College of Arts & Sciences

arts&sciences

Brainiacs

How well do you know your own mind? Neuroscience students share the coolest things they’ve discovered about how the human brain works.

BY ANDREW THURSTON | PHOTOS BY ALYSSA GREENBERG

THE BRAIN TICKS AND TOCKS TIME AWAY LIKE A CLOCK NAHDIA JONES

Studying the body’s nervous system can be intensely demanding and supremely inspiring. BU’s undergraduate neuroscience students record with awe on the Nerve blog each new piece of knowledge they acquire: Listening to music can fuddle the brain’s ability to remember names. The Richardella dulcifica berry can trick the taste buds into thinking lemons taste sweet. A worm has 302 neurons; the human brain has 87 billion.

Such knowledge was once the preserve of graduate researchers and accomplished faculty, but undergraduate neuroscience programs are springing up across the nation at a furious rate. In 1986, there were just seven programs nationwide, according to a study of National Center for Education Statistics; today, there are close to 200.

“It is difficult to find someone whose life is not in some way impacted by a relative suffering from a neurodegenerative disease or age-related neuropsychiatric illness,” says Paul Lipton (GRS’01), a research associate professor of neuroscience. “The fragility, complexity, and fascination with the brain is more apparent and more of a notable news item than ever before. Our neuroscience program offers undergraduate students access to a field of growing importance, visibility, and public preoccupation.”

At CAS, the cross-disciplinary neuroscience program is entering its eighth year with some 350 undergraduates studying topics from neurosurgery to biomedical engineering. A majority of them will also spend time in a BU lab or area hospital working on research projects, such as investigating brain connections in people who have had a stroke or analyzing the impact of sleep disruption on cognition.

“They’re pretty heavily engaged in asking real questions and being able to study those questions,” says Lipton, who directs the undergraduate neuroscience program.

The program’s participants are also heavily engaged on campus, sharing their knowledge with fellow students by hosting educational brain days and tastings of that sour-to-sweet berry, Richardella dulcifica. They produce a journal, The Nerve (and its blog offshoot), to record their discoveries, while running the Mind & Brain Society, a group that Lipton says “engages anybody who is interested in talking about and learning about the brain, the mind, and behavior.”

“I’m inspired by their energy,” says Lipton of the undergraduates. “They also bring additional insights that many of us lack because we’re so heavily invested in some of the minutiae.”

Not all the students will become researchers or doctors—though many do—but Lipton says that the program’s breadth of courses and lab opportunities help them “become more literate about the scientific process and to gain a toolset that is valuable not just in the sciences, but in a huge range of disciplines, jobs, and professions.”

Here, five undergraduates inspire, wow, and possibly confuse us (it is neuroscience, after all) with their discoveries about the wonders of the human brain.

COULD A CALORIE-RESTRICTED DIET HELP YOU GROW MORE BRAIN CELLS AND LIVE LONGER? SAMANTHA M. CALDERAZZO

Rodents on a diet that cuts about one-third of their calorie intake (no more candy bars, then) have been shown to live longer—in one study, mice whose calorie intake was cut by 65 percent lived for more than four years; the mouse scurrying around your basement would be lucky to reach two. In the lab of Professor Douglas Rosene, an international expert on the limbic system and aging, SAMANTHA M. CALDERAZZO (CAS’16) aims to determine if such a diet is beneficial to the brain and could be translated into new therapies to slow the progress of neurodegenerative diseases. The team is studying how the diet impacts the growth of new neurons, a process called neurogenesis, in the part of the brain that controls memory. 

Samantha's Coolest Neuroscience Fact: “The idea that the brain can still perceive a limb that has been removed and then rewire itself to compensate is amazing. It puts into perspective that the way we view the world is very much dependent on how our unconscious brain interprets it.”

In the Brain Plasticity & Neuroimaging Lab, BENJAMIN W. COLEMAN (CAS’16) is looking at the effects of aerobic exercise on the brain. “It has been shown that exercise improves memory and cognitive abilities in general,” he says. “We are trying to uncover the mechanism behind these changes.” With researchers in the lab, Coleman is zeroing in on a protein called BDNF, which they believe might help grow new cells in the brain’s memory center, the hippocampus. The findings could help everyone sweat their way to smartness, but Coleman says one population in particular could benefit: those over 65, 11 percent of whom have Alzheimer’s disease, which causes brain cells to malfunction and eventually die. Coleman hopes results may “reveal that exercise is an inexpensive, effective way to combat Alzheimer’s.” He is also studying people with subjective memory complaints—those who claim to be forgetful, but ace any tests they’re given. If he can show that these people are more prone to Alzheimer’s disease, Coleman says clinicians would have another tool for detecting the disease earlier.

