Skip to Navigation Skip to Page Content

Neuroscience 101

Early in August, the University of Missouri’s Colleges of Engineering and Biological Sciences co-sponsored the third annual Neuroscience Summer Workshop. Intended for undergraduate faculty who teach in two- and four-year colleges and universities and high school science teachers, the aim of the NSF funded two-day workshop is to give participants an introduction to neuroscience models and experiments that can be incorporated into an existing biology, psychology or engineering curriculum, or used to develop new courses. More than 30 college faculty and high school science teachers from seven Midwestern states have participated in the program since its inception.

Satish Nair, professor of electrical and computer engineering and David Schulz, assistant professor of biological sciences, serve as co-organizers for the workshop, aided by graduate and undergraduate students from Nair’s lab. Participants are introduced to computational models of neurons via seven software experiments that are designed to run on their PCs. The software, developed using the neuroscience modeling freeware GENESIS, promotes “computational thinking.”

Experiments are supplemented with low-cost earthworm kits A live earth worm and a corresponding computer program that models the circuit are used to illustrate the escape reflex in earthworms and the neural circuit that implements it. The circuit is remarkably similar to circuits in the human heart and brain. Nair, far right, had workshop participants come to the front to demonstrate how a neuron fires an action potential via activation/inactivation of its various current channels, with each participant enacting the function of a particular channel.

“A human brain has about 10 billion neurons that constantly fire in this fashion, and this is a good way to illustrate that your brain has numerous electrical circuits which control your body systems, including heart-beat, breathing, and even helps determine your personality,” said Nair.

Jeff Engel, assistant professor of biology at Western Illinois University, to Nair’s right, said his main interests in the workshop were learning new animal preparations that can be used with students at different levels, and gaining familiarity with the GENESIS software package. “Using what is presented here, my students won’t have to learn new skills. They can see results immediately and we can discuss it,” said Engel.

“A neuroscience program that explores what’s new in the field can be cost prohibitive but using earthworms, it only costs $150,” said Ian Harrington, assistant professor of psychology at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill. “It’s affordable.”

We are pleased with the response,” said Nair. “We here at MU are keen on developing a neuroscience community in the Midwest.”