Using cutting-edge technology, big data and caffeine to discover how neurons interact
From the WashU Newsroom…
Have you ever confused a coffee cup for a pen? Or a mango? Or your Aunt Beatrice?
Of course not. Sure, maybe you once poured coffee into your cereal. But that’s because you were distracted or sleepy, not because you saw a coffee cup and thought “milk.”
Keith Hengen, assistant professor of biology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, is wowed by the organizational prowess of our brains. How, he wonders, do hundreds of millions of neurons interact reliably time after time, especially given that the proteins that power neurons have half-lives on the order of seconds to hours?
“And yet, a cup is a cup,” Hengen said. “You are, in essence, saying, ‘We are going to rebuild this Lego castle constantly, and it’s always going to produce the same architecture. We can add new Legos — say the concept of a travel mug — but it’s still going to rebuild this same castle. We don’t know where that set of instructions lies. We don’t know how it is that the brain can possibly continue to rebuild the same structure over time and not destroy itself.”
Hengen is determined to find out. But to do that, he must collect a lot of data. And by a lot, we mean 20 terabytes a day — more than any single lab at Washington University.
“We’re generating a Netflix-sized database every month,” Hengen said.
In the latest installation of WashU Spaces, Hengen offers a tour of his groundbreaking neuroscience lab.
“There is nothing traditional here,” Hengen said. “We have raised a lot of eyebrows.”