Former Dana grantee Beth Stevens joins ranks of MacArthur ‘geniuses’

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Early last week, the MacArthur Foundation announced the 2015 MacArthur Fellows. Former Dana grantee Beth Stevens was among the 24 recipients. According to MacArthur President Julia Stasch, the award goes to individuals who are “shedding light and making progress on critical issues, pushing the boundaries of their fields, and improving our world in imaginative, unexpected ways.” The fellowship, colloquially known as the MacArthur ‘genius grant,’ comes with a $625,000 ‘no-strings-attached’ stipend to allow recipients to “advance their expertise [and] engage in bold new work.”

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Tales from the Lab: Developmental Plasticity and the Effect of Genetic Disorders

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Over the next three months, the Dana Foundation blog is pleased to host a new blog series, “Tales from the Lab,” featuring two neuroscience graduate student guest bloggers: Tim Balmer from Georgia State University and Grace Lindsay from Columbia University. Tim’s contributions will focus on life as a neuroscience graduate student and Grace will focus on neuroplasticity. This is Grace’s first blog in the series.

Infancy is a tumultuous time for the brain. A set of neurons with connections in constant flux are working to process an onslaught of sensory signals; yet the connections themselves are guided by the very signals they’re processing. Despite the apparent chaos, we all end up with roughly the same hardware: an occipital lobe for seeing, a temporal lobe for hearing, parietal lobe for sensing touch, etc. 

But what happens when those brain-shaping signals can’t get into the brain? For example, in the case of Leber’s congenital amaurosis (LCA), a genetic mutation disrupts the function of cells in the eye, leaving people with LCA essentially blind from birth. This lack of visual input throws a wrench into the brain’s normal plan of development, and it shows in the brain anatomy of adults with these kinds of disorders. Without visual information to process, the occipital lobe is reassigned to other tasks. PET and fMRI studies of congenitally blind humans have shown activation of the occipital lobe during processing of sounds, smells, and touch (such as braille). Such activation is not seen when imaging the brains of sighted people, or even those who lost their vision later in life. These findings demonstrate the remarkable plasticity of the developing brain to adapt its activity and structure in order to best process the signals it receives.

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Brain Primers

Where is the occipital lobe? How many synapses are in the human brain? How do biomarkers help clinicians predict disease outcomes?

For the answers to these questions and many more, check out the Dana Foundation’s brain-related primers. Started this year, the primers are published quarterly and offer a basic overview of a particular brain topic. So far we’ve looked at biomarkers, the synapse, neuroanatomy, and brain receptors. Coming next: what goes on in the brain during a stroke.

–Ann L. Whitman

Gearing up for Brain Awareness Week (March 14-20)

Next week is Brain Awareness Week (BAW) and there are more than 675 events listed on the International Calendar of Events, located on the BAW Web site. To give you an idea of the events taking place, next week the Dana Foundation will feature seven interviews with long-time BAW partners; one posted each day to the Dana home page.

These partners’ activities range from a country-wide program in Brussels to activities in a high school science classroom in Virginia. If you’re thinking of planning a future BAW event, the partners offer helpful tips for how to choose event topics, plan on a tight budget, and engage different types of audiences.

For those of you interested in testing your neuroscience know-how, the Foundation home page will feature a fun brain quiz. All ten questions are taken from previous high school Brain Bee competitions, so you can see how you stack up against these brainy students. The Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives also features original, downloadable brain-related puzzles for all ages.

And, as always, dana.org will feature new news stories about the brain. A primer on the synapse will be posted on Tuesday for those of you who want a basic definition and explanation of its function.

Have a great Brain Awareness Week! Please help spread the word. If you have a Twitter account, the BAW hashtag is #BAW11.

-Ann L. Whitman

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