The cerebellum — an athlete and a scholar

Cerebellum, athlete and scolar

The cerebellum, once thought to be simply a motor coordination center, is now understood to participate in both cognitive and emotional processing.  Somewhat resembling the cerebrum (with lobes and a highly folded cortex), but far smaller, it was given the name cerebellum meaning “little brain”.  After early studies showed its obvious role in motor coordination, the cerebellum was type-cast as a dedicated motor processor.

Even on a purely anatomical level, the cerebellum is an amazing structure.  While making up only 11% of the brain’s mass, it contains about half of all neurons in the brain.  It achieves this phenomenal density with vast numbers of tiny neurons called granule cells.  Indeed, their small size and density has slowed progress by making it difficult to record the activity of individual cells.  On the tissue level, the cerebellum has an impressively regular organization that’s suggestive of a printed circuit board.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that new research implicates the cerebellum as a “calculator”, not just for motor coordination, but in other roles.  A study last year (summarized here) showed greater involvement between the cerebellum and cognitive centers, lending credence to the notion that it plays  a general role in “quality control”, not just in movement but in thinking.  And a paper earlier this year (summarized here) showed powerful control by the cerebellum over an emotional reward center in the brain, thus controlling behavior.  Other studies have suggested roles for the cerebellum in autism and schizophrenia.  With this recent “sprint” in research, the cerebellum has begun to earn new respect.





Hepatocyte, Jack of 500 trades

hepatocyte, jack of 500 trades

Our largest internal organ, the liver, is also one of the most versatile — it performs over 500 different functions.  Virtually all its functions are performed by hepatocytes (literally, “liver cells”).  Here, one of the liver’s 200 billion hepatocytes looms greatly enlarged, busily carrying out five of these vital functions — represented by familiar visual metaphors.

  • Conversion of protein (and other compounds) to glucose — a group of processes known as gluconeogenesis.  Here, a ham (high in protein content) is converted to some candies (mostly sugar).
  • Glucose storage and release — the conversion of glucose to glycogen (and  back again) — plays a major role in the regulation of blood sugar levels.  (Here, glycogen is represented as a slice of bread — not quite glycogen, but it’s made of starch, another long-chain carbohydrate.)
  • Secretion of bile, containing among its components bile salts, molecules that bind to fats on one side, and water on the other.  In doing so, they stabilize — in other words, emulsify — small drops of fat, making them more available for efficient enzymatic digestion.  The green dish detergent is an apt metaphor in two ways.  First, it works much the same way as bile salts, emulsifying the grease on your dishes so it can be washed away.  Second, bile is in fact green!  The color comes from bilirubin, another component of bile, which serves to excrete broken down red blood cells and has a strong color (which changes depending on the exact compound) owing to its iron content.
  • Secretion of blood proteins, such as albumins — represented here by egg whites (which do contain albumins as a major component).  Among other roles, blood proteins modify the osmotic balance of your blood, preventing it from losing too much fluid in your capillary beds.
  • Metabolism of drugs and poisons, typically converting them into a form that can be more easily excreted by the kidney into the urine.

Cool as a sea cucumber

Cool as a sea cucumber

Sea cucumbers made news not long ago for a new conservation effort in Sri Lanka. It seems they’ve been over-harvested in many tropical regions across the world.  This came as a surprise to me – I saw quite a few while snorkeling in Hawaii. It turns out some sea cucumbers are being depleted – it’s not so much that they taste good; they’re said to be so bland they’re often boiled in meat broth to add flavor.  But they  contain some unusual nutrients, and their resemblance to a certain human anatomical part has given them an unfounded reputation for increasing virility.

Let’s hope sustainable practices prevail, because there’s plenty to admire about living sea cucumbers. Belonging to the class Holothuroidea, they stand out among the other classes in the phylum Echinodermata. Starfish are a good example of a “typical” echinoderm – radially symmetrical, with five arms (pentameral symmetry).  Echinoderms are, in general, pretty slow-moving. Most travel on tiny feet – tube feet — which are operated hydraulically, using the water vascular system that is another unique feature of this phylum.

Unlike other echinoderms, sea cucumbers have adopted a worm-shaped (or really, sausage-shaped) body plan. But the five divisions of the body are still evident, separated by grooves, ridges, or rows of tube feet, running lengthwise along the body.  Their elongated, five-part shape can indeed bear a remarkable resemblance to  a cucumber, although the color varies widely.

Sea cucumbers bear five sticky tentacles, which they use to collect organic matter, either from the sand or drifting down through the water.  These they insert alternately into the mouth, to pull off food particles. Because the mouth is often occupied, the other end of the digestive tube has become their main respiratory organ.  The sea cucumber’s anus, opening and closing as it breathes  throughout the day, has proved too inviting for the pearlfish to resist.  This long, narrow fish, with a pointed tail, has evolved just the right body shape to easily retreat into the sea cucumber for safety.

