The 34th edition of Soup and Science, an event for prospective undergraduate researchers and curious students organized by McGill’s Faculty of Science, made such a comeback that the in-person registration was full. During the week of Sept. 19, The McGill Tribune attended two fascinating talks about the medical uses of Viagra and the transformation of sensory input into behaviour.
Viagra: An affordable treatment for asphyxiated newborns
While Viagra, scientifically known as sildenafil, is most known for its use as a treatment for erectile dysfunction in men, it has also proven to be an effective treatment in newborns with high blood pressure in their lungs.
Dr. Pia Wintermark, a neonatologist and an associate professor in McGill’s Department of Pediatrics, discovered along with her team that sildenafil treatment may decrease the effects of brain injury in newborns suffering from oxygen deprivation or asphyxiation. Using a rat model of birth asphyxia, they demonstrated that sildenafil acts by creating new neurons and decreasing inflammation in the brain. Currently, Wintermark and her team are conducting a clinical trial in Uganda where access to total body cooling—the standard treatment for asphyxiated newborns—is limited.
During her talk, Wintermark also addressed some of the questions that many undergraduate students interested in research may have asked themselves. To get started, students should find a topic they are passionate about and a lab in that respective field. They should then send an email to the principal investigator to express their interest, while keeping in mind that researchers have very busy schedules. According to Wintermark, motivated undergraduate students stand out by being enthusiastic about the work being done in a prospective lab.
“Never stop at the first obstacle. [You have to] cope with [any potential setbacks] and find solutions,” Wintermark noted. “Be ready for some work.”
Cracking the (neural) code: Understanding how the brain perceives and reacts to the environment
Maurice Chacron, a professor in McGill’s Department of Physiology, studies how information from the environment is processed in the brain to ultimately generate behaviour.
He began his talk by claiming that cracking the neural code—the neuronal instructions that give rise to behaviour—is a greater challenge than trying to crack The Da Vinci Code Cryptex, a locked object that stores secret messages.
The brain perceives and interprets sensory input from the environment to produce an output that acts on this environment. Together, these millions of information transfers comprise the neural code. Each individual’s internal state, influenced by our emotions and physical health, affects perception, making the decoding of the neural code an even more complex undertaking.
“Our state of mind influences our perception and reactions to our environment,” Chacron said in his talk.
Chacron used population coding strategies to investigate how the perception of sensory information engenders behaviour. This technique of representing stimuli through the combined activities of neurons is appropriate for the study of behavioural responses, since an enormous population of neurons is responsible for something as complex as behaviour.
Chacron says that trying to understand the transformation of sensory input into actions is like trying to see and identify an entire painting in the dark with a tiny flashlight.
“Machine learning tools will help us understand the brain but will not get us [all the way] there,” Chacron said.
Even though his lab uses computational modelling, a key characteristic of their methodology is their multi-disciplinary approach that combines recordings of electrical activity in neurons with studying behaviour in weakly electric fish and macaque monkeys, in addition to computational analysis.