How to train your worm to explore the circuits involved in learning

AS AN UNDERGRADUATE, Angelina Sylvain was fascinated to learn that devastating declines in cognition and muscle coordination could be caused by changes in a single gene — the cause of Huntington’s disease. She was intrigued by the fact that brain surgery on an epileptic patient cured him of seizures, but wiped out his ability to form short-term memories.

These remarkable discoveries first drew Sylvain to the field of neuroscience, though she never imagined that her own efforts to understand the human brain would involve training tiny worms.

A fourth-year graduate student in the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, Sylvain seeks to understand how the activities of neurons in the brain lead to particular behaviors and memories.

“The problem with studying the human brain is that we have 86 billion neurons,” she said. “But worms have only 302. And they’re transparent, so you can use imaging techniques to indirectly observe the activities of neurons.”

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