Chemical Control of My Little Grey Cells

The topic of this week was chemical control of the brain and behavior. There was only a lecture this week and it focused specifically on the function of dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine in the human brain. The lecture was very good and it was nice that the unanswered questions from the last lecture were answered in the beginning of this lecture. The short videos about the topics were very good.

It was interesting to learn about the functions of dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine in more detail because they are often talked about in everyday life. The diffuse brain systems related to them as a concept was still new. It was also interesting to learn about how these chemicals regulate very mundane processes like thirst. The lecturer mentioned that long-term stress degenerates the hippocampus. We were left wondering if and how the hippocampus can be regenerated and how much of the hippocampus can be degenerated. The function and operation of hypothalamus was already familiar for us from physiology, including the homeostasis and the co-operation with the kidney. It was interesting to also learn about how the same chemicals and their regulation cause Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s, especially because these are such common diseases and we know people who have them, which allows us to really reflect on them and put them into context. We are now in the halfway point of the course and there is already quite a lot of memorization and terminology especially with the latin words, but hopefully we have already passed the halfway point in the topic point of view. However, the upcoming topics seem very interesting and we are keen to learn about them.

Posted by Maaria Malkamäki

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The Little Helpers of My Little Grey Cells

The lecture topic of this week was neurotransmitters and the exercise session was on chemical senses and the visual system. Having one chapter as pre-reading for the lecture was a good amount of reading and allowed the lecturer to cover the important topics in more detail and more clearly, as well as answer some open questions. It was nice after last week to be really able to read the whole chapter and take notes and be well prepared for the lecture. The quiz was also good and we felt that we understood the main parts of the topic because we were able to answer the quiz properly, even though we misunderstood some of the questions and accidentally answered wrong. Overall, based on the lecture and the quiz we felt that we are back on track again somehow and maybe we are not doomed with this course.

The neurotransmitter systems seemed very interesting, and it was interesting to learn that the receptor binding is in some cases very specific but on the other hand not always. For example different ACh receptors, such as the nicotinic and muscarinic receptors, both bind ACh but they only bind nicotine or muscarine. It was also fascinating that the same neurotransmitter might have a different effect on different parts of the body, for example ACh in cardiac muscle and in skeletal muscles.

Like mentioned, the exercise was from last week’s topic. It was very good to have an exercise on the visual system especially, because it was not thoroughly understood last week. The exercise was in a way quite different from exercises we are used to from other courses, because the questions were very applied and you really could not answer them properly just based on the book, even if you would have understood the topic very well. The questions had many terms that were not introduced in the book or during the lecture, and it was basically the point to search the answers from google. It was not bad but just different. On the other hand, it was interesting to also learn some extra information compared to the book through the exercise questions. Especially the question about differences in the cephalopod and vertebrate eye was very interesting and educating, and helped to understand the function of the human eye also better.

Source: Bear, Connors, Paradiso: Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain, 4th edition, Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins, 2015, p. 155.

 

Posted by Inka Lehtimäki

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Chemical Senses, Central Visual System and Their Connection to My Little Grey Cells

The topics of this week were chemical senses, gustation and olfaction, and the central visual system. This week we had only one lecture but that lecture was all the more intensive. Having three chapters for one week and a single lecture was a lot of content. Our own schedule did not permit us to prepare properly for the topic, but it was also simply too much for one lecture. The whole lecture was just running from slide to slide without proper explanations and the whole picture of the topic and lecture was very messy. We would have wanted clear emphasis on the most important parts and a more detailed explanation on those parts, instead of having all the pictures from the book without understandable explanations. The quiz was also a lot harder this week compared to previous weeks.

The topics themselves were interesting and very practical in our everyday life. The functioning of our chemical senses was completely new to us and it was interesting to learn new details about the processes such as the fact that the process of smelling does not actually happen in our nose, but high up in the nasal cavity in the olfactory epithelium. Also, we always thought that the taste buds are the ones you can clearly see on your tongue, but turns out that they are papillae and that the taste buds are actually much smaller. We were also surprised to learn that their lifespan is only two weeks. Although this information was all new to us, it was quite easily understandable due to our background in chemistry.

We already knew the structure of the eye, the physics behind vision and how light is refracted, but it was interesting to learn also more about the cell biology and chemistry of the retina and how the messages are delivered to the brain. The message delivery would have been very interesting and probably also important to understand thoroughly, but we had not learned the whole anatomy of the brain and all the latin names for the parts yet, so it was hard to understand and internalize the system in such a short period of time. It would have required much more time, and with that being the last chapter of the three, there was not enough time to concentrate on that chapter and topic in our own preparation nor in the lecture. This week threw us straight to the deep end with a massive amount of new content like we suspected last week, but the shift from previous weeks was still a surprise.

Posted by Maaria Malkamäki

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Communication between our Little Grey Cells

The topics of the lecture this week were the action potential and synaptic transmission. The basics of action potentials and synaptic transmission, both electrical and chemical, were familiar to us from our previous physiology and biology courses. However, the lecture and the chapters in the book gave us a deeper and more detailed understanding of the underlying processes. There was a lot of biochemistry, including the transportation of neurotransmitters in vesicles and their release into the synaptic cleft as well as their binding to the receptors to create an action potential in the postsynaptic neuron. Our previous knowledge of biochemistry and surface chemistry aided our learning greatly. It is nice to notice that even though we do not have an extensive background in physics, our knowledge from chemistry is a useful asset for this course and seems to be an important basis for understanding the structure and operation of the human brain. There were also some new and surprising facts, for example that in reality one neuron produces and uses only one type of neurotransmitter and thus has only one task. It seems very logical now, but our previous knowledge was more about the overall structure of a neuron and an overview of the different neurotransmitters, which left room for inaccurate interpretations. The lecture was easier to follow and understand this week compared to the last week and gave new insights to the topic, including the previously mentioned example.

