Graduating senior to continue his studies in Switzerland as Fulbright scholar

Patrick ChirdonPatrick Chirdon came to Case Western Reserve planning to major in psychology. Four years later, he is still focused on the inner workings of the mind, except now the biology of the brain commands his interest.

Credit the influence of compelling biology professors and an extraordinary faculty mentor for Chirdon’s shift in focus, and his own unquenchable curiosity for success for securing a Fulbright Scholarship to pursue his passion.

Chirdon will spend the next year in Switzerland, investigating whether drugs that mimic a hormone that helps control the thyroid might also benefit patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

Chirdon, who graduates Sunday with a major in biology and minor in cognitive science, is one of three Case Western Reserve University students to date who have received a Fulbright Scholarship to study overseas. On campus, he is a brother of the Delta Chi fraternity and a founder of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars.

By reviewing research literature from around the world, the Mentor, Ohio, native found evidence that Thyrotropin-Releasing Hormone (TRH) protects brain cells in such a way that it, or more powerful drugs based on the hormone, could be an effective treatment against Parkinson’s.

He first became interested in how thyrotropin releasing hormone works while he was working in the lab of the late Mark A. Smith, a professor of pathology and director of Basic Science Research of the University Memory and Cognition Center.

Smith, an expert in Alzheimer’s disease and aging, died unexpectedly in December 2010.

“My inspiration for this project came from Dr. Smith,” Chirdon said. “He had a huge impact on my career choice.”

Chirdon continued to do research during each school year and summer, much of it on this same subject.

Last year, Chirdon worked with Bronwen Martin, head of the Metabolism Unit at the National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health. Chirdon pored over studies of TRH.

In a soon-to-be published paper he wrote with Martin, Chirdon theorizes that TRH and drugs based on its structure would provide protection against Parkinson’s.

He will use his Fulbright to work at the Brain Mind Institute at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, in Lausanne, Switzerland. Researchers at the institute have developed a new rat model of Parkinson’s, with the specific gene mutation recognized as a relatively common cause of familial Parkinson’s disease.

The hormone is known primarily for affecting thyroid metabolism, but Chirdon found mounting evidence in research on spinal muscular atrophy and epilepsy that TRH is known to help re-grow neurons and protect them against toxicity and stressors. It minimizes cell death in a brain region heavily affected by Parkinson’s, known as the striatum, as well as in the spinal cord and hind-brain.

When he’s finished his year of studying TRH-based drugs, Chirdon plans to return to school and earn his PhD in neuroscience, pathology or maybe pharmacology.

“If I have the chance, I’ll be like Dr. Smith and have a lot of undergraduates in my lab,” he said. “It’s a way to pay it forward.”