braiNY Neurotable at the AMNH

Nothing like a precocious seven-year-old to restore your faith in science education—or to completely humble you. Towards the end of Neuro Table at the American Museum of Natural History, a young boy approached the presenters with his mother. While he identified functions associated with specific regions on a model brain, he pointed to the hippocampus and asked, “So is this where memories get stored?” As the presenter began to explain that no, memories were actually stored in the prefrontal cortex but formed in the hippocampus, I nearly stepped in on the kid’s behalf. Surely this subtle difference would be lost on him.

“So memories get stored here and formed here?” he said after the clarification, pointing to the correct regions each time. Sure, the process is more complex than that (the hippocampus is vital in consolidating short-term memories into long-term memories), but should we declare this youngster the winner of the 2023 Brain Bee right now?

IMAG0107Kalmbach, left, and Shakman show off a real human brain.

As part of Brain Awareness Week (March 11-17), the Natural History Museum hosted this braiNY event, one of nearly 20 New York events organized to “showcase the wonder of the brain and the richness of New York’s scientific and cultural resources.” At the museum on Wednesday morning, Columbia University/NYSPI postdoc Abby Kalmbach and Columbia grad students Katie Shakman and Christophe Dupre taught students of all ages about the value of imaging the brain. They were able to look through high-powered microscopes to get a feel for what neurodegeneration looks like in the brain. The microscopes were used to look at, among other things, a mammalian cerebrum versus a cortex with Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, where the holes were evident.

Dupre explained a video that was on repeat on a laptop—a time-lapse of a neuron that shows how it moves and changes shape. The clip only last a few seconds (about one hour in real time) and contained just 12 frames, but it gave viewers a great visual of the ever-evolving neuron.

Brainy dendriteThe neuron lights up, moves, and changes shape over time. (Willig, Urban, Nägerl, Hell, Biophys J , 2011)

“Most people think the brain doesn’t change. That’s not true,” Dupre said. He explained how, over time, neural connections can become bigger or smaller, longer or shorter, stronger, or even disappear. He said it is critical that we continue to develop better microscopes to deliver high-quality images of cells. “We don’t have the tools to image the brain in living people; fMRI is too crude. The brain is a complicated thing and we don’t even know where to start.” He stressed that neuroscience is a relatively young field and we have made great progress in the past several decades. “We’re not any smarter now than people were 50 years ago,” we just have better techniques. As techniques continue to improve, so will our understanding of the brain and its many complex functions.

Of course, nothing beats the visual of a real human brain, and the Columbia students had one. Childrens’ eyes tend to dart around, especially when there are a lot of different visual stimuli to choose from. But when Shakman picked up the brain, the kids stared as if they were in a trance. “Showcasing the wonder of the brain” is braiNY’s goal. Mission accomplished.

– Andrew Kahn

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