A Postcard From: Katherine Sweasy ’20

My internship has been spent learning about brain cell structure, and how it relates to schizophrenia. I have been spending my time analyzing brain cell images at the Kwan lab in the department of Psychiatry at Yale University.  I’ve been a psychology major since the beginning of my time at college, but only this year have realized my interest in neuroscience. More specifically within neuroscience, I wanted to learn about neuronal structure and development, and thus sought out to do so in a research setting.

My primary task has been to analyze the brain images of several different mice with differing experimental manipulations. The lab utilizes ketamine with the animals, as there is literature to suggest its efficacy as a model for understanding schizophrenia in regards to cellular function, as well as modeling observable symptoms that, when injected with ketamine, are similar to Schizophrenia in humans. This being said, the injection of ketamine in order to study it’s impact on brain activity is utilized as an experimental manipulation.

There are also certain groups that have a genetic manipulation, such as a SHANK3 gene mutation. This mutation is used due to its significance to Schizophrenia: although it cannot be considered the primary cause of Schizophrenia, this gene that is responsible for building a protein that aids in neuron development and mutation of this gene hugely increases a diagnosis for schizophrenia. In light of this, animals with this mutation are valuable to study.

The data was collected in vivo, advantageously allowing for the brain activity to be observed as the animal was present and alive. This brain activity was visualized for the eye to see by using protein calcium sensors, called GCaMP6 that indicated brain activity when injected into the brain. More specifically, the sensors detect the calcium released when neurons ‘fire’. My task has been to look at these in vivo brain images through a program in Matlab (see the image below for an example of what the images look at and how they are set up for analysis).

As I go through the frames of these images, I indicate the neuronal spines that are located near the dendrites, the long white branches in the images. As a brain cell activates, the GCaMP6 makes the dendrites and it’s accompanying spine ‘light up’ when its visualized. These are both important parts of the neuron, and play a role in the dysfunction of brain communication in Schizophrenia.

As an additional task, I also get some experience in brain histology. I occasionally prepare brain tissue by slicing preserved mouse brains and mounting them on slides. These are to be imaged later. This experience has given me a valuable understanding of the skills need in research, especially in a neuroscience laboratory. It requires a combination of technical skills as well as critical thinking of the project. I’ve been able to gain skills to function independently, which has been very rewarding.

I am most grateful for what I have learned at this internship. I’ve learned about neuronal structure in a deeper capacity than I have in previous classes. Additionally, this experience has helped highlight the gaps in my knowledge pertaining to cell biology and has undoubtedly influenced further areas of study for me.

Diagram of Neuron

Diagram of Neuron