Posted: December 22, 2022
Why do kids seem to be lightning-fast at adapting to new technology updates? How are teenagers able to hear new slang words and instantly be able to use them perfectly in context?
For decades, scientists have been investigating these types of questions, discovering how people’s ability to code new information in their brains seems to be most efficient when they are young and diminishes as they get older. The ability to absorb new information as one learns is highly related to brain plasticity (neuroplasticity).
Neuroscientist Julie Miwa, an associate professor and leading researcher in neuroplasticity in Lehigh’s Department of Biological Sciences, discovered in graduate school that the LYNX1 gene could influence brain plasticity. Since then, she has learned that the LYNX1 gene suppresses neuroplasticity, and has been devoted to unlocking the secrets of brain plasticity–to slow down one’s brain from losing it.
According to Miwa, the LYNX1 gene codes for and increases the production of Lynx1 proteins as people age at the end of robust periods of change in their brains. These Lynx1 proteins are capable of acting as molecular brakes on neuroreceptors (signal receivers in neurons), which stimulate neuroplasticity. Miwa's research found that removing LNYX1 in animals improved associative learning and other forms of memory, and extended youthful neuroplasticity into adulthood. Perhaps one day, she said, removing Lynx1 proteins in brains or inhibiting LYNX1 genes may keep brains malleable for longer and help maintain plasticity as people age.
Other researchers have demonstrated that humans can improve their brain’s plasticity by engaging in artistic and creative activities that force their brains to approach problems from a different perspective.
As a jazz musician herself, Miwa uses music to represent scientific ideas and keep her brain more plastic as she approaches neuroscience problems.
"The beauty of neurons through intricate synaptic connections" by Zena Meighan, majoring in Japanese and Art
Image by Zena Meighan, who is majoring in Japanese and art: 'The beauty of neurons through intricate synaptic connections.'
Inspired by this line of research and her own experiences, Miwa initiated "NeuroSalon" in 2021 as a Mountaintop Summer Experience project, supported by the Office of Creative Inquiry. Since then, through subsequent Mountaintop summers and CINQ courses, 20 students representing 13 different majors, all of whom are motivated by exploring the intersection between the sciences and the arts, have participated in the project, creating their own artworks which reflect neuroscientific principles and presenting live performances to showcase their work.
The NeuroSalon project empowers students to "speak" the language of scientific knowledge by making visual, choreographic, and musical creations that artistically represent neuroscientific concepts.
"[NeuroSalon] is sort of trying to digest the information about the brain and communicate that to non-scientists in a way that isn't intimidating," Miwa said. This approach "doesn't use too much scientific language and uses the arts and music to convey a message."
In NeuroSalon, students found their passion in creative fields. For students, NeuroSalon is more than a project. They say they have not only found the connection between neuroscience and the art world, but have been encouraged to embrace challenges and take responsibility, which has had benefits for their other academic work and future career pathways.
Nessie Houck '24, a double major in theater and cognitive science, heard about NeuroSalon from one of her friends. After a summer and semester collaborating with NeuroSalon, Houck said she finds NeuroSalon's interdisciplinary approach suitable to her interests.
"It's nice to have a way to experience arts and science altogether," she said. This science and arts approach is "more like … a holistic and interconnected view."
In NeuroSalon, Houck works on visual artworks that tell science stories. She is also a theatrical stage manager by training, helping facilitate productions by making sure team members have the materials and space needed to produce their own artistic and scientific works.
She treats her role as a big responsibility and opportunity, training her to think and act quickly. "In terms of takeaways, it's given me a lot of confidence,” she said. “Now I know I can lead a team and make things happen."
"A self-portrait" by Jenna Kim, Pre-Dental Track
Image by Jenna Kim, pre-dental track: 'A self-portrait."
Like Houck, Erin Klus '23 also studies both the arts and sciences, specifically chemistry and music. "They're both huge parts of my life…I have always been interested in integrating [both]," she said.
Recently, Klus has been advocating for scientific accessibility, the art of introducing science to the general public. She said, "The projects we work on here allow people to believe that they can understand abstract concepts without a high academic background in science."
Thanks to her own background and interests, Klus takes charge of all the technical aspects of NeuroSalon's shows, producing videos and working on audience systems. Klus said the hands-on approach from these projects has real-world applications and benefits for her other work and future professional career.
"I learned how to design and implement things,” she said. “I worked with logistics."
Anna Murphy ’23, majoring in architecture, said she also discovered how essential art is as a teaching tool in science through the trial-and-error opportunities that NeuroSalon provided. She is one of the illustrators for NeuroSalon, where she created paintings, drawings and sculptures for exhibits and workshops.
"We use art to display concepts that would otherwise be hard to understand without a visual example," she said.
Graduate students also have found their niche in NeuroSalon. Mo Chen, a fourth-year graduate student studying cognitive psychology, said she found fulfillment in her projects.
"I always tell my friends that our program encourages people to enjoy their life and do things they enjoy," she said. "In graduate school, we are overwhelmed with research and teaching. It's important to have a hobby to support you along with this journey mentally."
Chen uses painting and origami, as well as dance and choreography, to convey her neuroscience ideas. For NeuroSalon's live shows, she communicates her thoughts through dance works. As a choreographer, Chen created most dances for NeuroSalon's live performances and collaborated with composers and musicians to bring the dances to life on stage.
NeuroSalon performed a live show combined with an exhibition in November 2022 at the Ice House, a Bethlehem performance venue, showcasing two newly composed songs ("DNA of You" and "Neuroplasticity") with dance. Most exhibited artworks and demonstrations referenced scientific backing and research support.
Many students from NeuroSalon said Miwa encouraged them to discover their interests while finding balance to offset stressors.
" I think students are pretty engaged and having fun,” said Miwa, in explaining her pedagogical approach. “They also have a chance to conduct art regardless of their major…I find that if you align students' curiosity with what they're doing, they get more out of it."
When envisioning the future of NeuroSalon, Miwa and her students plan to put on larger live shows that will include musical compositions with dances and interactive arts with audiences.
The team is preparing its next live show at the Stabin Museum in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, and hopes to present at the Ice House and Lehigh University again in 2023.
"We're exploring options to bring the story to more people, perhaps developing materials for schools," Miwa added.
As NeuroSalon grows and expands its audiences, Miwa and her students hope to inspire more people to be creative in their everyday lives. They recommend: Find activities that interest you to exercise your creative brain even on your busiest days. It doesn’t need to take long–10 minutes is enough to help one’s brain make new pathways and connections, they said.