- Most areas of the brain stop producing new neurons (the cells that transmit information from the brain to different parts of the body) after we’re born, but the hippocampus, a structure crucial to learning and memory, continues to form new neurons throughout life.
Recent NIDA-funded research suggests that drugs may reduce production of those hippocampal neurons, which may increase the risk of drug addiction.
- Compared to most people, those who are addicted to drugs and alcohol are more likely to go for instant gratification over long-term rewards. People who are dependent on drugs have trouble remembering the positive and negative consequences of their choices.
A NIDA study found that doing exercises to improve memory helped participants wait for a larger sum of money rather than accept a smaller one right away. This means that memory training may have a place in substance abuse treatment as a way to help patients reject quick drug highs in favor of the longer term satisfaction of a drug-free life.While NIDA scientists are focused on reducing drug addiction and its consequences, their work provides knowledge of brain science that can be applied in other areas of health. Interested in learning more about the brain? Visit the Brain Awareness Week Web site or “Like” the campaign on Facebook.
What’s your new geometry teacher’s name? How do you get to your friend’s house? Where did you put your smartphone? Have you noticed that practice makes you play the piano better?
Every day, we learn and remember things that we experience in our lives. If we didn’t, we would get lost, not be able to sing along to our favorite song, and not pass that important midterm exam.
But how do we learn new things? And how does the brain store the memories so that we can recall them at a later time?
By studying the process of learning and memory, neuroscientists hope to be able to find treatments for those who lose their memories because of aging or diseases like Alzheimer’s. We may also be able to help those who suffer anxiety and depression that are triggered by bad memories from traumas like childhood abuse, car accidents, or war. We might also help people in drug abuse recovery stay off drugs by extinguishing memories that stimulate their desire to seek and take more drugs.
A Look at the Hippocampus
Neuroscientists are learning more about the process of learning and memory by studying the hippocampus, a brain region involved in forming and retaining memories. Neuroscientists don’t know exactly how learning and memory occur in the brain, but whenever learning occurs, neurons in the hippocampus become active. Learning is thought to be due to an increase in the activity between many neurons that communicate with each other.
How do neurons communicate? When a nerve impulse reaches a neuron, the neuron is activated and releases a chemical, called a neurotransmitter, at the synapse, or the place where two neurons connect. The neurotransmitter crosses the synapse, where it connects to a receptor molecule located on the adjacent neuron. This binding of the neurotransmitter activates the second neuron, which sends a neurotransmitter to the next neuron, and so on. This process continues from neuron to neuron as the nerve impulse travels throughout the brain.
Neuroscientists have discovered that when you are not learning, a nerve impulse will cause a neuron to have a low level of activity, but that during learning, the electrical activity between two neurons will be increased. This phenomenon is called long-term potentiation or LTP, and researchers have found that animals do not learn when LTP is blocked.
One of the goals for neuroscience research is to be able to manipulate LTP and, as a result, also influence learning and memory formation. Someday neuroscientists hope to be able to help your grandmother find her glasses and purse, to reduce the stress and anxiety that is felt by those who have memories of traumatic events, and even to extinguish the memories that cause a person to want to continue to use drugs.
Roger Sorensen, Ph.D., M.P.A., is a NIDA program official who directs a grant program that supports basic science research on the physiological effects of drugs of abuse on the brain and nervous system. He was trained in neurochemistry and expects that someday scientists will be able to determine how this complex organ known as the brain makes us think, feel, and be who we are.
When our brains are healthy, we barely notice this marvel of engineering that controls our every thought, feeling, and move. But the many people suffering from brain disorders, including addiction, know that malfunctions in the brain can change who we are and how we manage our lives.
For a closer look into how our brains function—or malfunction—scientists have discovered a new way to turn individual neurons and cell circuits on and off using light.
Neurons in the brain pass electrical impulses back and forth thousands of times a minute, but turning them on and off isn’t quite as simple as flipping a light switch. First, researchers have to insert light-sensitive genes, taken from algae, into specific neurons. Then, using lasers connected to thin fiber optic threads, they can activate or deactivate the modified cells to see how neurons or groups of neurons work together. So far, this new field of optogenetics research is limited to animal studies.
