Two students participating in Ureka research projects at the National Centre for Biomedical Engineering Science (NCBES ) explain their work. Ureka is a Science Foundation Ireland funded programme which provides undergraduate students to conduct research over the summer months in leading institutes.
by Anna Skucha,
NCBES Ureka Student
I am sure you can remember a time when your mother yelled at you to put sunscreen on before going outside. Well, she was right. Sun exposure is very harmful and can lead to serious and painful skin burns that do more than just cause you pain. Sunlight can damage both the external and deeper layers of the skin, and can lead to diseases such as skin cancer.
The major cause of skin cancer is the exposure to ultraviolet (UV ) radiation which is found in sunlight. These levels are increasing due to depletion of the ozone layer, climate change and lifestyle factors such as increased sun holidays and the use of sunbeds.
UV penetrates deeply into the skin and it is an important factor in the development of skin cancer. UV radiation can cause damage to cellular DNA. DNA is the “information carrier” of the cell and damage to the DNA can lead to cancer.
To protect the cellular DNA, the deeper layers of the skin contain cells called melanocytes that produce melanin – a pigment which is primarily responsible for the colour of the skin. Increased production of this pigment helps to protect skin cells against the damaging effects of the sun and UV. It absorbs harmful UV-radiation and transforms the energy into harmless heat.
My project aims to investigate how melanocyte cells respond to UV radiation. I will use techniques to study how the growth of these cells is affected when exposed to UV radiation.
White matter and psychiatric diseases
by Cornelia Carey, 2010 NCBES Ureka Student
I’m studying changes in the human brain that are implicated in depression. The use of MRI is part of its diagnosis. This project aims at improving this method of diagnosis by studying changes under a certain type of microscope and then comparing these images with MRI scans.
In order to imagine what I’m doing, think of the brain as a road network. Its outer layer is made of cells which are like car parks. These ‘car parks’ or cells are called grey matter. Extensions from these cells stretch throughout the inside of the brain and connect to one another. This is similar to the way in which roads extend from car parks, then join and cross other roads. The roads in the brain are called nerves and collectively are known as the white matter. These nerves transmit signals from one part of the brain to another, the way that cars travel on roads. Nerves are always organised into bundles, in the way that roads join to form motorways when travelling long distances in the same direction. This makes transport of signals more efficient than it would be if individual nerves were crossing everywhere.
Nerves are also enclosed in an insulating layer called myelin. Myelin is like the barrier around a motorway that prevents cars from going off the road or animals from crossing it. Myelin thus makes the signal faster and helps it go in the right direction. When myelin gets damaged, the signalling isn’t as good. This can cause lots of different problems depending on when it happens (e.g. childhood vs adulthood ) and what bundle of nerves it affects.
Using the special type of microscope mentioned in the beginning, I’m studying changes in bundles in the brain that are implicated in depression. The images I obtain will then be compared to those from an MRI machine with the objective of perfecting MRI and thus improving the diagnosis of depression.