Do androids dream of electric sheep? No, they don’t. At least, that’s the short answer. Did I just ruin one of science fiction’s hallmark novels for you? Again, the answer is no. This book is packed with just-out-there enough hypotheticals to keep you wondering what this world is coming to.
Though he met with little success during his lifetime, in the 60’s and 70’s Philip K. Dick masterfully led the pack in the emerging genre of science fiction writing. He had a knack for anticipating technologies decades before their time, and, even more important as a novelist, for anticipating the ethical and moral questions surrounding society and technology. The 1982 sci-fi film noir Blade Runner was very loosely based on Androids.
In Androids, the reader follows Rick Deckard, a wearied bounty hunter tasked with offing masterfully crafted humanoid robots that have escaped servitude in Mars by pretending to be real humans on the sparsely-inhabited post-apocalyptic Earth. This book creates a world replete with ethical questions that society struggles to answer today: How much should we lean on technology for our daily lives? How much should we shepherd the human genome? If we have the power to alter mood, in what ways should we use it? What is the role of humanity as caretakers of this earth?
All good questions. However, the ethical issue that kept popping out to me from this book was that of empathy. Deckard relies solely on tests of empathy to discern between true humans and all-too-believable androids (It’s worth mentioning that the ability to empathize is by no means uniquely human, but since James already wrote a Science article about that :) ). Supposedly, androids cannot empathize. Pretty soon, though, Deckard realizes that sometimes humans themselves aren’t too great at empathizing. Furthermore, the subject of empathy becomes skewed. In this post-apocalyptic society, humans are supposed to empathize with each other, but end up increasingly placing value on dwindling live animals. Animal care becomes so venerated that owning a pet is a status symbol, but due to animal scarcity, most people get robotic replicas of animals in order to stay in good standing with their neighbors. Thus, both real and fake animals are valued far above humanoid androids, despite humans and androids being so identical it takes a series of involved tests to ever tell the difference. The ability to empathize becomes twisted in this topsy-turvy world.
In this novel, the androids have flesh and blood and whatnot, it’s just been manufactured in a plant rather than in a womb. It’s difficult to come up with a litmus test for ‘true’ humanity, but the ability to empathize is certainly a good place to start. Unfortunately, I—like Deckard—soon start to think of the many exceptions to this potential rule. Certainly, people on the autism spectrum or with a personality disorder may have trouble empathizing. But one need not turn to disease states to see that not all humans have an empathetic drive– all it takes is fifteen minutes of any given news channel. It’d be easy to point to various bombers, gunmen, or violent truck drivers to prove this point, but truly, one needn’t even look that far. On both sides of the aisle, the presidential race provides more than enough examples of people forgetting empathy for the sake of being heard.
Dick postulates that to be empathetic is to be human. Dick frames empathy as an inherently good thing, but something that is also difficult and can make daily living hard. Empathy is more difficult for people like Deckard whose daily job is to kill, but hey, that’s why this is a great story. What Dick doesn’t answer is how we can increase empathy in ourselves and in our society. As hatred-fueled violence continues to rock the US and the world, I don’t know how to answer that question on a personal or societal level.
I very much doubt we’re headed towards a post-apocalyptic radiation-filled ghosttown of a planet any time soon, but by using this setting, Philip K. Dick, with his usual cutting astuteness, illustrates the potential pitfalls of our present culture. Pick up Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and let me know what you think!
It was a star-studded Friday afternoon in Whitehead Auditorium as the best and brightest of Emory Neuroscience came together to celebrate at the 4th Annual NS Golgi Awards. With almost everyone dressed in their best, the 96 degrees outside felt cool in comparison to the sizzling crowd.
Eighty-three nominations were received for the few exalted honors. With such a multitude of worthy candidates, the air was thick with suspense prior to the ceremony. Ice-cold beers soothed the nerves and the heat. Schmoozing and boozing abounded as nominees and their entourages waited with bated breath to learn who would win the coveted Golgi Plaques in 2016.
It was an awards show like no other. Using a proliferation of embarrassing photos, hosts Brendan O’Flaherty and Erica Akhter provided both witty banter and a deep social commentary while maintaining—dare I say it—absolute humility and professionalism. The mentors or protégés of the 9 awardees delivered touching speeches (and in Desirée DeLeon’s case, a charango performance) expounding on the virtues of their respective winners. Eyes were moistened. Hugs were plentiful. In a pool of astounding candidates, there was no doubt that all awards were hard-won and well deserved.
