Walk for Salk 5K event headlines free laboratory tours with 'Shrek'
by DAVE SCHWAB
May 02, 2014 | 1137 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The public got a rare behind-the-scenes peek at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies — one of the Jewel’s true treasures and medical marvels — on April 12 during its annual Step into Discovery event.

The event combined a fundraising Walk for Salk 5K with free public tours of Salk Institute laboratories. Guests were treated to scientific talks and hands-on activities, including a kids zone and science booths.

A visit to colleagues of Sreekanth (“Shrek”) Chalasani, assistant adjunct professor of neurobiology in UCSD’s Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory, was a tour highlight.

“Disney stole my name,” quipped Chalasani, noting he got his nickname because the popular animated character’s name somewhat resembled his own, besides being a lot easier to say and spell.

Chalasani and his co-workers are busy exploring the inner “universe” of the mind, body and nervous system, the connection between them and how everything works Though it may not sound sexy, that mind-body connection is being explored with tests on C. elegans, a simple worm species.

“Very little is known about the human brain and its approximately 85 billion cells,” said Chalasani, noting that the study of the human nervous system and its thousands of nerve connections is mind-boggling. By comparison, C. elegans’ nervous system has only 302 neurons.

Chalasani explained how understanding a worm’s nervous system might ultimately shed light on ways to treat, and perhaps someday cure, dread diseases such as Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia and Parkinson’s.

“With a worm’s neurons,” Chalasani said, “we know every single one of them and how every one is connected with every other one. You can use the simple system to understand how a nervous system works and learns how to deal with things like stress, fear or anxiety.”

Grad student Sarah Leinwand and research assistant Ada Tong in Chalasani’s lab guided visitors through a microscopic look at C. elegans. Guests got to see how the worms reacted to stimuli like the introduction of salt and an actual video of a worm neuron “firing” as it strongly reacted to the salt.

Illustrating his research, Chalasani noted that dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain's reward and pleasure centers and helps regulate movement and emotional responses, is present in worms and humans. Dopamine deficiency, as it turns out, results in Parkinson's disease.

“It’s really hard to figure out how neurons connect with each other as we struggle to understand how disease is caused or progresses and how to treat it,” Chalasani said. “I can look at C. elegans, which has only eight dopamine neurons, and study how they affect the worm’s brain.”

Established in the 1960s by polio vaccine developer Jonas Salk, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies is one of the world's preeminent basic research institutions.

Salk faculty achievements have been recognized with numerous honors, including Nobel prizes and memberships in the National Academy of Sciences.

The institute is an independent nonprofit organization and architectural landmark.
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