Category Archives: Neuroscience

Encephalon #82

Welcome to the 81st 82nd edition of Encephalon, neuroscience blog carnival that keeps dying and getting resurrected over and over again. Let’s hope it keeps going for a long time again, as it collects some of the best writing about the brain, mind and behavior on science blogs. Including this month’s edition – a great collection of entries, if I may say so myself! Without further ado, instead of wasting your time on long introductions, I will let you dig in and enjoy:

Let’s start with Stress: Does Gender Matter? by Allison Goldstein from The Wiley Life Sciences Blog.

Taylor Burns of Student Voices wrote If You’re Reading This, You’re Probably Weird.

Mo Costandi at Neurophilosophy penned this delicious post: Neurocriminology in prohibition-era New York

Mark Robinson emerged from the Somatosphere to contribute The Privatization of Neuroscience: The University, The State and the Moral Aims of Science.

Zen Faulkes of NeuroDojo sent in three posts this month: It’s nothing personal, it’s just that my brain is bigger than yours and Are big brains better for long trips in bats? and Neither me nor thee: the fish in the mirror

Janet Kwasniak has thoughts on thoughts including thoughts on A step towards correlates of consciousness.

The Neurocritic of the eponymous The Neurocritic is neurocritical: Seizures Triggered by Strawberry Syrup.

Sandeep Gautam who has fallen into The Mouse Trap sent out a message – Personality and Motivation looks at a paper linking Big Five personality traits (FFM) with their underlying motivational reaction norms.

Dr.Romeo Vitelli of Providentia contributes two posts: The Opium Eater on one of the first “psychenauts” and a literary giant, to boot, and Born to be Wild – One of the more recent genetics= violence controversies to be hashed out in the media.

LivingwithN24 from DSPS, a sleep disorder is doing some self-study in Charting the course of N24.

Jesse Bering of Bering in Mind walked accros the Bering Straight to ask us: Not so fast… What’s so premature about premature ejaculation?

From Vaughan Bell of Mind Hacks comes It only exists if I can see colours on a brain scan. My brain must have lit up when I was reading that post…or otherwise it does not exist!

Maria Schamis Turner of The Brain Detectives was not asleep when she wrote Homicidal somnambulism.

Allison Brager of Dormivigilia wrote What the Airlines Neglect to Tell You: Jet Lag Elicitation of a Proinflammatory Response, which is only applicable if you managed to pass through the TSA security checkpoint in the first place.

Neuroskeptic is skeptical – The Limits of Neuroplasticity.

Jeremy Dean of PsyBlog has a whole series of posts on persuasion, includin Caffeine Makes Us Easier to Persuade.

Virginia Hughes over at SFari blog wonders about Negative feedback – Can your brain be trained to make better brain waves?

Christian Jarrett at the BPS Research Digest Blog is asking: Moving the eyes but not looking – why do we do it?

Princess Ojiaku from Science with Moxie has a two-parter: The Genes of a Rocker and AVPR1A: Music in your Genes?

I picked two Scicurious posts from Neurotic Physiology, one serious, one…also serious: Friday Weird Science: Does Your Aunt Only Visit at the Dark of the Moon? and New Possibilities for Depression: A MAP Kinase regulator.

Eric Michael Johnson who usually blogs at The Primate Diaries wrote a guest-post on the Guest Blog at Scientific American – A primatologist discovers the social factors responsible for maternal infanticide

And we’ll finish with Jason Goldman of The Thoughtful Animal and Social Cognition in a Non-Social Reptile? Gaze-Following in Red-Footed Tortoises.

And this is it for this month. If I missed your entry, let me know ASAP.

Next month, the carnival will be hosted by Dr. Romeo Vitelli at Providentia. Watch the Encephalon homepage for updates and instructions.

Encephalon, the neuroscience blog carnival, is coming back!

Yes, it has risen again!

You can still find the old archives from the first run in 2006/2007 here (click on “past carnivals” tab), and the second run in 2008/2009 here, but the new archives will be built fresh, starting this month, with Encephalon #81 on Cephalove.

I will host the next one, #82, on November 29th 2010. Send your entries by midnight before that date to: Coturnix AT gmail DOT com

Evolutionary and Developmental Precursors for the Human Mathematical Mind

Now that summer is starting to fade, here is something else to look forward to: The 2010-2011 American Scientist Pizza Lunch speaker series returns next month.

Join us at noon, Tuesday, Sept. 21 here at Sigma Xi to hear Duke University cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Brannon give a talk entitled: “Evolutionary and Developmental Precursors for the Human Mathematical Mind.” In other words, Brannon studies what we all take for granted: our ability to do the numbers. She does it, in part, with studies of human babies and other primates.

Thanks to a grant from the N.C. Biotechnology Center, American Scientist Pizza Lunch is free and open to science journalists and science communicators of all stripes. Feel free to forward this message to anyone who might want to attend. RSVPs are required (for the slice count) to

Directions to Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society in RTP, are here:

Seven Questions….with Yours Truly

Last week, my SciBling Jason Goldman interviewed me for his blog. The questions were not so much about blogging, journalism, Open Access and PLoS (except a little bit at the end) but more about science – how I got into it, what are my grad school experiences, what I think about doing research on animals, and such stuff. Jason posted the interview here, on his blog, on Friday, and he also let me repost it here on my blog as well, under the fold:

Continue reading

Are Zombies nocturnal?

day of the dead.jpgBlame ‘Night of the Living Dead’ for this, but many people mistakenly think that zombies are nocturnal, going around their business of walking around town with stilted gaits, looking for people whose brains they can eat, only at night.
You think you are safe during the day? You are dangerously wrong!
Zombies are on the prowl at all times of day and night! They are not nocturnal, they are arrhythmic! And insomniac. They never sleep!
Remember how one becomes a zombie in the first place? Through death, or Intercision, or, since this is a science blog and we need to explain this scientifically, through the effects of tetrodotoxin. In any case, the process incurs some permanent brain damage.
One of the brain centers that is thus permanently damaged is the circadian clock. But importantly, it is not just not ticking any more, it is in a permanent “day” state. What does that mean practically?
When the clock is in its “day” phase, it is very difficult to fall asleep. Thus insomnia.
When the clock is in its “day” phase, metabolism is high (higher than at night), thus zombies require a lot of energy all the time and quickly burn through all of it. Thus constant hunger for high-calory foods, like brains.
Insomnia, in turn, affects some hormones, like ghrelin and leptin, which control appetite. If you have a sleepless night or chronic insomnia, you also tend to eat more at night.
But at night the digestive function is high. As zombies’ clock is in the day state, their digestion is not as efficient. They have huge appetite, they eat a lot, but they do not digest it well, and what they digest they immediately burn. Which explains why they tend not to get fat, while living humans with insomnia do.
Finally, they have problems with wounds, you may have noticed. Healing of wounds requires growth hormone. But growth hormone is secreted only during sleep (actually, during slow sleep phases) and is likewise affected by ghrelin.
In short, a lot of the zombies’ physiology and behavior can be traced back to their loss of circadian function and having their clock being in a permanent “day” state.
But the real take-home message of this is…. don’t let your guard down during the day!
Picture of me as a Zombie (as well as of all my Sciblings – go around the blogs today to see them) drawn by Joseph Hewitt of Ataraxia Theatre whose latest project, GearHead RPG, is a sci-fi rogue-like game with giant robots and a random story generator – check it out.

Revenge of the Zombifying Wasp (repost)

Revenge of the Zombifying WaspAs this is a Zombie Day on, here is a re-post of one of my old post about one of the coolest parasites ever (from February 04, 2006):
a1%20ampulex_compressa.jpgI am quite surprised that Carl Zimmer, in research for his book Parasite Rex, did not encounter the fascinating case of the Ampulex compressa (Emerald Cockroach Wasp) and its prey/host the American Cockroach (Periplaneta americana, see also comments on Aetiology and Ocellated).
In 1999, I went to Oxford, UK, to the inaugural Gordon Conference in Neuroethology and one of the many exciting speakers I was looking forward to seeing was Fred Libersat. The talk was half-hot half-cold. To be precise, the first half was hot and the second half was not.
In the first half, he not just introduced the whole behavior, he also showed us a longish movie, showing in high magnification and high resolution all steps of this complex behavior (you can see a cool picture of the wasp’s head here).
a2%20wasp-cockroach.jpgFirst, the wasp gives the roach a quick hit-and-run stab with its stinger into the body (thorax) and flies away. After a while, the roach starts grooming itself furiously for some time, followed by complete stillness. Once the roach becomes still, the wasp comes back, positions itself quite carefully on top of the raoch and injects its venom very precisely into the subesophageal ganglion in the head of the roach. The venom is a cocktail of dopamine and protein toxins so the effect is behavioral modification instead of paralysis.
Apparently, the wasp’s stinger has receptors that guide it to its precise target:

“To investigate what guides the sting, Ram Gal and Frederic Libersat of Ben-Gurion University in Beer-Sheva, Israel, first introduced the wasp to roaches whose brains had been removed. Normally, it takes about a minute for the wasp to find its target, sting, and fly off. But in the brainless roaches, the wasps searched the empty head cavity for an average of 10 minutes. A radioactive tracer injected into the wasps revealed that when they finally did sting, they used about 1/6 the usual amount of venom. The wasps knew something was amiss.”

The wasp then saws off the tips of the roach’s antennae and drinks the hemolymph from them. It builds a nest – just a little funnel made of soil and pebbles and leads the roach, by pulling at its anteanna as if it was a dog-leash, into the funnel. It then lays an egg onto the leg of the roach, closes off the antrance to the funnel with a rock and leaves. The roach remains alive, but completely still in the nest for quite some time (around five weeks). The venom, apart from eliminating all defence behaviors of the roach, also slows the metabolism of the cockroach, allowing it to live longer without food and water. After a while, the wasp egg hatches, eats its way into the body of the roach, eats the internal organs of the roach, then pupates and hatches. What comes out of the (now dead) cockroach is not a larva (as usually happens with insect parasitoids) but an adult wasp, ready to mate and deposit eggs on new cockroaches.
Why was the second half of the talk a disappointment? I know for a fact I was not the only one there who expected a deeper look into evolutionary aspects of this highly complex set of behaviors. However, the talk went into a different direction – interesting in itself, for sure, but not as much as an evolutionary story would have been. Libersat described in nitty-gritty detail experiments that uncovered, one by one, secrets of the neuroanatomy, neurophysiology and neurochemistry of the cockroach escape behavior – the one supressed by toxin – as well as the chemistry of the toxin cocktail. Ganglion after ganglion, neuron after neuron, neurotransmitter after neurotransmitter, the whole behavior was charted for us on the screen. An impressive feat, but disappointing when we were all salivating at a prospect of a cool evolutionary story.
He did not say, for instance, what is the geographic overlap between the two species. I had to look it up myself afterwards. American cockroach can be found pretty much everywhere in the world. The wasp also has a broad geographical range from Africa to New Caledonia (located almost directly between Australia and Fiji) and, since 1941, Hawaii (another example of a non-native species wreacking havoc on the islands), but not everywhere in the world, especially not outside the tropics – there are most definitely parts of the planet where there are roaches but no Ampulex compressa.
In most cases in which one species is suspectible to the venom or toxin of another species, the populations which share the geography are also engaged in an evolutionary arms-race. The victim of the venom evolves both behavioral defenses against the attack of the other species and biochemical resistance to the venom. In turn, the venom evolves to be more and more potent and the animal more and more sneaky or camouflaged or fast in order to bypass behavioral defenses.
There are many examples of such evolutionary arms-races in which one of the species is venomous/toxic and the other one evolves resistance. For instance, garter snakes on the West Coast like to eat rough-side newts. But these newts secrete tetrodotoxin in their skins. The predator is not venomous, but it has to deal with dangerous prey. Thus, in sympatry (in places where the two species co-exist) snakes have evolved a different version of a sodium channel. This version makes the channel less susceptible to tetrodotoxin, but there is a downside – the snake is slower and more lethargic overall. In the same region, the salamanders appear to be evolving ever more potent skin toxin coctails.
Similar examples are those of desert ground squirrels and rattlesnakes (both behavioral and biochemical innovations in squirrels), desert mice (Southwest USA) and scorpions (again it is the prey which is venomous), and honeybees and Death’s-Head sphinx-moths (moths come into the hives and steal honey and get stung by bees after a while).
But Libersat never wondered if cockroaches in sympatry with Emerald wasps evolved any type of resistance, either behavioral or physiological. Perhaps the overwhelming number of roaches in comparison with the wasps makes any selective pressure too weak for evolution of defenses. But that needs to be tested. He also never stated if the attack by the wasp happens during the day or during the night. Roaches are nocturnal and shy away from light. The movie he showed was from the lab under full illumination. Is it more difficult for the wasp to find and attack the roach at night? Is it more difficult for the roach to run away or defend itself during the day? Those questions need to be asked.
Another piece of information that is missing is a survey of parasitizing behaviors of species of wasps most closely related to Ampulex compressa. Can we identify, or at least speculate about, the steps in the evolution of this complex set of behaviors (and the venom itself)? What is the precursor of this behavior: laying eggs on found roach carcasses, killing roaches before laying eggs on their carcasses, laying eggs on other hosts? We do not know. I hope someone is working on those questions as we speak and will soon surprise us with a publication.
But let me finish with a witty comment on Zimmer’s blog, by a commenter who, for this occasion, identified as “Kafka”:

“I had a dream that I was a cockroach, and that wasp Ann Coulter stuck me with her stinger, zombified my brain, led me by pulling my antenna into her nest at Fox News, and laid her Neocon eggs on me. Soon a fresh baby College Republican hatched out, burrowed into my body, and devoured me from the inside. Ann Coulter’s designs may be intelligent, but she’s one cruel god.”