Following the ceremony, guests gathered to enjoy hors d’oeuvres, lots of classy beverages, and the sheer impressiveness that is Emory Neuroscience. In addition to our 13 awardees, it should be noted that students received over 46 internal awards, 18 national grants, and published over 40 papers in 2015. It was indeed a year worth celebrating!!
2016 Golgi Award Winners
Outstanding Scientific Achievement: Lauren DePoy Outstanding Early Achievement: Elizabeth Hinton Scientific Outreach: Anzar Abbas University Service: Daniel Curry Leadership: Daniel curry Excellence in Teaching: Kathryn MacPherson Excellence in Mentorship: Michelle Giddens GIN Faculty of the Year: Mar Sanchez GIN Service Award: Arielle Valdez GIN Exemplary Lecturer: Sam Sober
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions on your recent publication for The Central Sulcus, James. And congratulations! Science is a high impact journal.
Thank you very much!
Describe your experience submitting a paper to Science. Compared to other journals, how did their process differ, for better or worse?
It’s extreme science writing. The Science format is terrifyingly short –about 4 pages, or 3 pages without figures. Every line has to convey an enormously vital piece of information. And I had to be confident in every single aspect of the paper – first of all, because it was going to be reviewed by the presiding world experts in my field, but second, because a paper that gets published at that level gets a lot of scientific scrutiny afterward. Plus, I was constantly being reminded about the 95% rejection rate at each step of the process. At the beginning, I was convinced that the most I would get out of submitting would be some expert reviews of my manuscript.
This paper appears to be the culmination of your thesis work. What does it feel like to have years of toil condensed down to four pages?
It was a lot of pressure. There are literally individual sentences that represent more than a year of work. Discussions that could have gone on for pages were condensed to five words. But I ended up loving the short format, actually. It taught me to be essentialist and to write a better story.
Your paper, titled “Oxytocin dependent consolation behavior in rodents” uses the pair-bonding behavior of prairie voles as a model for consolation behavior. Would you describe yourself as more of a prairie or meadow vole?
Would you ever lie to a reporter?
Interesting. In this study, one partner of a pair-bonded prairie vole couple was removed from the home cage to experience stress via shock or no shock, then returned to the cage to “demonstrate” an amount of anxiety and distress-like behavior, while the other partner “observed” the returned partner. When was the last time you cried?
That must have been difficult for you. Were you pair-bonded with any rodents who were available for licking and grooming (“allogrooming”) consolation?
I had my wife with me, but to be honest we focused more on hugging rather than licking and hairstyling.
I ask because in your paper, allogrooming was interpreted as an affiliative form of contact. When the demonstrator experienced the shock condition and was returned to their partner, the time then spent allogrooming increased. This appears to have two possible causes: the observer initiating allogrooming to comfort a distressed demonstrating partner, or the demonstrator soliciting comforting touch to ease its distress. How did you determine that it was indeed the former and not the latter?
This is a very insightful and delicate question. In fact, we don’t know for certain whether the stressed partners solicit grooming from the observers. However, we do know that consolation is not just a response to a stimulus or a signal – observers experience vicarious anxiety and stress in the presence of the stressed demonstrator, and have brain activation consistent with vicarious pain. We also know that observers only console individuals they are familiar with, which wouldn’t be expected if they’re just trying to get the stressed individual to stop doing something they don’t like. Observers are having physiological, behavioral and neural responses consistent with an empathetic response.
The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) showed significantly higher levels of FOS-positive cells in observers exposed to a stressed partner. When an oxytocin receptor inhibitor is injected into the ACC of observers before the consolation test, the increase in partner-directed grooming was abolished. Tell me, James, why doesn’t my mother love me?
You postulate that oxytocin signaling within the anterior cingulate might modulate consolation through “physiological, emotional, and or behavioral responses.” Would you expound on that, because obviously Science wasn’t going to give you the space to?
This is one of those points where five words replaced a paragraph. Basically, we observed that blockade of oxytocin receptor signaling in the ACC, or throughout the brain, completely prevented the observer’s consoling response. However, we don’t really know if the treatment prevented the observer from noticing the partner’s distress, prevented them from “feeling” it or “caring” about it, or directly blocked their motivation or ability to mount a prosocial response. Separating out those different possibilities would have required a lot more experiments, which would all have been very interesting but I wanted to graduate.
