Friday, February 22, 2013

Neuroscience from Okinawa!

Hey All! The last few months have been insane. Holiday craziness, a brief–but hectic–return to research followed by a two week long workshop on molecular neuroanatomy in Okinawa resulted in an action packed start to 2013. When debating on how to kick off blogging in 2013, I thought it mandatory to start off with what was one of the most fruitful scientific excursions of my career thus far: a course on molecular neuroanatomy hosted at the Seaside House of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (or OIST). Located on the subtropical island of Okinawa, this research institute–and now university–is creating a community that enthusiastically encourages an international scientific community. Anyone who is interested in science would love to hear about what this university is doing and you can do exactly that in this near 8 minute featurette available on the university's YouTube channel: "Science Without Boundaries."

What better setting could there be for an intensive course in molecular neuroanatomy? Still don't believe me? Here are a few photos I took during my two week adventure.

One of the many beautiful views of the coral reefs from the OIST Seaside House

One of my favorite photos taken on the trip from when the group toured the ruins of Nakijin Castle.

A stunning shot of one of the whale sharks in the tank of the world's third largest aquarium at Churaumi Aquarium. Some people may be familiar with this somewhat famous YouTube video that is now approaching 10 million views of this ginormous tank that holds close to 2 million gallons of water! Are you inquisitive and thinking, "Well, what is the world's largest aquarium? I'll go look it up." Don't fret, I have that information for you; it is the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Georgia and contains 8 million gallons of water in the tanks.

Well, this IS a neuroscience blog and not a travel website but hosting a workshop in the wondrous location of Okinawa, Japan was highly distracting, as you can no doubt see in these pictures. 

The workshop was also co-hosted by the Allen Institute for Brain Science and was a project-oriented course. Half of our time was spent during the work day attempting to consume masterfully presented neuroanatomical knowledge. I say that because we had the auspicious opportunity of having our formal lectures taught by world renowned neuroscientists such as Charles Watson, Luis Puelles, George Paxinos, John Rubenstein, Gordon Arbuthnott, and Erik De Schutter. If you work on the brain at all, then you're probably familiar with the staple in most neuroscience labs: The Paxinos and Watson Brain Atlases. We covered an overwhelming amount of information in these lectures but I found the comparative neuroanatomy to be the most useful. As a researcher who exclusively works on rats, training on neuroanatomy that does not involve the human brain is often lost in a lot of coursework (especially when Ph.D. degrees are granted under a medical school) and was much appreciated!

The other half of our days were spent being intensively trained on the Allen Institute's resources which can be found here. If you are unfamiliar with their resources, browse their website and watch tutorials for atlases that are useful for your research! We were assigned group and individual projects during the workshop and the results presented by the groups and individuals were impressive. Training and information provided by John Hohmann, Terri Gilbert, Josh Royall, and Chris Lau of the Allen Institute were invaluable and guided our work for our projects. For my individual project, I opted to semi-quantitate the expression of a group of genes throughout development that are strongly involved in the development of seizures. What began as a training exercise is now something I am going to be including in an upcoming publication from our lab. The great thing about the data is that we now think we'll be able to submit the paper to a much higher impact journal. Huzzah!!!

Numerous resources are available from the Allen Institute, but probably one of the most impressive to look at is the new Mouse Connectivity Atlas. This atlas gives neuroscientists the ability to see how a particular brain region is connected to another. Why is this important? Well, an apt/hilarious expression we heard during the workshop is that, "The brain is not a sack of potatoes." What this means is that separate brain regions, which are associated with particular functions do not act independently of one another. So, in order to fully understand your research, you must understand the highly intricate connections that your brain region of interest shares with other brain structures. Our lab is very interested in the basolateral amygdala, but how does this very important structure connect with other parts of the brain? Below you can find a short video (sorry for the low-resolution) from Allen's resources that demonstrates the important connections of this structure:

WOW! Is that not cool or what? I feel like you don't even need to really have a huge interest in neuroscience (although I hope you have some interest since you're reading this!) to appreciate how impressive the results are when you trace connections in the brain starting at the basolateral amygdala. In our lab's experimental model of epilepsy, there is very strong evidence that seizures are generated from the basolateral amygdala, and from this video, there is a very simple observation that can be made: it is quite obvious why seizures generated here can spread easily to the entire forebrain. The great thing about these resources is that there is a dearth of data freely available and can be used for publications to answer sophisticated questions. I highly encourage anyone interested in the brain to take a look at their resources and for neuroscientists, becoming familiar with these tools will greatly strengthen your knowledge on the molecular neuroanatomy of the brain and can facilitate high impact publications. 

More neuroscience to come soon from our nation's capital.