Update: That post on The Loom attracted tons of comments. Unfortunately, most of them had nothing to do with the cockroaches and wasps – Carl’s blog, naturally, attracts a lot of Creationists so much of the thread is a debate over IDC. However, Carl is happy to report that a grad student who actually worked on this wasp/cockroach pair, appeared in the thread and left a comment that, among else, answers several of the behavioral and evolutionary questions that I asked in this post.
Update 2: You can watch some movies linked here and here.

The Primal Power of Play (video)

Going Mad The American Way

New podcast and forum at PRI World Science:

Listen to a story by reporter Laura Starecheski, followed by our interview with Ethan Watters.
Our guest in the Science Forum is journalist Ethan Watters.
His latest book is Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche.
“America is homogenizing the way the world goes mad,” Watters writes. He contends that Americans are exporting their view of mental illness to the rest of the world.
Watters says culture influences not only how people deal with mental disorders but how mental disorders manifest themselves. Yet those cultural differences are disappearing as Western notions of mental health become popular worldwide.
Some examples Watters cites in his book:
• Anorexia nervosa, the eating disorder, is now common in countries with no history of the disease.
• Modern biomedical notions of schizophrenia are replacing the idea of spirit possession in places like Zanzibar.
• By selling pills for depression, pharmaceutical companies have caused a rise in the diagnosis of depression in Japan.
Bring your thoughts and questions about culture and mental illness to Watters. The discussion is just to the right.
* Is America’s view of mental health reflective of the nation’s individualistic culture?
* Have you or a family member been diagnosed with mental illness? Has your ethnic or religious background influenced your response?
* Would Americans benefit from importing ideas of mental health from other countries?

Related reading: The Americanization of Mental Illness.

Rubber hand illusion (video)

Brain-Computer Interface (video)

From Science in Seconds :

Evolutionary Medicine: Does reindeer have a circadian stop-watch instead of a clock?

ResearchBlogging.orgWhenever I read a paper from Karl-Arne Stokkan’s lab, and I have read every one of them, no matter how dense the scientese language I always start imagining them running around the cold, dark Arctic, wielding enormous butterfly nets, looking for and catching reindeer (or ptarmigans, whichever animal the paper is about) to do their research.


If I was not so averse to cold, I’d think this would be the best career in science ever!
It is no surprise that their latest paper – A Circadian Clock Is Not Required in an Arctic Mammal (press release) – was widely covered by the media, both traditional and blogs, See, for example, The Scientist, BBC, Scientific American podcast and Wired Science.
Relevant, or just cool?
It is hard to find a science story that is more obviously in the “that’s cool” category, as opposed to the “that’s relevant” category. For the background on this debate, please read Ed Yong, David Dobbs, DeLene Beeland, Colin Schultz, and the series of Colin’s interviews with Carl Zimmer, Nicola Jones, David Dobbs, Jay Ingram, Ferris Jabr, Ed Yong and Ed Yong again.
I agree, it is a cool story. It is an attention-grabbing, nifty story about charismatic megafauna living in a strange wilderness. I first saw the work from the lab in a poster session at a conference many years ago, and of all the posters I saw that day, it is the reindeer one that I still remember after all these years.
Yet, the coolness of the story should not hide the fact that this research is also very relevant – both to the understanding of evolution and to human medicine. Let me try to explain what they did and why that is much more important than what a quick glance at the headlines may suggest. I did it only part-way a few years ago when I blogged about one of their earlier papers. But let me start with that earlier paper as background, for context.
Rhythms of Behavior
In their 2005 Nature paper (which was really just a tiny subset of a much longer, detailed paper they published elsewhere a couple of years later), Stokkan and colleagues used radiotelemetry to continuously monitor activity of reindeer – when they sleep and when they roam around foraging.
You should remember that up in the Arctic the summer is essentially one single day that lasts several months, while the winter is a continuous night that lasts several months. During these long periods of constant illumination, reindeer did not show rhythms in activity – they moved around and rested in bouts and bursts, at almost unpredictable times of “day”. Their circadian rhythms of behavior were gone.
But, during brief periods of spring and fall, during which there are 24-hour light-dark cycles of day and night, the reindeer (on the northern end of the mainland Norway, but not the population living even further north on Svaldbard which remained arrhythmic throughout), showed daily rhythms of activity, suggesting that this species may possess a circadian clock.
Rhythms of Physiology
In a couple of studies, including the latest one, the lab also looked into a physiological rhythm – that of melatonin synthesis and secretion by the pineal gland. Just as in activity rhythms, melatonin concentrations in the blood showed a daily (24-hour) rhythm only during the brief periods of spring and fall. Furthermore, in the latest paper, they kept three reindeer indoors for a couple of days, in light-tight stalls, and exposed them to 2.5-hour-long periods of darkness during the normal light phase of the day. Each such ‘dark pulse’ resulted in a sharp rise of blood melatonin, followed by just as abrupt elimination of melatonin as soon as the lights went back on.
reindeer melatonin.jpg
Rhythms of gene expression
Finally, in this latest paper, they also looked at the expression of two of the core clock genes in fibroblasts kept in vitro (in a dish). Fibroblasts are connective tissue cells found all around the body, probably taken out of reindeer by biopsy. In other mammals, e.g., in rodents, clock genes continue to cycle with a circadian period for a very long time in a dish. Yet, the reindeer fibroblasts, after a couple of very weak oscillations that were roughly in the circadian range, decayed into complete arrhytmicity – the cells were healthy, but their clocks were not ticking any more.
reindeer fibroblasts.jpg
What do these results suggest?
There is something fishy about the reindeer clock. It is not working the same way it does in other mammals studied to date. For example, seals and humans living in the Arctic have normal circadian rhythms of melatonin. Some other animals show daily rhythms in behavior. But in reindeer, rhythms in behavior and melatonin can be seen only if the environment is rhythmic as well. In constant light conditions, it appears that the clock is not working. But, is it? How do we know?
During the long winter night and the long summer day, the behavior of reindeer is not completely random. It is in bouts which show some regularity – these are ultradian rhythms with the period much shorter than 24 hours. If the clock is not working in reindeer, i.e., if there is no clock in this species, then the ultradian rhythms would persist during spring and fall as well. Yet we see circadian rhythms during these seasons – there is an underlying clock there which can be entrained to a 24-hour light-dark cycle.
This argues for the notion that the deer’s circadian clock, unless forced into synchrony by a 24 external cycle, undergoes something called frequency demultiplication. The idea is that the underlying cellular clock runs with a 24-hour period but that is sends signals downstream of the clock, triggering phenotypic (observable) events, several times during each cycle. The events happen always at the same phases of the cycle, and are usually happening every 12 or 8 or 6 or 4 or 3 or 2 or 1 hours – the divisors of 24. Likewise, the clock can trigger the event only every other cycle, resulting in a 48-hour period of the observable behavior.
If we forget for a moment the metaphor of the clock and think instead of a Player Piano, it is like the contraption plays the note G several times per cycle, always at the same moments during each cycle, but there is no need to limit each note to appear only once per cycle.
On the other hand, both the activity and melatonin rhythms appear to be driven directly by light and dark – like a stop-watch. In circadian parlance this is called an “hourglass clock” – an environmental trigger is needed to turn it over so it can start measuring time all over again. Dawn and dusk appear to directly stop and start the behavioral activity, and onset of dark stimulates while onset of light inhibits secretion of melatonin. An “hourglass clock” is an extreme example of a circadian clock with a very low amplitude.
While we mostly pay attention to period and phase, we should not forget that amplitude is important. Yes, amplitude is important. It determines how easy it is for the environmental cue to reset the clock to a new phase – lower the amplitude of the clock, easier it is to shift. In a very low-amplitude oscillator, onset of light (or dark) can instantly reset the clock to Phase Zero and start timing all over again – an “hourglass” behavior.
The molecular study of the reindeer fibroblasts also suggests a low-amplitude clock – there are a couple of weak oscillations to be seen before the rhythm goes away completely.
There may be other explanations for the observed data, e.g., masking (direct effect of light on behavior bypassing the clock) or relative coordination (weak and transient entrainment) but let’s not get too bogged down in arcane circadiana right now. For now, let’s say that the reindeer clock exists, that it is a very low-amplitude clock which entrains readily and immediately to light-dark cycles, while it fragments or demultiplies in long periods of constant conditions.
Why is this important to the reindeer?
During long night of the winter and the long day of the summer it does not make sense for the reindeer to behave in 24-hour cycles. Their internal drive to do so, driven by the clock, should be overpowered by the need to be flexible – in such a harsh environment, behavior needs to be opportunistic – if there’s a predator in sight: move away. If there is food in sight – go get it. If you are full and there is no danger, this is a good time to take a nap. One way to accomplish this is to de-couple the behavior from the clock. The other strategy is to have a clock that is very permissive to such opportunistic behavior – a very low-amplitude clock.
But why have clock at all?
Stokkan and colleagues stress that the day-night cycles in spring help reindeer time seasonal events, most importantly breeding. The calves/fawns should be born when the weather is the nicest and the food most plentiful. The reindeer use those few weeks of spring (and fall) to measure daylength (photoperiod) and thus time their seasonality – or in other words, to reset their internal calendar: the circannual clock.
But, what does it all mean?
All of the above deals only with one of the two hypotheses for the adaptive function (and thus evolution) of the circadian clock. This is the External Synchronization hypothesis. This means that it is adaptive for an organism to be synchronized (in its biochemistry, physiology and behavior) with the external environment – to sleep when it is safe to do so, to eat at times when it will be undisturbed, etc. In the case of reindeer, since there are no daily cycles in the environment for the most of the year, there is no adaptive value in keeping a 24-hour rhythm in behavior, so none is observed. But since Arctic is highly seasonal, and since the circadian clock, through daylength measurement (photoperiodism) times seasonal events, the clock is retained as an adaptive structure.
This is not so new – such things have been observed in cave animals, as well as in social insects.
What the paper does not address is the other hypothesis – the Internal Synchronization hypothesis for the existence of the circadian clock – to synchronize internal events. So a target cell does not need to keep producing (and wasting energy) to produce a hormone receptor except at the time when the endocrine gland is secreting the hormone. It is a way for the body to temporally divide potentially conflicting physiological functions so those that need to coincide do so, and those that conflict with each other are separated in time – do not occur simultaneously. In this hypothesis, the clock is the Coordination Center of all the physiological processes. Even if there is no cycle in the environment to adapt to, the clock is a necessity and will be retained no matter what for this internal function, though the period now need not be close to 24 hours any more.
What can be done next?
Unfortunately, reindeer are not fruitflies or mice or rats. They are not endangered (as far as I know), but they are not easy to keep in the laboratory in large numbers in ideal, controlled conditions, for long periods of time.
Out in the field, one is limited as to what one can do. The only output of the clock that can be monitored long-term in the field is gross locomotor activity. Yet, while easiest to do, this is probably the least reliable indicator of the workings of the clock. Behavior is too flexible and malleable, too susceptible to “masking” by direct effects of the environment (e.g., weather, predators, etc,). And measurement of just gross locomotor activity does not tell us which specific behaviors the animals are engaged in.
It would be so nice if a bunch of reindeer could be brought into a lab and placed under controlled lighting conditions for a year at a time. One could, first, monitor several different specific behaviors. For example, if feeding, drinking and defecation are rhythmic, that would suggest that the entire digestive system is under circadian control: the stomach, liver, pancreas, intestine and all of their enzymes. Likewise with drinking and urination – they can be indirect indicators of the rhytmicity of the kidneys and the rest of the excretory system.
In a lab, one could also continuously monitor some physiological parameters with simple, non-invasive techniques. One could, for example monitor body temperature, blood pressure and heart-rate, much more reliable markers of circadian output. One could also take more frequent blood samples (these are large animals, they can take it) and measure a whole plethora of hormones along with melatonin, e.g., cortisol, thyroid hormones, progesterone, estrogen, testosterone, etc (also useful for measuring seasonal responses). One could measure metabolites in urine and feces and also gain some insight into rhythms of the internal biochemistry and physiology. All of that with no surgery and no discomfort to the animals.
Then one can place reindeer in constant darkness and see if all these rhythms persist or decay over time. Then one can make a PhaseResponse Curve and thus test the amplitude of the underlying oscillator (or do that with entrainment to T-cycles, if you have been clicking on links all along, you’ll know what I’m talking about). One can test their reproductive response to photoperiod this way as well.
Finally, fibroblasts are peripheral cells. One cannot expect the group to dissect suprachiasmatic nuclei out of reindeer to check the state of the master pacemaker itself. And in a case of such a damped circadian system, testing a peripheral clock may not be very informative. Better fibroblasts than nothing, but there are big caveats about using them.
Remember that the circadian system is distributed all around the body, with each cell containing a molecular clock, but only the pacemaker cells in the suprachiasmatic nucleus are acting as a network. In a circadian system like the one in reindeer, where the system is low-amplitude to begin with, it is almost expected that peripheral clocks taken out of the body and isolated in a dish will not be able to sustain rhythms for very long. Yet those same cells, while inside of the body, may be perfectly rhythmic as a part of the ensemble of all the body cells, each sending entraining signals to the others every day, thus the entire system as a whole working quite well as a body-wide circadian clock. This can be monitored in real-time in transgenic mice, but the technology to do that in reindeer is still some years away.
Finally, one could test a hypothesis that the reindeer clock undergoes seasonal changes in its organization at the molecular level by comparing the performance of fibroblasts (and perhaps some other peripheral cells) taken out of animals at different times of year.
What’s up with this being medically relevant?
But why is all this important? Why is work on mice not sufficient and one needs to pay attention to a strange laboratory animal model like reindeer?
First, unlike rodents, reindeer is a large, mostly diurnal animal. Just like us.
a1 reindeer.jpg
Second, reindeer normally live in conditions that make people sick, yet they remain just fine, thank you. How do they do that?
Even humans who don’t live above the Arctic Circle (or in the Antarctica), tend to live in a 24-hour society with both light and social cues messing up with our internal rhythms.
We have complex circadian systems that are easy to get out of whack. We work night-shifts and rotating shifts and fly around the globe getting jet-lagged. Jet-lag is not desynchronization between the clock and the environment, it is internal desynchronization between all the cellular clocks in our bodies.
In the state of almost permanent jet-lag that many of us live in, a lot of things go wrong. We get sleeping disorders, eating disorders, obesity, compromised immunity leading to cancer, problems with reproduction, increase in psychiatric problems, the Seasonal Affective Disorder, prevalence of stomach ulcers and breast cancer in night-shift nurses, etc.
Why do we get all that and reindeer don’t? What is the trick they evolved to stay healthy in conditions that drive us insane and sick? Can we learn their trick, adopt it for our own medical practice, and use it? Those are kinds of things that a mouse and a rat cannot provide answers to, but reindeer can. I can’t think of another animal species that can do that for us. Which is why I am glad that Stokkan and friends are chasing reindeer with enormous butterfly nets across Arctic wasteland in the darkness of winter 😉
Lu, W., Meng, Q., Tyler, N., Stokkan, K., & Loudon, A. (2010). A Circadian Clock Is Not Required in an Arctic Mammal Current Biology, 20 (6), 533-537 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2010.01.042

