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Create brainy models in 3D in order to shed light on puzzling degenerative diseases

Say "architecture," and people are likely to think of complex structures of steel and glass that stretch into the sky. Nicolas Valenzuela, who studied architecture at Carleton, is indeed interested in complex structures, but on a smaller scale. No, not bungalows. Smaller. Much smaller. Think molecular.

Valenzuela, a post-professional research fellow with the Carleton Immersive Media Studio, is part of an unusual team of researchers from various fields and institutes who are hoping to gain new insights into the roots of neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

His role is to help a slew of "ists" (neuroscientists, chemists, biologists, other-ists) understand one another. He is doing that through three-dimensional imaging.

"I want to help them all communicate and speak a common language," says Valenzuela.

To understand degenerative diseases of the brain, it is necessary first to understand how its molecular structures change over time. And to understand that, accurate graphical models of those structures are needed. Valenzuela uses 3D-imaging software to create models of lipids, important molecules that make up the membranes surrounding brain cells.

"There was almost nothing out there for lipids, which are tiny little structures," says Valenzuela. "They were typically drawn as a ball with two legs."

By integrating detailed information about the atomic structure of lipids into his imaging process, Valenzuela is working to create a more accurate visual representation of brain cell membranes. He is combining his work with that of a colleague in physics to animate his models. The result would enable researchers to simulate how lipids respond under different conditions, which could shed light on how changes to brain cell membranes make people vulnerable to disease.

"I would love to see a membrane that is structurally accurate," says Valenzuela. "I would like to see a highly detailed model that represents this complex structure, as opposed to a ball with two sticks."