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Visiting scholar speaks about neurological disorders

Visiting scholar speaks about neurological disorders

Susan Birren, former dean of arts and sciences and professor of biology and neuroscience at Brandeis University, was chosen to be the Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar and give a public lecture to Hofstra students and staff. In her presentation on Thursday, Feb. 7, “Building a Brain: Cells, Circuits and Developmental Disorders,” Birren discussed her work on cellular interactions in neurons and how brain cells can affect neurological disorders. 

Sarah McCleskey, head of resource and collection services and secretary of the Hofstra Phi Beta Kappa, Omega of New York Chapter said, “The Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar Program’s main purpose is to offer undergraduates the opportunity to spend time with some of America’s most distinguished scholars [...] Susan Birren was a perfect fit.” She continued, “The neuroscience major at Hofstra is a relatively new program encompassing psychology, biology, biochemistry and other related disciplines, and we wanted to make interaction with a prominent scholar possible for these students.”

The lecture was presented by the Hofstra Cultural Center and the Phi Beta Kappa Society. It was co-sponsored by Hofstra University Honors College (HUHC), the Hofstra College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the Office of the Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs.

Vice Provost for Undergraduate Academic Affairs and Internationalization Neil H. Donahue considered Birren “an exemplary selection” as a Visiting Scholar for her “breadth of scope in higher education and the specificity of excellence in her own discipline.” While introducing Birren, Donahue said that she spent much of the day and the day before going to various classes and discussing her multifaceted research pursuits. 

Birren, who is also a developmental biologist, said, “I think that development is unbelievably cool ... because if you think about it, you start with a single cell, an egg that’s fertilized and then it gives rise to a complete human being. While we are going to talk about things that go wrong, I find it just astonishing that this works.” 

The neuroscientist pointed out that the mechanisms of cognition work – and can fail to work – “across the lifespan.” She also said that “disruptions can take place early as you are building up these networks, in which case you end up with developmental disorders, or you could have no problem with setting it up, but then there are processes that take place later that cause cells to die.”

Rhea Vyas, a sophomore biology major, said that the presentation “showed ... detailed insight into the complexity of the brain and how different disorders are impacted by certain things.” 

Professor of philosophy Anthony Dardis found Birren’s point about homeostatic balance within the brain especially interesting. Birren said, “Two or more structures have opposite effects, and healthy functioning depends on these structures regulating one another to maintain a ‘mean between extremes.’”

Dardis added that Birren noted that they were not yet able to pinpoint exact cures for these developmental disorders. 

“Birren’s lab has uncovered some of the mechanisms by which this balance is maintained and hence ... possible mechanisms for a wide variety of developmental disorders including autism, ADHD and schizophrenia.” 

Jesse Stewart, a senior computer science major, said, “The presentation was insightful considering the ramifications of nicotinic receptors.” He referred to Birren’s concept of how nicotine’s stimulating effect works by binding to acetylcholine receptors in the brain, which enhances attentional processes. This contributes to the addictive nature of the stimulant. 

Chair of the psychology department Craig Johnson believes more students should be knowledgeable of the topics covered within the presentation. 

“Most students either currently or will in time know people who suffer from the disorders she discussed, so I think it is very helpful to them to learn more about what may be going on in the brain.”

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