But perhaps the strangest thing about the sea cucumber is its ability to expel many of its internal organs when harassed. The benefits are debated, but it likely serves as a distraction in many cases – similar to  a lizard’s tail tip that breaks off when attacked.  Afterward, the sea cucumber slowly regenerates its discarded organs.  There’s plenty of diversity in when, why, and from which end, evisceration occurs.  Sad to say, none of this deters the sea cucumber fisherman.  But we can all do our part to prevent these vulnerable creatures from being driven to extinction — I’ll have my cucumbers from the garden, please.

Smooth muscle, ace of tubes

Smooth muscle, ace of tubes

What’s your favorite muscle tissue?  Odds are you’ll say skeletal muscle, the type used in all voluntary movements.  Or, you might be partial to cardiac muscle, the main tissue component of your heart.  But there’s much to appreciate in the third muscle tissue, smooth muscle.  It’s a major component of your tubular organs – those of the digestive, urinary, reproductive, and respiratory systems, as well as your blood vessels – and for good reason.

The name “smooth muscle” refers to the lack of striations – the stripes visible on skeletal and cardiac muscle cells.  Those stripes reflect a highly regular, organized arrangement of protein filaments that give great strength and efficiency to striated muscle tissues.  But it comes at a cost – if you overstretch a skeletal or cardiac muscle cell, it becomes completely unable to contract.  That’s because muscle contraction depends on the sliding of myosin and actin filaments past one another.  Without any overlap to start with, the myosin molecules have nothing to grab onto.

Smooth muscle gets around this problem with a loose, net-like arrangement of myosin and actin.  When the cell is stretched, this network starts to straighten out, which means each group of myosin and actin suffers little tension.  The result is that much more overlap is maintained and these cells remain functional.

Why is this so important for a tubular organ?  Many of your tubes undergo stretching – think of your stomach after a big meal — which in turn, stretches the muscle cells.  But many other tubular organs undergo fluctuations in diameter, and smooth muscle allows them to contract under a wide variety of conditions.

Smooth muscle is also the only type of muscle cell that can divide after birth – a crucial feature in repairing a damaged wall after the passage of a chicken bone or a kidney stone.  Also, blood vessels can grow and change shape in response to changing demands – made possible by the production of new smooth muscle tissue.

Let’s give smooth muscle a little respect.  It may lack obvious “sex appeal” at first.  But considering smooth muscle makes up a big part of your reproductive organs, maybe it’s the “sexiest” muscle tissue of all!

Dense connective tissue — diverse hardware for the body machine

Dense connective tissues

If bones are the “steel frame” of the body and cartilage forms the “rubber shock absorbers” between your bones, what name do we give for all the nuts, bolts, stitches, pulleys, cords, housings, laces, bindings, springs and bungees that connect our parts together?

These tough, durable attachment structures are provided by the dense connective tissues of the body.  Like connective tissues in general, these tissues have few living cells (here, fibroblasts, shown traveling among the fibers).  But in contrast to other connective tissues, the word “dense” here refers to an especially high density of collagen fibers.  Collagen fibers provide a strong “steel cable” that is difficult to tear apart, and thus is used to provide tension resistance in body tissues.  Collagen is such an important structural component that it makes up 25% of body protein – your most abundant protein of all.

There are three types of dense connective tissue:

  • In dense irregular connective tissue, the collagen fibers lie in all different directions. This type is useful in tissues that are subject to unpredictable forces.  The deep part of your skin (dermis) is a good example – there’s no telling what part of your face your grandma is going to pinch, and in what direction!  This type also forms a fibrous capsule around joints and various organs.
  • In dense regular connective tissue, the collagen fibers are all lined up together, providing tremendous strength against tension, but only in one direction. It’s the tissue used in our tendons – cord-like structures that attach a muscle to a bone and allow the muscle to pull on the bone.  It’s also used by ligaments – cord-like structures that attach one bone to another, and prevent the two bones from being ripped apart from each other.
  • In elastic connective tissue, we also find a high density of collagen, but with an important difference. Large numbers of elastic fibers dominate the behavior of the tissue.  The result is like an elastic band — you can stretch it, but when you let go, it recoils right back to its original shape.  It’s an important component of arteries, allowing them to stretch when the blood pressure varies.  It also allows your lungs to exhale without using any energy, saving energy in ventilation.  There are also elastic ligaments in your neck that give your head a little bounce when you start to fall asleep in class — perhaps saving you from injury, while providing the rest of the class with an entertaining demonstration!