Working To Understand Brain Disorders
Scientists have successfully switched mouse neurons on and off to see how different brain circuits control habits, emotions, and behaviors. The technique may also help scientists understand the causes and potential treatment of specific brain disorders such as schizophrenia.
Optogenetics is also helping scientists understand how addiction affects the brain.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology trained mice to run through a maze for a chocolate reward. Out of habit, the mice continued to run through the maze even after the reward was no longer present. But by using optogenetics to activate cells of a brain area called the basal ganglia, the researchers turned off the chocolate-chasing habit. (The basal ganglia contain the brain’s reward circuits, which are involved in addictions.)
Scientists are hopeful that optogenetics could eventually help treat addiction and other neurological conditions in people.
Watch this video to learn more about optogenetics:
The brain controls just about everything we do, think, and feel. It coordinates all of the body’s physical functions—like standing, walking, and breathing—as well as our memory, emotions, and behaviors.
Managing all of those jobs requires 100 billion neurons, or brain cells. And those neurons have trillions—yes, trillions—of connections through synapses, or routing switches that control how these nerve impulses travel around the brain and through the body.
With so much going on in that tightly packed space between our ears, it’s no wonder the brain requires its own field of scientific research—neuroscience.
“Brain science allows us to try and understand what makes us uniquely human and drives our behaviors and response to others,” says NIDA Director Dr. Nora Volkow.
NIDA Interviews Neuroscientists
To spotlight researchers whose work is advancing the science of the brain, NIDA interviewed several top neuroscientists investigating drug abuse and addiction. Four scientists in this group of video clips talk about what attracted them to study the brain—and all are obviously excited about how their research is increasing our knowledge about the brain and how drugs affect it.
Have you ever considered a career studying the brain?
SBB recently caught up with a few past winners of the NIDA Addiction Science Fair Award to find out what the teens are doing now. Not everyone has followed a science path, but they are all in college pursuing their interests. In this series, the winners offer advice for today’s high school students trying to figure out what to do after graduation.
In 2010, Joey Yagoda of Great Neck, NY, wondered why students cut classes when it seemed like such a risky thing to do. To answer the question, he surveyed classmates and analyzed their responses. His analysis, “Risky Business: What Cognitive Factors Influence Risk Taking in the Academic Setting?” revealed that most students cut class because they believe “everyone else does it.”
Now, as a junior at Yale University, Joey’s taking his experience in behavioral research to the next level. With an interdisciplinary major in Ethics, Policy, and Economics, he’s focusing in on a field called decision science, which tries to answer the question, how can understanding the processes of decision-making, whether it’s by individuals, organizations, or government, become a tool to create better public policy?
Discovering Lessons for Life
Completing his science fair research project and winning a national award helped Joey discover what he enjoyed doing. “It’s hard to know what you’re interested in [when you’re in high school],” Joey explained. “The experience to meet with NIDA gave me a ton of insight, where I was able to meet with top scientists and help fund my college experience.”
Joey’s studies have led to even greater opportunities, including a summer internship with a company in New York that looks at large-scale economics modeling and an undergraduate fellowship with top researchers in child development. The fellowship gave him the chance to visit with leaders in public policy in Washington, DC, to learn how research affects policy. “Research has meant so much to me,” Joey said. “It gives you a skill set to bring into college and, later, a professional environment.”
His advice to high school students still trying to figure things out: “Explore the global world. Once you get excited about something, follow it. It’s really a cool time to be growing up.”
Hello, you last heard from me when I won one of NIDA’s Science of Addiction Awards at the Intel Science and Engineering Fair. Since then, NIDA invited me to become an intern at its Intramural Research Program (IRP) lab in Baltimore, Maryland, and it was a memorable experience. I worked in the Molecular Targets and Medications Discovery Branch. The research I conducted at NIDA focused on cocaine addiction but also has applications for Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia.
My project looked at how dopamine receptors in the brain might structurally combine to affect cocaine addiction and other neurological disorders. After taking two buses to come to the IRP campus every morning, I strapped on my gloves and started preparing the substance to give to the dopamine cells. My experiments usually lasted the whole day. I always waited with excitement at the end of the day to see the results. Through the experimentation, we developed a better understanding of the intracellular signaling of dopamine receptors (how they “talk” to each other), which could eventually help in developing new drugs to treat ailments associated with the dopamine receptors, including addiction.
