Marian Diamond is a pioneer in shaping neuroscience research. This includes the brain being capable of development even at old age.
As a dedicated brain scientist, Dr. Diamond spent half a century teaching and researching up till 2014 when she retired at the age of 87. On 25 July 2017, she passed away at age 90, leaving behind four children.
The lady with a hatbox
Marian Diamond gained a reputation as “the lady with a hat box” on the campus of the University of California (UC) Berkeley. In this floral hatbox she carried around, sat a sacred prop for her well sought after anatomy class – a preserved human brain.
Like many females who tried to enter the male-dominated field of research in the past, Marian Diamond was not spared from gender discrimination. She encountered injustice during the publication of one of her first major articles.
Despite being the initiator and main contributor to the project, a male colleague had inappropriately credited Marian Diamond as he stated it was rare for a female to be involved. By being listed only in the parentheses, her contributions to the project appeared minor. Dr. Diamond would not accept the injustice, and eventually her name was listed first where it deserved to be.
Dr. Diamond continued to change traditions by becoming the first female graduate student of the anatomy department UC- Berkeley where she received her master’s degree in 1949 and doctorate in 1953. In 1955, she became Cornell University’s first female science instructor. Five years later, she returned to UC-Berkeley where she remained till she retired.
Changing traditional neuroscience beliefs
In 1964, Dr. Diamond published a groundbreaking paper with three colleagues. At that time, a debate between nature and nurture was ongoing. Genes, however, were still strongly believed to have the upper hand in shaping the brain. Robert Knight, a UC-Berkeley professor of psychology and neuroscience, recalled, “The idea that the brain could change based on environmental input and stimulation was felt to be silly.”
Dr. Diamond’s findings proved many researchers wrong. She developed the theory of brain plasticity.
Contrary to initial beliefs that the brain was static and an unchangeable entity that just deteriorates with age, Marian Diamond’s experiment with lab rats proved that brain development could be affected by life experience at any age. She listed the five factors to be diet, exercise, challenge, newness and most surprisingly – love.
In this study, Marian Diamond compared lab rats in “enriched” versus “impoverished” conditions. Rats in “enriched” conditions had companions and toys. These specimens revealed to have larger cerebral cortexes than those in “impoverished” conditions. However, as many of the rats started dying due to old age, Dr. Diamond had difficulty maintaining sufficient specimens to study the environmental effects on aged brains.
She proceeded to take the rats out and exposed them to touch, later classified as “love”. With this new environmental input, Marian Diamond got them to live up to 900 days and continued the study with aged brains. These rats also experienced better brain development.
After discovering the effect of love, Dr. Diamond became a strong advocate for adding love into our lives.
By showing that the brain could be changed with environmental inputs, Dr. Diamond’s controversial study influenced how parents raised their children to reach their full potential. Her catchphrase “use it or lose it” developed in the lab reminds humans that they have control over their own brain function.
Discoveries on Albert Einstein’s brain
In 1984, Marian Diamond once again surprised the world. She had previously requested to research on the brain of famous physicist Albert Einstein which had been preserved after his death.
Three years later, she finally received four preserved brain slices. What she found under the microscope changed yet another belief in neuroscience – glial cells (support cells in neurons) were found in larger proportions in Einstein’s brain than the average human.
Before that discovery, glial cells were thought to have relatively low importance. Now, glial cells are believed to play a crucial role in the cognitive process and they continue to be researched on.
Despite Marian Diamond’s recent death, her work still continues to provide inspiration for others. On YouTube, Dr. Diamond’s anatomy class videos have been viewed more than 1 million times.
To commemorate her contributions to the world, a documentary which took seven years of hard work was recently released as “My Love Affair with the Brain: The Life and Science of Dr. Marian Diamond”. MIMS