Ana Pocivavsek

Breakthrough Star: Ana Pocivavsek

Neuroscience professor researches importance of quality sleep

Neuroscience professor Ana Pocivavsek studies the impact of sleep disruptions on cognitive dysfunction — particularly during pregnancy, an important period for early brain development.

“Poor sleep quality is a common problem at all stages of life and may be especially detrimental during prenatal development, childhood, and adolescence,” says Pocivavsek, who joined the School of Medicine Department of Pharmacology, Physiology and Neuroscience in 2018. “In my laboratory, we aim to understand how poor sleep impacts behavioral outcomes, including cognition, learning and memory.”

She earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Duke University and her Ph.D. in neuroscience from Georgetown University. She was a post-doctoral fellow and assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine before coming to UofSC.

“The goal is to lead a translational research program that explores new therapeutic approaches to alleviate poor sleep quality and its mental health consequences,” Pocivavsek says.

Her work has brought groundbreaking insight to the cause and treatment of cognitive impairment and mental illness, including schizophrenia.

In my laboratory, we aim to understand how poor sleep impacts behavioral outcomes, including cognition, learning and memory.

Ana Pocivavsek

“Dr. Pocivavsek has been very successful in securing major national funding, publishing work originating from USC in high-impact journals, mentoring students, contributing to a positive and inclusive academic culture, and building a national and international reputation in her field,” says department chair Marlene Wilson.

“Her research program examines the impact of stress during neurodevelopment and consequences of increases in the kynurenine neurochemical pathway, which may contribute to several neuropsychiatric conditions including schizophrenia.”

“The inability to identify the critical risk factors that are responsible for the initiation and progression of schizophrenia has significantly hampered our ability to develop effective treatment strategies for patients,” says Homayoun Valafar, director of the bioinformatics core of the INBRE Project and of the genomic core for the Big Data Health Science Center. A collaborator of Pocivavsek, Valafar notes that identifying mechanistic contributions of this pathway is quite a breakthrough in developing potential treatment options for those suffering from severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia.

Pocivavsek’s animal studies have also looked at inhibiting the synthesis of kynurenic acid as a potential treatment for individuals with mental illness and poor sleep quality .

Her work has encouraged scientists and pharmaceutical companies to pursue the development of inhibitors to treat cognitive dysfunction in psychiatric illness.

“I would love to be able to bring similar attention to new therapeutic approaches to alleviating outcomes of poor sleep,” she says. 

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