Dana’s Update: This week for The Bridge, I’ve been working on answering some neuroscience questions that people frequently ask me. I plan to use these answers to accompany Richelle’s images, and together our portions will form a piece of artwork where observers can both read about and visualize concepts in neuroscience. Last week, I posted a list of questions I hoped to answer, and this week, so far, I have answered three of them.
Oddly, the broad questions are often the most challenging. A question like, “Why is this research exciting?” can be much more of a thinker than, “In what part of a neuron is this specific protein found?” For many scientists, it’s really easy to get lost in the details and sink into the nitty-gritty technical stuff. A lot of scientists tend to look really uneasy and alarmed when someone asks them a broad question. However, for anyone outside a specific, tiny, obscure, niche field, science becomes a lot more interesting when we question why research is important or exciting. It’s important to know the details in order to understand how and why experiments work, but I believe it’s equally important to keep your eye on the big picture goals.
In order to zero-in on some big picture concepts, I wrote my list of questions based on what other people (family, friends, non-scientists, etc.) ask me about my research. Their questions have lead me to realize that many scientists have not done a good job of explaining to the rest of the world what science is all about, possibly because we have discovered so much scientific information in the past few decades that even scientists sometimes have trouble understanding each others’ research. This huge divide between scientists and the rest of the world continues to grow, and will only continue to widen unless scientists make their work accessible and meaningful for a variety of audiences. So, in short, I’m starting with their list of questions.
The first question I took on was, “What is the cerebellum?” For me, this is a difficult question because I study the cerebellum, and my first instinct was to share all the tiny details. I was thinking, “How could I possibly say all this stuff about the cerebellum in just 200 words? There’s so much to say!” Do I talk about the cerebellar circuit? The branched Purkinje cells? Synaptic plasticity? Eye-blink conditioning and how it is represented synaptically in the cerebellum? Evolution of the cerebellum? Other, non-motor roles of the cerebellum? Diseases of the cerebellum?
After a few minutes of this frenzy, I decided to focus my answer on two points that I hope will be most interesting and meaningful for anyone who reads my answer. Here’s what I came up with:
“The cerebellum is a distinct brain structure in the lower, back portion of the brain. Of all the ways the brain has changed through mammalian evolution, the cerebellum has remained relatively the same. This means that your cerebellum isn’t that different from your dog’s cerebellum. The cerebellum controls movement, balance, and posture. Within the large realm of movement, the cerebellum’s special role is to help you learn new movements. For example, if you try to learn a new jump in a ballet class, your cerebellum will help you fine-tune your movement until you get it right. Most people think that the cerebellum fine-tunes movement by sending an error message when your actual movement is different from your planned movement. Although the cerebellum is small compared to the rest of the human brain, the cerebellum contains more than 50% of all the neurons in the brain. The main cells in the cerebellum are called Purkinje cells. Purkinje cells are neurons that have exquisitely complex dendrites that branch like tree branches. Purkinje cells receive excitatory input from two types of neurons: granule cells and climbing fibers. Each Purkinje cell receives large error messages that help fix incorrect movements from just one climbing fiber. In contrast, each Purkinje cell receives input from thousands of granule cells. Granule cells are the most numerous neurons in the cerebellum, and in the entire brain, and they look like lentils under a microscope. All together, a properly functioning cerebellar circuit with Purkinje cells, granule cells, and climbing fibers, will keep you evenly balanced on your toes.”
This image shows some slices of the cerebellum placed onto a slide. Each slice is 50 µm thick and a few mm wide. For reference and scale, the slide is about 2.5 inches long.
When I was satisfied with this first draft, I moved onto the first question that everyone asks me about my research: “Can mice have autism? / What does autism look like in a mouse?”
I usually explain that scientists often use animals specifically bred for research to model diseases. Today, there are mouse models of diseases and disorders including autism, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, stroke, ataxia, depression, and much more. I explain that in most mouse models, the mouse’s DNA has been manipulated to induce a mutation that scientists think is associated with a particular disorder or disease. Over time, labs build up a mouse colony, and the mice with the disease are bred over generations in specialized facilities. These animals receive constant veterinary care and the scientists using them are under supervision by committees composed of experts and non-expert community members. Here’s what I’ve written so far about how you can tell a mouse is autistic (other than a genotype test):
“Autism is a human disorder, but mice can show symptoms of autism too. In humans, classical hallmark symptoms of autism include impaired social skills and increased repetitive behaviors. Many autistic patients are awkward socially, and feel compelled to do things like repeatedly flipping a light switch or washing their hands. While mice cannot flip a light switch, they find other ways to show these same symptoms of autism. Mice often show repetitive or behavior in the way they groom themselves. In mice that are bred to be autistic, scientists sometimes observe obsessive grooming, which leads to bald spots. Mice also show abnormal social interactions, which is specifically evident in the way autistic female mice care for their litters. Often times, female mice that show autism symptoms cannot or will not take care of their litters, so scientists often set up foster breeding systems to help the litters survive.”
For this question, I could have chosen to take the behavioral route or the physiological route with my answer. I chose the behavioral answer because I thought it would be more interesting and relatable for a general audience. Also, the physiological answer is my dissertation research, and I’m still kind of working it all out. I’m getting there. Anyone who wants the long answer can always ask for more information, and I’ll happily start chatting away about Purkinje cells, dendrites, climbing fibers, and all the other cool stuff squished into the cerebellum.
I’m just beginning to take on the question about why scientists often use research animals – why it’s necessary, and what regulations are in place to minimize stress and discomfort for the animals. Obviously, this question is a big one since it involves a multi-faceted ethical debate, an abundance of information (and misinformation). If you want to learn more, check out this Wikipedia link about the care of research animals.
I’m looking forward to seeing the accompanying images Richelle creates to go with my answers!
Check back next week to read more about my collaboration with Richelle. If you have a question about neuroscience, brains, science research, life in the lab, or anything related to those themes, feel free to tweet your questions to me @dhsimmons1, or post them as blog comments. I will also be posting updates on Twitter from the annual, international Society for Neuroscience conference from Oct. 17-22.
This week I am adding the final touches to five drawings linking networks. These drawings will be on display for my upcoming Artist Talk and Exhibition at Gallery 111, in Sausalito, CA. If you are living in the Bay Area, save the date!
Artist Talk & Opening Reception ICB Artists Association, Gallery 111 Thursday, October 22, 2015 5:30pm - 7:00pm
I don’t want to spoil the surprise by revealing the final drawings. Next week I will post images of the opening and completed artworks! Stay tuned :)