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CSHL’s Dolan DNA Learning Center launches G2C Online website to explain human brain to students, patients, general public


G2Conline.org charts networks of interactions – from genes to proteins to synapses – that result in human thinking and disorders of thinking

Cold Spring Harbor, NY – Over a period of decades, scientists from a wide variety of disciplines have devoted themselves to discovering how the human brain functions, both in health and illness. With each passing year, we understand more and more of the fantastically complex puzzle of how an organ comprised of tens of billions of nerve cells gives rise to higher functions such as thought, planning, and problem-solving.

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The pace of discovery is so rapid that even experts have difficulty keeping up. Yet the challenge for the general public is far greater: how are they to make sense of successive waves of discovery in increasingly complex fields?  After three years of work, a web development team at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has put the finishing touches on a project targeted for non-scientists that aims to “connect the dots” in several important areas of brain research.

The first-of-its-kind website went “live” this week to coincide with International Brain Awareness Week, which begins this coming Monday, March 16th. Called G2C Online (www.g2conline.org) – a shorthand for its objective of spanning the vast conceptual (and biological) distance from “Genes” toCognition” – the site is targeted for biology and psychology students, as well as families who are facing mental health problems and interested members of the public.

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has been modeled on research emanating from the Genes to Cognition Research Program at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Hinxton, England. G2C program director Seth Grant is using network theory to study the interactions – from genes to proteins to synapses – that result in human thinking and disorders of thinking. Insights from the research lab are enriched in G2C Online by contributions from more than 70 neuroscientists from across Europe and the United States, who provide different perspectives on genetic, neural, and cognitive approaches to understanding human behavior.

The site is designed and administered by the BioMedia Group of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s Dolan DNA Learning Center (DNALC), a leading producer of biology multimedia. The DNALC has the distinction of being the first science center in the U.S. dedicated to public genetics education. Since 1988, more than 325,000 middle and high school students, teachers, and families have benefited from its hands-on educational programs, and millions more have accessed the Center’s award-winning websites.

A unique web network design that corresponds with networks in the brain


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G2C Online is distinguished both by its content and the way in which it is represented on the web -- specifically, its method of rendering the complex and interlocking relationships between different aspects of brain anatomy and function. Just as the brain itself is composed of interconnected networks of cells, the site graphically represents information about these components as members of a vast network, whose nodes are interconnected.

The user’s perspective of the network shifts as he or she navigates from one point to another. The effect is to underscore the connections between known elements in brain circuitry, neuroanatomy, and brain function and dysfunction, in the context of specific brain illnesses such as autism, schizophrenia, bipolar illness, and depression.

The site is interactive at every level, with representation of its content shifting as the viewer changes perspective – whether from autism to schizophrenia or among the various categories  in which these illnesses are mapped conceptually: genes, biochemicals, cells, brain anatomy, cognition, and environment.

Navigating complexity in a “small-world’ environment

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According to David Micklos, Ph.D., project leader and the DNALC’s executive director, navigating G2C Online is analogous to functioning within social networks. “If you needed expert advice on autism, you would contact the most reputable physician you know. That physician might make a referral to the most reputable neurologist or psychiatrist she knows, who, in turn, would put you into contact with an expert on autism. Each of these well-connected individuals is a node in a social network that positions you just four steps from the critical information you need.”

“We live in a ‘small world’ in which only several social connections separate any two people,” says G2C Online’s executive producer, John Connolly. “By the same token, people routinely harness the small-world aspect of the Internet – hopping between prominent nodes to quickly locate information about even the most arcane topic. Recent research has shown that brain function relies on exactly the same types of small-world networks. For example, each of the several hundred molecules involved in processing a nervous signal is, on average, separated by less than four connections from any other molecule.”

The computer technology behind G2C Online is every bit as revolutionary as the science it covers, notes Sue Lauter, creative director at the DNA Learning Center. Each content item – and its relationships to other items – is stored in a database. A “network engine” draws items from the database to construct a dynamic network that interacts with the needs of the user. Rich multimedia will form the major nodes of the network. Key among these materials are narrated animations that seamlessly integrate video narration with cell and molecular animations, experiment simulations, and bioinformatics tools.

G2C Online was supported by the Dana Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Visit G2C Online at www.g2conline.org.

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) is a private, not-for-profit research and education institution at the forefront of efforts in molecular biology and genetics to generate knowledge that will yield better diagnostics and treatments for cancer, neurological diseases and other major causes of human suffering. For more information, visit www.cshl.edu.

The Dana Foundation is a private philanthropic organization with principal interests in brain science, immunology, and arts education. For more information about the Foundation, its grants, publications, and outreach activities, visit www.dana.org. The William and Flora

Hewlett Foundation
is committed to sustaining and improving institutions that make positive contributions to society. The Foundation believes that private philanthropy is of great value to society and a key objective of its work is to encourage and develop the field of philanthropy. The Hewlett Foundation’s Philanthropy Program is a central part of that commitment.

Written by: Peter Tarr, Senior Science Writer | tarr@cshl.edu | 516-367-8455
 
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