Sheila Fleming, Ph.D., started her academic career as a psychology major at Northeastern University in Boston. Little did she know then that her fascination with studying behavior would take her into the world of neuroscience research, with an emphasis on Parkinson’s disease.
These days, the assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences at NEOMED specializes in analyzing motor, cognitive and behavioral changes—specifically, in mice to determine the effect of potential therapeutics in preclinical trials for Parkinson’s and other neurological disorders. Dr. Fleming also delivers lectures in NEOMED’s Foundational Neuroscience course, providing students access to her research-based understanding of topics such as movement, basal ganglia function, the cerebellum, and Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases—as well as of emotion reward, learning, memory, language and attention.
Dr. Fleming joined the NEOMED faculty about a year ago, drawn by the opportunity to partner with Jason Richardson, Ph.D., the director of the neurodegenerative disease and aging research focus area at NEOMED. Dr. Richardson has been nationally recognized for his work exploring the role of environmental toxins in neurodegenerative disease. A NEOMED team led by him recently joined forces with researchers at Duke University for a collaborative grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences of the National Institutes of Health.
The two scientists originally met when each was working with groups that collaborated on gene environment research. “I always had a lot of respect for his work and knew he did things right,’’ says Dr. Fleming. “We hadn’t seen each other for a while and then we both ended up on a Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research grant review panel. Dr. Richardson had taken a position at NEOMED in 2015 and wanted to know if I was interested in working together,” she recalls. “It was a no-brainer for me to say yes! Our work complements each other’s very well.”
Dr. Fleming is particularly interested in learning more about non-motor symptoms exhibited in Parkinson’s, which she says have not been studied thoroughly. Such symptoms include gastrointestinal dysfunction, cognitive impairment, anxiety and depression, dementia, and sleep problems; as well as cardiovascular autonomic and olfactory dysfunction.
“We suspect that some of these develop before the onset of the motor symptoms. With the genetic mouse models of Parkinson’s that are available today, we can track progression as the mice age,” she says. “If we can better understand when these symptoms appear in the disease and what pathology is associated with them, we could recognize them earlier in patients and initiate neuroprotective treatments.”
Dr. Fleming first became interested in this line of research when she was working as a lab technician, before starting graduate school. Focusing on behavioral neuroscience, she earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in psychology from Arizona State University. Dr. Fleming worked as a postdoctoral fellow in the departments of neurology and neurobiology at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA); she also served on the research faculty in UCLA’s Department of Neurology.
It was her early research on drug abuse that led her to learn more about neurodegenerative disease and the dopamine system—and to specialize in this more focused area.
“I saw this research could really help patients,” she says. “Translational work like this is where I feel I can make the most significant contribution.”