Student Writing: Blood Brain Barrier

When I was fifteen years old, on a muggy May Wednesday in Pittsburgh, I learned about the blood-brain barrier.

Before, through prematurely-peeled scabs and too-loose molars and over-chewed hang-nails of third grade, I had come to know my sloshing erythrocytes and leukocytes and pulsating plasma as ubiquitous. Ubiquitous as the ubiquitin enzymes that nonchalantly whirl and twirl through my cells. Blood was a chartreuse reservoir, a watershed, upon which my flesh delicately floated. Under my skin, blood was everywhere. Or, so I thought.

The blood-brain barrier is a humble thing. A forgotten thing. Or, rather, a thing never realized. It is a diaphanous layer of endothelial cells that guards brain cells from blood vessels (Abbot et al 2006). I thought that blood cells could travel anywhere they wished in my body, on miniature turnpikes to junctions to trails and to other cells. But they can’t. They can’t travel to my cerebral cortex. To my brain. To me.

Blood and most of its cumbersome cargo can’t saunter through the kingdom of spongy grey and tangled white matter. But, some cargo can. VIP cargo can. Glucose— tiny nuggets of chemical energy—can. Energy is life, so energy can travel fast past the toll-collector; it has an E-Z Pass on the Pennsylvania turnpike.

Cantaloupe-hued sticky-monkey blossoms and Santa Cruz Mountain ponderosa puzzle-bark and Mono Lake tufa crumbs. Gulps of zooplankton and Asilomar turban snail poop and Carmel Point sunsets and sand-encrusted, stale pastries. Warm whispers of Mom’s soft voice reading Siddhartha to the family from the other tent. Adrenaline-squirting phantoms of mountain-lion cubs in Tuolumne Meadows and back-country vegetarian chili.

These are the things which can cross my blood-brain barrier. These are the things which bear E-Z Passes on the Pennsylvania turnpike. These are the things that are glucose; these are the things that are energy. These are the things that are life. These are the things that can travel fast past the toll-collector, as if blessed with some hereditary familiarity.

Stands of New Hampshire white pines and honey-hued birch and melting mounds of snow. Horseshoe crabs and warm Atlantic breezes. West Texan chaparral and itinerant termites of the semi-arid Llano Estacado. Crispy South Dakotan Badlands.

These are the things which cannot cross my blood-brain barrier. Between me and these zany natural places far from home is a barrier almost as tangible as the gauzy endothelial cells in my brain. I didn’t usher in mitosis, but the cells have proliferated nonetheless. To know by feeling is not easy for me, but this, I know by feeling…

When I sit amid sleepy, wave-misted Monterey Pines and granite alcoves at Point Lobos, the forest is soluble in me. Or, rather, I am soluble in the forest. The Monterey Pines dissolve into me, and I dissolve into the Monterey Pines. When I sit among thickets of Witch Hazel and Hemlock in the Academy Woods, or under the shade of a willow in Pennsylvania, the forest is not soluble in me, and I am not soluble in the forest. I wish I could say it were, and I wish I could say I were, but it is not, and I am not.

I first learned about the blood-brain barrier at the International Science Fair. But perhaps, I’d known about it much earlier than that. Or perhaps, I’d felt it much earlier than that. I’d felt it the first time I sat in unknown forests under unknown trees under the unknown auspices of unknown clouds over my head.

Part of me wishes it would melt away, that the endothelial cells will pop quietly in apoptosis, that I could be soluble in the unfamiliar, and that the unfamiliar could be soluble in me.

But part of me knows, in some private crevice in the skull, that the blood-brain barrier is, on most days, my only tether to home. It may be diaphanous and it may be humble, but it links my internal core—my brain—to my external core—California, and its mountains and deserts and delectable dirt and rabid waves. To the glucose that sustains my spirit. It deserves some respect. Not apoptosis.

Works Cited

Abbott, N. Joan, Lars Rönnbäck, and Elisabeth Hansson. “Astrocyte–endothelial Interactions at the Blood–brain Barrier.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 7.1 (2006): 41-53. Web.

-Ailis Dooner


Ocean Rock

It only takes about ten minutes to get to the top from the parking lot. The climb is steep and dark. My feet send small landslides of pebbles tumbling a few feet down the mountain. The path levels and after scrambling over a large, jagged boulder, I can see the entire Salt Lake City valley. The edges of the scene are hidden by the night, but the center is illuminated by millions of lights. You can’t distinguish individual buildings, or people, or cars–all you can see is the glow. If you position yourself right, you can look straight down Main Street and watch the streetlights change from red to green. The rock I’m sitting on is rough, and I shift under the uneven granite, but my eyes stay locked on the blaze of yellow before me. If you lay upside down, then the lights look like stars and the sky looks like a dark, blue ocean. This is how locals started calling it “Ocean Rock”. I gaze out at the landscape and at the lights disguising themselves as stars.