I enjoyed the opportunity to work in a professional environment. I was able to contribute to the research in Dr. Sergi Ferre's lab, called the Central Nervous System Receptor-Receptor Interactions Unit. Every Thursday, our lab met to discuss our results. There, I had the amazing opportunity to work with my mentor, Dr. Xavier Guitart—something I will never forget. I was new to this specific field of neurology, so Dr. Guitart guided me through the whole process. He was always there when I needed guidance. It was so great to work in such a supportive environment.
Loss Led to Interest in Brain Science
I became interested in drug addiction because of my strong desire to contribute to research in the neurology field, after my uncle passed away from stroke in 2008. Stroke constricts blood flow to the brain, which is why it is a neurological disorder. Addiction is another disorder that affects the brain, which is what initially made me interested in drug addiction. My hope is that developing a treatment for addiction will also shed light on neurological disorders like stroke.
I've always wanted to be a medical doctor, possibly a surgeon. But now that I've had a glimpse of working in a research lab, it is something that I want to pursue later in life. Through this opportunity, I’ve learned that drug addiction is an important issue that affects many people, and that my efforts, along with many others’ efforts, will contribute to finding effective treatments. Working at the NIDA lab gave me a lot to think about as I enter my final year of high school.
Yamini Naidu is a senior at Valley Catholic High School in Beaverton, Oregon. Her lab work in NIDA's Intramural Research Program has inspired her to pursue a joint M.D.-Ph.D. program in neurology.
My name is Giselle and I’m from the enchanting island of Puerto Rico. This summer I’m doing an internship at the Office of Science Policy and Communications, National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). I won’t have pristine beaches to visit, but while I’m here at the Neuroscience Center in Rockville, Maryland, I’m looking forward to learning about the science behind the brain, drug abuse, my body, and a lot more! I’m hoping to write a couple of blog posts about this so stay tuned. And by the way, cool scientists are blogging too!
Have you already visited all the sections of the NIDA Web site? If not, you should! It feels great when you know how your body works. Start learning!
This is a guest SBB post from NIDA intern Giselle.
SBB recently caught up with a few past winners of the NIDA Addiction Science Fair Award to find out what the teens are doing now. Not everyone has followed a science path, but they are all in college pursuing their interests. In this series, the winners offer advice for today’s high school students trying to figure out what to do after graduation.
Yamini Naidu from Portland, OR, impressed judges for the NIDA Addiction Science Fair Award with her project on methamphetamine addiction. After winning the award, she was invited to present her research to NIDA Director Dr. Nora Volkow and other scientists. As a result, she received the opportunity to spend summer 2012 as an intern working in NIDA’s Intramural Research Program (IRP) in Baltimore, MD.
Yamini first became interested in neuroscience after her uncle passed away from a stroke. She felt driven to pursue research related to that disease, even though other members of her family weren’t particularly science oriented. “I think one of the best ways to get involved in science is to do a science project that interests you. We had a middle school program where all kids had to do a project; that was my introduction to science.”
She started working with her teachers in middle school and later in high school for support. “That gave me contacts and relationships with other people interested in science. They helped me act on my interest.”
Discovering Lessons for Life
“Dr. Volkow is an inspiration to me,” said Yamini. “She revolutionized the idea of drug addiction as a disease and not a character defect. I admire the way she encourages young people.” The NIDA internship also opened a lot of doors for her. “It gave me a new perspective on science research. I had so much support from people at the IRP. I enjoyed the experience so much; I wanted to stay much longer.”
Yamini encourages other teens to pursue their dreams. “Don’t worry about failing or not living up to standards. Take one step at a time, and you’ll be able to help make a difference.”
Lots of teens have questions about drugs. Each year, NIDA scientists spend a whole day chatting online with high school students and answering their questions.
At the last “Drug Facts Chat Day,” “torgo” asked:
What made you guys (girls) want to research drugs?
As one NIDA scientist put it, “I have always been interested in biology and psychology, so I wanted to better understand the connection between the brain and the body. Doing research gives me the chance to unlock some of the mysteries of the brain. Like we now know our brains keep growing until we're in our mid-20’s—that’s a lot longer than what scientists believed before.”
