2 December 2010

Neuroscientist talks about latest brain research at Dec. 7 Science Café

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Susanne Cappendijk will give a brief overview of her brain research and field questions about the brain at the Dec. 7 Science Café, held downstairs at Ray’s Steel City Saloon on John Knox Road. The program starts at 6:15 p.m., but because Science Café is well attended, you may want to arrive by 6 p.m. to grab a seat.

Science Café is presented by the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, where Cappendijk, an assistant professor in the College of Medicine at Florida State University, uses the world’s strongest MRI machine to study how nicotine affects song development and song memory in zebra finches.

Researchers have learned something rather surprising about nicotine: It can be bad or good for you, depending in part on the age at which you’re exposed to it.

When pregnant women use nicotine, for example, it induces disturbed cognitive functioning in their offspring. Some studies suggest such impairment may continue into adolescence.

Yet other research has shown that nicotine can actually improve memory impairment in patients suffering from neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and schizophrenia.

Cappendijk’s research focuses on how nicotine can damage a young brain, yet benefit the brain of an aging Alzheimer’s patient. She uses zebra finches because these birds learn to sing in a manner similar to how humans learn to talk. That makes the underlying pathways for learning and memory highly comparable between these birds and humans.

To study the changes over time in the nicotine-exposed zebra finch brains, she uses the Magnet Lab’s 900 MHz superconducting magnet to give the birds what is essentially a very powerful MRI scan.

“The 900 gives me the opportunity to scan the same bird’s brain without, with and after the nicotine exposure,” Cappendijk said. “This approach is ideal as the bird serves as its own control, which is a very important issue when studying behavioral neuroscience.”

Ray’s serves food, appetizers, soft drinks and beer, and table service is available during the presentation and discussion.