Contact: Lynn Stewart, Centenary News Service, 318-869-5120, or Dr. David Coppola, Mary Amelia Douglas-Whited Professor of Neuroscience, Centenary College, 318-869-5241

Research by Centenary College, Duke University Neuroscientists Sheds Light on the Role of Sensory Experience in Brain Cell Function

Prestigious Scientific Journal, Nature, Reports on their Discovery in June 28 Edition

Dr. David Coppola, Centenary College of Louisiana

SHREVEPORT, LA -- In this week's edition of the prestigious scientific journal Nature, neuroscientists from Centenary College and Duke University report on a new discovery that sheds light on early development of the human nervous system.

"These studies should influence ophthalmologists who treat infants with visual disabilities, as well as neuroscientists who continue to seek to understand the dynamic interplay between nature (our genome) and nurture (our experience)," said Dr. David Coppola of Centenary. "And that must ultimately account for the wondrous complexity of brain structure and function."

Dr. Coppola points out that since the time of Descartes, scholars have been trying to understand how sensory experience shapes the development of our nervous system in early postnatal life. 

A landmark discovery came in the early 1960s when Nobel laureates David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel used the visual system to demonstrate that certain functional properties of brain cells (called neurons) could be influenced by manipulating sensory experience  (vision in this case), especially in the first few months of life.  However, there has been little agreement about whether and to what degree experience influences the initial formation and subsequent maturation of functional properties of neurons.

In the June 28, 2001 edition of the British scientific journal, Dr. Coppola, who is the Mary Amelia Douglas-Whited Professor of Neuroscience at Centenary, along with two collaborators at Duke University Medical Center  -- Drs. Leonard White and David Fitzpatrick -- report on the discovery that sheds light on the vexing problem.

Using the visual system of an experimental animal as the model for their studies, the professors showed that normal sensory experience is necessary for the full maturation of certain functional properties of neurons in the visual centers of the brain.  This means that normal experience is very beneficial in early postnatal life when brain structures are still growing toward functional maturity.

However, they also demonstrated a darker side of experience: rearing in an abnormal visual environment left neurons in the visual centers of the brain profoundly impaired, even worse off than if no visual experience of any kind had been permitted.  Their study indicates that the brain is endowed genetically with certain functional abilities that can be enhanced or degraded, depending not on the quantity but on the quality of experience encountered in early life.

Dr. Coppola has been a member of the Centenary College faculty since 1999 and previously was on the faculty at Duke University and Davidson College.  A native of Fredericksburg, Va., he earned the B.S. degree in biology in 1979 from the University of Virginia, the M.S. in biology in 1981 from East Tennessee State University and the Ph.D. in zoology in 1985 from North Carolina State University.

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