Announcing a new online neurobiology course from NeuroMOOC!!

I continue to be wowed by NeuroMOOC students so much so that I have changed both my teaching goals and the actions that I take to achieve those goals. This is not a new sentiment as I have written previously about several NeuroMOOCers in the past: Sabeen MahmudAnish GarikipatiFrancisca Martínez Traub, Diana Keat, and Felipe Sales Nogueira Anorim Canedo. Yet, I perpetually fall short of adequately conveying the emotional impact that interacting with so many people from all over the world who share an interest in my beloved neurobiology has had on me. I am going to try again here. First I am going to describe two NeuroMOOCers, who by all rights should be strangers to me, who are not strangers to me. Not at all, not anymore. Then I will explain how my experiences with NeuroMOOCers such as Miguel Camarena and Apra Sharma, profiled here, have altered my approach to teaching and served as the motivation to offer a second online course on neurobiology, starting this fall.

Miguel Camarena: from analog engineer to neuroscientist

Miguel Camarena took Understanding the Brain: The Neurobiology of Everyday Life back in 2014. Shortly after completing the course, Miguel wrote me explaining how UtB had reinforced his interest in neuroscience. Miguel is an engineer and at the time was working for Intel. In his spare time, he wrote me that he intended to set up a worm (C. elegans) laboratory in his kitchen, hoping to contribute to neuroscience. Miguel was aiming to be a citizen scientist!! Just like Charles Darwin! This totally rocked my world. In just a few months, Miguel was indeed putting together a small setup, complete with a USB microscope (which I didn’t even know existed until Miguel told me), and sent me a picture reminiscent of the Day of the Dead holiday celebrated in Mexico, Miguel’s home country.

Miguel Camarena’s worm lab is pictured with a “Day of the Dead” scientist hard at work. Photograph kindly provided by Miguel Camarena.

Just this past month, Miguel left his job in engineering to accept a position at the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s Institute of Neurobiology, which is in the city of Queretaro. There, Miguel wrote that he will be using the “ideas from computer vision and machine learning to distinguish and quantify locomotive phenotypes” in worm mutants. This is really interesting work that aims to delineate behaviors in a bias-free, assumption-free manner. Many who are serious about behavior are thinking about this type of approach. Not only has Miguel successfully married his engineering skills and background to his growing neuroscience interests, but he’s doing so in a laboratory run by a student of the great Ricardo Miledi. Working with Bernard Katz, Miledi demonstrated that calcium ions are needed for synaptic transmission. It is now known that a high local concentration of calcium ions at the active zone is necessary for synaptic vesicle release through rearrangement of the SNARE complex. In Neurotree terms, Miguel will be the scientific grandchild of Miledi and great-grandchild of Nobel Laureate Katz.

Here is Miguel on his first day in a worm laboratory at ITESM. Clearly this is a happy engineer-neuroscientist!! Photograph kindly provided by Miguel Camarena.

Apra Sharma: the confusion of brain injury in a loved one

Apra Sharma wrote me, after having found UtB on Coursera, about her mother who had suffered from a subarachnoid hemorrhage. She sent me scans of her mother’s brain and asked for my opinion on several specific questions concerning prognosis, time frame for “a full recovery” and the possible utility of using zolpidem, a drug that has brought several people in minimally conscious state (MCS) back to a transient functional and responsive state. [It should be noted that prospective studies such as this one have yielded disappointing results, suggesting that a very small proportion of MCS patients can benefit from zolpidem.] I wrote back and after stating that I am not a physician, gave Apra general thoughts about vegetative and minimally conscious states, highlighting the difficulty in predicting the time course of recovery, if any recovery does in fact occur, from states of altered consciousness.

Apra’s sadness is palpable. Clear in her letter to me is Apra’s belief that her mother is still alive in there, showing signs of responsiveness, and that she could recover. Her mother is only 49 years old. One day, mom is okay and the next, not only is mom not okay but she is so far from okay that she cannot determine her own choices. Apra’s mother cannot choose between treatment options. Now consider Apra’s position. From not knowing anything about states of altered consciousness one day to having to make decisions about her mother’s life the next day. The life-and-death drama of brain injury – due to trauma, stroke, ischemia or tumor – is never anticipated. The family members of brain-injured patients are forced to deal with highly specialized medical concepts at a time when their emotions could not possibly be more jumbled. Understanding the medical landscape of brain injury would  challenge even the most calm person on their best day. No one can function optimally after suddenly learning of a loved one’s incapacitation.


A pair of CT scans illuminated by sunlight, with a backdrop of an Indian landscape. Kindly provided by Apra Sharma.

