By Aileen Marshall
March 14 through the 20 was National Brain Awareness Week. In honor of that, the Rockefeller University’s Science and Media Group sponsored an event called Neuroscience Night, run by the organization KnowScience. The event consisted of several talks by local scientists about their fascinating research on the brain. The topics ranged from the infant brain to the addicted brain.
Brain Awareness Week has been presented every March by the Dana Foundation for twenty years. The foundation is a non-profit that promotes neuroscience research by grants, publications and education; made up of more than 350 neuroscientists, including some Noble laureates. They publish the online journal Cerebrum. They also provide materials for organizations and groups to put on events for Brian Awareness week. Besides the Rockefeller University, many New York City institutes hosted seminars and exhibits, including Columbia University, Mount Sinai, New York University, and the Greater New York City Chapter of the Society for Neuroscience.
Rockefeller’s Neuroscience Night was organized by KnowScience, which is a non-profit science advocacy and educational organization founded and headed by Rockefeller’s own Dr. Simona Giunta. They run events to improve the awareness and understanding of science among the public, particularly adults.
The first speaker at the Neuroscience Night was Rosemarie Perry, a postdoctoral research scientist from New York University. She spoke about the infant brain. It turns out that babies are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. They learn a lot in their first year. The infant brain is capable of learning several different languages. Like many animals, humans go through a stage when they need a caregiver to survive. She told us how the human’s infant brain is geared toward bonding with its caregiver, in order to get what it needs. In rats there is a sensitive period, the first nine days after birth, when bonding is established. In humans, attachment starts in the womb, where the fetus learns the mother’s scent and voice. And this attachment is bi-directional, oxytocin is released during skin to skin contact, enforcing the bond of both caregiver and infant. The caregiver can even regulate the infant’s brain. In rats, the amygdala kicks in after ten days, which is responsible for fear. Perry’s experiments have shown that the mother’s presence can block the fear response in rat pups.
The next speaker was Bianca Jones-Marlin, a postdoctoral researcher from Columbia University. Her topic was Love and the Brain. She told us that there is a chemical reaction behind love, no matter if it’s romantic, familial, or platonic. It is also oxytocin that is released during eye contact with a loved one. Oxytocin effects the reward center of the brain. Experiments have shown that oxytocin is also released when one has eye contact with one’s dog. This hormone works in the left hearing center of the brain. Jones-Marlin’s experiments with mice have shown that mice will retrieve their pups back to the nest when they hear them cry. But a virgin female in the cage will not retrieve the pup.
Loren DeVito, a science and medical writer, spoke about memory. She explained how there are three kinds of memory. Episodic memory is when we recall events in our life. Motor memory lets us learn how to ride a bike. And it is semantic memory used when we memorized the multiplication tables in elementary school. Memories are formed in the hippocampus, which then sends those memories to long-term storage. There is a complex chemical reaction that happens when we make a memory, involving neurotransmitters crossing synapses between neurons and the synthesis of a protein. Retrieving a memory makes it stronger. She also talked about experiments that were done to see if memory could be effected by drugs. Subjects who had a phobia to spiders were given a drug that blocks the protein immediately after exposure to a spider. At their next exposure the following week, subjects did not feel afraid.
The last talk was given by our own Derek Simon, a postdoctoral fellow in the Kreek lab. He spoke about how addiction works in the brain. It turns out that addiction has a similar mechanism, no matter if the substance is anything from caffeine to illegal narcotics. Long-term additions actually cause changes in the brain. Drugs change how neurons fire. All addictive drugs cause a rise in dopamine, which also effects the reward center. The same reaction happens during behavioral addictions like gambling. The body tries to block dopamine, to return the level to normal. In long-term addictions, the body has compensated so much that dopamine levels drop below normal, leaving one feeling worse. Derek showed images of a normal and an addict’s brain to demonstrate the physical differences. Interestingly enough, while talking about the mechanism of methadone, he mentioned how it had been developed here at Rockefeller in the 1940s.
The next KnowScience event is entitled “Imagine a World Without AIDS”. It will be on April 7 at the Kips Bay library. Go to knowscience.org to learn more about their fascinating and enjoyable events.