Columbia University neuroscientist explains studying the brain

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Dr. Carl Schoonover has a fascination with the human brain, and has been studying how people connect memories with certain odors.

The problem: the brain is too difficult to study using lab instruments.

“It’s been very difficult look at it,” the Columbia University neuroscientist said. “If you just take a brain out of a skull, even put it under a microscope, all you’re going to see is a gray, undifferentiated mass. There’s nothing really there for you.”

Schoonover gave a lecture Thursday in Charleston to explain how humans have studied the brain dating back to second century Rome.

“It’s a story of human ingenuity, and it’s also one that yielded very beautiful results,” he said.

The lecture was part of the STEM Speaker Series organized by West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission’s Division of Science and Research.

Columbia University neuroscientist Dr. Carl Schoonover has recently been studying the relationship between scents and forming memories.

Schoonover said while the tools for seeing how the brain functions have improved, such as MRI, the information provided is coarse.

“The brain is constituted from neurons, approximately 100 billion,” he said. “Each pixel we get out of an MRI consist of tens of hundreds of thousands of neurons.”

Schoonover noted one way to get around the challenge is by studying brains in other animals. Schoonover said he researches the functions of a mouse’s brain, though other scientists analyze and observe fruit flies.

“You might wonder, ‘Why would you study the fruit fly?’ It doesn’t have a spinal cord, it’s invertebrate, it flies,” he asked. “The answer is that if things look very different in different scales, many of the principles are conserved across different species.

“It boils down to if there’s a good solution to a problem, you’ll probably find that solution in many different contexts.”

According to Schoonover, researching the brains of other animals have lead to a better understanding of how humans function and affect events around them.

He added while the brain is not easy to research, the organ is worth studying to understand human history and development.

“I approach the brain in awe at its beauty, its complexity, its very eloquent solutions that it has devised for dealing with the world,” he said. “It’s something that motivates me every day.”

Schoonover was the 10th individual to take part in the series since its launch in November 2014. The next STEM Speaker Series event is set for September.

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