So that research answered one question but opened up many more, like how do drugs affect a brain that isn’t fully developed? That’s what science is all about…asking questions and searching for answers!
And there’s still so much we don’t know. Maybe you will make a breakthrough discovery that will lead to cures for devastating brain diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or drug addiction.
If you’re interested in a career in science, maybe these tips will help:
- Start talking. Chat with your science teachers about your options.
- Do your own research. Visit the NIH website and look at the different kinds of research NIH scientists are doing. What grabs your attention? Why?
- Think about the future. Look into colleges with the help of a guidance counselor. Tell your counselor about your interests in science and research—they may know of the perfect program.
- Get experience. Once you’ve narrowed down your interests, try to get involved, volunteer at a science museum or create a science research club at school.
On Saturday, September 8, I had the opportunity to volunteer at a very special event on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) main campus, called “Celebration of Science,” otherwise known as COS. Going to the main campus is always a treat. The beautiful gardens, the flowers, the trees! The event was held at the end of the summer, and the weather was perfect.
The 3-day event highlighted how important it is to fund biomedical research. COS featured scientists, patients, and caregivers speaking on topics such as HIV/AIDS, neuroscience, and rehabilitation medicine. There also were discussions with policymakers and industry leaders on the health and economic benefits of biomedical research. The audience included elected officials, heads of Government agencies, philanthropists, leaders of academic research centers, distinguished scientists, and the media.
The event was quite a production, with a full camera crew, lights, and stage sets. NIH volunteers were needed as backup. I was lucky enough to be paired with an NIH employee working in the Office of Science Policy in the Office of the Director, which is where Dr. Francis S. Collins, the Director of NIH, spends his work day. I learned a lot of valuable information about what it is like to work there.
One of my favorite aspects of the event was the patient advocacy presentations. A guest editor at a popular magazine shared her story about the difficulty of caring for a parent suffering from Alzheimer’s. Another panel included three people living with AIDS, each of whom shared their personal stories of how they’ve experienced stigma, isolation, and prejudice because of their HIV+ status.
It’s so inspiring that these people share their stories in an effort to educate those around them. And these stories put a human face on all the statistics shared at COS, driving home how essential biomedical research is to helping people who are struggling with both rare and common diseases.
Zofia Klosowska, a graduate of the University of Maryland, was a summer intern in NIDA's Office of Science Policy and Communications. Now she is a Research Training Award Fellow at NIDA's Intramural Research Program labs in Baltimore, Maryland, where she works with scientists looking into environmental and individual reasons people use drugs and relapse after treatment. Read Zofia’s previous blog post, Life as an Intern at NIDA’s Public Information and Liaison Branch.
Your school probably has science classes like biology and chemistry and maybe even ecology, but does it offer a class specifically on neuroscience?
Neuroscience is a branch of biology that focuses on the body’s nervous system—which includes the spinal cord, nerves, neurons (nerve cells) and, of course, the all-important brain.
Work in the neuroscience field is varied and exciting. Neuroscientists might study how messages travel from one area of the brain to the other, or they might focus on how the brain is involved in behavior and decision-making.
Still others might work to find causes of and cures for diseases and medical problems like stroke, Parkinson’s disease, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, and addiction.
At NIDA, research focuses heavily on neuroscience, considering that drug addiction is a brain disease. Without neuroscientists and the research they do, we would be unaware of some pretty important things—like how the brain isn’t fully developed until a person is well into their 20s and how drugs like marijuana affect the teen brain differently than an adult brain.
So much about the brain is still unknown. That makes neuroscience a particularly exciting field. If you are interested in help shed light on the mysteries of the brain, consider exploring neuroscience as a career. Check out the advice NIDA scientists offered to SBB for teens interested in a future career in science.
Learn more about the brain from these NIDA resources:
I remember my sophomore year in high school, feeling a life-changing moment of excitement when I read Dr. Karl Diesseroth’s work on optogenetics, a new field that involves studying the brain with light. I could never have imagined it would mark the beginning of a journey that would lead to presenting my research to NIDA Director Dr. Nora Volkow and her colleagues just 2 years later.