Just as every star in the galaxy has its own solar system, its own self-contained world, each of the millions of lights belongs to someone. Every glimmer in every building in the city represents a life, with its own troubles and triumphs. And I can see them all. I can see downtown Salt Lake City where we’d walked earlier that day. When I was amidst the bustle of University Boulevard, the rest of the city hadn’t existed to me. All I had thought about were the signs, buildings, and people that I could see. In that moment it had all seemed so significant. But from this vantage point, the street is only a speck among thousands. I feel absolutely, unimportantly small, but in this sense of wonder I am utterly at home. It’s easy to forget that we are all people living together, social by nature. Humans have gone to such great lengths just to surround themselves with interactions. From “Ocean Rock” I can see that the whole city is connected. And even when you can’t see or feel it, so are the people.

My friends start their descent back to the parking lot, but I can’t leave yet. I gaze up at the silky blue darkness that stretches to each horizon. I follow the slopes of the moonlight-soaked mountains down to the flashing city nestled tenderly between high summits. I try to look at a single light, but it’s impossible to focus on just one since their glows overlap. Seeing the whole city, each light, each story, I am reminded that all the dots connect. This moment is mine, mine too is this fleeting understanding of the sky and mountains and city and the distance between them. Before turning to leave, I look back at the valley one last time, and it all seems so vividly important. The blue-black sky, and the trembling stars and the twinkling city lights, and me. I am alone, but so much a part of the night.

-Victoria Prend

Student Writing: Thoughts from the Bed of a Pickup

I wonder when it was that nature became an escape. Admittedly I just spent the past half of an hour on a comfortable couch in my living room. I stared at this screen with my cursor blinking to remind me I had a paper to write. Well, I wish that were all. I have two more to go. My mother came inside after tending to the lawn and sending my little sister off to her father’s. She took up her place on the other end of the cushion, bringing to life her own screen and against the advice of her doctors, putting her concussed brain through LED fueled torture to keep up good relationships with someone on the other side of the ionosphere. Our combined hands harmonized the mechanical tapping of plastic buttons, measuring the rate at which our brains were formulating and articulating ideas. Plastic over time equals progress.

The balanced quiet was interrupted further as her boyfriend came home and flipped on the television. More LEDs pervaded my periphery. Bang. Bang. Bang. “Penny?” Bang. Bang. Bang. “Penny?” Bang. Bang. Bang. “Penny?” I stole a glance up at the screen. The woman was rubbing her eyes as she opened the door of her apartment in confusion. “Yes Sheldon?”

I gathered my belongings and tiptoed up the stairs to my bedroom. Fighting the temptation of my favorite show took more effort than the comfort of the couch was worth. I would find solace in silence. I would finish my papers; I would sleep tonight. I felt a stir in my pocket. Instinctively, subconsciously, I reached for my Android and swiped right, then down, clicking it to light. A potential college roommate had stuffed a message in a bottle and cast it into the virtual sea, surely with high hopes of it landing on the shore of another mutually bored and college bound teenager. At least, so Facebook’s notifications had implied.

What would have been a healthy dose of curiosity instead metamorphosed into claustrophobia. I couldn’t get away. My mother shouted upstairs for me to yell at my sister on her behalf. She should have been doing homework. So should I. I found her on her iPad in bed and relayed the scolding, internalizing some of its moral. Then casting my phone somewhere into the depths of my sheets, I booked it outside.

And here I am now, sitting in the bed of my neon blue 1994 Ford Ranger with chilly toes and a stubbornness to not return indoors to retrieve shoes. Though still in the driveway, I have managed to escape the buzz: my mother’s reminders of the dishes yet to be done, my pile of books waiting to be researched through, the vibrations of the world knocking on my pocket, begging for attention. Hood up around my ears and sun setting on my pale fingertips, it’s almost as if in the openness of the yard, I am invisible.

I noticed upon sitting down the massive Norway maple, stretched out and comfortable in its tightly wrinkled bark. Before rational thoughts took over, I imagined it as the lone wolf tree in a field, its summer leaves shading a herd of sheep. My yard could easily have once been a farm back in “the day”. Back then people built shelters to escape the weather, to escape nature. Despite reveries of my suburban home once being a homestead, I remembered Norway maples were a city tree, planted for its ability to tolerate our human tainted air. It must have been planted long after the past tenants moved out and Ford’s like mine moved in.

I still fancied its neighbor, a now barely budding silver maple, providing lumber once to build a house, to provide some lucky family with refuge from the elements, from nature. It had coppiced into five trunks, providing excellent sitting space between its hydra necks. But perhaps, like similar unfortunately placed white pines, its initial destruction was the result of a merely cosmetic cut. It shaded the windows improperly. Its remains would be scraps in the bush rather than a mantel above the hearth.

The sun and temperatures have sufficiently dropped and the robins who had sung so sweetly for me before now tease “Pa-pers, pa-pers,” reminding me the mystery will remain unsolved and only pondered for now; the mystery being, of course, on which side of the drywall home really is. It seems to me now an ironic switch. A last savoring glance to acknowledge the passing week of the daffodils and then back to buzzing for me. Reluctantly searching for my previous resolve, I’ll take one last swallow of fresh air, of nature.

-Krissy Truesdale