The Synapse from BrainU

From visiting classrooms for Brain Awareness Week, Dr. Janet Dubinsky from the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Minnesota became aware that teachers wanted to learn what neuroscience has uncovered about brain mechanisms of learning and memory. To address this need, the Department of Neuroscience and the Science Museum of Minnesota created BrainU. Her current partner is Dr. Gillian Roerhig from the STEM Education Center.

Launched in 2000, BrainU is a grant-funded professional development program that teaches educators neuroscience principles and effective methodology for teaching neuroscience in the middle to high school classroom. BrainU, the neuroscience teacher institute, provides teachers with up to 160 hours of neuroscience training, materials, and staff support to bring brain science to their students. Participants in these professional workshops receive updates on the latest in neuroscience research — discussion is complemented with hands-on activities and lab work.

The BrainU website provides lesson plans and resources for teachers and some cool stuff, including brain pictures, optical illusions, and movies.

The movie ‘The Synapse’

In the nervous system, the synapse is essential for neuronal function. A synapse is the junction between two nerve cells or neurons, consisting of a minute gap across which impulses pass by diffusion of a neurotransmitter. The movie ‘The Synapse’, used with permission from BrainU, tells an entertaining and informative story of how neurons communicate with each other at synapses, changing information from electrical to chemical and back to electrical signals. Check out their story below (the movie opens in a new window).

The Synapse

Copyright 2000-2012, BrainU, University of Minnesota Department of Neuroscience and Department of Curriculum and Instruction. Supported by a Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) from the National Center For Research Resources and the Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives of the National Institutes of Health, with additional funding from SEDAPA and ARRA. Its content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of NCRR or NIH.

Body Clock Strength Impacts Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar Disorder, also known as manic–depressive disorder, is a condition characterized by alternating states of elevated energy, cognition and mood, with periods of irritable mood and depression. The extreme mood swings experienced by patients with bipolar disorder have been strongly associated with disruptions in circadian rhythms — the 24-hour cycle of biological processes that govern our day and night activity.

Lithium is one of the most common treatments for bipolar disorder. However, little research has been done to find out if and how lithium impacts the brain and peripheral body clockwork. A new study published in the open access journal PLoS ONE reveals a novel link between lithium, bipolar disorder and circadian rhythms [1].

Bipolar Disorder

Berries May Help Prevent Age-Related Decline of Brain Function

With humans living longer than ever before, diseases associated with aging are becoming a major focus of medical research. Neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, are a major source of concern to aging adults. This is because such diseases not only lead to death, they do so through a particularly frightening route that includes loss of independence, memory, function, and personality. All adults experience a decline in certain aspects of brain function as they age. Memory, speed of cognition, and reasoning are among the functions most affected [1]. The effects of aging on cognition appear to be due to atrophy of brain tissue in particular regions, especially the prefrontal cortex and parietal cortex [2], as well as decreased neurotransmitter levels.

A Light Switch to Turn Specific Neurons On and Off

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Ed Boyden is creating new brains. A pioneer in the field of optogenetics, he is the founder and principal investigator of the synthetic neurobiology group at the MIT Media Lab, which invents technologies to reveal how cognition and emotion arise from brain networks — and to enable systematic repair of disorders such as epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder (ptsd).

Using a combination of lasers and genetic engineering, Boyden’s lab implants brains with optical fibers that allow them to activate special proteins in specific neurons and see their connections. In addition to helping create detailed maps of brain circuitry, the engineering of these cells has been used to cure blindness in mice, and could point the way to cures for Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease. On the horizon: ways of connecting to the brain via prosthetics.

By inserting genes for light-sensitive proteins into brain cells, neurons can be selectively activated or de-activated with fiber-optic implants. Check out Boyden’s demonstration at TED2011 below.

Cellular Mechanisms of Long Term Memory Storage

Dr. Menahem Segal, head of the Laboratory of Neuronal Plasticity at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, studies the neuronal basis of long term memory in the brain. Of particular interest are conditions that are associated with deterioration of memory systems, such as those occurring in Alzheimer’s disease patients and mentally retarded children.

Neurons