Along my journey, I was fortunate to have wonderful mentors from Yale University who truly cared about my interests. Professors Amy Arnsten and Ralph DiLeone are brilliant leaders in neuroscience research, yet they still found time to generously mentor. I performed optogenetics research in Dr. DiLeone’s laboratory, working closely with postdoctoral fellow Dr. Benjamin Land, who is a great, generous mentor.
Shedding Light on Connections Between Brain and Behavior
With optogenetics, light-sensitive chemicals (first discovered in algae) are inserted into the DNA of specific cells, giving us the ability to control those cells. In the project I worked on, we used this method to modify particular neurons in the prefrontal cortex of genetically altered mice. The prefrontal cortex is a region involved in regulating behavior and self-control.
We delivered blue laser light via fiber optics to the animals’ prefrontal cortex to control the timing of their behavior. This approach suggested a whole new way the brain could be repaired effectively, using light to target specific areas causing the trouble—instead of using medications that could affect the whole brain. By pairing genetics with light, optogenetics allows us to design new ways to repair the brain in people with brain disorders.
Undertaking such research felt especially compelling to me because of my desire to help people with difficulties stemming from disorders affecting their prefrontal cortex. Millions of individuals suffer from such disorders, which include drug addictions, schizophrenia, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease. These conditions might be better managed or even cured in the future with new treatments growing out of optogenetic research.
Sharing My Research and My Passion
As a result of these experiences, I’ve presented my research many times to different audiences. I have talked to students from elementary through high school, participated in Connecticut state science competitions, presented at a regional competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then at the George Washington University as a national finalist in the Siemens Competition in Math, Science, and Engineering, at the American Academy of Neurology, and finally at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, where I received the NIDA Addiction Science Fair Award. Presenting to Dr. Volkow and her colleagues proved to be one of the greatest opportunities. I loved responding to their rapid-fire questions after giving my presentation. I also had the chance to tour the National Institutes of Health campus and Intramural Research Program laboratories.
Winning this award offered me a window to seeing the best translational research in action—applying what we learn from basic research to develop treatments and then try them out in clinical trials. It seems there are no limits to the questions that could be imagined and tested and the scientific inquiry that could be accomplished on the road ahead.
John Solder is currently a freshman at Yale University. The optogenetics project he worked on is part of a manuscript he co-authored, to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). He will be continuing research in this area.
What’s that purple goo coming out of that big slug’s rear end?
Oww! That crayfish pinched me again!
Do I REALLY have to pick up that cockroach with my hands?
This is what I have to listen to in my lab at the beginning of each school year when high school seniors are conducting research on neuroscience. A public high school may seem like an unusual place for neuroscience research, but the teens I teach are really into it. Let me tell you how we got started.
More than 10 years ago, a major shift at our school saw many freshmen and sophomores registering for AP Biology instead of waiting for their junior or senior years. It occurred to me that after taking AP Biology, some students may wish to explore neurobiology in greater depth, so I created a class called Recent Advances in Neurobiology.
It’s pretty much like a graduate school seminar class: students do about 45 pages of reading homework on various topics in neurobiology, then come in and discuss everything they’ve read. Half their grade is based on class participation (i.e., talking, which high schoolers seem to be fond of anyway). Of course, they are “inspired” to come to class prepared because there is a quiz every day. (Yay!)
The topics for reading and discussion are chosen by the students, and throughout the semester we usually cover the neurobiology of Alzheimer’s disease, cocaine, synesthesia, marijuana, gender, and stuff like that. The students seem to love the material and the format.
Three years ago we decided to take this neuro stuff a bit further: we created a new Neuroscience Research Laboratory where seniors can work on year-long research projects.
I have students studying the nervous system of the sea slug Aplysia, the escape response in Madagascar hissing cockroaches, and the neurobiology of behavior in crayfish. Other students aredesigning a wheelchair (and other peripherals) to be controlled by brainwaves. This program can be established at almost any high school. All you need is a strong desire and commitment – and a sign that says “We ? Brains,” of course.
Oh, yes. By the end of the first week they know what the purple goo is and they’re picking up the cockroaches. But somehow they still get pinched by the crayfish.
