Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Cells, Molecules, Neurons & Synapses

Hi everyone,

My name is DJ Brasier. I took Mr. Baker's freshman biology class back in 1994, and my senior year he taught an advanced class in genetics instead of the AP biology that you all are taking. In college, I majored in biology with an emphasis on cellular and molecular processes.

I went to graduate school at Univ. of California, San Diego in Neurosciences where my dissertation focused on how the synaptic connections between neurons change as your brain learns. Aside from my dissertation work, I've done molecular neurobiology research on protein structure and function. Currently, I'm working as a postdoctoral fellow at UC - San Francisco. I've had to reacquaint myself with the details of genetics that I learned in Mr. Baker's genetics class in my current research using fruit fly genetics as a tool to look at synaptic function.

The research that I do is basic science: which means that instead of working on curing a particular disease like Alzheimer's, I am working to understand the basic biological processes that go on in all of our neurons. That isn't to say that my work doesn't have relevance for diseases. In fact, problems with synaptic function are known to contribute to almost every known neurological disease from epilepsy to Parkinson's to schizophrenia. I believe that we need a much more complete understanding of the basic biological processes in order to know how healthy as well us unhealthy brains function and to provide more intelligent treatments.

I'm going to steal Jonathan's idea and post a couple of interesting articles. The first is from Scientific American and it shows how modern brain imaging equipment can be used first to watch brain activity and the coordination of different brain areas as a subject (in this case a monkey) makes a decision. Then, after the task becomes familiar, the imaging is used to see how the pattern of brain activity is different than it was when the subject was first learning the task.

The second article discusses a rare neurological phenomenon called synesthesia, when sensory input from one of the senses (such as vision) activates the area of the brain that normally processes information from a different sense. In this case visual input activates the auditory region of the brain, so people with this experience "hearing" a visual stimulus. Only in the last few years has it even become accepted that this actually happens and it's not just people speaking metaphorically. I think the most interesting thing about this is that essentially no one has the first clue how this is happening or what goes on genetically or developmentally to cause this.

Happy reading!



Mr. Baker said...

Well Bio Bloggers, as you can see the blog is getting more interesting. You now can expect to see posts from time to time from Jonathan, DJ, Ken, Bjorn, and Samara. Take the time to read what they post and explore the articles they suggest. It will help you appreciate the breadth of the biological sciences and learn new things from people on the leading edge. Also, as I have mentioned before, do not hesitate to ask them a question directly. You are about to move on to college and some of you the sciences, what better source of information?

Bulgan said...

This is so cool!!!
I like his (your) job. I am interested in learning more about disease, too. ^^
Thanks for the blog!!

Shauna said...

I remember discussing neurons in 10th grade and I believe that my teacher was discussing how our protein intake correlates to connections in our brain? Is my memory totally off...? Thanks DJ.

Inwoo said...

Could you reveal to us how you got into such high end colleges? =D??

DJ Brasier said...

Bulgan: I'm glad to hear you're interested in my work, let me know if you have any questions about neurobiology.

Shauna: You're right, protein is important for synapse function. I'm sure you've learned from Mr. Baker that proteins are the building blocks of just about everything in your body (except the membranes which are lipids). That is true of synaptic connections too. There are dozens of proteins that are involved in releasing neurotransmitter when one neuron communicates with another. And when you learn something new, new neurotransmitter receptors (which are also made of protein) get put in on the receiving side of the synapse. If you're under-nourished and don't have enough protein then you can't build and maintain all of this.

Inwoo: I did well in my classes and SAT's, which I'm sure helped. I also found some volunteer opportunities: specifically in science. I think that colleges like to see you have a passion for some subject material (whatever that is) and then have you express to them that you're going out of your way to pursue it. I would say that spending a lot of time going into depth exploring one particular thing is more valuable than piling on tons of things that you only half pay attention to. If there's a particular subject you're interested in, talk to your teacher for that subject about how to spend some extra time going deeper into it. Does that help?

DJ Brasier said...

Shauna, I just found this article which relates to your question.

Specifically, the paragraph:

"They found that a particular component of the cells in question, a chemical receptor, which, when switched on, tells the cell to start an internal signal system that holds the "memory" in place."

"Chemical receptor" is another term for neurotrasmitter receptor (neurotrasmitters are chemical signals). Modification of these receptors and addition of new receptors are crucial for brain function and memory formation. And, they are all proteins.