Benjamin's Coolest Neuroscience Fact: “The human brain accounts for 2 percent of our body’s weight, yet it uses 20 percent of the oxygen we breathe and calories we consume.”


Hidden in your brain’s hippocampus are place cells; as you move from one spot to another, these neurons fire, allowing your brain to build maps that help you navigate through the world. Neuroscientists recently discovered that the same area of the brain also contains time cells, neurons that allow us to register the passing of time (even when we’re not doing much—listlessly waiting for an elevator, perhaps) and organize memories. In Professor Howard Eichenbaum’s cognitive neurobiology lab, NAHDIA JONES (CGS’14, CAS’16) has joined a new project that aims to discover what happens to memory formation when those time cells are disrupted. “The most interesting thing I have learned so far is how similar place cells—cells that code for spatial stimuli—and time cells are,” says Jones. “Sometimes, the same neuron can act as both,” something she says “helps with memory recall.” Eventually, Jones hopes to use her neuroscience knowledge to provide relief for people with schizophrenia, a condition that has a profound impact on memory retrieval. “I would absolutely love to not only find a cure, but educate people on the inner workings of the disorder.”

Nahdia's Coolest Neuroscience Fact: “The existence of synesthesia, the crossing of the senses. A lot of musicians, like Duke Ellington, have synesthesia. For them, when they play or hear a sound, that sound is perceived as a color—an A sharp would look blue or a B flat would look red.”

ROBOTS CAN BE TAUGHT TO THINK LIKE US KYLE D. MITCHELL

KYLE D. MITCHELL (CAS’16) wants to use what he’s learned about how people make decisions to build a vehicle that can fly without human help. With guidance from researchers in BU’s Neuromorphics Lab, he’s teaching unmanned aerial vehicles how to whiz about without crashing into each other. Using a computer program—researchers call it a “model” or “artificial neural network”—that mimics how people make decisions, Mitchell can do his testing without endangering Boston’s air traffic. In the lab, he teaches the program by tapping in examples of mid-air crashes—and lots of collision-free scenarios—so “hopefully, the model will learn categorically what situation it faces with a novel example.” Although a free-flying vehicle might sound ominous, Mitchell says applications could range from “exploration and reconnaissance to supply drops and emergency rescue.” He’s not majoring or minoring in computer science, but says the project has given him some handy tech skills. “I have always been fascinated by the intricacy and complexity of the brain, and to model it using these neural networks is an exciting challenge.”

Kyle's Coolest Neuroscience Fact: “The process of learning in the human brain can be, in part, simulated or replicated in artificial intelligence research.”


Parkinson’s disease is well known for impacting movement—slowing and stiffening those afflicted with it, while also causing tremors. Its influence isn’t limited to limbs: the eye’s movement is affected, too. “We are studying eye movement in patients with Parkinson’s disease,” says VEENA DALI (CAS’16). “We record their eye movement using a state-of-the-art eye-tracking device while they track a moving dot on a screen.” The researchers “are trying to understand how saccades—quick movements of the eye”—differ for people with Parkinson’s. So far, Dali and researchers from BU’s Vision & Cognition Laboratory and Center for Computational Neuroscience & Neural Technology have found that people with the disease have “more catch-up saccades” than the rest of the population.

The eyes of people with Parkinson’s struggle to follow an object and have to keep catching up to the dot. Dali says her research could potentially give doctors a new way to diagnose the disease.

Veena's Coolest Neuroscience Fact: “Brain Machine Interfaces (BMIs) allow humans to control artificial limbs with their brains. It’s scary and exciting. BMIs have proved that anything is possible and that we have so much more to discover.”

THE EYE’S ABILITY TO FOLLOW A DOT COULD BE THE KEY TO EARLIER DIAGNOSES OF PARKINSON’S DISEASEVEENA DALI