Paul A. Cammer, Ph.D., Director Neuroscience Research Laboratory Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology
There’s no better time than the upcoming Brain Awareness Week, from March 11‒17, to learn more about the most fascinating organ in your body.
The included image from the Society for Neuroscience, a partner of the Dana Foundation for Brain Awareness Week, shows some of the most critical parts of your brain.
Here’s what each part is primarily responsible for—and guess what? As the image shows, these are also the brain regions most affected by drugs of abuse:
Prefrontal cortex: This part is often referred to as the “CEO of the brain.” The prefrontal cortex is responsible for critical thinking and abstract thought, as well as many other functions like focusing attention, organizing thoughts, controlling impulses, and forming strategies for future action. The prefrontal cortex is one of the last regions of the brain to mature, so changes caused by drug abuse could have long-lasting effects.
Nucleus accumbens: Part of the so-called “pleasure center,” the nucleus accumbens is thought to play an important role in reward, pleasure, laughter, aggression, and fear.
Amygdala: Research shows that the amygdala has a major role in processing memory and emotional reactions, such as fear. The amygdala is part of the limbic system.
Hippocampus: Also part of the limbic system, the hippocampus plays important roles in moving information from short-term memory to long-term memory.
Ventral tegmental area: This structure is important in thinking, motivation, and intense emotions relating to love.
Scientists are constantly studying the brain and learning more and more about how different brain structures relate to addiction. We know drugs change the brain, but the effects of these changes are not yet fully understood.
Protect your brain. Make the healthy choice to stay away from drugs and alcohol.
What questions do you have about the brain? Let us know in comments. And Happy Brain Awareness Week!
Ruben Baler, Ph.D., is not your typical neuroscientist. Baler has studied in his native country Argentina, the U.S., and Israel. He is fluent in three languages. His work at NIDA enables him to publish scientific papers and collaborate on presentations and speeches with NIDA’s Director, Nora D. Volkow, M.D. His true passion is teaching young people about the brain. He talks to college students at George Washington University in Washington, DC, and regularly interacts with high school students in and around the Washington, DC, area. Dr. Baler talks in this podcast about the teen brain—how it develops fast, just like teens themselves. And how, sometimes, that growth keeps young people from using their best judgment when it comes to risky behaviors, such as experimenting with drugs and alcohol, driving too fast, or jumping headlong into relationships.
Dr. Baler: Hello, my name is Ruben Baler. I am [a scientist] with the National Institute on Drug Abuse, NIDA. It’s probably helpful to think of the brain as a computer, which in essence, it is. It’s a very complex computer. It’s made up of circuits that affect or mediate all sorts of different functions in the brain. You can think of the learning circuit, the memory circuit, the higher thinking (cognitive function) circuit. There are all sorts of networks in the brain that interact with each other and with the environment. They are the substrates (or key brain areas) where drugs of abuse have their effects. The main substrate in the brain that is impacted by drugs of abuse is called the circuit of reward. It is the area deep inside the brain that influences feelings of reward, feelings of pleasure. Drugs of abuse hijack the normal pathways of reward and lead the brain to think that the drug-induced experience is the highest possible goal from now on.
SBB: What makes the teenage brain so special?
Dr. Baler: One of the main reasons is that different parts of the brain develop at different rates. There are two main parts: one area, called the amygdala, governs our instincts, our gut feelings. That area develops early on and is already mature in a teenager. Then there is another area called the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that takes much longer to develop, to fully mature. The teen brain is different because the ability to make good decisions really depends on the balance between these two structures: the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, part of the limbic system that develops so early on.
So we can say that teenagers make decisions mostly based on this instinctual part of the brain, these gut feelings, because the prefrontal cortex has not yet reached [developed] the ability to fully exert control and keep tabs on the already-mature limbic system.
SBB: Do you think that by studying the brain and knowing how it’s linked to addiction and other high-risk behaviors, teens can learn to “tame” their brains?
Dr. Baler: Well, one school of thought says that by providing fact-based information to teenagers—like the fact that their brains are still developing and they may make decisions differently than adults—may urge them to stop and think, and make better decisions as a result.
There are big, big questions in neuroscience. For example: where is consciousness? Where does consciousness lie? We’d like to understand how this computer (the brain) leads to things like music, creativity, poetry—very complex products of this very complex machine.