Consolation behavior could be considered empathy-based. You might already be aware, certain professions are associated with higher rates of psychopathy, a diagnosis frequently characterized by a lack of empathy. Please comment on the likely functionality of CEO’s and Lawyer’s anterior cingulate cortices.
This is really fascinating. Scott Lilienfeldin the Psychology Department does a lot of research on the “successful psychopath.” A lot of professions require people to suppress their empathy and emotional responses in order to be successful, which is easier if you have lower empathy in the first place. Surgeon is a classic example – they need to suppress their natural emotional response in order to cut into a patient, a technique they call “cognitive reappraisal.” A CEO that is sensitive to the situations and emotions of the thousands of employees below them might be great as a boss, but he or she won’t necessarily be great at transferring wealth into the hands of shareholders, which is the CEO’s real job. So, psychopaths may be naturally better at these jobs, or having these jobs makes you a little more psychopathic, or both.
A quick shot of intranasal oxytocin, or an AAV overexpressing oxytocin receptors in the ACC, might make these people nicer to be around – but probably worse at their jobs.
Could oxytocin receptor antagonist injections to the ACC be a model for psychopathy? And if so, could it explain my mother’s behavior?
I honestly think this is one of the more exciting possibilities for this research. The primary defining characteristic of psychopathy is a lack of empathy for others. By learning more about the biological mechanisms that guide empathy, we can learn more about how they can go wrong in disorders like psychopathy, and possibly how to treat them.
Do you remember a particularly entertaining run of your experiment?
Near the end of my experiments, Kerry Ressler left for Harvard, taking all the equipment I had been using with him. I absolutely had to run a few more experiments that required a fear conditioning chamber, so I cobbled a conditioning chamber together from random parts he left behind. Then I literally had to have someone stand outside the testing room with a hand timer, play tones from YouTube, and flip a switch to deliver shocks.
You conclude your paper by proposing that consolation behavior in prairie voles indicates that consolation doesn’t require advanced cognitive capacities. Could it also be the case that scientists have underestimated the cognitive abilities of nonhuman animals?
My coauthor, Elissar Andari (also my wife), will be very happy to hear that you asked that! She criticized that part of the manuscript as saying, “voles are too dumb to have cognitive empathy.” When I wrote that, I was actually addressing a longstanding theory in animal psychology that suggested that consoling responses were only observed in “large brained” species because they had to be sophisticated enough to understand the situation and mental state of the distressed animal. It is not currently thought that “small brained” rodents have that level of sophistication, but other experiments on rescuing behavior in rats (and even in ants!) may soon turn that assumption on its head. Coauthor Frans de Waal also just published a book, “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?”, where he argues that science has a long, misguided history of judging animal intelligence based on their ability to understand and solve human-like problems.
How might we request a correction to your “acknowledgments” section so that it thanks me personally for assisting with your microscope needs?
Oh. Well. This is awkward. I just remembered, I suddenly have somewhere I need to be.
Thank you again for your time, James and congratulations on your recent success!
This book? I don’t care for it much. The story is centered around the idea that astrocytes are the greatest, most powerful cell in all the nervous system! While astrocytes do have their importance, microglia are obviously the most important cells of the CNS. I mean this guy really goofed…
“America runs on Dunkin!” is the slogan of Dunkin Donuts (one of the largest coffee companies in the world). Indeed, they are on to something, as America is the world’s highest importers of coffee and is in the top 5 countries for coffee consumption. So who is at the center of this coffee-habit revolution? Scientists. Scientists happen to be the #1 profession with the greatest caffeine consumption, that trails far, far ahead of the #2, health care professionals.
What gives coffee its mystic powers? It all boils down to a small molecule 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine, which is structurally related to uric acid (a byproduct of DNA degradation, and is ever-present in our urine). Eww. This urine-reincarnate blocks adenosine receptors, which induces among many things, elevation in mood, perception of cognitive ability, attention, concentration, and general feeling of well-being. While the verdict is still out as to whether chronic coffee consumption can impart long-term benefits on creativity, learning or memory, we can all admit that it is a great joy to experience a coffee rush. This is especially true when paired with the perfect pastry, delightful company, or oft in grad school, a very juicy research article.
As a first-year at Laney, a self-proclaimed coffee connoisseur, and foodie; I’ve taken great pains to explore the coffee scene in Atlanta in hopes that I can inspire others to get out there and support these great coffeehouses. I’ve assigned each a Study Score and Coffee Score respectively. These scores provide a snapshot of how these coffeeshops stack up as compared to each other in my opinion. Study Score speaks to the degree of table space and outlet availability, wifi speed, duration of hours of operation, and peak volume.
