Generally speaking, most people think of what is referred to as the cerebral cortex when they think of the brain. Twisty, slightly mushy, and intricate, it’s become a source of mystery and exciting discoveries for neuroscience. One group of researchers, however, tends to ignore this area. Instead, they focus on the small, folded structure at the back of the brain. The cerebral cortex goes in the biohazard bin. The preserved structure is the cerebellum, which is often associated with motor function and motor learning. Researchers who focus on the cerebellum have the benefit of working with a generally small, well-characterized microcircuit: parallel fibers contact several the massive, complex, and beautiful dendritic arbours of Purkinje cells, while climbing fibers pick one Purkinje cell to climb, winding their way through the dendritic arbour and exploring all the branches. Purkinje cells summarize the inputs they get from these two fibers, and pass along their summary to the neurons of the deep cerebellar nuclei (DCN). DCN cells then send impulses out of the brain. Sounds simple, right? As Jenna Hotton discovered while preparing a paper reviewing the circuit of the DCN, the synaptic plasticity of this circuit can be complex.
Hotton prepared her review, published in this year’s edition of the McGill Science Undergraduate Research Journal, based on her desire to explore one topic in-depth. “I wanted to do something that was a little more focused on a particular subject, not just a survey of something,” she told me during our phone interview. “I had taken a couple of classes on behavioural neuroscience […] which I found really interesting,” including a course called Neural Basis of Behaviour (BIOL 306). Dr. Alanna Watt, who guided Hotton during her independent reading project, was one of the professors teaching the Neural Basis of Behaviour course. In this case, she focused on the synaptic and non-synaptic plasticity of DCN cells.
While Hotton initially had hoped to focus on behavioral neuroscience, she was excited when Dr. Watt proposed this topic for her project. “I really liked the topic,” she told me, and she especially liked that her work could help someone in the lab who was doing wet-lab research. Even though her project used computers and paper instead of electrodes and primers, she still benefitted from the support of the lab. Hotton noted that her discussions with various graduate students was invaluable, especially when she needed to analyze methods that she’d never done herself. “The methods [section] is the most interesting part […] but it’s hard to visualize something like electrophysiology when you’ve never done it,” Hotton told me. Further, it was important that her interpretations of the papers were based on a complete understanding of how the results were obtained.
Anyone who has read a scientific paper has had more than a few questions at the end, so the background work with the lab members was especially crucial to Hotton. She told me that she came into the project with few expectations. “I knew almost absolutely nothing about this topic at the beginning,” she told me – just a basic understanding of the system. Clearly, though, her knowledge has grown exponentially since she started – to the point where she now has a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal. Deciding to publish in MSURJ was an easy call. “I had gotten an e-mail, one of the general e-mails that are sent out reminding you of things, and I read about [MSURJ] and I thought ‘Well I’d written a paper, this sounds like this could be interesting.'” The convenience of publishing in a McGill-based journal was attractive, but as Hotton notes, “the most interesting part was that it was peer-reviewed, as opposed to some of the other McGill journals.”
While most people imagine white lab coats, pipettes, and myriad chemicals when they think of research, Hotton has shown that good work can be done with a laptop and a willingness to dig through dozens of papers. Indeed, most projects that involve all of the “traditional” research elements mentioned above start with a literature review. No doubt, Hotton’s work will help someone further understand the plasticity possible in the DCN circuit; this could be the start of something wonderful.
You can read Hotton’s article here*.
*Links to the original research articles will be available as soon as the journal is uploaded online at msurj.mcgill.ca