For the last two years, I have worked at INBT as a member of Peter Searson’s laboratory in the Department of Materials Sciences and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. I have primarily studied the response of glioma cells exposed to direct current electric field. In this work and from listening to and observing others, I have developed an understanding of the brain’s support network including micro-blood vessels and the characteristics of glial cells.
In my classes this year, as a Junior in Biomedical Engineering, System BioEngineering has introduced me to a networks and bioelectrical examination of the brain’s computing parts, its neurons. In this class we learned the basics of neuroscience and how to model the processes of the brain using computer simulations. Getting to study this organ from a structural as well as computational perspective has been intriguing and insightful.
I have been awarded the Vredenburg Scholarship, which will allow me to study the brain further and work in Dr. Masashi Yanagisawa’s laboratory at the International Institute for Integrative Sleep Medicine at the University of Tsukuba in Japan. Dr. Yanagisawa and others working at IIIS are investigating neuroscience’s remaining black box: sleep. They are addressing questions such as why do we sleep, how is sleep controlled, and what it is the cause of sleepiness. This kind of work has many different applications and uses. Understanding which receptors and circuits are involved in sleep and wakefulness could be used to design drugs and develop treatments for various sleep disorders. For instance, the neuropeptide Orexin is one of the primary molecules involved in sleep/wake regulation. Those at IIIS are pursuing a small molecule agonist to the orexin receptor as a possible way to treat narcolepsy, the disease caused by abnormalities in the orexin-signaling pathway.
The project I will work on involves examining the role of specific receptors in regulating the behavior of neural circuits in the hypothalamus. To do so, I will use genetically altered mice whose receptors no longer respond to their natural agonist. However, these receptors will respond to a normally inert drug whose only effect is on the altered receptors. This will allow me to investigate how the activity of these receptors affects the behavior of the entire animal. Carrying out these experiments will expose me to new techniques such as patch clamp measurements and calcium recording. This will help me to develop an understanding of neuroscience on a scale smaller and a scale larger than I had been previously exposed. Additionally, the grant will allow me to travel and learn the language and culture of Japan. I am very excited to see the beautiful country and also gain a wider view of the global human condition, while getting to investigate some of neuroscience’s most pertinent questions.
About the author: Benjamin Wheeler is a third year undergraduate student at Johns Hopkins University Department of Biomedical Engineering, currently working in professor Peter Searson’s lab.
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