Located in Inman Park, this gem is new. Their claim to fame is their pastries, and boy are they tasty. Come here for: lots of natural sunlight, sweet smell of goodness coming from the in-house bakery, mostly housewives during the day, ample outlets. What could be better: Seating is fixed, leaving the sensation of being cramped or having to lean over desk; Coffee could probably taste better.
Conveniently located directly on the Beltline. This coffee shop is described as having an atmosphere reminiscent of Tuscany with the exposed brick, community farm table, and patio overlooking the BeltLine. The 3 walled configuration is perfect for natural sunlight and feeling like you are getting some quality time outdoors, without dealing with the elements.
Parkgrounds:Catch Phrase: Doggie Day care meets Family picnic meets coffee shop. StudyScore: $$$$ Coffee Rating:
Located in the Reynoldstown hood; this place is a fairground, dog park, and coffee shop all at once. What better motivation to study than the great outdoors and your favorite breed of domesticated canine? Coffee is not that great, but, hey, take time to enjoy it.
Inman Perk: Catch Phrase: College Café with a pinch of pretension. StudyScore: $$$$ Coffee rating:
Come here for: Ample space, ample outlets, a blossoming Emory intellectual environment, booze, bikes, and doggie food. Music is sometimes pretty loud; the coffee is mediocre, but the ample study space and lounge area makes it a perfect spot for group study sessions.
Octane – Grant Park: Catch Phrase: Williamsburg Hipster meets ‘The Most Interesting Man in the World’. Study Score: $$$$$ Coffee Rating:
Located in Grant Park, this is probably the crown jewel of how coffee shops should be run. Come here for: Amazingly attractive people, amazing industrial atmosphere with huge 20 foot tall ceilings, lots of natural lighting, plenty of tables, a full-service bar, a full-service in house bakery, Emory, and Georgia State hang out. An anchor in the community, come here to make friends or make solitude. The music is a quiet hum, enough to nudge your studying/reading along, but not so loud that you forgot why you came there in the first place. What could be better: at night the lights dim to barely visible levels, so unless you are working on a laptop, use the decrease in illumination as a sign of heading home. And, did I mention they roast their own beans in the back?
My favorite place. Opened up in August of last year in the ever-changing landscape that is old fourth ward (O4W). They are furnished by Stumptown Coffee (premium beans); and feature among other things nitro cold brew on tap. Nothing sets the tone for diving into some science articles like a frosted glass of malty cold-tempered quality beans. Very little music; outlets at every table; tons of space. And a clothing store located in the back, allows you t look as fresh and sophisticated as you feel.
Congratulations! Probably! I mean you’ve decided to attend grad school so pat yourself on the back, you’re doing fine, don’t sweat it so much. If all goes accordingly you’ll be starting graduate school in a future fall and you’re probably wondering: what will it be like? How will my life change here? Good news! You can learn the answer to these questions by simply continuing to move your eyes down this page.
Everyone here is super smart. Seriously, it’s bananas the brains we got walking about. You might be used to being the smartest cat in the kennel but that’s going to change. So if being the smartest is the only thing you’ve been basing your identity on, it’ll be quite an adjustment indeed. Personally I took some solace from still being the handsomest. And just remember …
What you know is not as important as what you can learn. If you’ve got a solid background in your discipline. That’ll be great for…a month, maybe two. Within a week you’ll be diving in to subjects so deep you’ll get the bends. By the time you’ve been here a couple years you should be on your way to being a world expert on whatever tiny sliver of the brain you decide to focus your effort on. And that’s important because…
Soon you won’t be learning knowledge, you’ll be generating it. Sure, you’ll never stop reading up on new developments in your field, if only to curse the other labs that beat you to the punch. But creating science, de novo, is very different from passively receiving it. Prepare for experiments not working, ideas not panning out, angry villagers storming the lab, and most of your plans going extravagantly awry. But keep at it. Because ultimately, being the first person on the planet to know something? That’s a very special feeling. Of course while you’re working on all this you’ve got to keep in mind…
You need to take care of the rest of your life too. Underneath all the science you still have to make it in this crazy world. Apartment hunting, bill paying, food buying, relationship having, and carving out something away from the lab to stay sane. Maybe you like yoga, or snorkeling, or hunting the most dangerous game of all – Man. It’ll feel like you can’t afford to waste the time but taking care of yourself pays a lot of dividends over the long haul.
