Q&A: BrainFacts.org Editor Highlights Revamped Website
John Morrison, PhD, is editor-in-chief of BrainFacts.org. He is also director of the California National Primate Research Center and professor of neurology at the University of California, Davis, and a member of the National Academy of Medicine.
What are the main goals that the BrainFacts.org Editorial Board wanted to achieve with the website redesign?
We wanted a cleaner site with easier navigation, and that was definitely accomplished. We also wanted more animation and interactivity. Humans are visual animals. We learn through our visual system in many respects, and so animation is an easier way to teach people. Two great examples of increased animation and interactives on the new site are the 3-D Brain and the updated Neuroscience Core Concepts — or what we think everyone should know about the brain.
How do you envision the public interacting with the redesigned BrainFacts.org?
There’s a tremendous hunger for learning more about the different brain areas and what they do. People hear about these brain areas in the news — they’ll hear about the hippocampus or they’ll hear about the prefrontal cortex — but they don’t have a sense of where those areas are in the brain or what they really do, so the 3-D Brain will be very attractive to the public. It’s the same with the Neuroscience Core Concepts, and the animation makes them really come to life.
What are the advantages of partnering with other respected scientific and professional organizations for BrainFacts.org content?
It would be very difficult to produce BrainFacts.org without partners to provide the financial support. Without the major funding from The Kavli Foundation and the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, we wouldn’t have the rich foundation of scientific content, and without funding like what we’ve received from the Wellcome Trust, we couldn’t do special projects like the 3-D Brain and Neuroscience Core Concepts animations.
In addition, it would be impossible if we had to create all of our own content. Being able to partner with organizations that we trust and that have the same high standards that we have for accuracy gives us an enormous capacity to expand the content through our partnerships.
How can neuroscientists use BrainFacts.org to support their education and outreach efforts to inform the public about the latest discoveries in brain research and its importance to their lives?
Neuroscience is a broad discipline, so neuroscientists can use the site to get information on an area of the field that's outside of their own. Even if it is in my field, I’ll send somebody to BrainFacts.org for a description of that area of neuroscience because the site provides wording and descriptions tailored for a lay audience. It can be difficult for neuroscientists to get beyond our jargon and the scientific terminology and concepts that we work with every day, but you really do have to get outside of that to communicate with the public. BrainFacts.org has worked hard in its articles and in its content to be lay audience-friendly.
What do you see as the future for BrainFacts.org?
BrainFacts.org is dynamic. I don’t see it as ever being “finished.” I see it as always expanding in content and always expanding in its use of technology for education.
Right now in the 3-D Brain you can see the brain regions, but you don’t see what’s connected to what, so we want to superimpose connectivity. We would like to take the three or four major inputs and outputs to a given region and connect those regions. If you focus on the hippocampus, for example, it would show you the main projections in and out of the hippocampus. There’s a lot we could do once we start to put even the most basic connections in.
I also want to be able to superimpose pathology. Let’s take Alzheimer’s disease, for example. We know that there’s a standard progression of the pathology in Alzheimer’s disease, and I’d like to be able to visualize that on the 3-D Brain — where Alzheimer’s starts, where the tangles show up first, how they spread to new brain areas, and as this spread occurs, how symptoms appear. I think we could do that in a fairly straightforward way, and that’s just one disease. We could do that with Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, etc.
The last part that I see as the future of BrainFacts.org is virtual reality, being able to walk through a neuron. This will be quite complicated. We would have to build into that neuron everything we know about the cell biology of a major neuron, let’s say a pyramidal cell in the cortex, and then as you walk through it you would see where the mitochondria are, where proteins are synthesized, what’s transported out to the synapse. Once you could walk through the normal neuron, you could superimpose pathology on it so you could walk through a healthy neuron or a diseased neuron. That would to take a lot of work, but I’d like to see that.