*Note: In order to hear the podcast you will need to have a media player on your computer.
Is your brain an organic computer? Your brain does a lot of things a computer does, like math, logic, analyzing input, creating output, and storing and retrieving information. Even at the cellular level, there are some striking similarities between brains and computers. Our brain has billions of neurons that convey and analyze electrical information. This information is binary, meaning a neuron either fires a burst of electricity or it does not fire at all. Likewise, computers transmit information electrically. And at the most basic level, computers work using bits of information that are also binary, where each bit of information is either a “1” or a “0,” nothing in between.
But brains do a lot of things that computers cannot. Our brains feel emotions, worry about the future, enjoy music and a good joke, taste the flavor of an apple, are self-aware, and fall in and out of love. Albert Einstein’s famous equation E=MC2 was not the result of a computer algorithm but, rather, of a brain making a great intellectual leap. If a brain is merely an organic computer, how can it do these things?
Part of the answer may be that whereas neurons process information like a computer, they are not the only type of brain cells processing information. Neurons only make up a small portion of your brain cells—about 15 percent.
Enter the All-Important Glia Cells
The vast majority of brain cells are called “glia” cells. For over 100 hundred years, most brain scientists saw glia as being relatively unimportant. Their function was believed to be mostly cleaning up “molecular trash” created by neurons. However, research is now showing that glia do much more than housecleaning. They are involved in learning and memory, and they help repair damaged brain areas. Glia can also communicate with neurons and with each other through “gap junctions” across large areas of the brain.
To illustrate how important glia are, almost every disease of the brain is partly or solely the result of glia malfunction. Scientists are now discovering that glia may also play a pivotal role in drug abuse, where changing glia activity may reduce drug abuse and addiction.
David Thomas is a NIDA scientist and Program Officer. He received a Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology from American University in Washington, DC, and has conducted research in analgesia (pain relief) and itch. He currently works at NIDA promoting research to find better pain medications that are not addictive
Here at NIDA, we are fortunate to be led by a trailblazing female scientist, Dr. Nora Volkow. She has done brilliant and pioneering work in brain science and is even a great spokeswoman: She goes on TV all the time to explain the important work NIDA does in studying and preventing drug abuse.
But in some ways, Dr. Volkow is an exception. Despite the fact that more women than men go to college today, men still outnumber women in the sciences—by A LOT. In 2008–09, only 31 percent of the degrees and certificates in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM, for short) were earned by women. Despite making up half of the U.S. workforce, women hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs.
When they do go into the sciences, many women take a different path than many men do, and are more likely to pursue the life sciences (biology, genetics, or neuroscience, for example) than the physical sciences (like physics, chemistry, astronomy, and geology). It seems that women are more drawn to STEM fields that have a direct impact on improving the human condition through advances in health.
Gender Bias and Stereotypes
So, why do women continue to shy away from the sciences? One possible reason is the old stereotype that men are better at math and science than women. This inaccurate but still widely believed myth creates gender bias—preference of men over women—that can make it harder for women to enter STEM fields and discourage them from even pursuing those areas in their education.
The gender bias in sciences was confirmed by a recent Yale study. When Yale University researchers asked scientists to review the job applications of a woman and a man with identical qualifications, the scientists consistently ranked the male candidate higher and were more likely to hire the male—and to pay him more. The scientists reviewing the applications included both men and women, which means women showed gender bias too!
White House Initiative To Support Women and Girls in STEM
Another often-cited barrier keeping women from entering STEM fields is the lack of female role models in the sciences.
President Obama believes that supporting women in STEM is important to our country’s continued development and success. That is why the Office of Science and Technology Policy, together with the White House Council on Women and Girls, is working to increase the number of girls participating in the sciences.
The President is addressing the need for more female role models by appointing several women to lead science and technology efforts in our Government. A few of these talented women include:
- Lisa Jackson, former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator
- Jane Lubchenco, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Administrator
- Arati Prabhakar, Director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
We’re lucky to have Dr. Nora Volkow as our female role model in science. We also believe women and men are equally qualified to be scientists and engineers.
Tell us in comments—How can we help other young women feel confident enough to wear the white lab coat?