I don’t know how many people Apra reached out to or why she felt that she needed to reach out to anyone beyond her mother’s physicians. But she did. And she found me through this world wide web of people interested in neurobiology. The unlikelihood of my connecting with Apra is beautifully illustrated in a picture that Apra sent me, showing a couple of scans, illuminated by sunlight, against the backdrop of an Indian city. For me, this juxtaposition of the familiar scan with the entirely foreign backdrop exemplifies the incredible power of connecting with people across the world with whom I share nothing and everything simultaneously.

Flipping the classroom

Now I want to take a slight detour and explain my decision to “flip” the classroom on the Medical Neurobiology course that I have taught in, in one way or another, for the last quarter century. Since my textbook was published in 2011, I have taught this course solo at Pritzker Medical School. The brutal medical school schedule gives me roughly 28 days (or 27, depending on how the Jewish holidays fall) to teach hundreds of pages of material. To address these demands,  I settled on a schedule that involves 2-hour lectures, five days a week. And I don’t take a break. So that is 110 minutes of straight lecture. Yeah, the students don’t love the no-break part…

Last year, my 6th year teaching this course solo, I realized that I could do a better job by pre-recording lectures. By so-called flipping the classroom, we could use a shorter amount of class time to greater effect than we were to date. Having students come to class with the basics in hand would enable class time for more-fun-things-than-lecturing such as:

  • Active exercises to illustrate the material. For example, when learning about gaze; the VOR, optokinetic nystagmus, post-rotatory nystagmus, and smooth pursuit movements are all easily demonstrated. These demonstrations are memorable and stick with the students. Illusions are great ways to understand the vision and hearing.
  • Work through clinical scenarios. Given a case presentation, small groups can make their way through to a diagnosis and an understanding of the underlying basic neurobiology.
  • Class-wide ethical discussions. Neurobiology and neurology are rife with ethical dilemmas: how to define death; whether the critical period should be re-opened; neuro-enhancements; the use of EEG, MRI, and polygraphs in the criminal justice system for lie detection; cochlear implants for congenitally deaf children; and the culpability of individuals with dementia are just a few of the topics that can be discussed. The most beautiful feature of these discussions is that no answer exists. The fun is in the discussion, the expansion of one’s perspective, and a deeper appreciation of the complexity of human choices.

There is nothing new about flipping the classroom, except the term itself. Law schools have used this approach for more than a century. Students read material beforehand so that class time can be spent in discussion. Substituting videos for book chapters does not change the essence of the flipped or inverted approach.

Screen Shot 2017-06-11 at 12.11.33 PM

A new online course on Medical Neurobiology will feature several themes familiar to NeuroMOOCers including this bit where I malign the poor alligator’s cognitive abilities and telencephalic size. The course, opening in the fall of 2017, and intended for medical students will also feature topics and deep dives that were not covered in Understanding the Brain.

Where do NeuroMOOCers come in?

As we planned to put Medical Neurobiology into video form, one initial idea was to license the videos to other medical schools, freeing them to move beyond the primarily lecture format just as we were doing. But from the beginning I also wanted an avenue for individuals, regardless of background, position, geography or finances, to be able to access the course for an affordable price. Here I was thinking of NeuroMOOCers. As I am mostly untouched by the entrepreneurial spirit, I never had much verve for the licensing idea. And due to my experience teaching Understand the Brain: The Neurobiology of Everyday Life on Coursera, I had gads of enthusiasm for open access teaching. Happily, I have been given the go-ahead to make the course open access through iTunes U and perhaps through YouTube as well. This leads me to shout out from the tree-tops:

I am thrilled to announce that I will release an open access, on-line course, entitled Medical Neurobiology, this (2017) fall.

The online Medical Neurobiology course will be different from Understand the Brain: The Neurobiology of Everyday Life. It is intended for medical students and closely follows the second edition of my textbook in topic order and content. That said, judging from the NeuroMOOCers that I have gotten to know over the last three years, I think the course could be accessible to motivated and interested individuals willing to put in work. I hope that you all will let me know how it goes for you.




  1. Marja, This is my sooooo smart, beloved teacher, Peggy. Let’s try to learn more from her together. I am sooooo involved in the ‘As Goes Virginia, So Goes the Nation’ (the nation which I worried Peggy might leave!) that I have let my other interests lag. Help me stay well rounded! xx Stair



    • Hi Betsy,
      Yay! See you in class!
      Yes it is so true. Brain injury is so difficult on the family. Docs try their best I imagine but seriously how can one absorb information in any kind of a rationale way when the emotions are in a tornadic vortex?


