Neuroscience, Locusts, and Your Brain; It’s All about Connections

Alex Kim ’14 reports on his summer internship at the NICHD

This past summer, I worked in a neuroscience lab at the NICHD (National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development) – an institute located at the headquarters of the NIH. My project and the lab’s research was focused primarily on the olfactory system: using locusts as a simple model, I presented relatively volatile odorants in naturalistic ‘plume’ like stimuli to the locust’s antenna and utilized extracellular electrophysiological techniques to record ‘spikes’, or action potentials, from olfactory receptor neurons (ORN) located on the antennas.

The insect olfactory system is remarkably analogous to that of the vertebrate system – olfactory sensory processing begins at the peripheral neural layer where cells known as ORNs transduce chemical odorant binding to electrical signals that are subsequently relayed to higher order neuron populations. These electrical signals are transformed as they make their way to the brain’s processing centers. Working with insects gives us the opportunity to really understand how this information is generated and processed in a relatively point-by-point analysis. Since these electrical spikes are produced within the initial layer of neurons (ORNs), my project was to analyze the responses to naturalistic stimuli from the peripheral layer of neurons and to understand how this information is used in the dynamic reprocessing that occurs in subsequent neuron populations.

This internship gave me the opportunity to learn more about neuroscience and how science itself was practiced in a large federal research institute such as the NIH. Throughout this internship, I had the opportunity to network with leading biomedical researchers and undergraduate peers. Moreover, this internship allowed me to hone skills and learn new techniques such as MATLAB coding/analysis, electrophysiology, confocal microscopy, and paper discussions. At the end of my internship, I had an absolute pleasure presenting a poster on my project to fellow peers and scientists.

I would like to wholeheartedly thank the MXAA for providing me a generous stipend to pursue my summer internship endeavor. I found this experience eye-opening and extremely gratifying: working on an independent project at this scale allowed me to apply knowledge and skills that I have picked up at college and Middlesex. This exciting summer undoubtedly strengthened my career choice in biomedical research and will serve as a benchmark for future endeavors.