How seeing can change what you see

We sometimes take it for granted how the way we see enables us to perceive and interact with the world, but how our visual system works is amazing. It’s an intricately choreographed process – from the light that comes into our eyes, to the way that our brains carry that information and form it into an image we can understand. If brain cells are improperly connected during growth and development, or if part of the system is destroyed by injury, all kinds of visual havoc can be a result. But how does a brain get wired properly in the first place?

 In a paper in the Journal of Neuroscience last week, Professor Steve Van Hooser’s lab reported some of the effects of experience on development. The new paper shows evidence that neurons in all layers of the visual cortex aren’t just ‘born’ with the right connections between the parts of the brain that control vision. According to their data, the act of seeing itself makes changes in how the neurons process visual information. The lab is continuing their studies of brain circuits to uncover how, during development, the act of seeing changes how you see.
Clemens JM, Ritter NJ, Roy A, Miller JM, and Van Hooser SD. The Laminar Development of Direction Selectivity in Ferret Visual Cortex. J. Neurosci. 12 December 2012, 32(50): 18177-18185. 

Illuminating career paths in the sciences for high school students

On November 5th, the Van Hooser lab in the Biology Department hosted nine high school students from Hyde Park’s Boston Preparatory Charter Public School (BPCPS) for both a tour of the lab and an open question session about the specific goals of the lab’s research, and about science careers in general.

Boston Prep serves students from disadvantaged areas of Boston, with 76% qualifying for free and reduced price lunch and 92% being of minority racial backgrounds. As part of a rigorous educational program that seeks to prepare them for college and beyond, BPCPS sophmores visit various area businesses twice a year for hands-on learning about the careers open to them. The school has been nationally recognized for its academic excellence. It also bucks trends in the sciences — while nationwide there is a noted drop-off in interest in the sciences as students enter high school, particularly among young women,  (Osborne, Simon, and Collins 2003; American Assoc. of University Women, 1992), students at Boston Prep retain a high interest in the sciences throughout their tenure there, and female students actually become more interested in the sciences in high school.

Assistant Professor Steve Van Hooser led the students through a brief introduction to life in an academic science lab and his personal career path, before discussing his lab’s focus on the visual system and the impact that basic research has on everyday life and understanding. The students then took a tour of the lab, and were able to visualize neurons under the lab’s 2-photon microscope. After the visit, Steve noted, “It was terrific to be able to talk with such promising young people and to share a little of the brain science we are doing here at Brandeis.  The students asked really insightful questions about our studies, the use of animals in research, and the clinical applications of basic research.  It is exciting to think about what these students will be doing in 15 years.”

Those interested in hosting a future visit from students can contact Jenn Wolff from the Van Hooser lab (jwolff at, or contact Danielle Pape at BPCPS directly ( dpape at (617)333-6688 ext. 126 )

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