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Memory puzzles
March 3, 2014   
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Do dyslexic children have a slightly different brain structure than their classmates? What chemical reactions cause the immune system to support the development of malignant brain tumors? Why are certain events etched so firmly in our memory?

Scientists at the newly opened Neurobiology Center at the Nencki Institute of Experimental Biology in Warsaw say they already have answers to such questions.

Opened in mid-November last year, the center has conducted its first studies focusing on research topics such as dyslexia in children, pain perception, memory mechanisms, and chemical signaling pathways used by malignant brain tumors to reprogram human immune cells.

Built at a cost of zl.52 million, the Neurobiology Center of the Nencki Institute is part of a major European project that aims to establish a Center for Preclinical Research and Technology (CePT) in Warsaw.

The new Neurobiology Center has enabled the Nencki Institute to assume a leading role in prestigious European projects such as Euro-BioImaging, one of 10 biological and medical science projects included in the “roadmap” of the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI).

“We hope that over the next decade we will become one of the leading research centers in Europe,” says Prof. Adam Szewczyk, director of the Nencki Institute.

The Neurobiology Center houses five core facility laboratories: the Laboratory of Molecular Neurobiology, Laboratory of Tissue Structure and Function Imaging, Laboratory of Animal Models, Laboratory of Brain Imaging, and the Laboratory of High-Standard Preclinical Research. The laboratories are fitted with cutting-edge research equipment, including a top-notch magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner. Based on the use of the MRI scanner, the Neurobiology Center is continuing research into the link between dysnomia or attention deficits and the anatomic features of certain brain structures in dyslexic children such as the cerebellum and parietal cortex.

Other research at the center has included detailed analysis of the chemical signaling pathways via which malignant brain tumors reprogram human immune cells. Thanks to modern, large-scale research, it was possible to evaluate changes in the expression of not only single genes, but all genes at once.

The center’s researchers have also completed work to build a database of genetic information processing and regulatory mechanisms on the genomic scale in mice, rats and humans. The database is integrated with other scientific databases and contains a complete dataset and a number of bioinformatics tools necessary for the evaluation of “reading” methods for each gene based on the gene’s sequence and data on its regulation in various cells.

The Neurobiology Center is also home to the Nencki Affective Picture System (NAPS) database. Each of over 1,350 photographs showing humans, animals, landscapes and objects has been examined by more than 200 individuals. The collected behavioral data enables scientists to predict whether a given picture will be perceived by a person as positive or negative, stimulating or relaxing and so on.

The NAPS database is already used in research on memory processes. When volunteers are shown photographs while their brain activity is being monitored, the scientists at the Neurobiology Center are capable of predicting whether the subject will remember a given photograph in a few weeks or not. This research will make it possible to establish why certain events are so firmly etched in our memory. The long-term goal is to better understand attention and memory problems that play a key role in post-traumatic stress, for example.

In addition to conducting research, the Neurobiology Center aims to offer a friendly and attractive working environment for scientists from around the world specializing in areas such as neurobiology, biochemistry and molecular biology. “The level of investment in the Neurobiology Center, the most modern equipment and the excellent scientific staff are our strongest suits,” says Szewczyk.

The Nencki Institute of Experimental Biology is run by the Polish Academy of Sciences. The institute was established in 1918 and is the largest non-university center for biological research in Poland. Priority fields for the institute include neurobiology, neurophysiology, cellular biology and biochemistry and molecular biology. There are 31 labs at the institute, among them a modern Laboratory of Confocal Microscopy, a Laboratory of Cytometry, and a Laboratory of Electron Microscopy, Behavioral and Electrophysiological Tests.

The CePT project, with a budget of over zl.388 million, is the biggest biomedical/biotechnology undertaking in Central and Eastern Europe. A system of core facility laboratories is being built in Warsaw’s Ochota district as part of the project. This system will integrate the research and development activities of many scientific institutions. The laboratories will make it possible to conduct basic and preclinical research meeting the highest European standards in areas such as protein functional and structural analyses, biomaterial physico-chemistry and nanotechnology, as well as medical technology, physiology and pathophysiology, oncology, neurobiology, genomics and research into age-related diseases.
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