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Ana Pocivavsek, PhD

Academic Title:

Assistant Professor

Primary Appointment:

Psychiatry

Location:

MPRC, B-1A

Phone (Primary):

(410) 402-7751

Fax:

(410) 747-2434

Education and Training

Ph.D. in Neuroscience, Georgetown University (2009)

Dissertation:  Microglial LRP1 Modulates JNK Activation: A Signaling Cascade That Also Regulates Apolipoprotein E Levels (mentor: G. William Rebeck, Ph.D.)

B.S. in Psychology, Duke University (2003)

Thesis:  Hippocampal Nicotinic Interactions with Clozapine and Working Memory Performance in the Radial-Arm Maze (mentor: Edward D. Levin, Ph.D.)     

Biosketch

I received my B.S. (Psychology) from Duke University where I performed honors research on the cognitive effects of nicotine with Ed Levin, Ph.D. Following college, I entered graduate school and obtained my Ph.D. (Neuroscience) in 2009 from Georgetown University under the mentorship of G. William Rebeck, Ph.D.  For postdoctoral training I chose to combine my behavioral expertise with molecular mechanisms to study the biological basis of psychiatric disorders.  I found that my interests were closely related to those of Dr. Robert Schwarcz’s laboratory at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center (MPRC).  My projects focused on the neurobiology of kynurenic acid (KYNA), a neuroinhibitory kynurenine pathway (KP) metabolite that targets both NMDA and α7 nicotinic acetylcholine receptors. In particular, I soon got deeply involved in studying the role of KYNA in cognitive processes and possible implications for the cognitive deficits seen in schizophrenia.  These experiments uncovered functionally significant bi-directional links between KYNA, the major excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate, and hippocampal learning and memory in rats.  In 2015, I became a trainee in Maryland's Organized Research Effort in Women's Health (MORE-WH), K12 Building Interdisciplinary Reserach Careers in Women's Health (BIRCWH) program.  This training has given me the opportunity to gain critical expertise in novel approaches to address sex differences in my research and become a principal investigator.  

Research/Clinical Keywords

cognition, animal behavior, nicotinic receptors, tryptophan metabolism, kynurenic acid

Highlighted Publications

Pershing ML, Phenis D, Valentini V, Pocivavsek A, Lindquist DH, Schwarcz R, Bruno JP. Prenatal kynurenine exposure in rats: age-dependent changes in NMDA receptor expression and conditioned fear responding.  Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2016 Aug 16. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 27527585.

Notarangelo FM, Pocivavsek A. Elevated kynurenine pathway metabolism during neurodevelopment: Implications for brain and behavior. Neuropharmacology. 2016 Mar 2;PubMed PMID: 26944732; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC5010529.  

Pershing ML, Bortz DM, Pocivavsek A, Fredericks PJ, Jørgensen CV, Vunck SA, Leuner B, Schwarcz R, Bruno JP. Elevated levels of kynurenic acid during gestation produce neurochemical, morphological, and cognitive deficits in adulthood: implications for schizophrenia. Neuropharmacology. 2015 Mar;90:33-41. PubMed PMID: 25446576; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4731221.

Pocivavsek A, Thomas MA, Elmer GI, Bruno JP, Schwarcz R. Continuous kynurenine administration during the prenatal period, but not during adolescence, causes learning and memory deficits in adult rats. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2014 Jul;231(14):2799-809. PubMed PMID: 24590052; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4074218.

Pocivavsek A, Wu HQ, Elmer GI, Bruno JP, Schwarcz R. Pre- and postnatal exposure to kynurenine causes cognitive deficits in adulthood. Eur J Neurosci. 2012 May;35(10):1605-12. PubMed PMID: 22515201; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3773083

Research Interests

My research combines my behavioral expertise with molecular mechanisms to study the biological basis of cognitive dysfunction.  I have extensively focused on the neurobiology of kynurenic acid (KYNA), a neuroinhibitory kynurenine pathway metabolite that targets both NMDA and α7 nicotinic acetylcholine receptors.  I have been deeply involved in studying the role of KYNA in cognitive processes and my experiments have uncovered functionally significant bi-directional links between KYNA, the major excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate, and hippocampal learning and memory in rats.  I have demonstrated that acute elevations of endogenous KYNA result in reduced extracellular glutamate and this translates to impairments in hippocampal-dependent learning and memory in rodents.  Conversely, I have shown that selective attenuation of kynurenine aminotransferase II (KAT II), the main enzyme responsible for KYNA synthesis in the brain, has profound effects on glutamate in the hippocampus and a parallel improvement in hippocampal-dependent learning and memory.  Our studies were the first to use a selective orally active KAT II inhibitor, BFF-816, a powerful and translationally relevant tool to reduce endogenous KYNA.  Importantly, my work has encouraged distinguished scientists and the pharmaceutical industry to further develop KAT II inhibitors to treat cognitive dysfunction.  

Awards and Affiliations

  • H. McKee Jarboe Award for Mental Health Research, Dept of Psychiatry, UMSOM, 2013
  • Poster Award, Outstanding Trainee Poster Presentation Award, Dept of Psychiatry Annual Research Day, UMSOM, 2010
  • Member, Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience (FUN), 2014-present
  • Member, European Researchers Abroad, 2008-present
  • Member, Slovenian Neuroscience Society (SiNAPSA), 2005-present
  • Member, Society for Neuroscience (SfN), 2002-present

Grants and Contracts

K12 HD043489, PI: J. Kathleen Tracy, Maryland’s Organized Research Effort in Women’s Health

Professional Activity

Director, MPRC/Silvio O. Conte Center Summer Undergraduate Research Scholar Program