Distinguished Neuroscientist Wows Crowd at Raleigh Brain Awareness Week Event

There was standing room only for Dr. Baldomero ‘Toto’ Olivera’s Science Café on March 13, 2015, which was held at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. Guests of all ages were in attendance to celebrate the 50th year of Brain Awareness Week. During this annual week-long event, neuroscientists host brain-inspired events to inform the public and policy makers of the importance of brain research.

Dr. Olivera is best known for his work on conotoxins, which are compounds that he discovered in the venom of a class of predatory sea snails called cone snails. His interest in cone snails began as a child in the Philippines, where he enjoyed collecting their shells. Today, he studies the biodiversity of cone snails and their mechanisms of hunting & defense. Cone snails hunt their prey using needlelike teeth to harpoon fish and release neurotoxic venom, which causes near instantaneous paralysis. Dr. Olivera, along with his colleagues, identified over 100 compounds present in the
cone snail venom. They injected each compound individually into mice to and observed the resulting physiological responses.

Each compound had different effects, from inducing a comatose-like state to encouraging jumping to causing the mice to run in a circle. The two most potent compounds in the venom,
conotoxin alpha and beta, work synergistically by blocking different ion channels. The Science Café concluded with a question & answer session that led to a lively discussion on topics ranging from the medical benefits of conotoxins for intractable pain to how the cone snails don’t paralyze themselves after eating their prey.

In addition to Dr. Olivera’s Science Café, there were 13 brain-inspired exhibits on display throughout the lobby. There were exhibits from North Carolina State University, East Carolina University, and several non-profits, including the Brain Injury Association of North Carolina (BIANC). There were exhibits on the role of oxytocin in pair bonding of prairie voles, electroencephalogram demonstrations, larval drosophila with fluorescently-tagged neurons, and even an iPhone rigged to measure action potentials in facial muscles.

Approximately 300 people visited the museum to learn about the brain and the research being done in the area. Guests also had the opportunity to attend 4 short talks presented by students in the Daily Planet Theater. The museum and neuroscientists involved are eager to host the event again next year and invite additional participation from other laboratories, institutions and nonprofits.

The organizers thank the W.M. Keck Center for Behavioral Biology, the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, WRAL, NC State University neuroscientists, the ECU Psychology Department, BIANC, and the Triangle SfN Chapter for their combined efforts that made this event successful!

-Story by Shannon Farris, NIEHS

This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of The Triangle Transmitter.

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