Lights, Chemicals, Action!

A Screening for Neurobiologist Werblin's Cinema of the Elements

by Fran Marsh

An Altman or Fellini he's not, but neurobiology professor Frank Werblin is the director of a biological cinema of sorts in his "Neurons and Networks" class in molecular and cell biology.

His videos dynamically simulate a variety of neuroscience principles, starring synaptic input-output curves, gating of ion channels, electrical properties of nerve membranes and myelin sheaths.

The plot unfolds as a series of scenes illustrating how nerves work.

One recent morning, Werblin's students watched one of his "matinee" productions on an overhead screen in a darkened lecture hall.

Groups of small colored balls representing sodium and potassium performed a delicate ballet in unison. First drawn, then repelled, by electrical charges, they ebbed and flowed across membranes or coursed through vari-colored cylindrical "hatches" attached to hollow, spherical nerve cells.

In one scene, flapping hatch tops representing ionic channel gates double as the lines of a traditional graph, showing how angles-and the equations they generate-change as the hatches open and close to admit varying amounts of ions to a nerve cell axon.

In another scene, as the particles dance nearby, an oscilloscope screen displays a moving curve reflecting their actions as an impulse propagates along a nerve.

Inspired by his stepson, Zac Rymland, the principal in Liquid

Pictures, a Berkeley high-tech animation company, Werblin started making the videos two years ago using a PC and "3-D Studio" software.

Each of the 15 episodes took him a lengthy eight hours to produce. "But it's like doodling," he said, "more a pleasure than a task."

Through the videos illustrating his lectures, Werblin's mostly first-year students can "see" the dynamics of chemical and electrical interactions brought to life in simulated nerve cells.

"Then it becomes easier for students to envision the ideas underlying the equations," said Werblin.

"When you see it come alive on the screen, you have an appreciation for the dynamics that you could never get from the printed page."



Copyright 1997, The Regents of the University of California.
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