Young Investigators Profile: Virginia Tech’s Christopher Liao Pursues a Better Understanding of Alzheimer’s Disease

Young Investigators Profile Virginia Tech’s Christopher Liao Pursues a Better Understanding of Alzheimer’s Disease

Virginia Tech’s Christopher Liao, a four-year Carilion School of Medicine student, developed novel insight into Alzheimer’s disease as part of his graduate research project. Specifically looking for how the neurodegenerative disease impacted blood vessels in the brain at early stages in the disease, his research is timely as up to 5.5 million Americans over the age of 65 may have Alzheimer’s disease, the progressive brain disorder with no cure. A horrific situation, it can rob people of their memories before passing.


Liao has studied under the mentorship of Ian Kimbrough, assistant professor in the School of Neuroscience in the College of Science. Hence, the senior scientist and scholar has influenced the younger Liao. It is known that plaques that come from amyloid-beta (a natural protein created by the body), accumulates in excessive levels and essentially can form a batch around blood vessels essentially creating “a rigid cast.” Kimbrough published a paper in 2015 in the journal of Brain that reveals how this “amyloid cast prevents blood vessels from fully dilating and constricting” hence stopping brain neurons from obtaining the necessary nutrients required for optimal performance. As it turns out, neurons transmit messages from different parts of the brain and from the brain to other parts of the body. Or as mentor Kimbrough notes, “It is like a runner running out of fuel. They need energy to perform. Neurons have to have enough fuel to process information to do a range of things like process visual information and sound and recall memories.”

Study Focus

In the laboratory using a mouse model, Liao’s research centered on an earlier, premature form of amyloid known as oligomers to assess what occurs to the blood vessels and astrocytes prior to the formation of plaque. They discovered that the amyloid-beta oligomers caused overexpression of astrocytes and other supporter cells known as microglia.  The resulting data suggests that these cells reacted to the foreign substance by releasing collagen-degrading enzymes to clear the amyloid. However, this also adversely impacted the structural integrity holding the astrocyte onto the vessel.

As reported in Virginia Tech Daily, this degradation may impact the astrocytes’ ability to regulated blood flow and maintain the blood-brain barrier and hence may produce an empty space for the amyloid-beta to occupy and form plaques around the vessels, further reducing the blood flow to neurons.

The hope is that this research observation can contribute to additional research to advance the understanding of how to intervene earlier to help slow the progression, or even prevent Alzheimer’s disease—the disease that can rob people of their most precious life-long asset—their memory.

On to Residence

Liao will move out of research and into a plastic surgery residence in Long Island, New York, at the Nassau University Medical Center and Stony Brook University Hospital post-graduation. He was grateful for this opportunity to undertake translational-focused research. He noted, “That’s what really inspired me and motivated me to continue with this project. I just wanted to discover a unique way to block this debilitating process from happening in the first place.”

Call to Action: Hopefully the work of Kimbrough and Liao can be leveraged for ongoing development of potential approaches to actually stop this debilitating neurodegenerative disease. For professor Kimbrough’s research, see the link