How the Hidden Brain Controls Our Lives – new PRI The World Science Forum

Listen to the podcast, post comments, ask questions – the new forum is now live and will go on for the next week:

How the Hidden Brain Controls Our Lives
We like to think of ourselves as conscious, rational beings.
But human behavior is largely driven by unconscious attitudes.
These attitudes reside in the deep recesses of the brain, and we ignore them at our own peril.
So says Washington Post journalist Shankar Vedantam.
Vedantam is the author of a new book, The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives.
Vedantam explores how the workings of the unconscious mind explain everything from genocide and injustice to the rise of suicide bombers.
The World’s science reporter Rhitu Chatterjee spoke with Vedantam about the role of the hidden brain in our lives and actions. Listen to that interview here.
Download MP3
Now it’s your turn to ask the questions. Join the conversation. It’s just to the right.
* Have you ever regretted a decision you made, realizing later that it was impulsive and ill-informed?
* Do you think it’s possible to change our unconscious biases by better understanding our hidden brains?
* Or does understanding our hidden brains makes us more confused, less sure of our decisions?

NESCent Travel Award – only two days left to submit your entries!

The application deadline for the NESCent blogging competition and travel award to ScienceOnline2010 is December 1, 2009. So hurry up – see the contest conditions and entries so far and meet the judges.
So, hurry up. Write (or choose an existing) post in the area of evolutionary biology and send it in. Two lucky winners will get travel grants to ScienceOnline2010. Yes, we are full, and there are 101 people on the waiting list. But the two NESCent winners have their spots saved just for them!

Science Cafe Raleigh – Brain, Memory, Alzheimer’s

Tuesday, September 22, 2009
6:30-8:30 pm with discussion beginning at 7:00 followed by Q&A
Location: The Irregardless Café, 901 W. Morgan Street, Raleigh 833-8898
Memory problems have become increasingly common as our population ages. The fear of developing dementia is one of the greatest fears of most Americans. There can be memory changes as one grows older, but what determines if these changes are benign versus the beginning of a dementia process like Alzheimer’s disease? We will discuss types of memory, the neurobiological basis of memory, and ways to tell normal aging from the beginnings of significant memory loss. We will also discuss symptoms and treatment for people who have been diagnosed with dementia.
About the speaker:
Sandeep Vaishnavi, M.D., PhD serves as Medical Director at North Carolina Neuropsychiatry Clinic in Raleigh. Dr. Vaishnavi specializes in memory and memory disorders. He has been a fellow at Johns Hopkins Hospital and as part of the Duke-GlaxoSmithKline Psychopharmacology program. He has also been nominated for and/or received both clinical and research awards from Duke Medical Center.

Cognitive Monthly #2 is out

And it is good. Much longer than #1 and interesting to all of us who have kids heavily involved in playing computer games:

Whenever kids are involved in a violent crime, speculation about their upbringing inevitably takes center stage. Were they abused or neglected? Could their parents have prevented the tragedy? Most recently, video games have been targeted as the possible root of the problem. But are video games really to blame for horrific massacres like the shootings at Columbine and Virginia Tech? This month’s report considers the growing role video games play in our kids’ lives–and whether the playing violent games might really cause kids to be violent themselves. We assess the latest research on violent games and how it impacts kids. Researchers have found that playing some violent games does result at least temporarily in aggressive behavior, but it can also be beneficial. Do the benefits of gaming outweigh the many potential harms? We also describe how we’ve managed video games in our family, and offer some guidelines on how parents can approach gaming in their own homes.

Duke Nukem Comes to Dinner: Do Violent Games Make Violent Kids?” can be downloaded for only $2 at and it’s worth the price 😉

Do a quiz, help shape research

It will not take more than a couple of minutes. Just go to this Sheril’s post and follow the directions. She will use the results of the quiz to inform experimental design for an interesting project on the neuroscience of kissing. This will then be included in her next book.

Why social insects do not suffer from ill effects of rotating and night shift work?

