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Last modified: Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Scientist at Work: Dale Sengelaub

If Dale Sengelaub ever falls off of his horse and injures his spinal cord or loses an arm, his research may ensure that he could still play open blues sessions on the drums at the Players Pub, or with his family in the video game Rock Band. Sengelaub -- a member of Indiana University's Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences on Bloomington's campus for the past 22 years -- is currently studying how motor neurons respond to hormone treatments.

"The research is very exciting," said Sengelaub of his most recent success story. "It has a ton of possible applications to many different diseases and injuries."

Dale Sengelaub

Professor Dale Sengelaub has studied the complexities of brains in Bloomington for more than 20 years.

Print-Quality Photo

"The research is very exciting," said Sengelaub of his most recent success story. "It has a ton of possible applications to many different diseases and injuries."

One of Sengelaub's current studies deals with how motor neurons respond when cut off from the muscles to which they are attached. Although the neurons don't die, they depend on muscle contact to remain healthy. They spend most of their energy reconnecting to the severed muscle, becoming weak and unhealthy in the process. Once they reconnect, they can be strengthened, and use of the limb can be regained, but it takes a long time.

Now imagine if doctors could keep the motor neurons healthy while they were reconnecting to the muscle. Recovery times could be cut in half. "And with the neurotherapeutic effects of hormone therapy, we can do that," said Sengelaub.

But that's not all Sengelaub can do with hormone therapy.

Many degenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis -- also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's Disease -- can destroy spinal cord motor neurons resulting in paralysis. And even though other motor neurons in the spinal cord may not be directly afflicted by the disease, the destruction of the other cells can affect them in a negative way. With Sengelaub's research into hormone therapy, however, these cells can be protected, keeping otherwise healthy spinal cord cells from being affected when their brethren die off.

Although these lines of research are fun and exciting for Sengelaub, they are by no means strictly along the lines of where his research interests began. Sengelaub and his research have traveled a long path across the country before settling in Bloomington.

Growing up in Queens, N.Y., Sengelaub was shocked to find it possible to live 10 minutes from work and school when he went to graduate school in Ithaca, N.Y., at Cornell University.

"I found out life didn't have to be such a pain in the butt," laughed Sengelaub. "The city is nice to visit, but living in one? Forget about it!"

At Cornell, Sengelaub initially began his graduate work in animal behavior but soon became disenchanted by the lack of solid, tangible evidence for theories. So when he discovered a neuroscience visual laboratory down the hall where he could see how physical changes to an animal's brain alters its behavior, "I realized you could study behaviors in a real, concrete way without any second guessing as to why behaviors were changing," said Sengelaub.

After Cornell, he did postdoctoral work at UCLA, which only strengthened his distaste for big cities. When he was offered a job at Indiana University, he jumped on it, and has never looked back. Bloomington has given him an excellent setting in which to study many different lines of research, including sexual differences in the brain and spinal cords of rats, sexual differences in the brains of birds and how they affect their singing, and now, neurotherapeutic hormone therapies for motor neurons.

Plus, the small town has given him a chance to reclaim his love of horseback riding and playing the drums, both of which he "wastes" a considerable amount of time on, he said. Sengelaub has played in rock bands for most of his life since junior high, and still continues to play with the ever-changing and abundant talent found in Bloomington.

"In retrospect, it seems like one easy thread that has lead me both personally and professionally from New York City to Los Angeles to Bloomington," said Sengelaub. "But I really had no idea what I was doing."