A New Perspective on the Whole Brain

  • Feature Story

A New Perspective on the Whole Brain


Sara Cody
Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Clinical Connection Module Brings BCS Students Out of the Lab and into the Hospital

On a Friday morning, a crowd gathers in the morgue in the basement of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). Moments before, the audience had learned the case history of a deceased patient, reading notes from the attending physician, exploring MRI images projected on the wall and discussing possible diagnoses and treatment options. Now they form a semicircle around the neuropathologist as they watch him carefully dissect the patient’s preserved brain. He confirms the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, pointing out its catastrophic effects as he passes brain slices around the crowd for a closer look. Among the audience are doctors, medical students, residents, and thanks to the BCS Clinical Connection Module, a BCS graduate student.

“MIT and MGH have a long and storied history of collaboration, and I wanted to continue that tradition while opening up new opportunities for BCS graduate and undergraduate students to gain first-hand experience in a clinical setting,” says Dr. Thomas N. Byrne, Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, Neurologist at MGH and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, who spearheads the program. “A physical bridge connects both MGH and MIT across the Charles River. My hope is that this program does the same for learning opportunities between the institutions.”

The program is a week-long rotation, where participants coordinate directly with Byrne to attend a variety of seminars, conferences, discussions and other experiences throughout the week based on their interests, whether it’s spending time in a clinic, sitting in on a radiology consult, attending neurology and psychiatry grand rounds, or even the Friday morning brain cuttings. Students have the opportunity to learn about the pathogenesis, diagnosis, management and therapeutic clinical trials of diseases of the nervous system. Seminars range in relevant topics such as Alzheimer’s disease, functional neurosurgery, movement disorders, epilepsy, neuro-oncology and neuropsychiatry.

“One thing I try to stress to the students is that this experience lets you see neuroscience in action through the clinical perspective,” says Byrne. “When it comes to making a diagnosis, sometimes you have the whole story, as when you are looking at the case history in the brain cutting. Sometimes you only have part of the story if you are seeing a new patient in the clinic who is presenting with the initial symptoms of a disease.  Knowledge of the basic science coupled with clinical experience enables us to establish a diagnosis and therapeutic intervention.  This experience allows students to understand the potential impact of their research in a real-world setting.”

Jenna Aronson, a BCS graduate student, participated in the rotation in December 2017. Aronson’s research interests focus on neurodegenerative brain disorders and aging, so she felt particularly drawn to participate in the program. The ability to work closely with Byrne to tailor the rotation to fit her interests made for a deeply impactful experience. She even accompanied Byrne in the exam room as he saw his own patients in the memory loss clinic, where she interacted with patients and their caregivers and gained a deeper understanding of the physical and emotional toll of the people affected by a neurodegenerative diagnosis.

“The reason I came to BCS is to learn more about neurodegenerative disease, and with that understanding, find ways to give back to both patients and their caregivers affected by it,” says Aronson. “As a doctoral student, I think it’s important to understand the point of research, and this clinical rotation is a meaningful way of gaining firsthand perspective in the clinic in addition to simply studying it  in the lab. For me, it really solidifies my resolve to move forward in my research.” 

In addition to the brain cutting and memory disorders clinic, Aronson attended conferences on functional neurosurgery, radiation neuro-oncology, Alzheimer’s disease and neurodegeneration. According to Aronson, one of the most impactful parts of the experience was the one-on-one time with Byrne, who is a “wealth of information in and of himself.”

“I would definitely recommend this experience to anyone, even if their research interests aren’t directly clinically relevant,” says Aronson. “In the lab, you typically only work with small areas of the brain, but this is an incredible opportunity to look at the whole brain from a different perspective. It just shows you what a mystery the brain really is, and how much work there is still to be done!”

Learn more about the Clinical Connection Training Module.