ResearchBlogging.orgMost people are aware that social insects, like honeybees, have three “sexes”: queens, drones and workers.
Drones are males. Their only job is to fly out and mate with the queen after which they drop dead.
Female larvae fed ‘royal jelly’ emerge as queens. After mating, the young queen takes a bunch of workers with her and sets up a new colony. She lives much longer than other bees and spends her life laying gazillions of eggs continuously around the clock, while being fed by workers.
Female larvae not fed the ‘royal jelly’ emerge as workers.
Workers perform a variety of jobs in the hive. Some are hive-cleaners, some are ‘nurses’ (they feed the larvae), some are queen’s chaperones (they feed the queen), some are guards (they defend the hive and attack potential enemies) and some are foragers (they collect nectar and pollen from flowers and bring it back to the hive).
What most people are not aware of, though, is that there is a regular progression of ‘jobs’ that each worker bee goes through. The workers rotate through the jobs in an orderly fashion. They all start out doing generalized jobs, e.g., cleaning the hive. Then they move up to doing a more specialized job, for instance being a nurse or taking care of the queen. Later, they become guards, and in the end, when they are older, they become foragers – the terminal phase.
This pattern of behavioral development is called “age polyethism” (poly = many, ethism = expression of behavior), or sometimes “temporal polyethism” (image from BeeSpotter):
Age polyethism.jpg
This developmental progression in behavior is accompanied by changes in brain structure, patterns of neurotransmitter and hormone synthesis and secretion, and patterns of gene expression in the central nervous system.
Some years ago (as in “more than ten years ago”) Gene Robinson and his students started looking at daily patterns of activity in honeybees. The workers in their early stages are doing jobs inside the hive, where it is always dark. They clean the hive, take care of the eggs and pupae, and feed the larvae and the queen around the clock. Each individual bee sometimes works and sometimes sleeps, without any semblance of a 24-hour pattern. Different individuals work and sleep at different, apparently random times. The hive as a whole is thus constantly busy – there is always a large subset of workers performing their duties, day and night.
As they get older, they start doing the jobs, like being guards, that expose them to the outside of the hive, thus to the light-dark and temperature cycles of the outside world.
Finally, the foragers only go out during the daytime and have clear and distinct daily rhythms. Furthermore, the foragers have to consult an internal clock in order to orient towards the Sun in their travels, as well as to be able to communicate the distance and location of flowers to their mates in the hive using the ‘waggle dance’. As bees are social insects, it is difficult to keep individuals in isolation for longer periods of time, but it has been done successfully and, in such studies, foragers exhibit both freerunning (in constant darkness) and entrained (in light-dark cycles) circadian rhythms, while younger workers do not.
In the Robinson lab, then PhD student Dan Toma and postdoc Guy Bloch did much of the early and exciting work on figuring out how the rhythmicity develops in individual worker bees as they pass through the procession of ‘jobs’.
In an early study, they measured levels of expression of mRNA of the core clock gene Period (Per). The gene was expressed at low levels and no visible daily rhythm in early-stage workers, but at much higher levels and in a circadian fashion in foragers.
As the levels of expression were measured crudely – in entire bee brains – it was impossible at the time to be sure which of the two potential mechanisms were operating: 1) the celluular clock did not work until the bee became a forager, or 2) the cellular clocks were working, but different cells were not synchronized with each other, producing a collectively arrhythmic output: both as measured by gene expression of the entire brain and as measured by behavior of the live bee.
Either way, the study showed correlation: the appearance of the functional circadian clock coincided with other changes in the brain structure, brain chemistry and bee behavior. They could not say at the time what causes what, or even if the syncronicity of changes was purely coincidental. They needed to go beyond correlation and for that they needed to experimentally change the timing to see if various processes can be dissociated or if they are tightly bound to each other.
And there is a clever way to do this! First, they took some hives and removed all the foragers from it. This disrupted the harmony of the division of labor in the hive – too many cleaners and nurses, but nobody is bring the food home. When that happens, the behavioral development of other workers speeds up dramatically – in no time, some nurses and guards develop into foragers. And, lo and behold, the moment they became foragers, they developed rhythms in behavior and rhythms of the Per gene expression in the brain. So, as the development is accelerated, everything about it is accelerated at the same rate: gene expression, brain structure, neurochemistry, and behavioral rhythmicity.
Nice, but then they did something even better. They removed most of the cleaners and nurses from some hives. Again, the balance of the division of labor was disrupted – plenty of food is arriving into the hive but there is not enough bees inside to take care of that food, process it, feed the larvae, etc. What happened then? Well, some of the foragers went back into the hive and started performing the house-keeping duties instead of flying out and about. And, interestingly, their brain structure and chemistry reverted its development to resemble that of cleaners and nurses. They lost behavioral rhythmicity and started working randomly around the clock. And the rhythm of clock-gene expression disappeared as well.
So, genetic, neural, endocrine, circadian and behavioral changes all go together at all times. Social structure of the colony, through the patterns of pheromones present in the hive, affects the gene expression, brain development and function, and behavior of individual bees. Just like the gene expression and behavioral patterns, the patterns of melatonin synthesis and secretion in honeybee brains is low and arrhythmic in young workers and becomes greater and rhythmic in foragers. With the recent sequencing of the honeybee genome, the potential for future research in honeybee chronobiology looks promising and exciting.
But are these findings generalizable or are they specific to honeybees? How about other species of bees or other social insects, like wasps, ants and termites? Are they the same?
Other species of socials insects have been studied in terms of age polyethism as well. The earliest study I am aware of (let me know if there is an older one) studying behavioral rhytmicity in relation to behavioral development was a 2004 Naturwissenschaften paper by Sharma et al. on harvester ants. In that study, different castes of worker ants exhibited different patterns – some were strongly diurnal, some nocturnal, some had strange shifts in period, and some were arrhythmic. Those with rhythms could entrain to light-dark cycles as well as display freerunning rhythms in constant darkness.
Just last month, a new paper on harvester ants came out in BMC Ecology (Open Access). In it, Ingram et al. show that foragers have circadian rhythms (both in constant darkness and entrained to LD cycles) in expression of Period gene (as well as behavioral rhythms), while ants working on tasks inside the hive do not exhibit any rhythms either in clock-gene expression or in behavior, suggesting that the connection between age polyethism and the development of the circadian clock may be a universal property of all social insects.
We know that in humans, night-shift and rotating-shift schedules are bad for health as the body is in the perpetual state of jet-lag: the numerous clocks in our bodies are not synchronized with each other. We have evolved to be diurnal animals, entrained to environmental light cycles and not traveling over many time zones within hours, or working around the clock. Social insects have evolved a different strategy to deal with the potentially ill effects of shift-work: switch off the clock entirely until one develops far enough that time-keeping becomes a requirement.
Yang, L., Qin, Y., Li, X., Song, D., & Qi, M. (2007). Brain melatonin content and polyethism in adult workers of Apis mellifera and Apis cerana (Hym., Apidae) Journal of Applied Entomology, 131 (9-10), 734-739 DOI: 10.1111/j.1439-0418.2007.01229.x
Sharma, V., Lone, S., Goel, A., & Chandrashekaran, M. (2004). Circadian consequences of social organization in the ant species Camponotus compressus Naturwissenschaften, 91 (8) DOI: 10.1007/s00114-004-0544-6
Ingram, K., Krummey, S., & LeRoux, M. (2009). Expression patterns of a circadian clock gene are associated with age-related polyethism in harvester ants, Pogonomyrmex occidentalis BMC Ecology, 9 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1472-6785-9-7

Cognitive Monthly

I am pretty much on record that I would not pay for anything online (to be precise, to pay for content – I certainly use the Web for shopping). But with some caveats. I have been known to hit a PayPal button of people who provide content and information I find valuable. And I would presumably pay, though not being happy about it, if the information behind the pay wall is a) unique (i.e., not found anywhere else by any other means) and b) indispensable for my work (i.e., I would feel handicapped without it).
But I am not subscribed to, or paying for, anything right now and haven’t been in years. Not even Faculty of 1000 which, one can argue, is important for my work. If I need a reprint of a paper for personal use (or perhaps to consider blogging about) I get it from the author, or if that does not work, from a friend with access.
So, I am intrigued by the announcement of ‘Cognitive Monthly’, a $2 per issue publication by Dave and Greta Munger. I got the reviewer copy of the first issue. I read it. I loved it. Would I pay $2 for something like that every month? I had to think about it long and hard, but my final answer is, actually, Yes. Why?
This is not an easy question to answer. I think a big part of my decision is the fact that I know Dave and Greta very well, in person, so I am positively predisposed to help them in this endeavor.
I am also a long-time regular reader of ‘Cognitive Daily’ – I know from experience that their posts are interesting to me. I am personally very interested in cognitive psychology of sensory perception, human behavior in traffic (driving, biking, etc.), human behavior in respect to social norms, ideology and fashion, etc. Even in busiest weeks, I’ll read at least the Science Friday post (and often participate in their research polls). Thus, I am wondering if I would have said Yes if I was unaware of Cognitive Daily from before.
The first issue, about the way theatrical productions use various illusions (light, sound, etc.) to draw the audience in, so the audience gets transported into a different place and time, is absolutely fascinating. Also, the production level of the issue is much greater than any one of their blog posts – it is longer, has a great introduction to the historical context, lots of interesting information, is written really well – this is a full-blown article that could appear in any reputable (popular science or general interest) magazine. And yet they say that this one is just a trial and that the future issues will be even more thorough. So, it is definitely an extremely high quality product, not just a quick blog post that comes and goes.
So, this is definitely fulfilling my criterion a) – it is unique. But is it b) as well? I can function professionally just fine without it, so why would I buy this every month anyway? I don’t know. I just feel that the personal education and enrichment I got from reading this article was worth $2 to me. It is hard to be rational about this – I just liked reading it and it was worth it to me. And I can’t wait for the next issue. I am actually – gasp – excited about it.
Perhaps they can do a Science Friday poll and post about this – are you more likely to pay for something if you are told in advance to think about this question? I read a lot of stuff online and never think “would I pay for this?”. But I did this time because I was asked to keep that question in the back of my mind while reading it. Did this make me more predisposed to try to give the piece a monetary value and, in comparison to $2 they are asking the deal looked good?
Give it a try yourself – you can get their stuff at (here is the first issue) in color, or on Amazon for Kindle (first issue) in black and white. Take a look and decide for yourself.
I am going to be watching this experiment with interest. If someone as jaded as I am got excited and is willing to pay for more of that “fix”, I am wondering if that will work for others as well. What will be the numbers of buyers on any given month, what percentage of those will be return customers, how will the word-of-mouth affect sales of any given issue (e.g., if one of them gets a lot of play on Twitter etc., and another one not so much), etc.? Definitely an interesting experiment.

Spiders On Drugs

If you missed it before, I have written about this kind of research before – this is interesting stuff, as much as the video is just plain funny (video, hat-tip: Psique).

What is dopamine? (video)

Did I see that?

I forgot! But they say it was in a movie.
Mo explores the portrayal of Amnesia in the movies. Lovely!

Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology


Thursday, March 5
7 p.m.
What Good is it to Feel Good? The Science of Positive Emotions
From our “what the world needs now” file, Dr. Barbara Frederickson, head of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab at UNC will share thoughts from her new book, Positivity. You can strengthen relationships, relax the mind and relieve stress by thinking positively. Part of the Current Science Forum at Morehead Planetarium, UNC.

Innovation in education

A sixth of a GCSE in 60 minutes?:

Later this year, pupils from Monkseaton high school will file into their new lozenge-shaped school and take their seats before a giant video wall in a multipurpose hall. Here, they will receive a unique lesson: an intense PowerPoint presentation, repeated three times, and interspersed with 10-minute breaks of juggling or spinning plates. After one hour of this study, the pupils will be primed for one sixth of a GCSE. In theory, following this “spaced learning” method, a teenager could sit a GCSE after just three days’ work.
It is a vision of the future that may horrify many parents, teachers and the educational establishment. It challenges how we teach our children and casts doubt on GCSEs and, perhaps, the validity of our entire school system. But teachers and thinkers from around the world are making a pilgrimage to Monkseaton to investigate spaced learning, which has been devised and tested in this tatty state comprehensive over the last four years.
A series of careful trials yielded fascinating results: 48 year 9 pupils who had not covered any part of the GCSE science syllabus were given a complete biology module in a 90-minute spaced learning lesson. A week later, they took the relevant GCSE multiple-choice exam (a year earlier than normal). Twelve months on, the same set of pupils took another GCSE science paper after a conventional four months of study. While average scores for the second paper were higher (68% versus 58%), more than a quarter of the pupils scored higher after spaced learning than through conventional study. Despite studying for just 90 minutes with spaced learning, 80% of the class of 13- and 14-year-olds got at least a D grade.
Monkseaton’s futuristic new school opens in September. It will be where Kelley hopes to expand spaced learning, in classrooms that won’t be square (“We don’t have to have schools built in squares,” he says) and will feature special intensive lighting to boost teenagers’ concentration and wakefulness. Kelley has studied research on teenagers’ circadian rhythms that shows they get going later in the day than adults – hence those epic teenage lie-ins – and hopes to start lessons at the more teen-friendly hour of 10.30am.
I’m inclined to believe that there must be more to making memories stick than findings derived from dissecting a rat’s hippocampus. Scientists would probably say that is because – despite my GCSE refresher – I don’t fully understand the complex advances in neuroscience. Whatever the truth of it, something special is happening at Monkseaton. And if other teachers and academics open their minds to it, this may be just the beginning of a revolution in our classrooms.

Circadian Rhythm of Aggression in Crayfish

ResearchBlogging.orgLong-time readers of this blog remember that, some years ago, I did a nifty little study on the Influence of Light Cycle on Dominance Status and Aggression in Crayfish. The department has moved to a new building, the crayfish lab is gone, I am out of science, so chances of following up on that study are very low. And what we did was too small even for a Least Publishable Unit, so, in order to have the scientific community aware of our results, I posted them (with agreement from my co-authors) on my blog. So, although I myself am unlikely to continue studying the relationship between the circadian system and the aggressive behavior in crayfish, I am hoping others will.
And a paper just came out on exactly this topic – Circadian Regulation of Agonistic Behavior in Groups of Parthenogenetic Marbled Crayfish, Procambarus sp. by Abud J. Farca Luna, Joaquin I. Hurtado-Zavala, Thomas Reischig and Ralf Heinrich from the Institute for Zoology, University of Gottingen, Germany:

Crustaceans have frequently been used to study the neuroethology of both agonistic behavior and circadian rhythms, but whether their highly stereotyped and quantifiable agonistic activity is controlled by circadian pacemakers has, so far, not been investigated. Isolated marbled crayfish (Procambarus spec.) displayed rhythmic locomotor activity under 12-h light:12-h darkness (LD12:12) and rhythmicity persisted after switching to constant darkness (DD) for 8 days, suggesting the presence of endogenous circadian pacemakers. Isogenetic females of parthenogenetic marbled crayfish displayed all behavioral elements known from agonistic interactions of previously studied decapod species including the formation of hierarchies. Groups of marbled crafish displayed high frequencies of agonistic encounters during the 1st hour of their cohabitation, but with the formation of hierarchies agonistic activities were subsequently reduced to low levels. Group agonistic activity was entrained to periods of exactly 24 h under LD12:12, and peaks of agonistic activity coincided with light-to-dark and dark-to-light transitions. After switching to DD, enhanced agonistic activity was dispersed over periods of 8-to 10-h duration that were centered around the times corresponding with light-to-dark transitions during the preceding 3 days in LD12:12. During 4 days under DD agonistic activity remained rhythmic with an average circadian period of 24.83 ± 1.22 h in all crayfish groups tested. Only the most dominant crayfish that participated in more than half of all agonistic encounters within the group revealed clear endogenous rhythmicity in their agonistic behavior, whereas subordinate individuals, depending on their social rank, initiated only between 19.4% and 0.03% of all encounters in constant darkness and displayed no statistically significant rhythmicity. The results indicate that both locomotion and agonistic social interactions are rhythmic behaviors of marbled crayfish that are controlled by light-entrained endogenous pacemakers.

