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June 27, 2017 – Grant Canipe didn’t always know that he wanted to be a scientist. His revelation came one day at Northwest Cabarrus High School in Concord, NC, when a Duke University student came to Canipe’s AP biology class to discuss his research and plans for graduate school. Canipe found himself inspired by that student’s experience so much that he himself is now completing his doctorate at UNC Chapel Hill in developmental psychology and nutrition. He studies under the direction of Carol L. Cheatham, Ph.D. in the Cheatham Nutrition & Cognition Laboratory at the UNC Nutrition Research Institute (NRI), located on the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis.
His journey from undecided high school student to NRI scientist is why he was especially happy to speak recently to AP Biology and Psychology students at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis, NC. Canipe shared with them that, after graduating from high school in 2009, he attended Appalachian State University where he earned his Bachelor of Science in Psychology in May 2013. Just months later, he joined Dr. Cheatham’s Lab.
Using examples from research in the Cheatham lab at the NRI, Canipe discussed parts of the brain, types of brain cells, neurological development, and how the brain changes over time. He quizzed the students on the lobes of the brain and their functions, how synapses act as messengers for nerve signals, and what can be done to support the brain, including the importance of nutritional health.
“The human brain is like a muscle,” Canipe said. “The ‘if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it’ idea definitely applies.”
Canipe explained to the students that unlike muscle or skin tissues, for example, neurons or nerve cells do not divide, and there are only a limited number of new neurons that develop in adults. However, the number of synapses—a junction between two neurons—does change during development. In fact, the number of synapses increases so much during early infancy that the brain conducts synaptic pruning to eliminate some connections, resulting in a highly organized network of neurons and synapses.
He also discussed the frontal lobe, the last area of the brain to develop. The prefrontal cortex, a part of the frontal lobe, is especially important for decision-making. Because the frontal lobe is typically not fully developed until the mid-twenties, Canipe explained, alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine are particularly bad for brain development any time before reaching this age.
Canipe concluded with a discussion of ways to support brain health from reducing stress to eating well. He likened nutrition and the brain to cars and fuel. “As Dr. Cheatham always says, you wouldn’t fill your car with bad fuel, and likewise, you shouldn’t fill your body with bad food to power your brain.”
Reflecting on the talk that he heard when he was in high school, Canipe said, “I remember that visit really changing how I viewed my future. It was the first time I remember really thinking about becoming a scientist. The opportunity to speak with the students at A.L. Brown felt like I was able to pay that back a little bit.”