The exercise session was in the form of a lecture this week. The topic of it was brain anatomy, which was interesting and very important for the course. Some very basic structures of the brain were familiar to us, but those also mainly in Finnish, so overall the exercise lecture had a lot of new terminology and facts. It contained a massive amount of new Latin words and also new English words and two hours was not nearly enough to understand and internalize them all. It requires a lot of work outside of the lecture to learn them and their functions. The exercise session contained a few breakout room sessions, where the idea was to draw or build the discussed brain structures and thus learn them better. The idea was good, but the remote implementation through Zoom made it very hard and the sessions were so short that it was impossible to complete the tasks there. Therefore, the learning remained quite superficial. Overall, it was very good to have this session, but it was not enough to actually learn and understand the topic. In the upcoming weeks, the topics of the course will be more about the operations of the brain, which are probably newer for us and the familiar parts are then mostly behind us.

Posted by Inka Lehtimäki

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The Structure of my Little Grey Cells

The topics of the week were the structure of neurons and glia, the neuronal membrane at rest and properties of the action potential. Most of the structural properties of the neuron were already familiar to us from molecule and cell biology courses as well as a physiology course, but this was a good recap. The biochemistry of the cell membrane, as well as behaviour and interaction of polar and nonpolar molecules in different solvents and between each other was common knowledge for us based on our bachelor studies. It was extremely useful that this first part was more familiar to us because this allowed us to understand the operating mechanism of the action potential more effectively as we did not have to spend as much time understanding the biochemical properties. The basics of the action potentials were also surprisingly familiar from earlier studies but more depth of understanding was obtained by reading the chapter 4. One question that remained unanswered, however, was the mechanism of releasing the contents of the vesicles into the cytosol when it does not fuse with the membrane and release the contents to the synaptic cleft or to other cell compartments.

During this week we had a lecture and an exercise session. The topic of the lecture was interesting, but having read chapters 2 and 3 before the lecture there was not much new information given on the lecture and some questions remained unanswered. On the other hand, the end of the lecture was very hard to understand because we had not read that chapter yet and the pace was very fast. Overall, we would have hoped that the lecture had explored the topic more in depth as we had already read the basics from the book. The exercise session was a useful introduction to the exercises and an opportunity to ask questions. It would have been even more useful if we had had a chance to complete some of the exercises and had already some more specific questions. The exercises themselves were quite a good balance of basic exercises and more difficult ones. Deriving the equation was especially challenging and remained still unclear. 

This understanding of the neuronal membranes and their function in facilitating the action potential in the small scale allows us to apply this knowledge to the larger scale to understand the operation of the brain and support our journey to understand the communication between our little grey cells. All in all, it was very interesting to apply existing knowledge from different courses and combine these to understand a new topic and application of the existing information. 

Posted by Maaria Malkamäki

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Welcome to My Little Grey Cells

This is a blog about our journey to understand the little grey cells and their function inside our brain. This blog serves as a learning diary for the course Structure and Operation of the Human Brain and consists of our thoughts about lectures, exercises and overall topics of the course and our learning process throughout the course.

We are studying in the Life Science Technologies program and our backgrounds are in Complex Systems, i.e. computational and statistical tools for analyzing large amounts of biological data, and Biosystems and Biomaterials, i.e. cell chemistry and biology, especially in the field of pharmaceuticals and genetic engineering. We both completed our bachelor’s degree in Bio and Chemical Engineering, which gave us a good basis to understand molecular and cell biology as well as the basics of human physiology. However, as chemists we have a contradictory relationship with physics, and the depth of the physics in this course concerns us a bit, but hopefully it will not make this course too challenging for us :D. We are interested in the operation of the brain, especially its function in neurological diseases. At the moment we are already studying the use of artificial intelligence in epileptic seizure classification and detection, and amyloid-like proteins which could gain valuable knowledge related to Alzheimer’s disease. We are keen to work in the interface of healthcare, engineering and data science also in the future.

The first lecture was an introduction to the course. It introduced the concept of brains, its basic structure and tasks. The signal transmitting in nerve cells was covered, which was familiar to us already from previous courses. Although some physiological structures of the brain were familiar for us, the structure of the brain and the Brodmann’s areas in terms of their functions in body were new for us. The lecture underlined the importance of considering different time scales from femtoseconds to ten billion years, i.e. the oscillation of visible light to the age of the universe, and size scales from elementary particles to the size of the universe when trying to comprehend the operation of the brain. The brain is also related to many different fields of science including sociology, psychology, molecular biology, chemistry and atomic physics, which all describe the brain from different viewpoints. It is extremely interesting to think about how the operation of single molecules in our brains end up affecting entire societies and our behavior on this planet.

We look forward to learning more about the function of the brain during this course.

Posted by Inka Lehtimäki

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