Archive for August, 2007

Dreams and Spinal Taps

August 28, 2007

When Dr. Greenwald said yesterday in class “trust me, tonight, you’re gonna dream about this [expletive],” I didn’t really take him seriously. That is, until last night when I did indeed dream about the brain. I tossed and turned all night, dreaming about the brain and that somehow I was getting it wrong and that I didn’t want to fill my thoughts with wrong material so I was getting more and more worried which cause me to sleep worse and worse.

Also, I forgot to mention in my previous post: when we got to the part about Lumbar Punctures, aka: a spinal tap, Dr. Greenwald had us watch a clip on YouTube from the mockumentary about the fake 80’s hair band Spinal Tap. It was hilarious. I love this professor.

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Gross Anatomy, The Ventricles, and The Meninges

August 27, 2007

Wow. What a load of information to soak in. There is just so much to know regarding the gross anatomy of the brain that it makes my own brain tired. I read through the chapter, twice, and class was still hard for me. The professor (Dr. Greenwald) would show a slide and point to a place with his green laser pointer and say “okay, what’s this?” and alot of people would answer “hypothalamus” or “choroid plexus” or whatever it was he was pointing at. Me, well, I would just sit there and not answer for fear of being wrong. As it turns out, that was a good thing, because I would have been wrong over half of the time. But, Dr. Greenwald did mention that if you didn’t know this stuff now, that’s alright. We’re just getting started and all. Regardless, I still felt a bit lost.

Now, the meninges, on the other hand, I understood quite well, and it felt really good. For those of you who don’t know, the meninges are these layers that cover the outside of your brain and spinal cord. Three layers, actually. The first is a thin film that covers it directly. The second is a spider-webby-like structure that goes between the first and the third. The final layer is the Dura, this thick leathery stuff. Their main purpose is to provide structural support to the brain. You see, the brain is heavy, but left to gravity, it’d be pulled down into mush. The meninges allow it to float in Cerebrospinal Fluid, which goes between the first and second layers where all that spider-webby-stuff I mentioned earlier is. Just as you feel more lightweight in water, so your brain is also much less affected by gravity as it floats in this stuff. Fascinating.

Where things get really interesting is when fluid gets between those layers and the problems it can cause. For instance, if a legion occurs in the brain tissue and that blood gets between the second and third layer (say, you’re in a really bad car accident), then that blood (called hemorrhaging) can royally screw you. You see, something I just learned today is that blood is toxic to the brain. “Nothing kills brain cells faster than blood,” – Dr. Greenwald. Might be a slight over exaggeration, might not…I really don’t know at this point how much validity is in that statement. But one thing is for certain, and that is that blood is dangerous

The second interesting thing I learned today is that stem cells more often than not will turn into cancer cells. “When left to their own devices, they turn into cancer cells alot of times. I mean…why not?” – Dr. Greenwald. It seems so strange to me that there is such a controversy of stem cells when we as scientists haven’t even figured out a way to keep a majority of them from turning into cancerous cells, which are obviously harmful to the body. None doubt the power of stem cells when they work in our favor, but I have ready many articles on stem cells and I have never once heard about this. Truly interesting.

Anyone got any thoughts about any of this?

The First Day

August 20, 2007

Today was the first day of my first graduate class: Human Functional Neuroanatomy. I am simply blown away. The task set before me is quite daunting. The sheer amount of memorization that I will have to do for this one class is incredible. Also, my grade is only dependent on two tests: mid-term and a final (which is cumulative). That’s it. From a certain perspective, that’s good because I won’t have projects and quizzes and what not along the way. On the other hand, I won’t have anything to bring up my grade should I not do as well as I hoped on the tests. The tests will consist of multiple choice, fill in the blank, and what the professor calls “practicum”, which is slides with pictures and arrows pointing to certain features and I have to write out what it’s pointing at. For instance, there are twelve cranial nerves; I will have to know each of them by memory.

After going over the syllabus, we took a ten minute break and then went right into the first lecture: Neurodevelopment. We looked at how the neural system develops from zygote to a three year old, in a nutshell. We covered basics, and were told repeatedly that we weren’t doing it justice in a small lecture like that. What struck me while listening was how incredibly easy it is for the neural development to go wrong during fetal development. We looked at a broad range of disorders that are caused by bad neural development, most of which looked awful and were quite serious. The most disturbing thing about it was that I was looking at sonograms of and pictures of real children who were inflicted with these disorders.

In a less depressing note, I did enjoy seeing how the separation of sensory and motor nerves form. What struck me about that is how separate they are, with the Basal plate containing primarily motor neurons, and the Alar plate containing primarily sensory neurons. It’s really amazing how separate they are, and it seems to me to be a sign of higher design. Without knowing more specifics, I can’t really back that up, but that’s just my overall impression of it.

