My name is Panhavuth Phe and I am a recent neuroscience graduate from the UK College of Arts and Sciences and am also a graduate of the Lewis Honors College.  I have received departmental honors from the UK College of Medicine Neuroscience Department and was recognized as the  “Most Valuable Committee Member” for the 2022 NeuroWeek that was organized by the three UK undergraduate neuroscience clubs (NeuroCats, Women in Neuroscience, and Minorities in Neuroscience).

I am currently in my gap year applying for medical school, and for the past four years, I have been working in Dr. Peter Nelson’s neuropathology lab as a digital pathology imaging technician and as a student researcher. I work with the lab’s Aperio AT2 digital slide scanner which can automate the scan of several hundred slides up to an optical magnification of forty times. A majority of the slides I digitally scan are post-mortem human brain tissue immunohistochemically stained for Alzheimer’s disease markers from the Sanders-Brown Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. Once they are scanned, image analysis algorithms can be utilized to obtain quantifiable metrics on the tau-tangle and amyloid beta plaque burdens the brain tissue carry. My work digitally scanning the slides is crucial in allowing neuropathologists to evaluate the severity of neurodegenerative diseases that may have cognitively impacted an individual in life. Additionally, I also scan slides for other labs at Sanders-Brown and cancer researchers from the Markey Cancer Center.

Alongside this work, I have also performed research under Dr. Nelson’s mentorship. Leveraging digital pathology as a means to more rigorously study cerebral small vessel disease and its impacts on the brain, my research has focus on elucidating the yet unknown relationship between age and cerebral small vessel morphology. One of the other largest causes of dementia and cognitive impairment besides Alzheimer’s disease are a group of diseases collectively referred to as cerebral small vessel disease (CSVD). CSVD can impact everything from small arteries, arterioles, capillaries, and venules, and while many different subtypes of the disease exist, affected vessels tend to morphologically exhibit thickened vessel walls and decreased lumen size. Applying analysis algorithms specialized to examining small vessels, we can obtain quantifiable data on thousands of randomly sampled blood vessels.

To do this, brain tissue from the frontal cortex and hippocampus from 108 ADRC subjects aged 10 to 96 years old were immunostained for smooth muscle actin and CD34. The former allows visualization of small arteries and arterioles while the latter predominantly allows visualization of capillaries. While it is simple enough to scan this stained tissue and run an analysis algorithm, many challenges have been present. We have seen that poor staining and imaging quality can severely impact the validity of data returned by our analysis algorithms. Despite this, through rigorous optimization of our staining protocols and algorithms we have managed to generate data from a subset of 23 subjects that indicate a negative trend between blood vessel lumen area and wall thickness with age. Though this research project is on hold due to persistent technical limitations still present with our analysis algorithm, I am hopeful to see more advances being made as the technology of digital pathology is further refined.

Overall, in the past four years, I am extremely humbled to have the responsibility of scanning and digitally preserving the brains of many individuals who I believe continue to have a story to tell the scientific community and the world locked in the very tissue that made them who they are in life. In my gap year, I am continuing to work as a digital pathology imaging tech for the Nelson lab, and I am excited to continue to be a part of the neuropathology core team as we collaborate with other labs to create an open-source database that will allow researchers around the world to easily access the many previously archived digital scans.