Learning about the brain
EMBL Monterotondo, 6 - 8 February 2008
A group of 20 teachers from all over Europe participated in the 3-day course that focused on the study of the central nervous system, which is the main area of interest of many groups working at EMBL Monterotondo and the CNR (Italian National Research Council).
After an introduction and the presentation of the programme by the organiser, ELLS Education Officer Rossana De Lorenzi, the first scientific seminar by Liliana Minichiello - Group Leader at EMBL Monterotondo - introduced the teachers to the processes of learning and memory formation, as well as the different causes of cognitive impairment and disorders such as Alzheimer's disease.
Daniela Marazziti, staff scientist at the CNR, Institute of Cell Biology, presented the second seminar illustrating the cellular pathway in the brain responsible for dopamine production and motor coordination, and the defects that cause motor impairment and Parkinson's disease.
The practical activities on the first day were related to the scientific seminars, consisting in a visit to the EMBL Phenotypic Core Facility together with Dominika Farley and Raffaele Migliozzi (EMBL behavioural technicians). Here the teachers learnt about the behavioural analyses used to test both learning and motor abilities in the mouse. In addition to the behavioural tests, the teachers performed an immuno-histochemistry activity prepared by Daniela Marazziti and Chiara Di Pietro (CNR) that consisted of the microscopic analysis of mouse brain sections to recognise cell types involved in motor coordination and the brain areas that are damaged in Parkinson's patients.
The second day started with a theoretical session of three seminars: the first, presented by Cornelius Gross - Group Leader at EMBL Monterotondo - gave the teachers an overview of the mouse models that are available in research to study the central nervous system, illustrating why they are so important and what kind of information they can provide to scientists. Luisa Lo Lacono - postdoctoral fellow at EMBL Monterotondo - presented a seminar describing the role of serotonin in the brain to determine anxiety levels and the recently discovered connection been between anxiety and development. Silvia Mandillo - researcher at the CNR - closed the morning session with a seminar illustrating the mechanism of action of several drugs of abuse and the changes that these substances often induce in brain structures.
The afternoon session was entirely dedicated to "science and society" issues, such as the problem of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a behavioural disorder that is increasingly diagnosed in children, giving rise to a heated social debate in the US and many European countries. Giovanni Frazzetto, postdoctoral fellow at the BIOS Research Centre for the study of Bioscience, Biomedicine, Biotechnology and Society, presented the results of his studies on ADHD, showing how attitudes towards mental disorders and the use of psychotropic drugs are largely shaped by social and cultural values, and how they influence public health policies. Following the seminar, Giovanni moderated an open discussion with the teachers to examine the different opinions and approaches used in Europe to deal with this very delicate topic. In order to further stimulate the discussion, the teachers were divided into four groups to play "DECIDE", a card game aimed at stimulating discussion on difficult topics, such as neuroscience, in different social contexts.
The last day was dedicated to practical activities related to the previous days' seminars. In a first activity, performed at the CNR behavioural unit with the help of Silvia Mandillo and Elisabetta Golini (CNR researchers), the teachers observed how scientists evaluate the effect of drugs of abuse on mice, to try to understand their mechanism of action. They also observed tests that scientists use to evaluate anxiety levels in mice.
In the last activity, organised by Rossana De Lorenzi with the support of EMBL technicians Marion Huth and Emerald Perlas, the teachers stained brain sections to identify the principal brain structures and understand their specific role in different brain functions.
During the course, the teachers received education material such as a DVD produced by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute on cancer and neuroscience, several copies of the journal Science in School published by EIROforum, a copy of the book Brain Facts published by the Society for Neuroscience, and a CD of neuroscience resources for schools also distributed by the Society for Neuroscience. In addition, shortly after the course, the teachers received a CD containing the slides of the seminar presentations, the course handbook, protocols of the practical activities, as well as additional resources to use in the classroom.