Before I had started at college, I knew which major I was going to be, a neuroscience major. I knew that I wanted to study the sciences, but after I had ruled out physics, it came down to choosing between biology and chemistry, and I just couldn’t pick one over the other. Perhaps you could say I had an intense fear of missing out on the major I did not chose. I also felt that biochemistry was too narrow of a focus for me. I loved all of the sciences and did not want to give up on any of them, including physics. This is what led me to the neuroscience major. The interdisciplinary aspect of neurosciences at Trinity allowed me to be a free bird when it came to choosing classes. The classes I have taken for my major span many departments at Trinity: neuroscience, biology, chemistry, and psychology. Combined with my biology minor, nothing was stopping me from taking all the classes I wanted to take. What could be a better way to top off my senior year than to attend events which celebrate the diverse nature of neuroscience?
The neuroscience lectures I have attended this semester shows off neuroscience in many different lights. Because neuroscience draws from many different disciplines and deals with the organ that dictates thought and action (the brain), it can be applied to many different fields. One example of neuroscience in the public eye is the movie Inside Out, which blends the psychological aspects of neuroscience with mainstream media. As neuroscientists were consulted for the making of the movie, it was interesting to see some of the common threads between neuroscience and certain aspects of the movie. For example, one neuroscience article I recently summarized for my senior seminar is about the nature of memory and memory retrieval in the case of retrograde amnesia. The paper found that in retrograde amnesia, which is when you lose memories before a certain point in time, the memory is still intact, it is just our access to it which is blocked (Tonegawa et al.). Therefore, instead of a dark pit of grey memories which get funneled away, never to be retrieved again, perhaps some memories which we cannot recall are a VIP section of the library of memories in Inside Out, one in which the memories are under lock and key.
The next event was presented by our very own new President of Trinity College, Joanne Berger-Sweeney, a neuroscientist. I had known that our new president was a neuroscientist, but I was unsure about her ‘scientific chops’ in the neurosciences. In preparation for the lecture, I read up on some of her publications and found to be very in depth and just as good as any other neuroscience publication. However this was not enough to convince this skeptic, as there are multiple authors to these publications. In attending her lecture, I got schooled on my neuroscience and biochemistry. Berger-Sweeney’s talk demonstrated that she had a solid foundation of understanding for her research on Autism, as well the scientific thinking and know-how well demonstrated in seasoned neuroscientists. Her talk in particular involved the human element of studying neuroscience, by talking about the girls with Rhett Syndrome and her motivation for using neuroscience to try and help these girls, really helped us understand the importance of studying neuroscience. Yes we all got into neuroscience because it is a fascinating field of study, but we sometimes forget that neuroscience is one of the final frontiers on the sciences, other than space. There’s still a lot that we don’t fully know in neurosciences, which has implications in the lives of many who live with a mental illness or neurological disorder. Progress in the way of treatment can be very slow in some of these diseases, and this is why studying neuroscience is important. One example of the importance of studying neuroscience can be seen in another neuroscience lecture I attended recently.
On December 10th, 2015 Dr. Philip Pearl, a neurologist and musician, gave a lecture at Trinity on the neurological disorders of famous composers. This lecture was fascinating as Pearl discussed Beethoven’s progression from high frequency hearing loss to deafness and how that impacted his ability to play music. What is particularly interesting is that upon autopsy, it was discovered that his eighth cranial nerve, the auditory nerve, was shriveled up and deteriorated. His post-mortem diagnosis of Paget’s Disease not only accounts for his hearing loss, but also for his unsightly appearance. Paget’s Disease, which is caused by a thickening of the bone would have cause thickening of the skull as well, causing deformities of this skin on his head, in particular, the face. This would explain how Beethoven was a relatively cute kid, but described as leper-like in adulthood. Dr. Pearl went on to describe Manic Depressive Disorder in Robert Schumann, and Pick’s frontotemporal dementia in Maurice Ravel, as well as many other interesting cases. One clinical case in particular was presented with histological preparations of brain tumors. Though m histophysiology class did not cover histology of tumors, I was able to apply to skills I had gleaned from this class to George Girshwin’s second grade fibrillary astrocytoma, which was originally though to be a particularly lethal tumor: high grade glioblastoma multiforme. This lecture was particularly interesting to me because it reveled in the diagnostics of neurology while applying it in the framework of music.
Another lecture which showed neuroscience in a new light was one given by Chris Moore. In studying neuroscience, it is easy to get caught up in learning about the nervous system that we can easily forget that it works in tandem with other systems of the body. Moore’s lecture exposed how intimately the brain is correlated with the circulatory system. Though I had learned about circulation in the brain through classes such as Functional Neuroanatomy, I had never fully realized the full extent that circulation had on the brain. Through his lecture, I learned that local increases in blood flow, hyperemia, in the brain is not correlated with increased metabolic demands of neurons. Local hyperemia is highly correlated to neuronal firing, while being poorly correlated to the metabolic demands of those cells. Furthermore, mechanoreceptor cells were discovered wrapped around certain blood vessels in such a way that local hyperemia, which which would cause local expansion of blood vessels, would cause these neurons to fire. Presumably, these cells can convey information about local activity to other cells in the brain. Thus the circulatory system can serve as a highway of communication throughout the brain. However, you need not attend a neuroscience lecture to learn about the revolutionary aspects of neuroscience.
A forum entitled “The Next Big Thing” brought together technology visionary, Joi Ito and journalist Fareed Zakaria to discuss how technology will shape our future. One point of interest in the talk was the distribution of knowledge among technology and the human brain. It was proposed that because there are certain things that the human brain can do very well that a computer cannot do well, such as diagnostics, these skills should be left for humans, while things that require more memorization, which a computer can do well, should be left for technology. This is an interesting proposal because while differing certain topics to technology would free up our brains to hone in on the skills only our brains are good at doing would make us better diagnostician and so on, it would still be a loss on our minds. For example, the reason why we might memorize the action of certain drugs is what allows us to understand new drugs which might work in a different way. In other words, the memorization of certain knowledge is key as a platform for understanding more complex topics. Though technology will invariably serve as an important and constant assistant in our lives, allowing us to defer certain skills like spelling to technology, it cannot replace the importance of understanding these skills in the human mind. As we all know all too well, even spell check can be wrong. This is the essence and excitement of studying neuroscience. Nothing can replace the human brain with all of it’s capacity to learn and be malleable and adaptive, on top of the daily functions it carefully choreographs for us on a daily basis. Indeed the study of neuroscience proves a worthy challenge for the curious mind.
Tonegawa, Simsu, Autumn Arons, Michele Pignatelli, Dheeraj S. Roy, and Tomas J. Ryan. “Engram Cells Retain Memory under Retrograde Amnesia.” The Picower Institute RSS. Science, 29 May 2015. Web.