Investigate How Your Brain Trains Your Muscles

New Exhibit Dives into the Science of Procedural Memory
By Kaitlyn Casimo, Ph.D. student, Neuroscience, University of Washington

Growing up outside of Portland, I was in the Oregon Zoo’s Teen volunteer program for five years. I took bunnies to visit kindergarteners, painted peanut butter on walls for the enjoyment of polar bears, and led the Zoo Teen’s conservation education group. At Pomona College, I intended to continue my study of animal behavior science. There, I stumbled into my first neuroscience class with the thought that if I was going to study behavior, I probably should know something about the brain. I never looked back. I graduated with my degree in neuroscience, and minors in psychology and theater, where I was one of only a few science majors also involved in theater.

I am now working on my Ph.D. in neuroscience at the University of Washington, where I study how the human brain adapts as part of learning a new skill. I focus on brain connectivity, which is how different areas of the brain communicate with each other. Brain networks look a lot like air traffic networks: different regions act like hub and local airports, with many short-distance connections and fewer long-haul connections. Some connections also repeat with a regular pattern. Together, these individual connections form networks. In the brain, these connections link groups of neurons, each with a specific job. In my research, I study how these connections change to reflect recently learned skills. I work with others in my lab, many of which are engineers who design brain-computer interfaces, which measure activity in the brain and use that to control a computer. Because we can be sure that people have never used a brain-computer interface before, they participate in our research and I can study the whole learning process from the very first exposure on. Our work will help make devices like prosthetics easier to use by people who have amputations or who are paralyzed.

Outside of my research, I also devote time to science education. I am involved in neuroscience education and outreach programs at UW and here at Pacific Science Center. I’ve also gone back to my roots with the animals as a volunteer at the Woodland Park Zoo. As research increases our understanding of the world, education spreads that knowledge. I’m lucky to get to do both! As an educator, as well as a researcher, I try to spread knowledge about neuroscience, animals, and the environment to make science a little less mysterious and show how it can be fun and interesting.

Portal to Current Research is an exhibit space that showcases local scientists’ advances in current research through a combination of digital media, graphics, objects, and interactive displays and programs. Exhibits change twice a year. In the current exhibit, Memory: Past Meets Present, investigate how our muscles learn to ride a bike, shoot a basketball or play the piano. Dive into the science behind how your brain retains information and explore how practicing a specific action many times teaches your body to do physical tasks. Test your procedural memory with a “save-the-prince” interactive game, or see if you can remember how to play a simple song on a keyboard. This installment of Memory: Past Meets Present will be on display in the Portal to Current Research through March 6, 2016.

Paul G. Allen Family Foundation