I think the best way for me to explain what they did in this study is to do a head-to-head comparison between our study and their study – it is striking how the two are complementary! On one hand, there is no overlap in methods at all (so no instance of scooping for sure), yet on the other, both studies came up with similar results, thus strengthening each other’s findings. You may want to read my post for the introduction to the topic, as I explain there why studying aggression in crayfish is important and insightful, what was done to date, and what it all means, as well as the standard methodology in the field. So, let’s see how the two studies are similar and how the two differ:
1) We were sure we used the Procambarus clarkii species. They are probably not exactly sure what species they had, so they denoted it as Procambarus sp., noting in the Discussion that it was certainly NOT the Procambarus clarkii, which makes sense as our animals were wild-caught in the USA and theirs in Germany. As both studies got similar results, this indicates that this is not a single-species phenomenon, but can be generalizable at least to other crayfish, if not broader to other crustaceans, arhtropods or all invertebrates.
2) We used only males in our study. They used only females. In crayfish, both sexes fight. It is nice, thus, to note that other aspects of the behavior are similar between sexes.
3) We used the term ‘aggression’. They use the term ‘agonistic behavior’, which is scientese for ‘aggression’, invented to erase any hints of anthropomorphism. Not a bad strategy, generally, as assumed aggression in some other species has been later shown to be something else (e.g., homosexual behavior), but in crayfish it is most certainly aggression: they meet, they display, they fight, and if there is no place to escape, one often kills the other – there is no ‘loving’ going on there, for sure.
4) The sizes of animals were an order of magnitude different between the two studies. Their crayfish weighed around 1-2g while ours were 20-40g in body mass. This may be due to species differences, but is more likely due to age – they used juveniles while we used adults. Again, it is nice to see that results in different age groups are comparable.
5) We did not measure general locomotor activity of our animals in isolation. We, with proper caveats, used aggressive behavior of paired animals as a proxy for general locomotor activity, and were straightforward about it – we measured aggressive behavior alone in a highly un-natural setup. As Page and Larimer (1972) have done these studies before, we did not feel the need to replicate those with our animals.
The new study, however, did monitor gross locomotor activity of isolated crayfish. Their results, confirming what Page and Larimer found out, demonstrate once again that activity rhythms are a poor marker of the underlying circadian pacemaker (which is why Terry Page later focused on the rhythm of electrical activity of the eye, electroretinogram – ERR – in subsequent studies) in crayfish. Powerful statistics tease out rhythmicity in most individuals, but this is not a rhythm I would use if I wanted to do more complex studies, e.g., analysis of entrainment to exotic LD cycles or to build and interpret a PhaseResponse Curve. Just look at their representative example (and you know this is their best):
crayfish image 1.JPG
You can barely make out the rhythm even in the light-dark cycle (white-gray portion of the actograph) and the rhythms in constant darkness (solid gray) are even less well defined – thus only statistical analysis (bottom) can discover rhythms in such records. The stats reveal a peak of activity in the early night and a smaller peak of activity at dawn, similarly to what Page and Larimer found in their study, and similar to what we saw during our experiments.
6) They used an arena of a much larger size than ours. We did it on purpose – we wanted to ‘force’ the animals to fight as much as possible by putting them in tight quarters where they cannot avoid each other, as we were interested in physiology and wanted it intensified so we could get clearly measurable (if exaggerated) results. Their study is, thus, more ecologically relevant, but one always has to deal with pros and cons in such decisions: more realistic vs. more powerful. They chose realism, we chose power. Together, the two approaches reinforce and complement each other.
7) As I explained in my old post – there are two methodological approaches in this line of research:

Two standard experimental practices are used in the study of aggression in crustaceans. In one, two or more individuals are placed together in an aquarium and left there for a long period of time (days to weeks). After the initial aggressive encounters, the social status of an individual can be deduced from its control of resources, like food, shelter and mates.
In the other paradigm, two individuals are allowed to fight for a brief period of time (less than an hour), after which they are isolated again and re-tested the next day at the same time of day.

They used the first method. We modified the second one (testing repeatedly, every 3 hours over 24 hours, instead of just once a day).
What they did was place 6 individuals in the aquarium, a couple of hours before lights-off, then monitor their aggressive behavior over several days. What they found, similar to us, is that the most intense fights resulting in a stable social hierarchy occur in the early portion of the night:
crayfish image 2.JPG
Once the social hierarchy is established on that first night, the levels of aggression drop significantly, and occasional bouts of fights happen at all times, with perhaps a slight increase at the times of light switches: both off and on. Released into constant darkness, the pattern continues, with the most dominant individual initiating aggressive encounters a little more often during light-transitions then between them. The other five animals had no remaining rhythm of agonistic behavior: they just responded to attacks by the Numero Uno when necessary.
In our study we tried to artificially elevate the levels of aggression by repeatedly re-isolating and re-meeting two animals at a time. And even with that protocol, we saw the most intense fights at early night, and most conclusive fights, i.e., those that resulted in stable social hierarchy, also occuring at early nights, while the activity at other time of the day or night were much lower.
8) The goals of two studies differed as well, i.e., we asked somewhat different questions.
Our study was designed to provide some background answers that would tell us if a particular hypothesis is worth testing: winning a fight elevates serotonin in the nervous system; elevated serotonin correlated with the hightened aggression in subsequent fights, more likely leading to subsequent victories; crayfish signal dominance status to each other via urine; melatonin is a metabolic product of serotonin; melatonin is produced only during the night with a very sharp and high peak at the beginning of the night; if there is more serotonin in the nervous system, there should be more melatonin in the urine; perhaps melatonin may be the signature molecule in the urine indicating social status.
In order to see if this line of thinking is worth pursuing, we needed to see, first, if the most aggressive bouts happen in the early night and if the most decisive fights (those that lead to stable hiararchy) happen in the early night. This is what we found, indicating that our hypothesis is worth testing in the future.
They asked a different set of questions:
Is there a circadian rhythm of locomotor activity? They found: Yes.
Is there a circadian rhythm of aggression? They found: Yes.
Do the patterns of general activity and aggressive activity correlate with each other? They found: Yes.
Does the aggression rhythm persist in constant darkness conditions? They found: Yes.
Do all individuals show circadian rhythm of aggression? They found: No. Only the most dominant individual does. The others just defend themselves when attacked.
Is there social entrainment in crayfish, i.e., do they entrain their rhythms to each other in constant conditions? They found: No. All of them just keep following their own inherent circadian periods and drift apart after a while.
Is there a pattern of temporal competitive exclusion, i.e., do submissive individuals shift their activity patterns so as not to have to meet The Badassest One? They found: No. All of them just keep following their own inherent circadian periods.
So, a nice study overall, the first publication I know of that attempts to connect the literature on circadian rhythms in crayfish to the literature on aggressive behavior in crayfish.

Continue reading

This is your honeybee. And this is your honeybee on drugs.

A well-written press release on a very well done and exciting study:
Honey bees on cocaine dance more, changing ideas about the insect brain:

In a study published in 2007, Robinson and his colleagues reported that treatment with octopamine caused foraging honey bees to dance more often. This indicated that octopamine played a role in honey bee dance behavior. It also suggested a framework for understanding the evolution of altruistic behavior, Robinson said.
“The idea behind that study was that maybe this mechanism that structures selfish behavior – eating – was co-opted during social evolution to structure social behavior – that is, altruistic behavior,” he said. “So if you’re selfish and you’re jacked up on octopamine, you eat more, but if you’re altruistic you don’t eat more but you tell others about it so they can also eat.”
But it was not even known if insects have a bona fide reward system. That question led the researchers to study the effects of cocaine on honey bee behavior. Cocaine – a chemical used by the coca plant to defend itself from leaf-eating insects – interferes with octopamine transit in insect brains and has undeniable effects on reward systems in mammals, including humans. It does this by influencing the chemically related dopamine system.
Dopamine plays a role in the human ability to predict and respond to pleasure or reward. It is also important to motor function and modulates many other functions, including cognition, sleep, mood, attention and learning.
One aspect of reward in the human brain involves altruistic behavior, Robinson said. Thinking about or performing an altruistic act has been found to excite the pleasure centers of the human brain.
“There are various lines of thought that indicate that one way of structuring society is to have altruistic behavior be pleasurable,” he said.
Because cocaine causes honey bees to dance more – an altruistic behavior – the researchers believe their results support the idea that there is a reward system in the insect brain, something that has never before been shown.

To determine whether the cocaine was merely causing the bees to move more or to dance at inappropriate times or places, the researchers conducted a second set of experiments. These tests showed that non-foraging honey bees don’t dance, even when exposed to cocaine. They showed that foragers on cocaine do not move more than other bees (except when dancing), and that they do not dance at inappropriate times or in locations other than the dance floor.
The researchers also found that the bees on cocaine do not dance every time they go on a foraging excursion. And, most important, their dances are not distorted.
“It’s not like they’re gyrating wildly on the dance floor out of control,” Robinson said. “This is a patterned response. It gives distance information, location information. That information is intact.”
In a final experiment that also shows parallels to human behavior, the researchers found that honey bees on cocaine experience withdrawal symptoms when the drug is withheld.
“This study provides strong support for the idea that bees have a reward system, that it’s been co-opted and it’s now involved in a social behavior, which motivates them to tell their hive mates about the food that they’ve found,” Robinson said.

Read the whole thing….

Einstein was smart, but Could He Play the Violin? – the winner of the synchroblogging contest