A bottle model to explain lung ventilation and pneumothorax

bottle model of lung ventilation and pneumothorax

To understand how your lungs work, you need to understand how they function within the context of your chest, or thorax.  In other words, your lungs don’t work within a vacuum.  Wait — correction — your lungs DO work within a vacuum!  (Well, almost a vacuum.)  That’s because in order for your lungs to expand, there needs to be low pressure between the lungs and the wall of the thorax.

It’s easy to make a simple model to demonstrate how breathing works.  Take a large soda bottle and cut off the bottom.  Replace the bottom with a flexible rubber sheet from the hardware store, to represent the diaphragm, and attach it securely to the bottle using a rubber band or super glue. To represent a lung, you take a party balloon, insert it into the top of the balloon, and stretch the opening of the balloon over the bottle to attach it securely.

To inhale, pull down on the diaphragm.  This increases the volume of the space between the bottle and the balloon, decreasing its pressure as a result.  That space represents the pleural cavity, which is a very narrow space in the healthy human body but plays a crucial role in ventilation.  When the chest expands, the lungs expand only because the pleural cavity is “vacuum sealed”.  Its low pressure counteracts the natural tendency of the lung tissues to recoil.  Thus, when the chest expands, the lung expands as well, and air is sucked into the lung.

The “vacuum seal” of the pleural cavity can be broken if the chest wall is perforated (such as by a bullet or knife wound).  It can also happen if only the lung itself is damaged (which can sometimes be caused by physical trauma).  In either case, when you attempt to breathe by expanding the thorax, air quickly enters the pleural cavity, where you don’t want it to be.  This condition is known as pneumothorax (“air within the thorax”).  Without the near-vacuum in your pleural cavity, there is nothing to keep your lung expanded and it collapses.

To represent pneumothorax in the “bottle model”, you can poke a hole either in the side of the bottle, or in the balloon itself — you’ll find that the balloon no longer expands.  When I present this model to my class, I ask my students to imagine this last step.  I’m always very excited (as shown above) just to get the thing working at all, so I’ll be darned if I’m going to poke any holes in it!

How muscles work

muscle contraction

Here’s how we move, using the elbow as an example.  A muscle is attached to the bones on either side of your elbow joint.  Inside the muscle, proteins called myosin (red), which are arranged in tiny rows called thick filaments, have little arms that reach out and grab onto proteins called actin (blue), which are arranged in tiny rows called thin filaments.  Alternately grabbing, pulling, and releasing, the myosin, like a tug-of-war team, brings the actin on one side closer to the actin on the other side.  The shortening of the muscle, which results from this sliding filament mechanism, is called muscle contraction.  Because the muscle is attached to each bone by a tendon, the bones are pulled together and the elbow bends.

This arrangement of proteins, like a stack of flattened hexagons, is called a sarcomere.  It’s the “functional unit” of muscle contraction, meaning that in theory, if a muscle had just one sarcomere like in the cartoon, it would still work.

That’s the simple version.

The molecules, of course, are shown greatly enlarged.  To maximize efficiency, the muscle has an intricate structure of repeating units that will make your head spin.  Sarcomeres are attached end-to-end (about 10,000 per inch) to form contractile rods called myofibrils, and myofibrils are stacked side-by-side to fill each muscle cell, which is also known as a muscle fiber.  A unique feature of skeletal muscle tissue (the type that can be voluntarily controlled, as in the example) is that the individual cells are extremely long – almost as long as the muscle itself!  So a muscle in the arm has “only” around 250,000 muscle fibers – far fewer than the billions of cells one normally finds in an organ.  The extreme length of our skeletal muscle cells probably makes them quicker and more efficient.

Now let’s consider the entire muscle again.  Its whole purpose is to move a bone through space.  To do this, it has to have a stable attachment at one end, called the origin.  When the muscle contracts, the other attachment, known as the insertion, is moved closer to the origin, and this is what bends your elbow.  Within the muscle, all of the sarcomeres are shortening at once, but the ones closest to the origin are hardly moving at all.  Meanwhile the sarcomeres near the insertion are moving rapidly, pulled by the cumulative efforts of all the myosin molecules further up the myofibril, allowing the muscle to win the “tug of war” against gravity.

The zebra spider around your home

The zebra spider around your home

The zebra spider, Salticus scenicus, is more common and fascinating than many people realize.  Check your window screens and outside walls — I often find they are conspicuous in the first warm days in early spring, but you can find them throughout the warm months.  Like all jumping spiders (family Salticidae), they are fun to watch.  You may find one feeding on an insect that is much larger than the spider.

Many liberties were taken with the caricatures in this drawing, of course, but I think it captures the outsize personality that these spiders project.  They are actually even smaller than shown — only a few millimeters.  But they are among the most interesting creatures easily observed around the home.

