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It weighs three pounds, produces 70,000 thoughts a day, and contains 100 billion neurons.
Amassing facts about the human brain is easy. Understanding how it works is not. That is the quest of neuroscience, a multidisciplinary field that investigates how our brain and nervous system give rise to the complex behaviors, cognition, memories, language, creativity, vision, hearing and perception that make us human.
With the recent addition of a neuroscience major at Wheaton, students and faculty are ramping up their own study of this vast and complex frontier. The major comes to Wheaton at a time when the field of neuroscience, and the range of its tools, are growing explosively.
“We human beings have always been interested in ourselves; there’s nothing more fascinating to us,” says psychology professor Meg Kirkpatrick, who coordinates the new program. “The brain is one of the few ‘black boxes’ remaining, in terms of understanding how it works. Now that we have any number of techniques to ‘get into’ the brain, we can start asking different questions.” For instance, functional MRI (fMRI) allows researchers to visualize the brain as it responds to stimuli in real time, she says.
“So you can look at the brain’s activity, particularly its metabolism, and see how it reacts to stimuli; fMRI has been a very interesting addition to our toolbox, because you don’t have to take a brain out to look at it.”
Psychology professor Kathleen Morgan, an animal behaviorist, echoes that thought: “Neuroscience has positively exploded with the advent of computer and other technologies…. Faculty from subdisciplines in psychology (such as social psychologists) who had not traditionally been interested in biological aspects of behavior have begun to develop an interest in what, if any, biological underpinnings could be ferreted out with these new technologies.”
Wheaton’s neuroscience major is replacing the psychobiology major, which began in 1977 with two students and grew into one of the most popular science majors on campus, with 40 to 50 students “in the pipeline” at any given time. The neuroscience major builds upon the strengths of psychobiology but provides a sharper focus and more accurately reflects the growing field of brain science.
The major was approved by the faculty in February 2011, but its seeds were planted earlier, with the appointment of new faculty members in psychology who had special competence in neuroscience: behavioral neuroscientist Kirkpatrick in 2002; Rolf Nelson, a cognitive psychologist whose research is informed by neuroscience, in 2003; and Jason Reiss, a cognitive neuroscientist, in 2008.
Already the new major has 28 students signed up. Combined with psychobiology, it is a close second to biology as the most popular science major on campus. (Some of the remaining psychobiology students have switched to neuroscience, while others will graduate in psychobiology; no new majors will be enrolled.)
The neuroscience major draws most heavily on courses in its home departments of psychology and biology but also requires courses in chemistry and statistics. In the new Senior Seminar in Neuroscience, taught by Kirkpatrick, students will take a historical look at special topics in the field. Wheaton has also created an animal behavior minor to accommodate the would-be psychobiology majors who gravitate toward that aspect of the field.
Neuroscience major Laura Parker ’12 developed a passion for biology as a junior in high school. Concurrently, she began teaching a student with autism how to play the piano, as a form of music therapy.
“That year, during my biology course, I learned that scientists were exploring possible genetic causes of autism, and I began to explore the links between biology and psychological disorders,” she reports. “Ultimately, I recognized that the mind, brain, human physiology and genetics were inextricably bound. I chose to major in neuroscience because I wanted to learn and research the relationships among these fields.”
The neuroscience program underscores Wheaton’s hallmark commitment to collaborative interdisciplinary study. The Mars Center for Science and Technology will both support and showcase the program, because the research labs and offices of all the psychology professors who contribute to the major are clustered together on the first floor.
“The timing of the new major with the new science center is just great,” says Kirkpatrick. “The first floor was planned with neuroscience as an organizing focus.”
Reiss concurs, noting that the arrangement “creates a wonderful opportunity for us to engage in interdisciplinary teaching and scholarship. Research assistants for different faculty are also working in close proximity and are poised to learn from each other.”
Professors Reiss and Nelson already have a joint research project under way that connects the specialties of their two labs. Nelson studies the cognitive and perceptual effects of video games (among other topics), and Reiss investigates attention as well as the mental processes involved in the acquisition and use of visual information.
Their joint project looks at how video games affect attention and cognition. “We are taking some findings that we understand well—that video games affect the way we think, perceive and attend—and trying to understand how this maps onto the brain,” Nelson explains. “Everything we [human beings] think about has a biological basis, and we are working on understanding this brain-mind connection.”
