Science & Technology, Student Research

NeuroLingo breaks down neuroscience jargon during TED-talk-like event

On Nov. 26, NeuroLingo hosted a free public neuroscience event during which researchers shared their ongoing projects. Founded in January 2020 by four graduate students in McGill’s Integrated Program in Neuroscience (IPN), NeuroLingo is a neuroscience outreach initiative with the goal of demystifying complex topics in neuroscience. The six speakers at the event were all neuroscience graduate students at McGill and Université de Montréal who condensed their months-long research into 10-minute TED-Talk-style presentations on topics such as depression, language, and child abuse. 

The common thread that united the six seemingly disjointed talks was science communication. NeuroLingo aims to make neuroscience accessible to those who are not necessarily scientists or familiar with technical jargon. Greater access to digestible science talks is crucial as they provide a platform where scientists can distill concepts down to their simplest forms. 

The first speaker, Gabriel Blanco Gomez, a PhD student at The Neuro, introduced his research about language deficits in children with autism by challenging the audience with philosophical questions about why language exists. Although Gomez was unable to provide all the answers to these inquiries, he imparted the key steps of scientific discovery, like making predictions, analyzing data, and drawing conclusions, that should be applied in the pursuit of answers to such complicated questions. 

“We still don’t have an answer about how humans develop language. But that’s okay. Because language is complex, not just genes and brain structures—[it’s] a lot more than that. It’s deeply rooted in culture and emotion,” Gomez said.

Sophie Simard, a master’s student in Naguib Mechawar’s lab, then introduced the process of neurogenesis, the birth of new neurons, and debunked the long-standing myth that the adult human brain does not generate new neurons. Her research aims to determine the extent to which neurogenesis occurs during adulthood. Hopefully, this phenomenon can be harnessed for new and more effective treatments for neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.

Candice Canonne, a PhD student and Simard’s labmate, began her talk by noting that if she had to retain one positive aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic, it would be the increased attention mental health has received. She then delved into her research about Von Economo neurons, a particular class of neurons that are thought to be implicated in certain mental disorders.

“[Von Economo neurons] are present in key regions that have been linked to depression and schizophrenia, and [this] leads me exactly to the question I want to answer [by] the end of my PhD. Is there an alteration of Von Economo neurons in depression and schizophrenia?” Canonne told the audience.

Arsenii Prozorov studies neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to adapt to internal or external stimuli, in relation to Alzheimer’s. To make his research as relatable as possible, Prozorov  explained neural plasticity by giving examples of daily activities, such as attending a social event and being physically active.

“The preventative measures that are recommended for now are much more effective than any of the current medication for Alzheimer’s disease,” Prozorov said.

To understand the strong correlation between child abuse and mental disorders, Claudia Belliveau, a PhD student also in  Mechawar’s lab, researches perineuronal nets (PNNs), which are composed of sugars and proteins that come together around neurons to form protective meshes against toxic substances. Belliveau’s research has suggested that child abuse leads to an increased number of PNNs.

“We hypothesize that abuse during this time where the brain is like soft playdough not only changes the way that neurons communicate but also changes the way that these nets develop,” Belliveau noted.

The final speaker, Hiba Daghar, discussed the importance of raising awareness about rare diseases. In her research, she characterizes rare congenital neurodevelopmental diseases, like glycogen storage disease type III, in different animal models to better understand the underlying mechanisms that would allow for more effective and targeted treatments. 

“Having this capacity to mimic specific genetic conditions opens the door to what we call personalized medicine,” Daghar said.

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