Cecilia Phillips Toro

BA, Reed College (Portland, Oregon). PhD, Brown University. Postdoctoral Fellow, Oregon Hearing Research Center and Vollum Institute, Oregon Health & Science University. Neurobiologist with a special interest in sensory hair cell function. Author of papers on dopamine in the zebrafish lateral line, voltage-gated calcium channels, and synaptic physiology. Recipient of grants from the National Institutes of Health. Previously taught at Linfield College. SLC, 2018–

Undergraduate Courses 2021-2022

Biology

Drugs and the Brain

Open, Lecture—Spring

The nervous system is the ultimate target of many drugs: those taken to alleviate pain, to increase pleasure, or to transform perceptions. In this lecture course, we will focus on the neuronal targets and mechanisms of psychoactive drugs, including the neurotransmitter systems that they modulate. We will consider stimulants, depressants, narcotics, analgesics, hallucinogens, and psychotherapeutics. Drug use cannot be fully explained, however, by simply identifying the neuronal proteins with which drugs interact. In order to gain a more comprehensive understanding of drug use and abuse, we will explore the social, political, economic, and genetic factors that influence drug consumption—both legal and illegal—and drug epidemics, including the current opioid epidemic in the United States. We will learn about drug sources, forms, and methods of use while also exploring what is known about the biological basis of tolerance, cravings, withdrawal, and the disease of addiction. Finally, we will explore the neurobiological mechanisms of the current available treatments for drug overdose and addiction. Lectures will be complemented by small-group conference research projects.

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General Biology Series: Genes, Cells, and Evolution

Open, Small Lecture—Fall

Biology, the study of life on Earth, encompasses structures and forms ranging from the very minute to the very large. In order to grasp the complexities of life, we begin this study with the cellular and molecular forms and mechanisms that serve as the foundation for all living organisms. The initial part of the semester will introduce the fundamental molecules critical to the biochemistry of life processes. From there, we branch out to investigate the major ideas, structures, and concepts central to the biology of cells, genetics, and the chromosomal basis of inheritance. Finally, we conclude the semester by examining how those principles relate to the mechanisms of evolution. Throughout the semester, we will discuss the individuals responsible for major discoveries, as well as the experimental techniques and process by which such advances in biological understanding are made. Classes will be supplemented with weekly laboratory work.

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Neurological Disorders

Open, Seminar—Fall

Disorders of the brain are often devastating. They can disrupt key characteristics of life, from memory formation and retrieval to communication and personality to execution of movements, including those necessary for breathing. In this course, we will learn about the brain in health and disease by exploring the neuroscience of neurological disorders. We will study Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, lytico-bodig, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and autism spectrum disorder. We will consider these disorders holistically and from a biological point of view. We will explore the lived experience of the affected and their loved ones. We will see how symptoms of the disorders can be understood by studying what is known about the neural tissues, cells, and molecules that are dysfunctional in the disease state. We will explore what is known about the genetic or environmental underpinnings of the disorders and any current treatments available. Readings will be drawn from the writings of the prominent neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, in addition to magazine articles, scientific studies, and relevant films that complement and expand upon Sacks’ descriptions of brain function.

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Previous Courses

Biology

Animal Physiology

Intermediate, Seminar—Fall

Animal physiology is the study how all components of animals—from cells to tissues to organs and organ systems—function together to support life. In this course, we will study many of the major categories of physiology while considering the overarching concepts of mechanism, form and function, adaptation, and homeostasis. Among possible topics are: circulation, respiration and breathing, feeding and digestion, movement and muscle, thermoregulation, osmoregulation, hormonal regulation, reproduction, neurons and the nervous system, sensory systems, and camouflage. As we discuss each physiological process, we will also explore ways in which different animals use species-specific adaptations to execute those processes (so-called comparative physiology). For instance, humans breathe using internal sack-like structures—the lungs—while frogs and salamanders can extract oxygen from the air by simple diffusion across their skin, and insects breathe through multiple small openings in their bodies that lead to an intricate series of tubes that permeate their entire organism, thereby obtaining oxygen without the use of a circulatory system. Diverse mechanisms such as these allow us to understand the fundamental principles of physiology and how they are employed in remarkable ways across the animal kingdom.

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First-Year Studies: The Brain According to Oliver Sacks

Open, FYS—Year

Dr. Oliver Sacks was a prominent neurologist and prolific writer who considered the workings of the brain through the lens of observing and diagnosing patients, including himself. Sacks communicated the marvels of the brain to the public through his engaging and remarkable stories of neurological dysfunction and his musings on intriguing and poorly-understood topics in neuroscience. We will study the awesome brain in health and disease through Sacks’ writings, accompanied by readings and various media—including a number of films—that complement and expand upon Sacks’ descriptions of brain function. Topics will likely include: vision, blindness, and prosopagnosia (aka face-blindness, from which Sacks himself suffered); speech, audition, music, and deafness; religion, spirituality, out-of-body experiences, and hallucinations; autism and Asperger’s syndrome; Tourette’s syndrome; neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s; memory, amnesia, and the perception of time. Individual conference meetings will alternate biweekly with small-group conference meetings.