Happy Anniversary, PLoS ONE!
Today is PLoS ONE’s second anniversary and we’re celebrating by announcing that the winner of the second PLoS synchroblogging competition is SciCurious of the Neurotopia 2.0 blog.
“This fluent post captures the essence of the research and accurately communicates it in a style that resonates with both the scientific and lay community” – Liz Allen, PLoS.
Here is the winning entry, cross posted in its entirety:
Einstein was smart, but Could He Play the Violin?
I already wrote one entry for PLoS ONE’s second birthday, but I’m feeling sparky today, and I think I like this paper better.
I don’t know about you guys, but when I was a sprog, my parents dragged me to music lessons. LOTS of music lessons. As of right now, I have been producing music of some type for the past 21 years straight. And I LOVE it.
Of course, I didn’t always love it. I remember my mother dragging me and my brother to lessons, making us sit down every day and practice (I was, and still am, no good with the practicing), and the fear and shakiness of recitals (heck, I still get that, and it’s been 21 years). In her time, Sci has actually “mastered” (it’s a debatable point), three different instruments (‘instruments’ is a loose term), and still uses one of them professionally on occasion. And if you can guess what they are, Sci will…do something cool. Like send you one of her favorite books. Or perhaps a tshirt with a molecule on it. Or perhaps some of her delicious cookies. Obviously, you can only guess if you don’t KNOW already (that means you, Dad). So there you go, contest open.
Anyway, years and years of music lessons. But the question is: did they do me any good? Does playing ‘Baby Mozart’ really do anything, and is anything achieved by starting your child on Suzuki when they are 2, other than the pain and misery of your child, and possibly an eventual love of music? Can it, perhaps, make me SMARTER? Forgeard et al. “Practicing a musical instrument in childhood is associated with enhanced verbal ability and nonverbal reasoning” PLoS ONE, 2008.
And for the record, Einstein did play the violin. Apparently he was quite good.
There actually are several studies out there that show that techniques that you learn can “transfer” to other techniques, giving you a bit of an edge. This works best when you’re performing skills that are very similar to each other (like learning how to estimate the area of a square, and then learning how to estimate the area of a triangle). We know this happens for musicians in the development of fine motor skills. Once you’ve been playing the violin for a while, other things that require fine motor skills will come to you a bit easier (perhaps we should train all would-be surgeons on musical instruments, if you can master playing Rachmaninoff, brain surgery should be a piece of cake).
Of course, most of the studies that have been done are correlational in nature. Kids who play musical instruments have better motor skills. This could be due to the music, or the kids could play music because they have good motor skills. Good motor skills could be a development of things like the higher socio-economic class that often goes along with being taught music as a child, and thus parents are maybe able to put more effort to their development. The possibilities go on. Correlation is NOT causation.
The same thing goes for the correlation between musical learning and IQ. There was a modest correlation, but it could be just the effect of the extra lessons the kids were receiving, resulting in more time spent on focused attention and mastering a skill. Significant correlations have also been shown for music and verbal and language skills. Music lessons have been found to be correlated with increases in reading ability and phonetic comprehension. This actually leads me to a question: if language, reading, and phonetic comprehension are related to the pitch and tone of words, do children who are tone deaf have a harder time mastering reading and verbal skills? I think this might warrant a future PubMed search.
Unfortunately, all the previous tests tended to focus on the “transfer” of skills to not very related fields, like IQ. So in this study, the authors wanted to look at the effects of music learning on “near” transfers, skill closely related to music training: spatial reasoning, verbal abilities, nonverbal, and mathematical. They also looked for VERY closely related skills: fine motor control and auditory skill.
They grabbed a whole bunch of kids around 8-11 years old. Some played musical instruments, some didn’t (one of the problems with this study to me is that the control group is a good bit small than the instrumental group, 41 musicians vs 18 non). Kids were controlled for the socio-economic class of the parents. Average length of music training was close to five years. They also divided the kids up by whether or not they got Suzuki training, but ended up grouping them together, as Suzuki effects were no different from other instrumentalists.
Dang, they didn’t graph their data. Well, I shall fix. Because I can. People should be so grateful I do all their graphing…
There you go. So, as you can see from the graph (the pretty, pretty graph), musical kids scored a lot better on fine motor skills for left and right hand (the first two sets of bars). This is pretty expected, if you’re using fine motor skills a lot, presumably you’ll get better at them. The musical kids also did better when distinguishing tones and following melody lines, though interestingly, they didn’t show any improvements in rhythm. I wonder if this has anything to do with the kids of music the kids were studying. There wasn’t a single drummer in the bunch, it was all either piano or stringed instruments.
And finally, the kids with musical training scored a lot better (I know it doesn’t look like it, but the MANCOVA analysis uncovered a difference) on vocabulary testing. They outperformed their non-musical counterparts in both verbal ability (vocabulary) and non-verbal reasoning skills. They didn’t find any differences in math or spatial reasoning.
The authors hypothesize that music training may transfer skills to some other related domains. The other hypothesis is that music training doesn’t enhance a specific skill set, but rather your general intellectual ability. This would mean they would score higher on every test given. In fact, they DID score higher, but most of the time the scores didn’t reach significance.
Still, remember this is correlation, not causation. Families were of similar socio-ecoomic class and education, but that doesn’t mean they are all similar parents. Kids who take music lessons may have parents that are more involved in their intellectual development. Kids that persist in taking music lessons for a good chunk of time may have superior motivation. Correlation =/= causation.
But it’s still a cool paper, and no matter what, it’s quite clear that music lessons didn’t HURT. Time to tape your poor child to the piano bench!
Marie Forgeard, Ellen Winner, Andrea Norton, Gottfried Schlaug (2008). Practicing a Musical Instrument in Childhood is Associated with Enhanced Verbal Ability and Nonverbal Reasoning PLoS ONE, 3 (10) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003566

Open Science – post-mortem analysis of H.M.’s brain

As you know, H.M. died last week.
Listen to this brief (9 minutes) NPR Science Friday podcast – you will be able to hear Henry Gustav Molaison’s voice. But most importantly, he has donated his brain to further scientific study. His brain will be sliced and stained and studied at The Brain Observatory at the University of California, San Diego.
But the way they are going to do it will be in a very Open Science manner. Dr. Jacopo Annese, who is leading the project said, in this interview, that the entire process will be open – there will be a forum or a blog where researchers from around the word can make suggestions and discuss the procedure and the results. This will include, especially, people who have worked with Molaison when he was alive and may, thus, have the most insight into what would be most important to study, e.g., exactly what dyes to use to trace which brain circuits, etc. It will be interesting to watch.

We’ll remember H.M. even if he could not remember us

Everyone who’s ever taken a Neuroscience class in college remembers the strange case of H.M.
H.M. suffered from epilepsy. Back in 1953, his brain was operated on – some large chunks (the hippocampi) were removed. Epilepsy was gone. So was his memory.
He could remember his life before surgery, but could not form any new memories. More specifically, he could not remember any new events (‘declarative memory’), things that happened to him. Whatever he experienced years, months, weeks, days, hours, even minutes before, was forever lost. Every moment was a fresh moment. Every day a new beginning.
But there were things he could remember – new skills (‘episodic procedural memory’). If he practiced something one day, he would be better at it the next day even though he could not remember he ever did it before. His brain could remember those subconscious new memories.
Of course, he was studied and studied all his life. A lot of what we now know about memory, we learned from studies on H.M.
H.M. died this Tuesday at the age of 82. His real name was revealed after his death: Henry Gustav Molaison. When we talk about “heroes of science” we usually think about scientists. But in cases like Henry Gustav Molaison, the real scientific hero was a subject.
Mo, DrugMonkey, Greg Laden, Omnibrain and Jake Young have more.

Obligatory Reading of the Day: Crayfish tail-flip response

You know I have a soft spot for crayfish, so I was excited to read about the new study about their nervous system, nicely explained by Mo:

When confronted with threatening stimuli and predators, the crayfish responds with an innate escape machanism called the startle reflex. Also known as tailflipping, this stereotyped behaviour involves rapid flexions of the abdominal muscles which produce powerful swimming strokes that thrust the small crustacean through the water and away from danger. In the struggle for existence, the speed of this response response can mean the difference between life and death, and the crayfish has evolved an incredibly fast escape mechanism which can be initiated within well under one-hundredth of a second.

Internet use ‘good for the brain’

Or so says this BBC article:

A University of California Los Angeles team found searching the web stimulates centres in the brain that control decision-making and complex reasoning. The researchers say this might even help to counter-act the age-related physiological changes that cause the brain to slow down.

The Human & The Humanities

From The National Humanities Center:

The National Humanities Center will host the third and final conference on “The Human & The Humanities,” November 13 – 15, 2008, once again attracting scientists and humanities scholars to discuss how developments in science are challenging traditional notions of “the human.” Events will begin on the evening of November 13 with a lecture from noted neurologist and author Oliver Sacks at the William and Ida Friday Center in Chapel Hill, NC.
This event is free, but guests must register in advance to guarantee seating.
Other speakers and special guests confirmed for Friday and Saturday’s sessions at the National Humanities Center include:
Anthony Appiah, Princeton University
Patricia Churchland, University of California, San Diego
Michael Gazzaniga, University of California, Santa Barbara
Michael Gillespie, Duke University
Katherine Hayles, Duke University
David Krakauer, Santa Fe Institute
Jesse Prinz, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Peter Railton, University of Michigan
Robert Sapolsky, Stanford University
Raymond Tallis, University of Manchester
Holden Thorp, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Mark Turner, Case Western Reserve University
The entire conference is open to the public. A registration fee of $30 provides admission to all sessions along with meals during Friday and Saturday’s events.
To register for either the Oliver Sacks lecture or the ASC conference, please click here or visit to learn more about the ASC initiative.

I hope you don’t faint while reading this post….

…but if you do, I hope it was enjoyable! And edifying, of course. Kind of science that is amenable to experimentation at home.

Voluntary trepanation patient

Mo has the scoop – a fascinating interview with Heather Perry, one of the rare people who voluntarily underwent trepanation surgery.

Fainting Goats

The Beautiful Mind: Making Memories

Science Communicators of North Carolina:

Thursday, August 7
7 p.m.
The Beautiful Mind: Making Memories
Dr. Kelly Giovanello of the UNC-CH Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory Lab. Part of the Morehead Planetarium Current Science Forum.
250 E. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, (919) 962-1236

Time Perception news

Carl Zimmer: How Your Brain Can Control Time:

For 40 years, psychologists thought that humans and animals kept time with a biological version of a stopwatch. Somewhere in the brain, a regular series of pulses was being generated. When the brain needed to time some event, a gate opened and the pulses moved into some kind of counting device.
One reason this clock model was so compelling: Psychologists could use it to explain how our perception of time changes. Think about how your feeling of time slows down as you see a car crash on the road ahead, how it speeds up when you’re wheeling around a dance floor in love. Psychologists argued that these experiences tweaked the pulse generator, speeding up the flow of pulses or slowing it down.
But the fact is that the biology of the brain just doesn’t work like the clocks we’re familiar with. Neurons can do a good job of producing a steady series of pulses. They don’t have what it takes to count pulses accurately for seconds or minutes or more. The mistakes we make in telling time also raise doubts about the clock models. If our brains really did work that way, we ought to do a better job of estimating long periods of time than short ones. Any individual pulse from the hypothetical clock would be a little bit slow or fast. Over a short time, the brain would accumulate just a few pulses, and so the error could be significant. The many pulses that pile up over long stretches of time should cancel their errors out. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. As we estimate longer stretches of time, the range of errors gets bigger as well.

Chris Chatham: Impulsivity Due to Distortions in Time: Hyperbolic Discounting and Logarithmic Time Perception:

New research from Wharton and the Carlson School shows that a methodologically-appealing measure of impulsivity – hyperbolic discounting rate – may actually reflect a systematic “skew” in the way people perceive time.
Previous work has shown that people tend to decreasingly discount the usefulness or appeal of a reward with increasing delays; that is, a reward provided now is more appealing than a reward provided 1 week or 1 month from now, but that change in appeal is nonlinear (hyperbolic) across time. In other words, people prefer to behave impatiently now, but prefer to act more and more patiently in the future – suggesting that this “hyperbolic discounting rate” might be related to impulsivity.

Vaughan: The future is nonlinear:

These are quite different concepts – for example, we know logically that waiting four weeks is exactly four times as long as waiting a week, but it might not feel exactly four times as bad.

Just above and just below the optic chiasm

Marc Dingman is touching on my own favorite topic: It’s All About Timing: Circadian Rhythms and Behavior
And SciCurios goes only millimeters below the suprachiasmatic nucleus: Diabetes Insipidus as a Sequel to a Gunshot Wound of the Head
Both posts well worth your time.

The Beautiful Mind

News from SCONC (Science Communicators of North Carolina):
On Thursday, June 5 at 7 p.m. in the Banquet Hall of the Morehead Planetarium in Chapel Hill, NC:
Public Lecture:
The Beautiful Mind: Breakthroughs and Breakdowns of the Brain,
with Dr. Ayse Belger.

Yes, Seasonal Affective Disorder is real

No matter how cutesy the acronim SAD is. Joseph reports on a study that links SAD to serotonin. But serotonin itself may not be necessary to understand how SAD works, though an intimate link between serotonin and melatonin (the former is the biochemical precursor of the latter) suggests that serotonin should be looked at in this context.
Also, if you suffer from SAD you should be very careful preparing for your long-distance travel: getting jet-lagged may trigger a bout of a few days of depression regardless of the time of year.

