Posts Tagged ‘Allison Doupe’

Neuroscience 2008: Nature/Nuture and Neuro-Plasticity!

November 18, 2008

The Twitter Nurture your Nature!

The Big Idea: Neuro-Plasticity is critical to neurogenesis (But when and how?)

Allow me to start with a question:  How many of you really believe that “exercise” can change your brain?  How many of you have already adapted yourselves to a non-fast food diet of low fat, low sugar, low volume eating lifestyle? And how many of you take a nap to replenish memory of all those nifty concepts and technical skills you learned in the early a.m.?

Well if you were a fly on the wall in any of the Neuroscience 2008 sessions (rather than submitted to a lab of brain probe research!), you would detect a consistent pattern in neuroscience research: Nature and Nurture are inextricably linked — so much so as to push us to think why did we ever think otherwise? Or to put it another way, news from the brain labs reinforces what we’ve learned from cardiac research and training grounds, namely: Lifestyle can make or break one’s future in obtaining a clear mind and good and healthy longevity!

Having the opportunity to meet and listen to neuroscientists who are paving the way to our understanding of both the normal and diseased brain and body has pointed up to some insights worth sharing:

1. Scaling the practice of Brain Mapping:  When it comes to neuroscience as a research area of biotechnology, the bio here means both neuroanatomical, neurochemical and neurogenetic levels of inquiry and analysis.  For the lay reader, this means brain research is scaled and mapped from the macro to the micro levels of network analysis.

2.  Neuro-Plasticity, like comedy is all about timing! Different levels of circuit analysis open doors to understanding the phenomenon of neuro-plasticity — best periods, best practices, and the conditions when “too much plasticity” appears implicated as in cases of schizophrenia.   Given the trendiness that has brought neuro-plasticity into critical mass awareness, scientists at this conference were quite clear if not humble in making claims for the play-doh capacity of the brain.  Today’s press conference on the developing brain drove home this message in this way:

Animal studies, such as the songbird studies run by Dr. Allison Doupe (see previous blog), point to a critical period for neuro-plasticity to express itself in learning and memory.

Dr. Takao Hench* reinforces Doupe’s perspective, noting if the critical period is disturbed in embryonic development, then plasticity is interrupted.   Hench studies proteins in embryonic head development, finding their importance in developing visual function and spinal chord development.

No doubt, the evidence for embryonic and childhood neuro-plasticity opens new doors to asking how and when new neuronal landscapes are formed in later periods of life.  The aging brain question on the table?  Does the brain recapitulate earlier strategies for neuroplasticity in the adult stage and to what degree?  (All you meditators out there: Think cultivating beginner’s mind.)

3.  Nurture your Nature: With the advent of genetics,  neuroscience has leaped into a new age of epigenetic studies:  This may be one of the areas that speaks directly to how we as non-scientists can make sense of brain science in terms of our own daily lives.   To give you a quick brief, think of the old nature/nurture argument, seemingly put to rest by the genome mapping project and the insights scientists have had regarding the role “environment” plays in shaping the genetic expression.

At Neuroscience 2008, several scientists were on hand to discuss their epigenetic research highlighting the effects of lifestyle and cultural habit on the brain as seen at the level of genetic expression.  Let’s be clear here, the expression is not seen at the level of change in DNA structure but in the level of “gene expression.”  For you genomic neophytes out there, I came to understand this by way of a great explanation offered by Dr. Quincy LaPlant who noted his use of microray analysis to distinguish between DNA sequence and sequence organization.

The long and short of this:  The implications of lifestyle cannot be under-estimated:  Stress, early childhood abuse and neglect, high-fat diets all manifest as modifers the brain at the level of genetic organization, the level of brain function, and the level of human experience!!!!!

Epigenetics — keep your eye on that term!

More tomorrow….

Until then, conference tip for brain fitness:  “We remember to sleep so that we can sleep to remember!” (William Fishbein)

*Children’s Hospital Boston, Harvard University

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Neuroscience 2008 descends on D.C.!

November 16, 2008

The Platform: NEUROSCIENCE 2008, Convention Center, Washington D.C.

The Twitter: How many neuroscientists does it take to put in a light bulb?

The Big Idea: The future of neuroscience lays in the hands of youth.

Intense? Immersive? An Indeterminate Neural Network? Making it through a crowd of over 30,000 people, and a four day roster that includes symposia, mini symposia, keynote lectures, satellite events and over a 1000 poster and slides sessions, does, as one AI scientist once remarked, separate the human from the robot.

And it is that extraordinary navigational capacity of human intelligence and specifically, the human brain, along with a whole host of questions about the brain that has drawn neuroscientists young and old to the rainy U.S. capital, to share their research, update their brains and discuss the future of advocating brain awareness at NEUROSCIENCE 2008!images-21

With neuroscience becoming the seductive frontier of 21st century biological, medical and cognitive science study, as well as the field of promising and lucrative applied biotechnologies, NEUROSCIENCE 2008 is the brain child of the Society for Neuroscience, a dedicated group of scientists that has grown in membership and in sensibility regarding the role they play in developing allied research, public policy and K-12 education where the brain is concerned.

For the lay public, the hard science description of pain-staking empirical studies is enough to send the unitiated back to talking about Leggos, Pac-Man and 7th grade science fair. Yet as inimitable choreographer Mark Morris was apt to point out to the audience during the opening Keynote discussion, “the problem of talking about what’s going on in the brain, is not mine but yours!”

Mark Morris

Mark Morris

It was rather confirming for yours truly, to find the president of SFN, who researches rhythm, choosing the once bad boy post modern choreographer to open the annual meeting. The brain is, after all, in a body, and from the sessions I attended today, it seems more and more scientists are reading to point to roles experiment and experience play in shaping neural growth and visa versa. And yet, the questions put to Morris suggest that scientists might want to do more dancing or as Morris reminded them, “more skipping,” if they want to study the choreographic corellates in the somasensory cortex. Morris, a performing artist known for his love and sensitivity to the musicality of dancing, and now for his work with Parkinson’s disease, drove home the message of using somatic intelligence: ‘It’s not something that abstact, like thinking, “now this left foot, on this second beat.” It’s more like: “Here… Now.”‘

I must admit, the rudimentary science questions put to Morris pointed up to the old C.P. Snow two culture divide, pitting science and art against each other like political foes. I for one, was rather shocked by the retro p.o.v. pervading much of the scientific thinking, signaling a real gap in the education of scientists regarding the “research” conducted by somanauts like performing artists and athletes. Then again, Morris, the uber cosmopolitan, had no better understanding of the science of brain/mind/body connectivity. Sigh.

a1252_11The afternoon Presidential lecture given by Dr. Allison Doupe offered a different picture of art and science. Doupe gave an exquisite talk on the pattern recognition capacities of songbirds, and posed the question: ‘What can we can we learn about neural basis of “vocal” practices as distinct from performances? How does the nervous system mediate behavior?’

A terrific speaker, poised and passionate, Doupe’s research pointed to several neural circuits that appear to operate in directing the process of learning a new pattern of sound, practicing the new pattern, and performing it to accomplish a “salient” goal, in the case of songbirds, a male finch courting a female.

My favorite Doupe image? The one that showed how courting performance showed little randomness in pattern generation! The take home message? Forget the creativity bud. If ya want the girl, just sing the damn song!

Leaving some of us to ponder the implications of romantic innovation, Doupe’s lecture did reinforce one of the key ideas and metaphors, surfacing in the language of neuroscientists presenting at this conference: the role of pattern recognition and neural mapping in development and learning.

More tomorrow!

Synaptically yours,

Dr. G.