A Thanksgiving Feast…with a Side of Neuroscience

in Article, Opinion
November 18th, 2013

It’s just about that time of year again – in just over a week’s time we’ll be sitting down to a huge feast consisting of turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes; we’ll be watching the Macy’s Parade soon to be followed by two football games; and we’ll be giving thanks for our reunion with our grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, brothers, sisters, parents, and more. Thanksgiving definitely holds a special place in my heart – however, up until recently, it always used to provide just a little bit of stress. That is because, at least in my family, somewhere between polishing off the last roll and preparing for pecan pie one relative or another always asks me, “so what are you studying in school again?” And when I answer “Neuroscience!” I typically get one of two responses: the confused look, followed by “Neuroscience? What is neuroscience?” (typically from the older crowd in the room), or the rolling of the eyes, followed by “What are you going to do with a degree in neuroscience?” (typically from the former engineers and business majors). I love neuroscience, and I know I’ve found my passion studying it here at BU, but those questions always seem to bring with them a certain pressure that I always felt I cracked beneath. However, I recently discovered the perfect way to address both of these questions, and I’m here to let you in on the secret so you can impress your relatives at the thanksgiving dinner table as well. This year, when Grandma or Uncle Tony ask me “why neuroscience?” my answer will be simple – because neuroscience is changing, and will continue to change, the world and how we approach it. Turkey...with a side of neuroscience!

I can already imagine the taken aback look crossing my relative’s faces, and the comment that I’m perhaps being a little dramatic – neuroscience is changing the world? Not only will my answer definitely get their attention, but I’m confident that my answer is correct, and proving my point to my disbelieving family will only make Thanksgiving that much more fun. Neuroscience is the science of understanding the nervous system (that is the system that essentially allows for all of our functioning) on a basic scientific level, and then applying that knowledge to do a bunch of things, from eradicating the diseases that plague the system (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s), to applying the knowledge in the classroom so that students of all ages can learn to their full potential. If you take a step back and view the whole picture, it’s not surprising that neuroscience will change the world in our lifetime; as opposed to some other fields, neuroscience is constantly acquiring completely new information about systems that not too long ago used to be a complete mystery – this knowledge is overflowing and already being applied to the real world to make beneficial changes. I will quickly outline two fascinating new outlets of neuroscience that are changing the world right before our very eyes, so that you have solid proof to further widen the eyes of your relatives this holiday season.

Optogenetics is perhaps my favorite thing to talk about, and though it is so new my Microsoft Word 2010 believes I’ve spelled something wrong, it is already changing the world. Optogenetics is complex, probably too complex for most people without a science background to fully understand, but don’t fear! Simply explaining the basics is enough to turn anybody into a neuroscience fan. Optogenetics is the science of inserting light activated channels into neurons to elicit a certain response. The mechanisms as to how this is achieved are too complex to understand at the dinner table, but the main idea is this. Neuroscientists have the ability to genetically insert certain channels that can either elicit an excitatory or inhibitory response in a select population of neurons. These channels are activated by light, so once stimulated with light the channels either open or close – allowing for an action potential to be sent, or inhibiting one. This concept can theoretically be applied to so many pathologies – from inhibiting the overactive neurons associated with schizophrenia, to activating damaged hair cells in the cochlea that can’t transmit signals to the auditory cortex. In the lab, this science has already been shown to immediately produce movement in mice when neurons are activated in the motor cortex, and help blind mice sense light when activated in the bipolar cells of the retina. Optogenetics is SO cool and will change the world for the better.

Another application of neuroscience in the real world is neuroscience in the classroom. As advances have been made in understanding the complex neural processes of learning and memory, it’s become obvious that perhaps the traditional way of teaching needs to be rethought as well. Perhaps traditional lectures with no chance for collaboration should be replaced with an environment that fosters question asking and group work. This concept is already being applied right here at BU, with some physics classes being set up in a studio section. The ultimate goal is to have all physics classes taught in this manner. Neuroscience factored into the research that determined new learning environments foster better learning among students. Neuroscience also helps us to understand that different students have different brains and therefore learn best in different ways; accounting for this can help teachers create a more effective learning environment for all their students. This is yet another example of neuroscience’s promise to change fundamental parts of society, like lecture style college classes that have been traditional for generations.

I don’t know if it’s obvious, but I’m definitely extra excited for Thanksgiving this year – I can’t wait to finally live up to the pressure of the “why neuroscience” question, and exceed everyone’s expectations with my bold yet absolutely valid response. Needless to say, my Thanksgiving will definitely have a healthy helping of neuroscience to go with it – my new favorite side dish.

– Victoria Gomez


Cool Links to Check Out:

Optogenetics Making Blind Mice Sense Light – YouTube.com

Optogenetics Making Mice Run – YouTube.com

Neuroscience in the Classroom – Annenberg Learner

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