Thursday, March 31, 2011

Nobel Prizes and Synapses

What do Nobel prizes and synapses have in common?

In order for us to move, feel and think, neurons in our brain relay messages to one another. When neurons "chat" among themselves, their means of communication relies on both electricity and chemistry.

Once incoming stimuli of a specific type reach a threshold point, a 270 mph electrical impulse “fires” and is transmitted down the axon of a neuron, the elongated portion of the nerve cell.

The chemical component of this informational exchange occurs by means of over 70 neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) and neuromodulators. Once the electrical impulse reaches the end of the axon, a tiny pocket of chemicals bursts releasing neurotransmitters (the “chemical couriers”), which travel across the synapse, a microscopic gap separating two theoretically “connected” neurons. The “apse” in synapse means binding, and “syn” meaning together.

Synapses in reality are contiguous rather than continuous contact points between the message-sending or pre-synaptic neuron and the post-synaptic or message-receiving neuron.

As neurotransmitters cross the synaptic gap they lock into receptor sites on the post-synaptic neuron (the next neuron on a neural pathway) and convey their chemical message only if their molecular properties fit the precise configuration of the receptor sites on the post-synaptic neuron. Over one quadrillion (1,000 trillion) synaptic connections can be established inside the human brain. Each neuron can make 15,000 to 200,000 connections with other brain cells.

Creating new synapses and delivering the appropriate types and quantities of neurotransmitters in these chemical communications, is the foundation of the event we generically call learning.

Although synaptic transmission is just one aspect of how the brain functions, three Nobel prizes have been awarded (to Arvid Carlsson, Paul Greengard, and Eric Kandel) for their research on this single portion of our complex brain transactions.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Linking Education and Economic Progress

While education is enjoying a global resurgence, it continues to be the target of conservative politicians in the United States. The World Bank places a premium on education, and more specifically, the education of young girls in developing Third World countries.

Today, loans to poor nations are granted with this single factor used as an important criterion in the loan-granting process. Educated women typically give birth to fewer children (an average of two rather than eight). The two children hailing from the smaller households will typically receive an education, because of two primary factors:

(1) formal education (instead of daily survival) in smaller families rises to the level of a high "family priority," when monthly income leaves funds available for discretionary spending, and
(2) more family resources can be invested in schooling rather than in basic needs of food, clothing, etc., for a large number of family members, who are not making even modest contributions to the family income. The ultimate fiscal drain on limited family resources often spells foreclosure on financially out-of-reach educational opportunities.

National instability and political oppression, coincidentally, often accompany high levels of poverty and low levels of education. Countries with a substantive middle-class population typically enjoy greater political stability, which allows them to make good on their World Bank loans.

The current attack on public employees in general, and public education in particular can be disastrously short-sighted recognizing the high correlation that we all acknowledge between a quality "education for all" and global economic standing.

There are no "internal winners" in the senseless assaults on public education. In both the long-term and the short-term, our entire nation will suffer when we don't support public education and maximize learning for every child who walks into our doors.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The First Ph.D. in Psychology

The first Ph.D. ever awarded with the term “Psychology” in its title was granted at Harvard University in 1878.

Barely fourteen years later, the American Psychological Association was the center of this fledgling discipline, which was quite “undisciplined” since it was not driven by any precise methodological or scientific focus. One hundred years later, Pres. George Bush declared the 1990s “The Decade of the Brain.”

During the intervening decades, our understanding of the human brain mushroomed as our knowledge base catapulted from mere conjecture, guesswork, and speculation to a domain grounded in biology, medicine, and science.

Parenting and education were two areas of the modern human experience that seemed almost impervious to the incredible findings in neuroscience until recently. Remarkably, no two arenas are better positioned to put this research into daily practice. To our collective good fortune, today we see educators, parents and neuroscientists seeking to understand the aspects of behavior, learning and memory.