Speak Out With Your Geek Out, Part II: Brains

13 Sep

Let’s get one thing straight: I don’t like zombies, for the same reason I don’t like vampires — because I get distracted trying to piece together a way in which they could make any biological sense, thus ruining any fictional, escapist, or allegorical content of whatever it is I’m looking at.

So, this post is about the other kind of brains: the real kind, the kind that don’t provide sustenance to the undead (somehow) — in short, the cool kind.

There’s a lot to say about the brain, and I have a little bit more knowledge about neuroscience than I do about rocket science. But the #speakgeek concept is all about the joy of loving nerdy things, and there are few topics in neuroscience that induce more nerdy glee than the concept of the brainbow.

Take that, Hubble!

In 2007, Lichtman, Sanes, et al. published a paper describing a technique their team had developed to make individual neurons visible in greater numbers and clarity than ever before, and therefore more easily studied.

Let’s start at the simplest level: your DNA decides which proteins will be made (expressed). A certain sequence within your DNA might code for a certain protein molecule that occurs in the brain, or in muscle tissue, or anywhere in the body. It’s actually fairly easy, with modern science, to insert genes into organisms, causing them to express proteins that they wouldn’t normally have. In this case, the fluorescent proteins produced a varying ratio of a set of colors, thus displaying a random combination of colors, and making individual neurons visible in contrast to each other.

This visibility and clarity is important because we need to be able to study individual neurons: what does this connect to, what circuits does it form, where does it begin and end? This technique is miles above anything else previously in existence — and it has the added benefit of being pretty amazing to look at as well.

Biology can sometimes be problematic that way. People get grossed out, for example, when you mention the bright colors of the organs of unpreserved frogs when compared to the thoroughly formaldehyde-saturated ones you dissected in high school. And yes, I understand why some people don’t want to hear about it — presumably we’ve evolved to find dead things and intestines disquieting, in order to avoid contracting any of the diseases they might contain, and I am loath to condemn an instinct that was so obviously useful to our ancestors.

Still, it’s nice to be able to show people the brainbow images. I feel like I could show someone the above picture, and tell them, “This is how I feel when I’m studying ion channels,” and they would understand what I meant, although they still might not understand why.

Studying neuroscience in this day and age is like living in a fairytale. There are so many mysteries, and so many answers that we know are behind the next locked door, if we could just solve the riddles or find the key.


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