Next Science Café: Decoding the Language of the Brain

By Roger AndersonMarch 15, 2018

It’s possible to take for granted that the human brain is vastly more complex than a squid’s brain, but there exist many similarities in the most basic of “languages” — neural signaling — that guides each species.

Indira Raman, the Bill and Gayle Cook Professor of Biological Sciences, will discuss the neurochemical signals that compose this language at this month’s Science Café. There, she will share insights about her quest to understand the tiniest units of neural coding and how they may offer new perspectives about what it means to be human.

Raman’s lab studies the electrical properties of neurons in the cerebellum, a brain region important for controlling movements, learning new motor skills, and making predictions.

“We’ve learned that the protein molecules that carry out similar functions in different cells are specialized in each neuron,” says Raman, who has received numerous honors for her work, including the prestigious Jacob Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “That specificity allows the molecules to make specific electrical signals suited for sending different kinds of information.”

Neuroscientists like Raman are revealing how the nervous system works, including by examining of how brain cells send electrical and chemical signals to one another to encrypt and decode all the information that makes people sensitive, thoughtful, and active living creatures.

Raman notes that her work is influenced by Northwestern’s interdisciplinary research environment. “Our neurobiology department is located in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, allowing us to integrate more easily with departments like psychology, chemistry, physics, linguistics, the engineering school, and colleagues in communication sciences and disorders,” says Raman. The collaborations don’t end there, though. “The University’s Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program bridges the Evanston and Chicago campuses, uniting more than 150 faculty and 150 graduate students in 20 departments and seven schools at Northwestern,” she says.

Raman will discuss her latest research collaborations, as well as the challenges faced when exploring brain signals. Science Café is open to the public and takes place March 21 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Firehouse Grill, 750 Chicago Ave. in Evanston.