Poison and the Brain: Harvesting Nature’s Deadliest Cocktail

Circling the stations at the Sackler Educational Laboratory at the American Museum of Natural History.

Circling the stations at the Sackler Educational Laboratory at the American Museum of Natural History.

Visiting the Sackler Educational Laboratory at the American Museum of Natural History this past weekend reminded me of the programs I attended there as a child. We’d enjoy story time and activities, and then I would head to the cafeteria and chow down on some dinosaur chicken nuggets, which have since, regrettably, been discontinued.

This time, I was there for the interactive workshop for children Poison and the Brain, part of BraiNY, the NYC celebration of Brain Awareness Week. Kids could check out six stations illustrating topics such as the genetic make-up of various toxins and which areas of the brain are affected by such poisons. Charts showed how toxins work on the molecular level in the brain and what symptoms they cause, including information on substances like conotoxin (a neurotoxic peptide isolated from the venom of the marine cone snail)  and tetrodotoxin (found in many puffers and certain newts).

At one station, we looked through the lens of a microscope to see Water Bears (tardigrades) moving either excitedly under the influence of caffeine (a stimulant) and slowly after consuming alcohol (a depressant).

At Station 5, the presenter showed how ion channels along the axons of neurons bind to poison molecules. Extremely accurate 3D models of toxin molecules and ion channels showed how they mimic the molecular structure of neurotransmitters, fitting together like a key in a socket with the channels and disrupting neuronal communication.

Juliette Gorson, a first year Ph.D. student at Hunter College who works in the lab of Mandë Holford, orchestrated the AMNH event. She had this to say:

Brain Awareness Week gave us (the Holford lab) the wonderful opportunity of sharing our ongoing research with the public. We showed real human brains to little children, explored venomous animals with school groups, discussed toxins and proteins with adults, and watched everyone become doctors and prescribe medicines made from animal toxins to three potential patients. We were fortunate enough to have a group of intelligent and charismatic volunteers to interact with the 1,200 people that visited us in the Sackler Learning Lab over the four days.  Being able to conduct outreach for the public is one of the best parts of being a researcher.  What an incredible experience!

Brain Awareness Week is over for this year, but there still are more programs this month as part of BraiNY and across the world, including the Brainwave series at the Rubin Museum of Art.

–Amanda Bastone

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