Marina Palumbo ’17 Investigates the Neuroscience of Learning
As a Hamilton College neuroscience major, Marina Palumbo ’17 has had to learn, retain, and access plenty of tough material. Befittingly, this summer Palumbo is working alongside Douglas Weldon, Stone Professor of Psychology and director of the Neuroscience Program, to investigate long-term potentiation: the biological underpinning of learning and memory in the brain.
Neurons, which are fundamental units of the brain, are like college students. Similar to a college student, when a neuron becomes excited it will talk accordingly louder and more rapidly to its nearby neuron peers.
Instead of doling gossip though, a neuron “talks” by transferring chemical and electrical signals to other neurons across a small gap of space. This gap between the talking neurons is called the synapse.
Also comparable to a college student, the more persistently a neuron is excited, the more it will talk to others nearby, and the more it “talks” to others, the stronger its relationships become. This conversational bonding strengthens the synapse that connects the neuron to its peers.
This process of amplifying synaptic strength (building the neurons’ relationship) is called long-term potentiation, or LTP. LTP has become increasingly relevant in the advancement of modern brain research.
“I learned about LTP in Professor Weldon’s [Intro to] Brain and Behavior course last fall”, said Palumbo. “[Research has] suggested that LTP is closely associated with learning and memory”, she added, emphasizing its foundational role in introductory neuroscience.
Though foundational, the mechanism for LTP is not well understood. Palumbo’s summer research with Professor Weldon seeks to illuminate some of the intricate chemistry of LTP.
Previous researchers have found that induction of LTP relies on a flood of calcium ions into the excited neuron (the one doing all the talking). “Our research investigated the potential role of three related calcium-binding proteins”, explained Palumbo. In other words, the three molecules adhere to the calcium inside the neuron and thus could play a role in regulating this process.
While observing LTP in the rat brain, the Weldon team will be able to identify changes in the concentration of the three proteins under study. Any such changes could indicate the proteins’ potential role in LTP.
Of course, the study’s methods are quite complex and will require at least a summer’s efforts. While Palumbo credited her science courses for the prerequisite knowledge to conduct the research, she too endorsed her liberal arts training.
“I have also taken a number of writing-intensive courses, including English and French, and feel that they have helped me to hone my reading comprehension and communication skills,” said Palumbo, continuing, “[the skills] prepared me to digest a vast amount of scientific literature.”
The potential implications of the study are far-reaching. “By identifying such factors that can strengthen LTP, [the Weldon team] helps to generate a more complete picture of the process”, said Palumbo, adding, “[this research] offers an opportunity to use those factors to treat deficits in learning and memory.”
Degeneration of brain matter, characteristic of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s represent promising outlets for research of this nature.
As Palumbo articulated, science is best performed alongside the multidisciplinary spectrum of art. Her research with the Weldon team is a small, yet significant dot on a pointillist canvas of the brain. Amidst the context of all other dots, this work might prove crucial in continuing to unravel the science of the brain.