DevNeuro Academy

Make cells glow!

All living organisms are made up from cells. The brain is no exception and contains billions of different nerve cells (neurons). To study these neurons we need to see them but neurons are see-through. So to make them visible we get them to manufacture something called Green Flourescent Protein (GFP) which glows in the dark. GFP comes from a jellyfish but the instructions for making GFP (a gene) can be read by any cell. Inserting the gene for GFP into a cell will make it glow in the dark. We can then study them through a microscope even whilst they are working! Thanks to GFP we can see microscopic details such as the sites where individual neurons interact (synapses) which are only 1μm (1x10-6 metres) wide.

Glow in the dark cells in action

In this workshop pupils learn that jellyfish DNA can be introduced into neurons taken from other animals like mice, rats and humans. We will see that, thanks to the code of life, cells from other animals can transcribe jellyfish DNA to produce glowing proteins incredibly quickly. Pupils will learn more about the usefulness of making cells glow with GFP, for instance to make cancer cells fluorescent and so aid tumour removal surgery.

This workshop was developed and delivered by: Florent Campo-Paysaa, Andrea Chai, William Constance, Thanu Poobalasingam, Sinziana Pop and Susana Ramos.

What your eyes can't see...

The brain is one of the most complex structures in the known universe and, even though we know what it looks like externally, to find out how it works we need to look at it at the microscopic level. Individual cells within brain tissue play different roles and investigating specific cell types is essential to understanding the brain’s functions.

During the 20th century, researchers developed lots of ways to see nerve cells; since the 1970s we have been using a technique called immunohistochemistry to identify large scale patterns of different cell types in the brain. This technique has been much improved and is still used routinely in research laboratories! It takes advantage of a chemical reaction that occurs naturally in our immune system called “antibody-antigen recognition”.

Discussing cell shapes

In this workshop pupils learn about immunohistochemical staining techniques and how antibodies recognise the proteins that help us see different cell types in the brain. This, together with fluorescence and microscopy, allows us to investigate the structures of the brain.

This workshop was developed and delivered by: Clémence Bernard, Rubén Deogracias, David Exposito Alonso, James Pegge, Fong Kuan Wong and Amrita Mukherjee.

How do brain cells communicate?

Your brain is made of a huge number of nerve cells (neurons) that work together to make you feel, think and act. How do these neurons communicate with one another? The signals in the brain take different forms. Electrical nerve impulses can travel a long way, such as down your spine and into your leg, or a very tiny distance, such as just across a cell body. Signals can also be transmitted chemically, such as the burst of molecules that crosses the tiny gaps where neurons meet (synapses) or the hormones that circulate in our blood stream. Using an amplifier, we can listen in on the electrical spikes as they travel along a neuron, and using other techniques we can look in on the chemical signals as well.

Cell communication

In this workshop pupils will cover the main concepts of chemical and electrical signalling. Working in groups they model the synapse, where chemical signalling using neurotransmitters takes place, and explore how this process can be regulated during learning and by drugs. They investigate electrical signaling using a mini-version of a laboratory recording device together with a mobile phone to listen to neurons in action and to see the effects of electrical stimulation on muscles. Finally, they discuss how all these link together to form a simple circuit that can produce a reflex action.

This workshop was developed and delivered by: Darren Byrne, Guilherme Neves, Alberto Sanchez-Aguilera, Shaakir Salam, Martijn Selten and Adam Tyson.

Sense, think, move!

Whether consciously or unconsciously we are constantly sensing and reacting to our surroundings. This is known as behaviour, and in animals it is all down to the workings of the nervous system. A large number of different cell types in the nervous system sense, process and respond to the what's going on in the world and because there are so many cells involved and so many different things going on, complex behaviours are very difficult to study. Thankfully there is one behaviour which is exhibited by all animals, from the simplest to the most complex - feeding. By studying how a small fish locates and captures food, we can try to work out how more complex behaviour emerges from more complex nervous systems.

Zebrafish feeding

In this workshop pupils are introduced to the basics of behaviour, why it is important and how we can use whole organisms to study these complex processes. The researchers then focus on a particular behaviour, the detection and capture of prey, and demonstrate how, using zebrafish, we can start to work out which brain structures and networks underlie this behaviour.

This workshop was developed and delivered by: Andrew Bard, Athene Knufer, Rachel Moore, Ankur Perry, Ivana Poparic and Tom Shallcross.