Spiders and Bycicles

From The Archives
Since everyone is posting about spiders this week, I though I’d republish a sweet old post of mine, which ran on April 19, 2006 under the title “Happy Bicycle Day!” I hope you like this little post as much as I enjoyed writing it:

Continue reading

NIH getting serious about brain doping

There have recently been several articles in the media about brain enhancers, so-called Nootropics, or “smart drugs”. They have been abused by college students for many years now, but they are now seeping into other places where long periods of intense mental focus are required, including the scientific research labs. Here is a recent article in New York Times:

So far no one is demanding that asterisks be attached to Nobels, Pulitzers or Lasker awards. Government agents have not been raiding anthropology departments, riffling book bags, testing professors’ urine. And if there are illicit trainers on campuses, shady tutors with wraparound sunglasses and ties to basement labs in Italy, no one has exposed them.
Yet an era of doping may be looming in academia, and it has ignited a debate about policy and ethics that in some ways echoes the national controversy over performance enhancement accusations against elite athletes like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.

And here is a recent article in the Baltimore Sun:

Despite the potential side effects, academics, classical musicians, corporate executives, students and even professional poker players have embraced the drugs to clarify their minds, improve their concentration or control their emotions.

It is apparently used in business:

I’ve long thought that the use of performance enhancing drugs, typically associated with professional sports, would spread to other endeavors as science progresses. Arguably, many professionals already use chemicals to improve their performance. Constant nicotione and caffeine consumption has been endemic in the business world for a long time, and more recently prescription drugs such as Adderall have been used and abused by white collar professionals to improve focus and concentration. Chemical-assisted performance is by no means a panacea. It carries with it a host of medical and ethical questions. Yet as we gain deeper insight into the way the human brain works, we’ll inevitable be confronted with new opportunities and dilemmas such as these.

Nature also recently had a discussion on the use of brain enhancers by the academics:

Barbara Sahakian and Sharon Morein-Zamir from the Department of Psychiatry at Cambridge University argue that the increased usage of brain-boosting drugs by ill and healthy individuals raises ethical questions that cannot be ignored. An informal questionnaire Sahakian and Morein-Zamir sent to some of their scientific colleagues in the US and UK revealed fairly casual use by academics, and we now want to hear your views on the topic..

The problem is getting serious enough that an international organization has recently been founded, the World Anti-Brain Doping Authority:

The agency works to help individual academic federations implement testing procedures in the fields of academic research. It also produces a list of prohibited substances that academics are not allowed to take and maintains the World Anti Brain-Doping Code.

This is pretty scary stuff. On one hand, these drugs have not been tested very well, so nobody knows what nasty side-effects they mat have with repeated and prolonged use, so this is certainly a worry. But I thought that it was a little bit too much, or at least premature, that the NIH is jumping in on this bandwaggon, with, IMHO, quite drastic proposed measures:

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) today announced three new initiatives to fight the use of brain enhancing drugs by scientists. The new initiatives are (1) the creation of the NIH Anti-Brain Doping Advisory Group (NABDAG), a new trans-NIH committee, (2) a collaboration with the World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA) and the European Commission to create the World Anti-Brain Doping Authority (WABDA) and (3) the adoption by the NIH of the World Anti-Brain Doping Code – a set of regulations on the use of brain enhancing drugs among scientists.
“These new initiatives are designed to level the playing field among scientist in terms of intellectual activities,” said NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni, M.D. “These three activities are designed to get NIH ahead of the curve in terms of performance enhancing drug use among scientists.”
NABDAG will serve to coordinate activities across different NIH agencies in terms of regulating the use of brain enhancing drugs. The trans-NIH group will be directed by internationally renowned doping authority Jonathan Davis, Ph.D., current director of research at WADA.
“The priority of NABDAG will be to seek out input from the scientific community and from within NIH,” Davis said. “The availability of tremendous expertise and the remarkable infrastructure at NIH will make our activities more robust and will allow us to tackle questions about brain doping that were not possible to address in the past. For example, new testing procedures will need to be developed and we will be able to bring the entire NIH infrastructure to this task.”
While “doping” is now accepted as a problem among athletes, it is less widely known that so-celled “brain doping” has been affecting the competitive balance in scientific research as well. It is for this reason that NIH is collaborating with the World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA), which has led the fight against doping in athletics, to create the World Anti Brain Doping Authority (WABDA). “Because brain doping is not just an American problem,” said Richard Pound, the current Director of WADA and acting Director of WABDA until a permanent head can be found, “we are working with the European Union’s research funding agency, the European Commission Research, to make sure WABDA is effective.
NABDAG will be established within the NIH Office of Intramural Research and administered by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Additional support for the center will come from the NIH Office of the Director, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the Center for Scientific Review (CSR). The research activities of NABDAG will take place on the NIH Bethesda campus. An additional focus of NABDAG will be to provide training opportunities for students and established scientists from developing countries and from minority groups in the United States.
Together with WABDA, NABDAG will work to develop the international rules for the use of performance enhancing drugs among scientists as well as testing and punishment procedures. Most importantly they will administer the World Anti Brain-Doping Code, a set of uniform anti-brain doping rules. The NIH and European Commission have formally adopted this Code for the conduct of all scientists which receive funding in any form (intramural or extramural) from these agencies. The Code includes regulations on which drugs are prohibited, what the recommended testing procedures should be, and what the punishments should be for positive tests. More information on the WABDA Code can be found at We note that the implementation will include testing of all NIH funded scientists both at the time they receive funding as well as at random times during the course of working on an NIH funded project. Testing will also be implemented at all NIH-funded or NIH-hosted events such as conferences and workshops and at grant review panels.
NIMH, NIDA, and CSR are among the 27 institutes and centers at the NIH, an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services. The NIMH mission is to reduce the burden of mental and behavioral disorders through research on mind, brain, and behavior. More information is available at the NIMH website The National Institute on Drug Abuse is a component of the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIDA supports most of the world’s research on the health aspects of drug abuse and addiction. The Institute carries out a large variety of programs to ensure the rapid dissemination of research information to inform policy and improve practice. Fact sheets on the health effects of drugs of abuse and further information on NIDA research can be found on the NIDA web site at The Center for Scientific Review organizes the peer review groups that evaluate the majority of grant applications submitted to the National Institutes of Health. CSR recruits about 18,000 outside scientific experts each year for its review groups. CSR also receives all NIH and many Public Health Service grant applications — about 80,000 a year — and assigns them to the appropriate NIH Institutes and Centers and PHS agencies. CSR’s primary goal is to see that NIH applications receive fair, independent, expert, and timely reviews that are free from inappropriate influences so NIH can fund the most promising research. For more information, visit
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) — The Nation’s Medical Research Agency — includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is the primary federal agency for conducting and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical research, and it investigates the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit

That’s pretty harsh, don’t you think? And if egalitarianism is the goal, this will backfire due to inherent differences between people – an insomniac like me can certainly get more done than someone else who actually gets 8 hours of sleep every day. Back in the day I did experiments that lasted 24 hours, sometimes 36 hours, a couple of times even 72 hours straight. Not everyone’s physical and mental constitution would allow for such exertion. This would actually favor people like me. And the others? Let them eat Provigil!
Then, is the next step going to be to force morning people to work only in the morning and the evening types only in the evenings?
Will research that involves mental rotation of 3D objects be limited only to female researchers, or will the men have to be handicapped in some way, perhaps by having more than 0.08% blood alcohol so the 3D objects spin faster?
There is also a dangerous potential for going down the slippery slope. Will they start adding new chemicals to the list? In my long experiments, I was also aided by copious amounts of chocolate, Coca Cola and junk food from the vending machine (and who knows what chemicals are in those!). If NIH bans caffeine, the entire business of science in the USA will grind to a halt. No coffee, no data, sorry, sir.
Environment is known to affect our cognitive abilities as well. A factor that probably helped me the most during my long experiments was the radio tuned to a local station specializing in reruns of the Rush Limbaugh show. Our technician thought it was great that Rush was speaking the Truth to the Power, while I was inclined to scream but held back as I did not want to stress my birds and thus get unreliable data (hmmm, in retrospect, does listening to Rush affects a bird directly?). Will NIH ban radios? iPods? If it does try to completely control the environment, say Good Bye to all the field work, not to mention all the research going on up on the Space Station.
But all of this is besides the point – who ever said that science should be egalitarian!? Scientists are selected and self-selected for their intelligence, curiosity and overall geekiness. It is in the interest of scientific progress that scientists always do their best, so if they want to use brain enhancers, that’s fine, its their own choice and their own sacrifice for the greater good.
I think that NIH thinks of science like running. On an even playing field, the best runner will win. But why limit oneself to running speed. Give runners additional equipment and they go faster and soon enough you will have another exciting sport – NASCAR! I think of science as NASCAR! The spoils go to the one with the best brain enhancer! And next, we will have people racing their small personal spaceships, just like in Star Wars!
And that is just how it should be. The competition should not really be between scientists, but between Science and Nature (not talking about the journals here, as anyone knows there PLoS wins, of course). And Nature is powerful, autonomous from NIH, and as we all know, loves to play dirty. So, we should use everything we can come up with to speed ourselves up. As Nature tries to hide her secrets from us, we need to deploy all our armamentaria to snatch them from her.
And that is why we need Open Access. Just sayin’ (they pay me to do this, you know?). And I even did not have my coffee yet!
Hat-tip to Jonathan who has more.


Anna has more….
Blake puts it in proper context.
Chris has a good point.
Update 2: There is more from:
Genome Technology

Linda Buck explains the sense of smell

News from SCONC:

Linda Buck is the Nobel-Prize winner that may live farthest from NC (but still in the U.S.). She will give a seminar Monday, March 10 at 4 p.m. in the Grand Ballroom of the Talley Center at NCSU. Buck won the Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2004 for the discovery of olfactory receptors and subsequent work on the neurobiological basis for smell. The title of her talk is “Olfactory Sensing in Mammals.” Buck is based at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. This seminar is part of a series put on by the W.M. Keck Center for Behavioral Biology at NCSU.

Science Cafe in Raleigh – Teenage Brains

Science Cafe on Teenage Brains :
Teenagers sometimes act as though they were from a different planet. On Tuesday February 19, the Museum of Natural Sciences will host a science cafe entitled “Altered States: Inside the Teenage Brain” at Tir Na Nog in Raleigh at 6:30p.m. The session will be led by Wilkie Wilson, Duke professor and director of BrainWorks, a program for brain research and education. Wilson studies the effects of drugs on learning and memory, and has helped write several books on teenage drug use. RSVP to Katey Ahmann by Monday, February 18.

Clocks and Migratory Orientation in Monarch Butterflies

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research

I had no time to read this in detail and write a really decent overview here, perhaps I will do it later, but for now, here are the links and key excerpts from a pair of exciting new papers in PLoS Biology and PLoS ONE, which describe the patterns of expression of a second type of cryptochrome gene in Monarch butterflies.
This cryptochrome (Cry) is more similar to the vertebrate Cry than the insect Cry, also present in this butterfly. The temporal and spatial patterns of expression of the two types of Cry suggest that they may be involved in the transfer of time-information from the circadian clock to the brain center involved in spatial orientation during long-distance migration.
The PLoS Biology paper looks at these patterns of expression, while the PLoS ONE paper identifies a whole host of genes potentially implicated in migratory behavior, including the Cry2. Here is the PLoS Biology paper:
Cryptochromes Define a Novel Circadian Clock Mechanism in Monarch Butterflies That May Underlie Sun Compass Navigation:

During their spectacular fall migration, eastern North American monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) use a time-compensated sun compass to help them navigate to their overwintering sites in central Mexico. The circadian clock plays a critical role in monarch butterfly migration by providing the timing component to time-compensated sun compass orientation. Here we characterize a novel molecular clock mechanism in monarchs by focusing on the functions of two CRYPTOCHROME (CRY) proteins. In the monarch clock, CRY1, a Drosophila-like protein, functions as a blue-light photoreceptor for photic entrainment, whereas CRY2, a vertebrate-like protein, functions within the clockwork as the major transcriptional repressor of the self-sustaining feedback loop. An oscillating CRY2-positive neural pathway was also discovered in the monarch brain that may communicate circadian information directly from the circadian clock to the central complex, which is the likely site of the sun compass. The monarch clock may be the prototype of a clock mechanism shared by other invertebrates that express both CRY proteins, and its elucidation will help crack the code of sun compass orientation.

