Science and art combine to make human brain

Neuroscience students here at Washington State University Vancouver have been working with local artists to create and present physical demonstrations of the processes that take place within neural networks of the brain. These displays are enormous collections of balloons, lightning and connective netting that, together, form an enormous model brain.

Megan Slaker, a graduate student in Neuroscience at Washington Statue University Vancouver, partnered up with Dawn Nielson, a graduate from the Pacific Northwest College of Art. The duo held an event at Velo Cult, a bike shop and pub in Portland. The event featured a sculpture reflecting perineuronal nets, Slaker’s focus of study. The word “peri” is defined as “around,” so these nets form around synapses.
These nets are formed and restrict how cells continue to further develop connections between neurons. There are numerous important connections in the brain that allow for information to travel in certain ways. During critical points of development when infants are learning how to see and hear, cells will form these important nets that allow for the information travel in the most efficient way possible.
Sometimes, however, the best connections are not made during development. In this instance, success has been had with dissolving the nets that can allow for the reforming of perineuronal nets. These new perineuronal nets create a more effective pathway for the neurons to travel.

To demonstrate perineuronal nets, a massive installation was created. Visitors could change synaptic connections of the structure by adding balloons to the art piece. However, some of these balloons would not fit and therefore popped, just as some synapses are restricted by perineuronal nets. In addition to the sculpture pieces, Slacker began the night with a discussion about memory, including drug memories, and innovative efforts to disrupt such memories. Roughly 100 people were in attendance for the demonstration.
In addition to bringing art and science together, the neuroscience department and other students from Portland State University have held discussions at the Gardner School of Arts and Sciences where middle school students had been learning about the brain.
Students asked all sorts of questions and were thrilled to discover that frontal lobe regions important for “appropriate” social decision making, which experience rapid development during adolescence, also fail to work optimally sometimes in adults, too. Undergraduates took the lead in introducing individual brain areas and explained their functional significance to the Gardener School students.
After explaining and exploring the brain, students then got to touch and hold actual human brains in class. Following the examination of real brains, the students then created their own brain out of clay and were asked to explain which areas of their brain were currently engaged by this creative project.
When asked about teaching young students about the brain, Bill Griesar, outreach coordinator for neuroscience, said, “So much of what is happening with [students’] own behavioral development is happening in their brains. It is a powerful tool and gives [the students] powerful insight into what is going on and how they can affect that growth and development. It is an inherently interesting topic because it is about how you function and work. It’s something they don’t forget.”
For further information on these events and more about Neuroscience and the Neuroscience Outreach Group visit nwnoggin.org or contact Bill Griesar at bgriesar@wsu.edu.

Balloon 2 Balloon Instalation

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