Have you ever wondered how scientists study the complex, microscopic world inside animal brains?
I’m interested in how lizards’ brain cells work, and I’m studying how molecules called lipids help the cells function in hot and cold temperatures. (You may have seen my previous blog post introducing this project last summer.)
The brain is an organ composed of billions of tiny cells. There are different types of brain cells that do different jobs inside the brain. Some cells are called neurons, and they process all of your thoughts, memories, and movements. Other brain cells are called astrocytes, and they are a type of cell that act kind of like parents to new neurons, because astrocytes provide all of the nutrients for the neurons. I’m studying astrocytes in my project.
There are lots of ways to study how cells work, and one of those ways is to grow cells in the lab. If we can separate the different types of cells from each other, it’s easier to study them. Scientists can actually put brain cells into tiny dishes (called Petri dishes) and soak them in liquid that’s just like the environment inside of the body. This allows the cells to grow and work exactly like they would work inside an animal’s brain, and we can measure those cells under a microscope.
Growing brain cells is no easy task. You have to make sure that they have plenty of the nutrients they need, and keep their environment very dark, at a constant temperature. But, the hardest part of growing cells is keeping the environment clean. Dust particles and other small material we can’t see with our eyes can easily fall into the dish, which can make the cells sick. Growing cells is like having a very complicated pet!
Looking at the cells under the microscope is the coolest part of growing cells. When you look through the lens, you get a hint of what it looks like inside of the brain! You can easily pick them out under the microscope because they look like stars.
I am growing astrocytes at different temperatures to look for differences in their lipid content, which is another way of saying the food they produce for neurons. I’ve already noticed that there are differences between cells grown in hot or cool temperatures. Below are photographs of the actual brain cells I have in lab right now! In Figure A, the brain cells in a warmer temperature produce a lot of lipid, which are the bright, glowing balls in the picture. Figure B are brain cells grown at cooler temperatures. These cells do not produce as much lipid, but grow more quickly.
The next step in my project is to measure how rigid or fluid the different cell membranes are. This requires looking at the cells with a fancy microscope called a confocal microscope. The confocal microscope will allow me to see the differences in the cell membrane rigidity. I’ll keep you posted with what I learn!