My UMSOP Story: Marishka Brown, PhD ’09, director, NIH National Center on Sleep Disorders Research

Written By: Christine Stutz

Marishka Brown, PhD ’09, wants everyone to wake up to the importance of good sleep.

As director of the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Center on Sleep Disorders Research (NCSDR), located in the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), Brown leads research into the science of sleep and circadian biology that helps improve health and well-being. Her role includes coordinating sleep and circadian research across NIH, as well as other components of the federal government, serving as the executive secretary of the Sleep Disorders Research Advisory Board, and promoting education and awareness of sleep and circadian biology findings to the public.

“Sleep fascinates me because it touches so many things,” says Brown. She also is intrigued by the interplay between sleep as underlying physiology and the behavioral component of sleep.

When Brown began her doctoral studies in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, her research focus was on neurodegeneration, the progressive loss of neurons in specific parts of the brain and a major cause of aging-related diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. A poster presentation on the relationship between sleep abnormalities and neurodegeneration led to a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology working from 2009 to 2014 with the researcher who presented those findings.

While at UPenn, Brown began investigating the role of the unfolded protein response in age-related sleep changes. Unfolded, or misfolded, proteins “can be very problematic,” she says. Alzheimer’s researchers have long focused on the role of amyloid plaques in the brain, which are a hallmark of the disease. Brown explains that in Alzheimer’s patients, the amyloid beta protein “miscuts” and causes the kind of aggregation that leads to the development of the harmful plaques.

Sleep disturbances have been found to be an early clinical marker for dementia. Sleep deficiency — defined as insufficient sleep, sleep of poor quality, or an irregular sleep schedule — also is linked to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, Brown says. Sunlight is the strongest signal to sync your internal body clock with the world around you. In fact, Brown found her own sleep was affected early in the pandemic because of media consumption and sunlight-depriving indoor isolation. Now long walks with her husband provide the outdoor lift she needs.

Blue light, such as that from electronic devices, also can act as a signal, particularly at night, as it can suppress the synthesis of melatonin, a sleep-regulating hormone. An area of research interest is using lighting as an intervention to promote sleep health.

“The NIH is funding research in this area, particularly the National Institute on Aging, in the elderly, and the NHLBI, in adolescent populations,” says Brown. “Sleep does change across the life span, and there is a myth that people need less sleep as they get older.” In fact, she adds, sleep in older adults often is interrupted due to comorbidities associated with aging. And it is not always clear whether inadequate sleep is a symptom or a cause of dementia, she says.

Since joining NCSDR in 2016, Brown has directed a diverse portfolio of sleep medicine and sleep disorders research, such as identifying abnormalities in circadian biology that are associated with heart, lung, and blood disorders. In 2018, she led a national conference highlighting advances in sleep and women’s health. In November 2020, she was named director of the center.

“Skills I learned as a graduate student at the School of Pharmacy were critical to my success,” says Brown. “The environment fostered creativity and encouraged me to stretch myself scientifically and personally. I was considering multiple offers for a postdoctoral position at the end of my graduate career, and a conversation with School of Pharmacy Dean Natalie Eddington greatly factored into my decision for joining the group at UPenn. I’ll be forever grateful for her wise counsel.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Copyright © 2016 University of Maryland School of Pharmacy