Anyway, what a first day! I see now what I’ve gotten myself into, and it’s quite a hole. I think I can dig myself out with hard work and study, which I plan on doing. My goal is to get an A in this class, and I am not going to stop at anything to achieve it. This is my goal, and my resolve is not going to falter, even as I get deeper into the subject matter. We’ll see how I hold up as we go along. Next week’s lecture is on gross anatomy and the meninges. Assigned reading is chapter two in the book, as well as I probably want to look over the slides posted on the course website. After I do my studying for next week’s lecture, I’ll post some thoughts regarding it. I might post something between then, though. It juts depends. By the way, if anyone is reading this, feel free to leave comments, even if it’s just “hey, I read this”. I’d like to know if anyone actually reads this stuff, and what your thoughts are about all I just said. Thanks.

Preparations

August 19, 2007

In preparation for my first day of class in this new undertaking where the end is seemingly out of sight, this afternoon I sat down and read the first chapter of my text book. The Human Brain. This introductory text takes a very general look at the brain and how it works, which is really quite perfect for me considering I go into this knowing nothing. In fact, I’m probably actually quite hindered in my ability to understand the brain thanks to television shows with pseudo-neuroscience, such as House, Scrubs, or any other medical show. In these shows, it seems like they just pick a whole slough of jargon and buzzwords and throw them at you so quickly that the common person believes that the conversation that the two doctors just had actually reflected an intelligent discourse. Cerebral cortex, cerebellum, neurons, brain stem, synapse, etc. Anyway, it’s like a kid who watches Batman the Animated Series, and then goes to a Karate class and thinks he’s a black belt because he already knows all the moves.

Reading the book was actually quite the challenge. After my senior year in undergraduate studies, I became quite used to high-level text books. Operating Systems, Computer Graphics, Artificial Intelligence, etc. Each one covered difficult subject matter that the average person would find daunting to grasp, much less fully understand. However, much to my surprise, this book was the most difficult reading I have ever had to do, and in only the first chapter, no less! I was immediately confronted with words I had never read before such as ganglia, glial, cytoskeletal, axon, dendrite, and more. With each turn of the page I could feel myself getting deeper into a mess of words that I couldn’t understand. It took me two hours to read through thirty pages. However, most pages had large figures and diagrams on them, so it was really just about fifteen pages of text. I reread each sentence twice, often three or four times. Sometimes I had to go back and read the entire paragraph again just to make heads or tails of it all.

The bad news? If I had to take a quiz over the first chapter now, I’d probably fail. I read through it and gained a basic understanding of the material, but I know that most of it failed to really sink in. I knew this would hard, and so when I hit this “setback” today, it didn’t phase me much because I was ready for something like this.

The good news? I enjoyed learning what I did. Despite not grasping 100% or even 80% of what I read, I still learned quite a bit of interesting information. I look forward to truly understanding this subject matter because it’s intriguing and interesting to me.

Tomorrow: the first day. Pray for me, wish me luck, etc. I’ll post everything about it sometime Tuesday.

A Fresh Start

August 16, 2007

Well, I had a Xanga blog, but since all of my friends on there have quit posting, I have moved to this which I find to be much simpler, cleaner, and provides a nice fresh start on it all. I have made this blog primarily to chronicle my epic journey through graduate school.

Let me introduce myself. My name is James Prather, and I’m a Christian. I graduated from Oklahoma Christian University in April of 2006 with a bachelors degree in computer science. On Tuesday August 14th, 2007, I was accepted to graduate school at the University of Texas at Dallas. I am in the Masters in Applied Cognition and Neuroscience program, and I seek to enter the doctoral program after a few semesters of getting my feet wet in the course material. My main short term goal in this program is to better understand human-computer interactions so that my current job as a software developer will be positively impacted and I can do my job better because of it. My long-term goal in this program is to maintain a 4.0 GPA. My undergraduate GPA was not so hot and it’s haunted me, and now I’m ready to get rid of that and have a GPA I can be proud of. My eventual, really long-term goal (7-8 years from now) is to enter into the cybernetics field and make prosthetics for amputees that are just like real arms insofar as the subject can think about moving their arm and it moves, just like their real arm used to before it was lost. To attain this, I must learn how the brain works so that I can research ways to interpret brain patterns and signals that mean “move arm up” or “rotate left arm”, etc (very rudimentary example, but you get the idea).

My first class starts this Monday, August 20th, and it is Human Functional Neuroanatomy. To be honest, I’m quite scared because I don’t come from a biology or chemistry background. I didn’t even take biology or chemistry as my science courses in school. In fact, I vehemently stayed away from those classes and instead took geology and earth science just to avoid them. These decisions were of course before I knew what I wanted to do and now I am slightly regretting it. However, my adviser assures me that this is a great class for someone with my background to start out in. To top it all off, I’m working full time (the company I work for is paying my way through school, which is a tremendous blessing). It’s going to be interesting to see how everything meshes together with school added on top of my already way too busy life.

As I mentioned above, this blog is primarily for chronicling my experiences as I go through graduate school. And thus, I am going to try and limit my posts to things that at least vaguely concern grad school. I might take the opportunity to discuss my faith, but I’d really like to keep those discussions somehow related to cybernetics and/or neuroscience. I am positive that as I discover more about the brain, I will be even more in awe of God’s work.

Well, that’s all for this post. I will post an update after the first meeting of my first class ever in graduate school. Until then.