzalez and Dr Miriam Matamales in the laboratory of Professor Jürgen Götz at the Clem Jones Centre for Ageing Dementia Research at QBI. We spoke to her about her research and life at QBI.

Tell us a little bit about your research?

The average age of worldwide populations is continuing to rise, bringing with it an increase in conditions associated with normal, healthy ageing, such as apathy. Apathy is a severe lack of motivation, culminating in a decrease in goal-directed behaviour and behavioural flexibility. Moreover, patients with mild cognitive impairment who also exhibit apathy are at an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia.

My research this year was focussed on studying the behavioural and neuronal changes that occur with ageing that may underlie the impairment of goal-directed action in the aged. Using a behavioural experiment specifically designed to address this in rodents, I found that aged animals were unable to adapt pre-existing learning when new learning was introduced. I also observed that this deficit in behaviour was accompanied by reduced neuronal activity in a particular region of the brain called the striatum, which is thought to be critical for goal-directed actions. By building on this research, we can develop an in-depth understanding of the causes of motivational decline in ageing and eventually design specific interventions for treating apathy symptoms in aged individuals and dementia patients.

What made you interested in neuroscience?

Throughout my undergraduate degree, my primary area of interest was anatomy. In my final year, a neuroanatomy subject sparked my interest in neuroscience. The following semester, I ventured a little further into neuroscience, and saw Professor Götz give a few guest lectures on Alzheimer’s disease. This interested me and I approached Jürgen about the possibility of doing Honours in his lab. He kindly invited me to tour the lab and introduced me to his lab group and the available projects. I was immediately drawn to J and Miriam’s research project due to the combination of innovative behavioural and neuronal approaches to answer a research question.

Tell us about the honours program?

The Honours program through SBMS was a research-only program, which meant that the main focus was undertaking a supervised research project. It was undoubtedly the most challenging year of my education thus far, but I gained so many new skills that will be useful both inside and outside of the lab. Throughout the year, I had many opportunities to present my research, such as the 3 Minute Thesis competition at the UQ Undergraduate Research Conference and the Inter-University Neuroscience and Mental Health Conference in Sydney. These experiences really improved my ability to communicate my research to the general public and scientists alike. However, perhaps the most enjoyable part of the year was being able to collaborate and network with other like-minded young scientists within QBI.

What would you like to do in the future?

The opportunity to do my Honours at QBI has been absolutely priceless as it has provided me with so many opportunities to meet and collaborate with other young scientists and extend my knowledge through seminars and conferences. I am sure that it has put me in good standing for whatever the future has in store. Currently, I am working as a Research Assistant for the Götz lab and I’m really looking forward to expanding the scope and diversity of my work by learning other lab techniques. I then plan to travel Europe for several months before returning to Brisbane, but following my travels, a PhD may be on the horizon, too. I would like to gain a better understanding of the behavioural alterations that occur with ageing because I think that this is a very current topic in a world where the people are living longer, healthier lives.