Laura Parker is collaborating on that project, and she also assists both professors in their individual research. She and Nelson are finishing up a study with researchers at the University of California–Berkeley on the aesthetics of color perception in humans. When the results are published, Parker will be the only student author on the paper.
Kirkpatrick and chemistry professor Jani Benoit are planning to join forces in a study of the effects of mercury exposure on motor behavior. The scientific literature has established that mercury exposure can affect motor behavior, such as gait. Benoit and Kirkpatrick are taking it a step further. Using mice as subjects, they will measure the behavioral effects of the toxin at specific dosages and correlate those behaviors with what is happening to measurable biochemical phenomena (biomarkers) in the brain.
“No one’s done that before,” Kirkpatrick says. “There are people like Jani who work with their test tubes, and others like me who work with animals, but rarely do people cross over and bring those two things together.”
As a unified discipline, neuroscience is a relatively young field. The Society for Neuroscience, the field’s national professional organization, was founded in 1969, and its first annual meeting drew fewer than 1,400 members. In recent decades the society’s membership has swelled to more than 40,000, with nearly that many now attending the annual gathering.
Neuroscientists work in a range of professions and industries, from academic research and teaching to biomedical engineering and medical specialties such as neurology and psychiatry. The field holds great promise for fathoming the mysteries of psychiatric disorders such as stroke, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
The discipline is vast, comprising over a dozen major branches, according to Reiss, though these specialty areas “frequently intersect and merge. In many ways, we are still finding our proper place in science. For instance, we now see entire neuroscience disciplines that did not exist ten or fifteen years ago.”
Some of these newer areas are neuroeconomics (which arose around 1998), neuroengineering (circa 2003) and computational neuroscience (circa 1990). And one of the hottest areas lies in “modeling how the brain works from a mathematical point of view,” Nelson says. “One day we will get the math and the computer science right and be able to model artificial brains. That is when we will really start to understand how our own brains work.”
Wheaton’s neuroscience students are interested in a variety of these “flavors” of neuroscience, as Reiss terms them. But the core requirements of the major are the same for everyone, meaning that all students will have a shared understanding of the basics.
Wyll Everett ’14 plans to attend medical school someday, focusing on neuroscience. “But I am also heavily considering a dual Ph.D./M.D. program,” he says, “so I can participate in both clinical and research environments.”
Last summer, with the support of a Wheaton Fellowship, Everett did an internship in the emergency department of the Rutland (Vermont) Regional Medical Center. Part of his job was to serve as a triage volunteer.
“Essentially, I saw every patient who entered the department—whether it was by ambulance or through the front doors,” Everett says. “In terms of my major, my introductory knowledge of the brain allowed me to try and understand, on a more medical level, what was happening with patients suffering from mental disorders or head injuries. Also, for an observer, the emergency department provides an amazing environment to see how the brain reacts under stress.”
Elyza Chadwick ’12 is following another path, spurred by her interest in neuroendocrinology, the study of the interaction between the nervous system and the endocrine system. Chadwick hopes to earn a Ph.D. and conduct research in behavioral neuroscience. Her interest in neuroendocrinology dovetails with her collaboration in Meg Kirkpatrick’s research, which focuses on the role of hormones in behavior.
“I have been examining specific areas of rodent brain tissue,” Chadwick says, “looking for clusters of cells and taking pictures of them so we can count the cells that are of interest to the study. This has been an incredible experience, because I get to see the areas of the brain that I learn about in classes. I have had the unique opportunity to supplement my theoretical understanding from the classroom with laboratory experience, and to start building the skills I will need to research independently someday.”
Wherever their professional paths take them, Wheaton’s neuroscience majors are entering a field that is rife with opportunity. As Rolf Nelson puts it, “Neuroscience is the present and the future of understanding the mind. There are so many open questions. The way we think about how the brain works is constantly shifting, and the field is wide open, with an almost unlimited potential for study.”
Nelson’s main interests are in the area of human visual perception. He studies the way in which visual scenes are organized into something meaningful via processes like figure-ground organization and Gestalt grouping. He also researches other areas within cognition, including implicit perception, visual perception in autism, and the effects of video games on critical thinking skills.