Your sister’s wedding. Your kid’s first steps. Your first kiss.
They’re moments you’ll never forget. They’re etched into your brain permanently.
But the question is, how? What physically changes in your brain when you make a memory?
“You obviously have things in your brain that you remember from 5 or 6 years old, high school all the way back. It has to be physical, somewhere — on your thumb drive or something. But how that gets stored is really wide open — the process of reading and writing,” said Bob Calin-Jageman, chair of Dominican University’s neuroscience program.
The answer, Dominican researchers say, might be a little bit slimy. The River Forest university’s fledgling neuroscience program recently received a $362,000 grant to figure out how the brain works with some unlikely helpers: Sea slugs.
It may seem weird, but the stapler-sized slugs have some of the best brains to study of any animal, Calin-Jageman said.
That’s because these slugs have fewer brain cells than almost any other animal — only about 10,000 neurons, compared to 100,000 for an earthworm, 1 million for a honeybee or 10 billion in a human.
On top of that, the slugs’ brain cells are bigger than those of many other animals: almost a millimeter wide and visible to the naked eye.
Those big, simple brains make it easy for Calin-Jageman and his team to study just how things change when a memory is made. Along with his wife Irina, his partner in the small department, and their undergraduate students, they’re breaking down just what happens in the brain when you make a memory.
“We think it’s the connections between neurons that store the memory, and it’s the proteins that have to be activated to store or break those connections,” he said. “What you’re thinking about, the thoughts must come from wiring.”
That much has been accepted in neuroscience for years — mostly from research already done with sea slugs. But the Calin-Jagemans’ project is breaking new ground by looking closer at just what exactly is changing in the slugs’ brains when they learn something.
To do that, they’re teaching the slugs.
Nothing too complex. They’re poking one side of the slugs’ tails several times, to the point where the slugs learn to ignore it. All the while, they’re hooking the slugs up to computers and measuring the invertebrates’ brain functions.
Then, they grind up the slugs’ brains to see what’s changed.
Since they’ve only poked one side of the slug, only one side of the brain has made the memory, making it easier to pinpoint exactly what’s different.
“We train the animals so they have this memory, and we open them up and literally compare what part of the brain is different on the left versus their right side to see where that memory is, and which neurons specifically have changed and rewired,” Calin-Jageman said.
A collaborative effort
The Calin-Jagemans have a unique perspective on the research because they each come to neuroscience from different fields. Though they got their PhDs side by side at Wayne State University in Detroit, Bob’s degree is psychology, while Irina’s is in biology.
Teaming professionally for the first time on this project, they each work on opposite ends of the project. Bob handles most of the work from the cells up — teaching the slugs and analyzing their brain functions — while Irina handles things on a smaller scale, examining all the microscopic changes that happen to the slugs’ neurons and below.
In addition to giving them complementary perspectives for their research, they seem to enjoy working side-by-side as spouses, as well.
“We’re both in neuroscience, but our research couldn’t have been more different. This is the first project where we’re working together,” Irina said. “For us, it’s been a great job. We can be in the same place and work together and do something that involved teaching and research.”
They were brought to Dominican to lead the new department soon after the university opened its new state-of-the-art science research building, Parmer Hall, in 2007.
“They really had envisioned a neuroscience program at Dominican to integrate with this new building,” Irina said. “The administration has been exceptionally supportive.”
That’s paid dividends not only for the school, which has quickly garnered praise for the young program. Only about half of American colleges and universities have a neuroscience program, Bob said, and his students have quickly moved up the ladder.
“They gave us the tools to really build something special with this neuroscience program,” he said. “Students are now taking classes and labs, and they’re getting involved and actually doing research. We’re taking students along with us to conferences to present their research, and they’ve been collecting some nice accolades.”
Benora McBride, a senior in Dominican’s neuroscience program, came to the university from Chicago’s West Side hoping to get into the program.
“I knew I wanted to go into neuroscience when my mom got a stroke a few years ago,” McBride said. “The only way to understand that bigger picture was by understanding the smaller ideas.”
At Dominican, she’s benefited from having the tightly-knit program around her — and has been wowed by the opportunities that have arisen so quickly.
“For it to be such a small school, I never thought it would grow this big,” McBride said. “I never thought I would have the opportunity to go to national conferences.”
Neuroscience is a model program for the university, Dominican President Donna Carroll said.
“It’s a statement of the evolution of science at Dominican,” Carroll said. “From the perspective of a president, this is how it should all come together … neuroscience is a model for what can happen when the right program, the right people and the right facilities come together.”
The program’s quick success, along with its subject matter, have made Dominican’s neuroscience department a popular one, Bob Calin-Jageman said.
“It’s kind of a hot field, it’s a fun field,” he said. “We get sold to alumni a lot because it’s very interdisciplinary. Everybody has a brain, so there’s a real connection to it.”