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Eukaryon

A Peek into the Diversity of Neuroscience

Yeshi Tshering
Lake Forest College
Lake Forest, Illinois 60045

On what seemed like an ordinary Friday morning on Michigan Avenue, the Northwestern Memorial Hospital was bustling with energy as I entered to attend the annual Chicago Society for Neuroscience (CSfN) Meeting. This year, the public forum took place on the 19th of April, bringing together students and teachers of neuroscience from all over Illinois. The meeting was a think tank where undergraduates, graduates, post doctorates and professors all gathered together to share discoveries and ideas through posters, presentations and conversations over lunch. 

With the rest of the 59 undergraduate students, I had the honor of attending the entire conference which started with a mentoring panel by Dr. Donata Oertel, Dr. Wei Wei and Dr. Hugo Bellen. This was followed by presentations by the same speakers at the presidential symposium. Dr. Donata shared her research on her new discovery of how the coactivation of a pair of T stellate cells by nitric oxide generates positive feedback in the auditory system. This excitation leads to advancement in encoding different sounds in normal people, but it leads to tinnitus in patients who undergo hearing loss. Dr. Wei Wei then followed with a presentation about a disinhibitory microcircuit in our visual system. In addition to talking about how our retina is direction selective, she too shared her astonishing discovery of the deviation in the circuit when presented an image with background noise. Lastly, keynote speaker, Dr. Hugo Bellen, presented one of the most fascinating advancements is research.  Dr. Bellen and his lab discovered that lipids play an extremely important role in the onset of pediatric neurological diseases. Neuronal loss could produce a higher amount of peroxidated lipids that form clusters in glial cells, which leads to rapid neurodegeneration. He even talked about how his research helped a child regain the ability to speak. This was followed by a robust competition where students from institutions all around the Midwest, including Lake Forest College, presented their posters. Shortly after, we attended the graduate student symposium. Although the presentations were only 10 minutes long, each graduate student articulately explained their research. The research ranged from research on endocannabinoid signaling to alcohol induced neurodegeneration. 

This was followed by the plenary symposia titled “Neuroinflammation and Brain Disorders”, which consisted of various neurologists who spoke about the importance of astrocytes (that are often overlooked) in our brain. This was a major research theme throughout the plenary symposia as well as some of the posters. Dr. Hande Ozdinler started by explaining  the function of important motor neurons and non-neuronal cells in our cortex, such as astrocytes and microglia, in ALS patients. Dr. Ozdinler lab set out to find the specific timing and involvement of such cells during neurodegeneration since previous research showed that non- neuronal immunity cells were involved in neurodegeneration. Their study showed interaction between motor neurons and astrocytes, with an increase in astrocytes in the diseased motor cortex early in the disease. This gives insight into how interaction between these cells can cause neurodegeneration. Dr.Fei Song also spoke about the role of inflamed microglia in multiple neurodegenerative diseases such as ALS and Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). Although this information has existed for a while now, scientists were not able to develop a treatment since the specific pathogenesis for the inflammation is unknown. Dr. Song’s lab discovered that NRG1 receptors are co-activated with microglia in ALS and chronic pain patients. Additionally, they found that the inflammatory reaction to pain is increased in ALS patients, blocking a signal that prevents microglial activation, reducing synapses, causing neurodegeneration. Then Dr. Lena Al-Harthi spoke about how astrocytes affect an important pathway responsible for cell growth, communication and survival. Little was known about the pathway before. Due to Dr. Al-Harthi’s research, we now know that there is an overabundance of astrocytes in the pathway which can lead to defects when the astrocytes swell up.  In addition to neurodegeneration, this disruption could affect glutamine cycles, reducing excitatory signals and causing imbalance in the brain. 

All talks focused mostly on non-neuronal cells and how they, too, are a part of a complex system in your brain. The presentations above were very insightful since the specific mechanisms that cause neurodegeneration was, and still is, one of the biggest mysteries in neuroscience. Even in primary and review articles from science journals like Cell, correlations between possible mechanisms and neurodegeneration are made, but specific mechanisms are  never explained because they are not known.  

By attending all the talks and four different poster presentation, I not only learned about new advancements in the field of neuroscience but also about how diverse the field of neuroscience is. Neuroscience doesn’t only entail that one study neurons within the brain; one could also study the astrocytes, the auditory and visual pathways, and how pathways are  connected to the brain. It was also extremely motivating to see students from Lake Forest only a few years older than me present posters in such a prestigious meeting. One of such posters was on the effect of sovateltied on neurodegeneration after spinal cord injury. This post-graduate built on previous research on how sovateltied increases neurogenesis in Alzheimer’s patients to broaden its application and to try to discover ways to help more people. Similarly, in another poster, an undergraduate built on information  from previous studies to show an association between Alzheimer’s Disease and the disruption of circadian rhythms due to loss of photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGC). She conducted her own research to see when exactly after the onset of the disease, ipRGC degeneration takes place. The above two show a common theme of the never-ending field of neuroscience and the importance of the scientific method. All the presentations started with background knowledge, followed by completing new research to try to better understand  the gap in knowledge. 

Another important lesson I learned from what I saw is the importance of being open minded. This was a recurring theme in all the presentations; I believe that being open minded is important since you never know what you could discover. From the very beginning at the mentor panel, the different speakers focused on how their career was driven by their willingness to learn and try new things. In the presidential symposium as well, all three speakers discussed their research on a phenomenon they discovered almost by mistake. Yet these phenomena help us to explain concepts that we had never even thought of before, and they have changed lives. The various talks showed that in the history of neuroscience research, astrocytes, microglia, and lipids have mostly been ignored. This has happened for too long, and many researchers have now come to realize and try to teach that it is time to study small parts of the machine as well.  Since our brain is such a complex organ, I agree that it is important to know that every small piece plays a big role in maintaining our brain. This new focus on other pieces of the brain has further enhanced my passion to study neuroscience because I always found the biological machinery and complexity of our body mesmerizing. Similar to myself, my peer Jessica Day claims that “it was a very enriching experience”. Bilal Khan, another undergraduate at Lake Forest said “It was interesting to see people talk about their passion, and interact with each other”. Overall, the well-organized, highly educational conference was a remarkable experience. 

Disclaimer

Eukaryon is published by students at Lake Forest College, who are solely responsible for its content. The views expressed in Eukaryon do not necessarily reflect those of the College.

Articles published within Eukaryon should not be cited in bibliographies. Material contained herein should be treated as personal communication and should be cited as such only with the consent of the author.