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A Dynamic Neuron & His Dynamic Poster At #SfN12

Ned The Neuron

If you attended the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting earlier this week (SfN 2012) in New Orleans, you might have passed by a blonde woman carrying a fuzzy blue stuffed neuron. Lest you think you had one too many drinks on Bourbon Street, I’m here to tell you this was no hallucination.

Warp (left) and Voytek hang with Ned. Credit: Kizoom

The neuron’s name is Ned. He’s an adventurous sort with a bunch of fun-loving friends—Stella the stellate nerve cell and Bernard the bipolar retinal cell, to name a few. At the moment, Ned works in the motor cortex of the brain, helping humans put one foot in front of the other to traverse the great outdoors.

The blonde carrying Ned is Erica Warp. Once a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, studying spinal-cord development in zebrafish, Warp is Ned’s creator (and biggest fan). She dreamed him up during grad school, and when it came time to chart her future, she says the decision came down to “postdoc or Ned.” She chose the little blue guy.

Along with developer Jessica Voytek, Warp has created an educational story platform around Ned: It includes a storybook overlaid with audio and music as well as interactive diagrams and mini-games. Voytek and Warp came to New Orleans to present a poster about their efforts to bring Ned’s story to life and to promote their iPad app, “The Adventures of Ned the Neuron.” (Android users, your app is coming soon.)

Credit: Kizoom

“Neuroscience is a great gateway science for kids,” Warp says. “It’s cool. It’s something they can experience directly, through vision, touch, and other sensations.” But it’s also a subject that students typically don’t encounter until college, she adds. And that’s a shame.

That’s because it’s a science that’s accelerating—a true frontier. There’s so much neuroscientists are now finding out about the brain, and there’s still so much they don’t know, Warp says. Kids should experience this vibrant field earlier, she contends. “Even if they don’t end up going into science later in life, we want them to have a positive association with it.”

Voytek and Warp worked hard to get “The Adventures of Ned the Neuron” ready to launch at this year’s SfN meeting (having just established their company, Kizoom, in February). They managed to meet their deadline, although Warp says they are still doing some kid-testing and are making revisions to the app on the basis of feedback.

Warp is hopeful that this initial story about Ned will be just the first in a series of adventures for Ned. If successful, she could see Kizoom adding stories to the app in which Ned explores other brain functions such as memory or vision. In the current tale, Ned trains to become a neuron in the motor cortex. Hijinks ensue when Ned get so excited about firing his first nerve signal (action potential) that he does it wrong. The app follows the plucky neuron and his friends as they try to fix the problem.

Screenshot: Ned’s so excited about joining the motor cortex, he’s gonna fire a bazillion action potentials. Credit: Kizoom

“This probably isn’t going to be the next Angry Birds,” Warp says. But she thinks Ned’s story will keep kids entertained while also teaching them a thing or two about their brains.

To get your own copy of the app (for $2.99), click here.

Ned’s Poster

Ned is pretty rad all by himself. But what really caught my attention at SfN 2012 is that Voytek and Warp were presenting “The Adventures of Ned the Neuron” and its development via a “dynamic” poster. That means they presented their story and concept on a large digital flat-screen rather than on the traditional posterboard in the conference center. No thumbtacks needed.

Warp tells me that SfN contacted her and Voytek to tell them they’d been selected as part of a pilot program prior to the meeting. Apparently, there was one dynamic poster presented during each poster session over the course of the conference. Presumably, if the feedback is good, we’ll see more neuroscientists presenting their colorful, three-dimensional data on flat-screens in the future. Say goodbye to those poster tubes and trying to cram them into the overhead bin on the airplane, kids.

Earlier this year, I spotted a coloring book about cell biology and lamented the lack of chemistry equivalents. What I now want to know is: When does chemistry get dynamic posters and maybe a story or two about Benny the Benzene?

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