Here is the editorial synopsis:
In Monarchs, Cry2 Is King of the Clock:

Back in the brain, the authors showed that Cry2 was also found in a few dozen cells in brain regions previously linked to time-keeping in the butterfly, and this Cry2 underwent circadian oscillation in these cells, but not in many other cells that were not involved in time keeping. By taking samples periodically over many hours, they found that nuclear localization of Cry2 coincided with maximal transcriptional repression of the clockwork, in keeping with its central role of regulating the feedback cycle. This is a novel demonstration of nuclear translocation of a clock protein outside flies.
Finally, the authors investigated Cry2’s activity in the central complex, the brain structure that is believed to house the navigational compass of the monarch. Monarchs integrate information on the position of the sun and the direction of polarized light to find their way from all over North America to the Mexican highlands, where they spend the winter. Cry2, but not the other clock proteins, was detected in parts of the central complex where it undergoes strong circadian cycling. Some cells containing Cry2 linked up with the clock cells, while others projected toward the optic lobe and elsewhere in the brain.
Along with highlighting the central importance of Cry2 in the inner workings of the monarch’s clock, the results in this study suggest that part of the remarkable navigational ability of the butterfly relies on its ability to integrate temporal information from the clock with spatial information from its visual system. This allows the monarch to correct its course as light shifts across the sky over the course of the day. Other cues used for charting its path remain to be elucidated.

This is the PLoS ONE paper:
Chasing Migration Genes: A Brain Expressed Sequence Tag Resource for Summer and Migratory Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus):

North American monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) undergo a spectacular fall migration. In contrast to summer butterflies, migrants are juvenile hormone (JH) deficient, which leads to reproductive diapause and increased longevity. Migrants also utilize time-compensated sun compass orientation to help them navigate to their overwintering grounds. Here, we describe a brain expressed sequence tag (EST) resource to identify genes involved in migratory behaviors. A brain EST library was constructed from summer and migrating butterflies. Of 9,484 unique sequences, 6068 had positive hits with the non-redundant protein database; the EST database likely represents ~52% of the gene-encoding potential of the monarch genome. The brain transcriptome was cataloged using Gene Ontology and compared to Drosophila. Monarch genes were well represented, including those implicated in behavior. Three genes involved in increased JH activity (allatotropin, juvenile hormone acid methyltransfersase, and takeout) were upregulated in summer butterflies, compared to migrants. The locomotion-relevant turtle gene was marginally upregulated in migrants, while the foraging and single-minded genes were not differentially regulated. Many of the genes important for the monarch circadian clock mechanism (involved in sun compass orientation) were in the EST resource, including the newly identified cryptochrome 2. The EST database also revealed a novel Na+/K+ ATPase allele predicted to be more resistant to the toxic effects of milkweed than that reported previously. Potential genetic markers were identified from 3,486 EST contigs and included 1599 double-hit single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and 98 microsatellite polymorphisms. These data provide a template of the brain transcriptome for the monarch butterfly. Our “snap-shot” analysis of the differential regulation of candidate genes between summer and migratory butterflies suggests that unbiased, comprehensive transcriptional profiling will inform the molecular basis of migration. The identified SNPs and microsatellite polymorphisms can be used as genetic markers to address questions of population and subspecies structure.

Here is an article written after the press release, which, as such articles usually do, greatly overstates the extent of the findings:
Clocking monarch migration:

In previous work, Reppert and his team showed that pigment-producing genes in the monarch eye communicate with the butterfly’s circadian clock. As part of the new study, Reppert and his team also found, in an area of the monarch brain called the central complex, a definitive molecular and cellular link between the circadian clock and the monarch’s ability to navigate using the sun. Briscoe said that Reppert’s study was “really going to overturn a lot of views we had about the specific components of circadian clocks.”

The spatial and temporal patterns of expression make Cry2 the most serious candidate for the connection between the clock and the Sun-compass orientation mechanism. Much work, both at the molecular and at higher levels of organization needs to be done to figure out the exact mechanism by which this animal, during migration, compensates for the Sun’s movement across the sky during the day, and thus does not stray off course. Cry2 appears to be a good molecular “handle” for such studies.
For background, see my older post on the initial discovery of Cry2 in Monarch butterflies by the same team.

Brain, Symmetry and Sleep

Hmm, I did not know this – apparently the left hemisphere of the human brain falls asleep first, and the right one a little bit later in most people.
I wonder if that has any connection with the reason we tend to focus on the right side of the face when someone is talking to us – checking the vigilance/sleepiness state of the person?

Encephalon #37

It’s been a long time since I last hosted a carnival, but who could resist Mo when he asked so nicely if I would be interested in hosting Encephalon? Of course I will! And here it is and I hope you enjoy it, with a great diversity of posts, linked in the order I received them:
GrrlScientist of Living the Scientific Life invites us all to the Mouse Party to see the difference between ‘your brain’ and ‘your brain on drugs’.
Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science looks at the recent study on the neurobiology of aesthetics: Brain of the beholder – the neuroscience of beauty in sculpture.
Dr. Deb notes the actor who turned into an advocate for people suffering from mental illness – Joe Pantoliano is Fighting Stigma.
Chris Patil of Ouroboros blogs about ageing – and not just in humans: Longer living through chemistry: Serotonin signaling and CR mimesis in the worm.
Steve and Sandra of Omni Brain were busy this week, pronouncing that Freud is dead (Well… except in english departments), discovering the First recorded experiment? Daniel 1: 1-16 and finding a real Hit Of The Week: Psychopharmacologist Song.
PZ Myers is teaching his Neurobiology course this semester and a number of his students are regularly guest-blogging on Pharyngula, asking good questions and tapping into the collective wisdom of the commenters. Here are some excellent recent examples of their work:
Living Clocks of Arctic Animals by Blue_Expo
Hurts so Good by Katie Glasrud
Genetic link of OCD explored by Lua Yar
All I Want for Christmas is Synaesthesia by Bright_Lights
Zebrafish by Mark_Antimony
Synesthesia by Harderkid13
Sandy G of The Mouse Trap sent in two entries: The eight-fold structure of evolutionary biology/ cultural evolution and Schizophrenia: sensory gating and extracting meaning from noise.
Johan Carlin of The Phineas Gage Fan Club looks at a recent study of voting behavior in Evidence for shallow voters, or mere exposure?
The Neurocritic‘s latest is Employment Opportunity as a Professional fMRI Subject – a neuroimaging study demonstrating that it’s rewarding to win a competition and to earn more money than a rival. What a
Dave and Greta Munger of of Cognitive Daily force a smile for science: ‘Just smile, you’ll feel better!’ Will you? Really?
Alvaro Fernandez of SharpBrains, one of the nine bloggers represented in this carnival who I have had the joy and privilege to meet in person, in real offline life, sent his interview with Robert Emmons on the Positive Psychology of Gratitude, as well as Brain Fitness Program and Neuroplasticity @ PBS and Is Intelligence Innate and Fixed?
Mo of Neurophilosophy, the founder and manager of this carnival, is blogging furiously about axon guiance – four parts so far: The growth cone, A novel axon guidance mechanism, The turning point and Axon guidance: New directions.
From the host of the previous edition, Noam of Brain In A Vat, two entries. First, a study on perceived contributions of first, middle and last authors on biomedical publications: Too Many Authors Spoil the Credit. Second, a Thanksgiving-themed post about the cognitive effects of tryptophan: Need a Favor? Wait Until After the Turkey
Tell Mo if you wish to host the next edition of Encephalon and submit your entries for it using the automated blogcarnival form.

The Brain: Modules or Networks?

Attention! How your brain manages its need to heed:

Two perennial polarities beloved by brain geeks — networks versus modules and top-down versus bottom-up attention — get linked in this week’s essay, in which UC Berkeley’s Mark D’Esposito reviews an imaging study of how monkeys use their brains to direct their attention. The results, suggests D’Esposito, add threads to vital strands of neuroscientific thought.

Genes vs./plus Environment

My former SciBling David Dobbs regularly posts on the SciAm Blog, usually bringing in guest contributors highlighting novel research in neuroscience. Today, he invited Charles Glatt to review an interesting study on the interaction between genes and environment in development of depression. David writes:

This week reviewer Charles Glatt reviews a study that takes this investigation a level deeper, examining how two different gene variants show their power — or not — depending on whether a child is abused, nurtured, or both. As Glatt describes, this study, despite its grim subject, suggests promising things about the power of nurture to magnify nature’s gifts or lift its burdens.

In the study, two candidate genes identified as potentially predisposing people to depression were checked in two different environments – a nurturing one and an abusive one. Charles concludes:

As with any behavioral genetic study, one must be careful not to overinterpret these findings, because virtually no study in behavioral genetics is consistently or completely replicated. Nonetheless, some additional points about this paper can help inform us on the nature-nurture debate. First, depression scores and categorical diagnoses of depression were significantly higher in children with a history of maltreatment versus controls even before any genetic analysis was factored in. In a similar vein, the highest average depression score of any genotype category in the unabused control children was lower than the average depression score for any genotype category in the maltreated children; genes alone weren’t likely to make the child depressed, but maltreatment alone could.
These findings suggest that, at least regarding these specific polymorphisms, nurture beats nature. This conclusion will come as a relief to believers in human free will. It also argues strongly for the identification of children at risk for maltreatment and strong actions to reverse the negative effects of this experience.

Read the whole thing for details.

There is no Soul. Deal with it.

Galilei kicked us out of the Center of the Universe.
Darwin kicked us off the Pinnacle of Creation
Freud kicked the Soul out of our Brains.
Few remain adherents of Geocentrism.
The opponents of evolution are legion and very vocal (in this country, and a couple of Middle Eastern ones), but they have been defeated so soundly so many times, they had to concede more and more ground, and though they are getting sneakier with time, their efforts are becoming more and more laughable and pitiful.
So, the last Big Fight will be about the Soul. The next area of science to experience a big frontal attack will be Neuroscience.
There is no Soul. Your mind is the subjective experience of what the molecules in your brain cells are doing. Period. But for many, that is the last straw. And the attack will, unlike Creationism, be coming from all sides of the political spectrum, as there are as many adherents of Spirituality crap on the Left as there are believers in the Soul on the Right. They just cannot bear the idea that there isn’t “something more to it” than “just materialism”!
Witness the new book “Spritiual Brain” which is so bad that it cannot even be fisked argument by argument as no arguments are actually presented (at least Creationists have their usual list of idiotic statements that can be effectively demonstrated to be wrong). Shelley Batts and PZ Myers tried hard, but there is just no ‘there’ there.
And even serious neurofolks, like Alvaro and colleagues who are organizing a meeting in Aspen on some of the coolest aspects of neuroplasticity – a hot area of neuroscience that studies how events in the internal and external environment modify the functioning of the brain, which affects the subjective experience, something that is potentially useful in treating people with mental or emotional problems, get slammed for being too materialistic.
If it is non-materialistic, then, by definition, it does not exist. Not just that it is not amenable to scientific study. It.Does.Not.Exist.

Student Science Blogging, Part I

A few days ago PZ Myers announced he will have some special guest bloggers on Pharyngula soon. While the first commenters were guessing Big Names, like Dawkins, my comment was: “I am hoping for your students….”. A little later, PZ Myers updated his post to announce that yes, indeed, it will be his Neuroscience students who will be guest-blogging this semester.
And today, they started. They were thrown into a lions’ den, but they are doing great, holding their own against the famously ruthless Pharynguloids who call them ‘kids’ and then slam them anyway in many, many comments (they are all among the ‘most active posts’ on today!). Talk about Baptism By Fire (or is it Counter-Baptism?)! It’s nice that PZ Myers is protective of them (and ruthless with the commenters who cross the line), but it seems the students are doing just fine on their own so far.
Anyway, check their first posts and keep an eye on them the next few weeks or so – they are bright young people :
New kid on the block by Bright Lights
An Introduction by Blue Expo
I’ll give this a shot… by Lua Yar
A Very new kid on the block! by Bright Lights
Hey folks by Mark Antimony