Exploratory Neurobiology: Bugs, Mice, and Brains!

Jeremy and Emily, Interns

Exciting discoveries are underway in the field of neurobiology. With the aid of mouse brains and cockroach legs, DO-IT Phase II Scholars Bilal, Joey, Kristin, Sean, and Vanessa learned how the brain functions. The lab of Dr. Martha "Marti" Bosma uses the hindbrain of an eleven-day-old mouse embryo to measure the effects of various chemicals on the developing brain, in particular exposure to antidepressants. The results were amazing to watch. At this age, the chemical serotonin has just started production. Serotonin allows connections to be created in the nervous system. The creation of new pathways is a random activity that is measured in the lab as a control. When serotonin-inhibiting medications are introduced (such as antidepressants), the activity becomes more sporadic and intense, suggesting that neurons are being developed incorrectly and some pathways may not even be allowed to develop. Applying this lab knowledge to a real-world scenario, these results suggest that a woman who is pregnant and on antidepressants may cause the fetus to have abnormal development of neurons. Applying lab learning to the real world was very interesting.

In a different lab, with the help of doctoral students Stephanie Furrer and Hiro Watari, the Scholars listened to the sounds of legs. Cockroach legs that is. The nervous system of insects is very different from the nervous system in mammals, and the legs of a cockroach have an almost independent nervous system. By listening to a magnified, neurologically induced signal and recording it, adaptations in the nervous system can be studied. These adaptations allow the animal to prioritize signals sent to the brain. For example, when you put on a new shirt, your skin is very aware of the new material. To prevent an overload of information to the brain the intensity of the signal fades exponentially until the sensation is almost absent. This is beneficial because nonessential signals are filtered out so more urgent signals can get through. By understanding these neuro-pathways, we may someday be able to identify and fix damage in the brain and create medication that doesn't negatively impact the developing brain.