Imagine Magazine - Johns Hopkins - September/October 2012 - (Page 24)

k oc sT ink Th ThinksTock by Austin Hou hat’s your name?” I was slightly confused. Didn’t she already know? “Austin,” I replied. “That’s a nice name,” she said. “It’s nice to meet you.” Then she turned away from me. “She is your grandmother’s sister, my mother had reminded me, “and she is very forget” ful, so be patient.” I pondered this fact as I sat in the bright, sunny room of the nursing home. My thoughts were interrupted as my great-aunt turned back to me. “What’s your name?” she asked. This was my first encounter with Alzheimer’s disease, a debilitating condition that causes its victims to eventually lose their memories of everything they know, even the names and faces of close family. It is always fatal. I was young when I’d visited my great-aunt at the nursing home, but because of my encounter with her, I grew up fascinated with the inner workings of the brain, our thoughts, and memories. So when, in eleventh grade, I had an opportunity to work on a project that might one day unravel the mysteries of the processes behind memory, I jumped at the chance. dendritic spines of the neurons of synapses. In essence, it is the organizational structure that receives and processes signals between neurons. The PSD plays an integral role in the processes behind learning and memory, including long-term potentiation—the synchronization of firing of nerve pulses between neurons that is the basis for new memory formation. I was thrilled when, after an interview and several meetings with Dr. Chen, I was accepted into the NINDS Laboratory of Neurobiology’s Summer Internship Program. It was an amazing opportunity to work alongside great scientists, performing cutting-edge research that seeks to understand the core of what makes us human: our brains. “W seeking the right Fit I sought an internship within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on the advice of friends who had previously worked there. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), an institute within the NIH, offers a student training program in brain and nervous system research. The Summer Program in the Neurological Sciences, open to academically talented high school, undergraduate, graduate, and medical students, seemed like a perfect fit. Once I had applied to the program, I began contacting researchers and scheduling meetings to see if I was a good match for the lab. This somewhat informal process, in which prospective interns contact researchers to discuss their work, is typical. At NINDS, I met Dr. Xiaobing Chen, an NIH scientist specializing in biophysics. Dr. Chen’s research dealt with the postsynaptic density (PSD), a macromolecular structure composed of hundreds of specialized proteins located on the How to build an unknown object While we know that the PSD is important in learning and memory, we know very little about how it actively influences these processes. And although we can determine the proteins that compose the PSD, we don’t know much about its organizational structure and the role this structure plays in its function. Dr. Chen’s research focused on decoding this complex structure with the goal of understanding the way we learn—and maybe, one day, developing drugs that can cure memory-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s. The size of the PSD—only around 30 nanometers thick and 300 nanometers wide—is an inherent obstacle to understanding it. (By comparison, a hair is about 100,000 nanometers wide.) So how do you decipher the organization of a nanoscale structure composed of thousands of proteins? The process we used, electron microscopic (EM) tomography, generates The bright spots in the neuron represent dendritic spines in this confocal microscope image, courtesy of Dr. Xiaobing Chen. 24 imagine sept/oct 2012

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Imagine Magazine - Johns Hopkins - September/October 2012

Imagine Magazine - Johns Hopkins - September/October 2012
Big Picture
In My Own Words
The Proper Care and Feeding of the Teenage Brain
Building Brain Power Through the International Brain Bee
CTY Neuroscience
Same and Different
Braingate: Turning Thoughts Into Action
Shedding Light on Schizophrenia
Unraveling the Mysteries of Memory
Through the Looking Glass
Selected Opportunities & Resources
Fencing Lessons
Off the Shelf
Word Wise
Exploring Career Options
One Step Ahead
Planning Ahead for College
Students Review
Creative Minds Imagine
Mark Your Calendar
Knossos Games

Imagine Magazine - Johns Hopkins - September/October 2012