The Big Picture

A connectome is a detailed wiring diagram that maps the connections within an organism’s nervous system. These connections receive and transmit information that enables an organism to interpret and appropriately respond to the outside world, maintain vital body functions, control language, thought, and emotion, and carry-out a wide range of other actions and behaviors. After more than a century of systematic study, scientists estimate that the human nervous system contains over 100 trillion connections among nearly 100 billion nerve cells (neurons).

A genome refers to an organism’s genetic material, which exists in the form of DNA within the nucleus and mitochondria of every cell. The genome represents a complete genetic blueprint for constructing and maintaining an organism, including its nervous system. According to the latest estimates, the human genome contains approximately 25,000 protein-coding genes.

Understanding how this relatively small number of gene products can direct the assembly of an enormously complex nervous system with over 100 trillion connections remains a fundamental challenge to neurobiologists. To simplify the challenge, scientists turn to model organisms that possess simpler nervous systems with dramatically fewer neural connections to examine. The nematode worm and the fruit fly are among the most extensively studied invertebrate models for developmental neuroscientists, whereas the clawed frog, the zebrafish, the domesticated chicken, and the house mouse form a group of widely studied vertebrate model organisms.

For each model organism, the basic challenge of understanding neural connectivity is often narrowed down further by examining model systems – smaller regions of the nervous system containing neurons that control different functions (e.g. vision/sight, locomotion/movement, etc.). The information obtained through the systematic study of model systems – which is conducted by many scientific teams over significant periods of time – is gradually organized into scientific models. In addition to providing the scientific community with an organized explanation of its current observations and how they relate to nervous system development, scientific models enable scientists to make predictions that can be tested through additional study and experimentation. Models are also subject to revision based on the availability of new scientific data and the extent to which it conforms to the basic ideas set forth in the original model. The creation, evaluation, and revision of models form the cornerstones of scientific inquiry and a major focus of the NeuroLab experience.

The NeuroLab experience

Throughout the NeuroLab experience, students explore the fascinating interrelationships among model organisms, model systems, and scientific models – they learn how scientists peer into the nervous system and study the role of genes and gene products in establishing connectivity among neurons – and they apply state-of-the-art genetic techniques, molecular visualization tools, and computational methods to contribute new data that will aid scientists in their quest to unravel the mysteries of neural development. Opportunities also exist for NeuroLab students to expand the knowledge and repertoire of skills that they the gain at Coastal Marine Biolabs by participating in biomedical research internships hosted by our partner labs. Click here to get involved in this unique learning experience.