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International Journalists Tour Neuroscience Labs


Research scientist Tom Bartol gives a brief talk for journalists before launching a three-dimensional computer simulation using M-Cell, a modeling program he developed.

About 45 staff and freelance science journalists from around the world visited the Salk Institute in February to tour four laboratories working in various aspects of neuroscience.

The two-hour stop at Salk was part of a joint effort between the Institute and UCSD designed to bring science writers to both campuses and familiarize them with the research while they were in San Diego for the American Association for the Advancement of Science's conference.

"It was a great opportunity to learn about research I don't ordinarily cover (and therefore know precious little about)," said Janet Raloff, senior editor for ScienceNews, who wrote about the tour's stop at the Salk Institute's Stem Cell Core Facility in the Feb. 18 issue. "And it was so interesting–and potentially worthy of covering–that I only wish we had been given a lot more time with the teams in each lab."

A visit in the lab of Samuel Pfaff, a professor in the Gene Expression Laboratory and HHMI investigator, included a short video that showed spinal cord motor neurons induced to fire signals that mimicked walking motions. A second video taken during a separate experiment depicted axons, or nerve fibers, reaching out for their intended muscle targets.

Sophisticated visual illustrations continued in the Computational Neurobiology Laboratory of Professor Terry Sejnowski, who gave a brief International Journalists Tour Neuroscience Labs presentation on synapses, the structure that allows a neuron to pass electrical or chemical signals to another cell, before research scientist Tom Bartol launched a three-dimensional, computer simulation of a synapse and its surrounding structure created with M-Cell, a program he developed and widely used for scientific research.

The group also received a brief overview of the Salk Institute's Vision Center when they visited E. J. Chichilnisky, an associate professor of the Systems Neurobiology Laboratory, who studies ganglion cells – the output cells of the retina that send messages related to vision to the brain.

Chichilnisky explained the process his team follows to take hundreds of simultaneous electrode readings of retinal tissue using highly advanced equipment developed in collaboration with physicists at UC Santa Cruz. The lab's longterm goal is to contribute to the development of visual prosthetic devices – a possibility that is about five to 10 years away, Chichilnisky said.

The journalists also received a quick lesson on stem cells and their potential use to treat neurodegenerative diseases such as Lou Gehrig's disease by postdoctoral fellows Carol Marchetto and Kristen Brennand, who conduct their research in Professor Fred H. Gage's Laboratory of Genetics.

Both Marchetto and Brennand explained how they study the differences between healthy brain cells and their diseased counterparts. To do so, they take differentiated cells from patients and reprogram them into stem cells, from which they generate live human brain cells afflicted with the disease of interest.

More than 10 years ago, work from the Gage lab debunked the long-held belief in the scientific community that neurogenesis (the birth of new neurons in the brain) does not occur in adults. His lab has gone on to show that voluntary exercise is positively correlated with an increase in neurogenesis in the adult brain and with an improvement in learning and memory abilities.