In explaining how spiders jump, I put “blood” in quotes because, like arthropods in general, they have an open circulatory system.  This is a system where, like ours, a fluid is pumped by the heart and travels through blood vessels; but unlike ours, it then leaves the open end of the blood vessels to circulate throughout the tissues of the body, where it is analogous to the interstitial fluid (and subsequently lymph) in humans.  Therefore in spiders, the term hemolymph is used to describe the circulating fluid.

You can learn more about the life of zebra spiders at Animal Diversity Web, and Bug Guide is a good general source for identifying this and other spiders. An excellent “jumping-off” point for those intrigued by jumping spiders in general is, where you will find links to blog posts about jumping spider-collecting expeditions (with beautiful photos), and to information about laboratory research on acoustic communication among these otherwise highly visual spiders.

The private life of earthworms

The private life of earthworms

Every summer I am shocked, simply shocked by the wanton hedonism that transpires in my tomato garden.  Sometimes, I have seen several pairs of earthworms mating simultaneously.  Last night was the first pair that I’ve noticed so far this year, so I guess the “season” has begun.  When you think about it, earthworms are probably the largest animals that most of us are likely to observe in the act of mating — at least, on a regular basis.

A good source for earthworm information is Earthworm Watch. There are a variety of sources for earthworm facts & trivia online — here’s one with a high density of information, and another with some surprising information about their ecology.  You may also be interested in earthworm toilets, which were in the news just a few months back (those are toilets for people, not for the earthworms).

The versatile pharynx

Pharynx depicted with legs, eyes, and nose.

Here’s a body part you’ve probably never seen in isolation — and almost certainly not with legs, and a face of its own!  But these embellishments serve to emphasize that the pharynx is a middle-man, straddling two different organ systems and negotiating the competing demands of each.

Ideally, air travels in through the nasal cavity, all three parts of the pharynx (nasopharynx, oropharynx, laryngopharynx), and then the larynx, on its way to the lungs.  While eating, breathing is paused while food travels through the oral cavity (mouth), the lower parts of the pharynx (oropharynx, laryngopharynx), and the esophagus on its way to the stomach.  But as you can see, these two pathways overlap in the pharynx.  As a result, the pharynx, along with associated structures, plays a vital role in regulating the passage of air and food.

There are four ways that food and air movement can differ from the ideal situation depicted above, and these “mistakes” vary all the way from innocuous (and perhaps entertaining) to life-threatening.

First, food could move through the upper pharynx (nasopharynx).  Sometimes food is expelled this way if you sneeze or laugh while food is in your mouth.  But most of the time, the soft palate, a muscular structure, closes against the back of the pharynx to prevent this.  If you want to “get in touch” with your soft palate, try snorting – you just closed your soft palate and then opened it while inhaling.  A word to the wise: Restrict your snorting to air and mucus!  But unfortunately, if you can think of it, somebody will try it — the FDA had to issue a warning not to snort chocolate powder.

Second, air can move between the middle pharynx (oropharynx) and the mouth.  Wait, you may say, isn’t this exactly how we breathe?  If that’s your impression, then you probably have a congested nasal cavity, and it’s true we can breathe through the mouth, although it’s less than ideal.  The reason is that the nasal cavity has complex folds that help to trap debris and pathogens and do an optimal job of “conditioning” the air before it reaches the lungs.  So if, as I often do, you find yourself walking behind a group of sneezing and coughing students, it may help to close your mouth and breathe through your nose.

Like the rest of your respiratory and digestive tracts, the pharynx is a moist habitat suitable for invading microbes, and being near the entrance to both tracts, it is a common place for infections to begin.  What’s known as a “sore throat” is generally a viral infection of the pharynx.  That’s likely why we have several immune structures — the tonsils — in the walls of the pharynx.

Third, air can move between the lower pharynx (laryngopharynx) and the esophagus – the food tube leading to the stomach.  According to healthline, in most of us about two quarts of air move into the stomach this way, each day, from the small amounts of air trapped in our food or drink.  And of course, when air leaves the body through this route it is called burping — technically known as eructation.

The fourth, and by far the most serious problem, is food traveling from the laryngopharynx into the larynx.  The larynx, or voicebox, sits in front of the esophagus and is the gateway for the lower respiratory tract.  “Inhaling” your food is dangerous — in the US, over 5,000 people die from choking each year. Our main protection from choking is the epiglottis — a laryngeal cartilage between the oropharynx and nasopharynx, which folds down to close off the entrance to the larynx, every time you swallow.

Your pharynx handles a lot of traffic through the body, and deserves some respect – definitely nothing to snort at!