The scientists discussed below are doing research on the brain. Students will have an opportunity to hear from these scientists by watching the video accompanying this module. Following the description of each scientist’s work is a brief explanation of how each uses the steps of scientific inquiry to solve problems.
Eric Chudler, Ph.D.
A neurophysiologist from the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington, Dr. Chudler is currently studying why people with an illness called Parkinson’s disease experience significant pain. Parkinson’s disease affects a small area of neurons in a certain part of the brain. These neurons are responsible for coordinating smooth and balanced muscle movement. Parkinson’s disease causes these nerve cells to die, and, as a result, body movements are affected. The person becomes shaky and finds it hard to speak. Dr. Chudler is conducting his research with rats and trying to understand the activity of neurons, or nerve cells, in the area of the brain affected by Parkinson’s disease.
Understanding Dr. Chudler’s Research in Terms of the Steps of Scientific Inquiry
Observe: Dr. Chudler observed that people with Parkinson’s disease also experience a lot of pain. He was puzzled by this because Parkinson’s is a disease of movement and not typically associated with pain. He wanted to find out what was causing the pain in people with Parkinson’s disease.
Predict: Dr. Chudler believes that a specific part of the brain is involved in both Parkinson’s disease and pain. When this part of the brain is affected, people get the movement problems of Parkinson’s disease, as well as the pain they experience.
Experiment: Using rats, Dr. Chudler measures the activity of neurons in the part of the brain responsible for Parkinson’s disease to see if the pain is originating in the brain. If he can find where the pain is coming from, it will be easier to develop a treatment for this problem.
Conclude: From his research, Dr. Chudler hopes to find the area or pathways in the brain that cause pain in people with Parkinson’s disease. Once this area or pathway is discovered, new treatments can be developed.
Michael Byas-Smith, M.D.
Dr. Byas-Smith is an anesthesiologist at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia. He is working with other scientists to determine whether chemical changes that take place in the brain make certain individuals more likely to become addicted to drugs. To answer this question, Dr. Byas-Smith and his team are working with rats, monkeys, and humans.
Understanding Dr. Byas-Smith’s Research in Terms of the Steps of Scientific Inquiry
Observe: Dr. Byas-Smith wondered how specific chemicals in the brain behave when drugs or medications are given to people. These special chemicals are important because they help create habits in people. Some habits are good, like keeping your room neat or getting a good night’s sleep. Other habits can be bad, like eating too much food even when you are not hungry.
Predict: Dr. Byas-Smith predicts that these chemicals act as a “switch” for addictive behavior. He wants to find the switch and figure out how to turn it off.
Experiment: Different experiments are being conducted on various systems in the brain to see whether there is an “addiction switch.” Dr. Byas-Smith uses a Positron Emission Tomograph or “PET” scanner to take a picture of the brain while it’s working.
Conclude: If Dr. Byas-Smith and his staff are able to find out how the brain chemicals work, they may be able to make medications that can help people stop bad habits and help those who might be more likely to develop bad habits.
Denise Jackson, Ph.D.
Dr. Jackson is the Director of the Undergraduate Behavioral Neuroscience Program at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. She studies rats to look at the effects of cocaine on how the brain grows even before the rat is born.
Understanding Dr. Jackson’s Research in Terms of the Steps of Scientific Inquiry
Observe: Dr. Jackson wonders how cocaine affects the growth of the rats’ brains at different times before they are born.
Predict: She predicts that giving a mother rat cocaine will have a different effect on the brains of her baby rats than on the mother rat herself. Different amounts of cocaine will also produce different effects.
Experiment: She uses specific tools and instruments to see how the brains of unborn rats are affected by cocaine. She is trying to learn if the neurons are where they are supposed to be in the developing brain.
Conclude: By testing these predictions on rats, Dr. Jackson is able to further understand brain development in humans. She hopes that as this begins to be understood, we may be able to make discoveries and develop ways to correct the problems in babies whose mothers take drugs like cocaine before they are born.
Alane Kimes, Ph.D.
Dr. Kimes is a drug abuse researcher. She works at the NIDA Research Program in Baltimore, Maryland. She is interested in finding out how drug abuse changes the way the brain works. From her research with animals and people, she hopes to find ways to help people stop using drugs.
Understanding Dr. Kimes’ Research in Terms of the Steps of Scientific Inquiry
Observe: The purpose of Dr. Kimes’ research is to study how the brain functions in normal people in comparison to how the brain functions in drug abusers or smokers.
Predict: Dr Kimes believes that if she is able to find out what is different about the way drug abusers’ brains work, she may be able to find out ways to help their brains and make them work more like the brains of people who don’t abuse drugs.
Experiment: Dr. Kimes uses a scanner to see what parts of the brain are working harder than other parts when people play special games or take little tests. The brains of people who have taken drugs like cocaine, heroin, or marijuana or who smoke cigarettes sometimes work differently than people who don’t take these drugs.
Conclude: So far, Dr. Kimes has found that the parts of the brain involved in making risky decisions don’t work as well in drug abusers when compared to people who don’t abuse drugs. She hopes to find out more so she can change the way the brain works and help people make better decisions to not use drugs.