  2. I’ve loved the NeuroMOOC and can’t wait to access the Medical Neurobiology course.
    Thanks a ton Peggy!


  3. If I was only 50 years younger..sigh. I do enjoy keeping my brain active and look forward to taking your course again and again and…


  4. I loved the Neuro of Everyday Life so much, I’ve now done a whole wack of courses on the topic. You are a fabulous teacher and I look forward to signing up in the fall. Being an old coot, lord knows how much I will remember, but what the hell. It’s all about the jouney. Thanks for doing this


  5. Peggy,
    I came to visit you at U of C after taking Understanding the Brain in 2014. You were very gracious to me and my daughter. Just wanted to let you know that I have gone back to school largely as a result of the inspiration of that course. It was the moment when you showed us the Purkinje Cell and said that if we found it beautiful, maybe we should consider a career in neuroscience. (That’s why I asked my daughter to make you the cutting of the cell.) I’m a bit old to start a “career,” but I’m taking A and P and Neuropsych and hoping to find a niche for an old lady who loves Purkinje Cells and people and wants to do something helpful and worthwhile. Thanks a million for what you do. I continue to enjoy your blog and your book (only 1st Edition, unfortunately).
    All the best,
    Allyson Gross


    • Amazing!! Of course I remember you and your daughter and your lovely visit. The Purkinje cell cutout sits right on the wall next to my desk. I see it every day. I’m so happy to hear your story. Please let me know how things go.


  6. How do I sign up for this course?. I did your last brain course and loved every minute of it. I did a Neuro – psychotherpy certificate after being inspired by your course.


  7. Hi Peggy, I just purchased your Medical Neurobiology book and absolutely love it! I took your Understanding the Brain: The Neurobiology of Everyday Life this year and it opened up my scotoma to all the amazing work and advancements going on in the neurosciences. You are truly an inspirational teacher.


    • Hi Ellen
      Nice article. And yes I know people really enjoy Len White’s course. It is very complimentary and I’m so glad that there are good choices out there for all the interested millions.


  8. Dr Peggy Excellent news! And since it’s geared towards med students I’ll feel right at home. Hope to see it in all its beauty when it comes out! Has there been a fixed date set?


  9. I am ecstatic about enrolling in your Medical Neurobiology class this fall. 🙂 I decided a little over a year ago that I want to study neuroscience at the graduate level and, in preparing for that, stumbled upon your Neurobiology of Everyday Life course on Coursera. You and this class have been an incredible inspiration to me, and I’ve shared so much of what you taught with my friends and family. Thank you for teaching these courses and for making them available online and open access, especially for those of us who could not be taking these courses otherwise. Take care!


  10. Hi Mike,
    Once a MOOCer, always a MOOCer. So no “ex” about it!!
    That is a fun question. Easy answer is no. No two brains are identical, not even that of identical twins. But brains share many many macro features and then they have exact replicas of fewer and fewer features as your perspective descends in scale from sulci and gyri to nuclei to neurons to synapses. In the end it depends on what identical means. Lumpers may squint and see two mallard ducks as the same whereas a splitter sees unique tail coloring in every duck (I am thinking mallards because I was recently feeding a bunch of mallards and as time went on, I saw more and more differences between the individuals). And as I said above, it also depends on the scale with similarities most concentrated at the most macro scale – when those mallards are flying in the distance, you are less apt to see any differences.


  11. Thanks Peggy,

    The enthusiasm your course gave me has helped me through a large cancer op, and I am now a dedicated painter, always trying to find interesting things about vision that makes what I see different from what other people see. You are the best teacher I have experienced.

    Best wishes Mike.


  12. Dr Mason, I’m not sure if posting queries here is appropriate, but I’m really curious about something, so I figured I’d give it a shot.
    Firstly, I thank you again for putting up those resources on youtube; they help me a lot everyday.
    Secondly, I wanted to ask about the role of inhibitory D2 receptors in Striatum. I remember from your video that the direct pathway of basal ganglia initiates action while indirect pathway causes selective inhibition of rival movements, thus refining the specifically desired movement.
    Now, I get that Dopamine facilitates Direct pathway via D1 receptors thus causing desired activity, but how does Dopamine & D2 receptors fit into this equation? Cause in case of indirect pathway, if DA inhibits striatum via D2 receptors, then inhibition will be lifted off of GPe. It will then inhibit Subthalamic nucleus and that would prevent excitation of GPi and Thalamus would be excited. How are the rival movements suppressed in such case? I’m very confused about this. I’d be highly grateful if you could help me out with this doubt.

    Sincere regards,


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