Stress, genetics and cognitive impairment: Eileen Ruth Torres in the Lab

Eileen Ruth Torres

Eileen Ruth Torres, a graduate student in the Department of Behavioral Neuroscience, conducts research in Jacob Raber’s lab. She researches the effects of stress exposure on a gene associated with memory loss and cognitive impairments. Torres co-authored a recent publication on diet, genetics, and cognitive impairments.

What are you researching now—and why does it matter?

In Dr. Raber’s lab, we made a very interesting discovery with a gene that’s thought to be involved in memory loss and cognitive impairments associated with Alzheimer’s disease. We found that mice that carry one allele of this gene actually remember too well. Their ability to forget fearful memories is impaired, and that’s particularly a problem with trauma. This discovery led us to PTSD and combat veterans at the VA hospital, where we found that individuals with the gene had more significant PTSD symptoms.

My dissertation project is to try and figure out how this gene might lead to behavioral and cognitive changes after stress exposure by studying molecular mechanisms in the mouse model we’ve developed. I’ll also be working with the Intercultural Psychiatry Program and Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees to see if this gene also leads to more severe PTSD symptoms in other ethnicities as well as in individuals who have not been in combat — female refugees, for example. This is an exciting opportunity for me to see the population that I’m hoping my work will eventually help.

I’m a small fish in a very large pond. But it’s really meaningful for me to know that if I can at least chip away at this problem, it might lead to other discoveries that might eventually translate into improving someone’s quality of life.

What’s been your most exciting moment in discovery?

It was a realization that discovery involves process. When I worked as an undergraduate in a lab that used a mouse model of Parkinson’s disease, I watched videos of the mice in slow motion so I could see their finer movements. It was not glamorous! But, after lots of hours, I found that I was witnessing the behavioral deficit we’d been looking for. This was important data for our publication — I realized the tedious work is important.

What’s your day-to-day life as a researcher look like?

Most of my time is spent in the vivarium observing animals, but I spend lots of days staring in a microscope or analyzing behavioral data on the computer. Right now I’m finishing a grant application. That requires a lot of research — I have to figure out where the trail ends and how to convince others that my idea is this worth pursuing.

I love my work, though. It’s definitely not boring — and it keeps my cognitive flexibility going.

In the Lab

In the Lab looks at the people in the laboratories — and in clinics — who help make OHSU such a vibrant research institution. In each post, researchers and clinician scientists describe their current work and answer the same three questions.