Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Day 23: Science! with Richie Kohman

Richie's lab actually looks very science-y with microscopes and everything.
Cost: Free
Difficulty: 4 (due to some squeamish mouse brain surgery)
Time: 3 hours

If you've read more than a few days of my posts, you'll have noticed Richie appears in a lot of them. Day 23 was his idea: have me come in and watch him work.

Richie is an organic chemist doing some very interesting research in neuroscience. Brains are massive networks of neurons communicating with electro-chemical impulses. Scientists have known for over two hundred years that electricity could be used to stimulate regions of the brain and produce a response. More recently, techniques have been developed that allow the recording of electrical brain activity.

There's a difficulty in combining these techniques: the electrical signal used to stimulate the brain will also be picked up by sensors trying to record the brains activity.

Researchers have recently begun experimenting with using light to stimulate the brain. Normally, brain cells do not respond to light. But by introducing a virus that activates certain genes, specific cells can be told to respond to the presence of light. They can even be programmed to only respond to particular colors of light.

The theoretical advantage of this is two-fold: one, light doesn't interfere with attempts to record electrical impulses and two, having cells differentiate between colors of light allows researchers to simulate them separately. Shining a green light to increase arousal or a blue light to induce sleepiness, for example.

The practical goal of this is to improve our understanding of how the brain works and develop treatments for neurological disorders such as Parkinsons, other degenerative conditions, and possibly other ailments such as paralysis or blindness. Treatments using light techniques are still a long way off-- work in Richie's lab has so far been limited to experiments on mice.

Me, playing with the laser fiber optics that are used to stimulate the mice's brains.

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