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Brain Awareness Week 2017

Welcome to Brain Awareness Week 2017 at Communicatalyst!

Each day, a new feature will be posted. We have a number of guest writers and returning contributors – all want to share some of their research and seek to gain more practice at science communication.


Friday: Resources to continue Brain Awareness Week all year!

Brain Awareness Week 2017 = success @ Communicatalyst!

We hope that it has been for you as well! Thank you to the guest writers, returning contributors, editors, and readers for making Brain Awareness Week a success at Communicatalyst!


Celebrating the brain and brain research is important all year, not just during Brain Awareness Week. Today, we’d like to provide you with some tools and resources to continue learning about research, fostering interest in the brain, and opportunity to study from science communicators.


Communicatalyst is a resource for brain research and improving science communication skills. At Washington State University Vancouver, Alli Coffin provides her students majoring in Neuroscience with the opportunity to practice their brain science communication, which is featured here. We also provide opportunity for others to practice their science communication – if you are interested in participating throughout the year, let us know!


The internet has several great sites for connecting research to a large group of people! Some great places to stay on top of brain research are NeuroscienceNews, KnowingNeurons, and Neuroscience for Kids! These sites feature the latest brain research, experiments with lay audiences, and are excellent examples of science communication. TEDTalks also feature scientific research presented for a lay audience.


Podcasts are also great new tools to stay on top of the latest brain research. Some great podcasts are Brain Matters, Brain Science, TEDTalks, and NPR. These podcasts are just the tip of the iceberg for what is available. iTunes has an entire genre of science & medicine podcasts that can offer science communication via audio instead of text.


Textbooks are a tool used by many students to learn, and books written for lay audiences can be useful to learn about brain research. Oliver Sacks has written numerous books on various brain conditions and states – my favorite is The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat.  Amazon has a Neuroscience Book Best Seller list that could be a good place to explore. Most book stores, such as Barnes & Noble and Powell’s, have science sections with many books about the brain.


If you have any additional resources, please let us know!

Thursday: Ouch! That hurts

By Yangmiao Zhang, Postdoctoral Fellow, Oregon Health & Sciences University, Portland, Oregon


Pain just-thinking-by-robert-j-tamasy-we-all-have-an-important-part-to-BZVrln-clipartis no stranger to us, nor is the suffering accompanied by that pain.  A third of American adults – over 100 million people – are living with chronic pain while more than half of them have little control of their pain.  When patients seek medical attention for their chronic pain, often times changes have already occurred in the brain since the original injury or damage that cause the pain.  Understanding those changes in the brain will help find the solution to chronic pain.  The research in Dr. Heinricher’s lab is focused on two groups of neurons in the brain, one that promotes and one that inhibits pain.  One aspect of our work is to understand the brain workings of pain through studying the activity of these two groups of neurons that receive information from other parts of the brain that contribute to how we feel and respond to pain the way we do.  Additionally, we are looking into the brain, specifically at these two groups of neurons in chronic pain states to find out what has changed, how it has changed, and eventually what we can do to effectively dampen the pain for patients.


Wednesday: Get Out and Advocate!


By Bill Griesar, Instructor/Outreach Coordinator, Washington State University Vancouver

NW NogginIMG_1481 (Northwest Neuroscience Outreach Group: Growing in Networks) is a robust, creative, and largely volunteer driven non-profit organization (EIN:  81-3885713) founded by Bill Griesar and Jeff Leake. NW Noggin brings together scientists, artists, and students of all ages to share their expertise, enthuse young people about science and art, share area educational resources, and inform and excite the public about ongoing, taxpayer supported neuroscience research. Science needs investment! Engaging the public is key to relating discoveries and building support.  Since 2012, we’ve worked with more than 12,000 academic priority students in Oregon, Washington, California, and Washington DC public schools.  We offered free talks at Portland’s Velo Cult bike shop pub, which last year informed more than 750 community members about research, and helped train graduate students to present their work to a lay audience.  Our graduate and undergraduate art and neuroscience volunteers are developing experts in science communication, teaching in schools, theaters, museums, symphonies, homeless youth centers, breweries, the U.S. Congress, and bike shop pubs! For more information on our work, please check out NOGGIN BLOGGIN




Tuesday: You are what you eat – All about obesity

Part I:

By Paige Dingess, 4th year Neuroscience PhD student, University of Wyoming


imgresSociety is engaged in a losing battle with food. Excessive food intake and lack of physical activity result in weight gain. We seem unable to participate in healthy behaviors and exert control over our bathroom scales. The goal of my research is to understand how exposure to dietary fat and fat-associated cues (seeing the McDonalds “M”), impacts reward systems of the brain. Specifically, I examine the structure and shape of neurons in regions of the brain involved in reward, following extended consumption of fatty food. My results indicate that dietary fat changes neurons of the brain that we believe underlie challenges in weight loss. Next time you want to stop and grab some fries, remember that it is changing your brain – not just your waistline.


Part II:

By Christine Wu, Postdoctoral Fellow, Scripps Research Institute, Florida


My research is interested in treating and preventing obesity, a precursor to other diseases like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and depression. One way to treat obesity is to burn energy from fat stored throughout the body. The body stores two types of fat:  brown fat and white fat. Brown fat is efficient at burning energy, whereas white fat is more efficient at storing energy. Most of the fat that it is commonly thought of, settling into the midsection, is white fat – good for storing long term.  However, under certain conditions, white fat can undergo “browning” and behave like brown fat to burn energy. This is important process is critical to understand to combat obesity. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a small protein, secreted in an area of the brain important for regulating body functions is responsible for keeping us from storing too much fat.  Our research is examining how BDNF secretion targets white and brown fat to burn more calories.



Monday: Catching a Memory

By Megan Slaker

Science becomes more innovative and creative with every passing day. As we discover more about the world, we uncover even more about which we do not know. Even concepts integral to our beings, like memory and emotion, are still a mystery. Memories make us who we are. They tell us how to act and what to think. Most of these memories are beneficial, but what about memories that are incorrect or pervasive.


Perineuronal net depicted as green structure surrounding neuron. Artwork by Sara Brandon

I am deathly afraid of spiders, and I see them everywhere (usually when they aren’t there). My example is fairly benign. However, what if certain sounds, like loud drums or fireworks are perceived as exploding bombs? What if certain sights, like someone intoxicated or lighting a cigarette, intensifies a craving for an abused substance?   My dissertation research explored how these pervasive memories were solidified and strengthened in the brain.


I explored a unique structure in the brain, called perineuronal nets, and how they contribute to memory. Perineuronal nets are structures surrounding (“peri”) the outside of some brain cells (“neuronal”) arranged like a net. These structures grow when we experience new events and solidify the connections in the brain. They also change during new experiences. As pervasive memories are replayed over and over again, the perineuronal nets are believed to become stronger and make the memory more difficult to erase or diminish. We discovered that removing these nets in parts of a rat brain can weaken a memory for an environment in which a drug was experienced.

This is an exciting discovery because it opens the door for more research on the contributions of these nets to different sorts of memory and provides an avenue for experience-driven changes that may influence how and what we remember. For more information, Dr. Barb Sorg is presenting a webinar this Thursday on the topic!