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Hormones, Food, and Sex

Open, Seminar—Fall

Hormones are released from diverse tissues, including the brain, ovaries, testes, and fatty tissues. These small molecules travel around the body via the circulatory system and can influence the activity of distant cells involved in key biological processes. In this course, we will study the principles of hormone signaling (endocrinology) by focusing on two overarching topics: hormones that modulate food intake and utilization and hormones that control reproduction. The key molecules, cells, and tissues that play a role in hormonal signaling pathways will be examined. We will study the hormones that control appetite, fat deposition, and weight; we will discuss how hormones affect our perception of flavor; and we will consider the role of hormones in the rise of obesity in people around the world. We will study the hormones that control many aspects of reproduction, including puberty, ovulation, sexuality, sex, pregnancy, birth, lactation, and menopause; we will consider how hormones define male and female characteristics; and we will discuss how hormone therapy is used for transitioning transgender individuals.

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Neurobiology

Intermediate, Seminar—Spring

The brain is our most complex organ. The human brain contains a hundred billion neurons whose functions underlie our remarkable capacities, including the ability to sense our environment, communicate via language, learn and remember, perform precise movements, and experience emotions. In this introduction to neurobiology, we will focus on the structure and function of the nervous system, considering molecular, cellular, systems, and cognitive perspectives. We will learn how the nervous system develops and how the major cells of the nervous system—neurons and glia—function. We will examine the chemical and electrical modes of communication between neurons, with a focus on the action potential and neurotransmission. We will consider the major subdivisions of the brain and how those regions control neural functions, including learning and memory, emotion, language, sleep, movement, and sensory perception. Finally, we will study disorders of the nervous system and consider how they inform our understanding of healthy brain function.

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Neurons and the Nervous System

Intermediate, Seminar—Fall

The brain is the most complex organ. The human brain contains 100 billion neurons whose functions underlie our remarkable capacities, including the ability to sense our environment, communicate via language, learn and remember, perform precise movements, and experience emotions. In this introduction to neuroscience, we will focus on the structure and function of the nervous system, considering molecular, cellular, systems, and cognitive perspectives. We will learn how the nervous system develops and how the major cells of the nervous system—neurons and glia—function. We will examine the chemical and electrical modes of communication between neurons, with a focus on the action potential and neurotransmission. We will consider the major subdivisions of the brain and how those regions control neural functions, including learning and memory, attention, emotion, language, sleep, movement, and sensory perception. Finally, we will study disorders of the nervous system and consider how they inform our understanding of healthy brain function.

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Sensory Biology

Open, Seminar—Spring

Why do chili peppers taste “hot,” while peppermint gum tastes “cold”? How can humans distinguish between a trillion different odors? Scallops have dozens of eyes...really? Can onions be confused with apples if our noses are plugged? Why do flowers appear different to humans and to bees? Why can’t we hear the echolocation calls of most bats? The answers to these questions lie in our understanding of how animals interact with their environments via sensory perception. In this course, we will study the sensory systems underlying hearing, balance, vision, smell, taste, and touch. We will explore senses from a neurobiological perspective and, therefore, will begin with an overview of the nervous system and the structure and function of neurons. We will then study how each sense is based on the perception of a particular stimulus by specialized sensory neurons within specialized sensory tissues. We will discuss how stimuli are converted to cellular information and how this is communicated to the brain, leading to perception. We will also explore the remarkable abilities that underlie animal navigation, including the magnetoreception used by butterflies and sea turtles during migration.

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Synaptic Transmission

Advanced, Seminar—Spring

This course will delve deep into the molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying synaptic transmission between neurons and other cells. Through careful readings of primary and secondary literature, including select textbook chapters, we will consider the current state of knowledge of how neurotransmitters are released and detected. Topics will include: the biophysics of the neuron, including how concentration gradients of key ions allow for the generation and propagation of the neuronal action potential; how changes in ion concentration lead to vesicle fusion and the controlled release of neurotransmitters via exocytosis; how activation of neurotransmitter receptors leads to electrochemical changes in postsynaptic cells; the structure and gating of key ion channels; the synaptic correlates of learning and memory; and disorders of the synapse, including channelopathies. Throughout the semester, we will discuss how neurotoxins used by species from across the animal kingdom—from platypuses and cone snails to funnel web spiders and cobras—immobilize prey by targeting specific synaptic proteins.

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