And it is a pretty long haul, but in the end I think it’s worth it. You’ll have added to the sum total of human knowledge, pushing our species just a little closer to that magical day we invent super intelligent machines to solve all our problems almost certainly without killing everyone. Probably. It won’t be easy, but what we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly. Good luck, and welcome to the club!
Eating behavior is a choice, yet we often forget that urges to eat are regulated not just by the discomfort of an empty stomach, but by complex feeding systems that induce hunger and satiety. A combination of logic and impulse is involved every time we put calories in our mouths and the lasting changes these calories enact in our bodies and specifically our DNA is only now being discovered.
By adding a methyl group (-CH3) to a section of DNA it becomes more difficult for transcription machinery to read it. In this way the expression of genes can be controlled by DNA methylation and research suggests that these modifications can be passed on to the next generation.
In a recent issue of Cell, first author Ida Donkin examined the sperm of human men to determine if these epigenetic modifications are altered by feeding behavior. In her scientific paper Obesity and Bariatric Surgery Drive Epigenetic Variations of Spermatozoa in Humans, mass-sequencing results identified the location of DNA methylation modifications in the genome of Lean, Obese, Pre-bariatric (think stomach bypass) and Post-bariatric surgery men’s sperm.
Among many genes associated with anatomical structure and cell fate, neuro-proteins were also differentially methylated between the experimental groups, indicating that not only does eating behavior enact epigenetic modifications, but also that methylation patterns are passed from father to offspring. Here are the top six neuro-proteins Donkin’s found set up to be expressed differently between overweight and lean men.
Melanocortin-4 Receptor (MC4R): Compared to Hypothyroidism or Cushing’s syndrome, MC4R is a less commonly known inherited cause of childhood and adult obesity. Genome-wide studies of body mass index (BMI) confirmed the link between obesity and having DNA variants downstream of the MC4R gene (Loos, 2008). Highly expressed in the hypothalamus, MC4R plays an essential role in energy balance (Siljee, 2013).
Hererozygous mutations are responsible for uncontrolled release of growth hormones, causing increased height and weight starting in childhood (2.5 to 6% of all cases) and continuing into adulthood (5.8% of adult obesity cases) (Siljee, 2013; Farooqi, 2003). This receptor is responsible for homeostatic signals indicating that fat is being ingested (Butler, 2001). By letting the body “sense” the intake of dietary fat, activation of this receptor regulates both the metabolic and behavioral response to food by curbing hyperphagia (overeating).
With high methylation patterns, Obese men’s sperm in the study were less likely to allow receptor expression, potentially making it more difficult to “sense” food intake. Clinical trials using compounds, which activate MC4R, are currently being performed in the hopes of finding an appetite curbing treatment with few side-effects.
Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF): Thought to be involved with everything from Schizophrenia to drug addiction, BDNF has its hands on everything. The bdnf gene’s expression increases neuron growth and it linked to long-term potentiation and long-term memory. Physical exercise has been shown to increase the synthesis of BDNF in the human brain, improving cognitive function, neurogenesis and mood (Szuhany, 2015). Donkin’s has found evidence that simply by decreasing weight via surgery, the methylation of a gene associated with cognition can change. Thus “GBP-induced weight loss modulates the epigenetic landscape of spermatozoa and alters specific genomic regions” in genes associated with cognition.
Neuropeptide Y (NPY): This protein provides you everything you ever wanted in life: reduced anxiety and stress, reduced pain perception, lower blood pressure… except for the part about increasing fat storage, and carbohydrate appetite (Stanley, 1986). To aid in homeostasis, our adipose tissues produce peptide hormones. These signals are sensed by receptors,
such as MC4R, in the hypothalamus brain region to regulate appetite.
Peptides, such as leptin and insulin, shut down the release of NPY to curb
This research has prompted Cinnabon to expand into the standardized testing business.
There is a strong link between stress and this potent appetite enhancerbecause the glucocoritcoid hormones produced during stress leads to an increase in NPY release (Arora, 2006). More like a dimmer than an on-off light switch, the amount of NPY released during stress is correlated to the level of stress experienced (Kuixing, 2012).
Cannabinoid receptor type 1 (CR1): Cannabinoid receptors are the most highly expressed G-protein receptors in the brain (Glass, 1997). Unfortunately, studies are limited by the fact that CR1 has different expression patterns in mice compared to humans. Receptor activation in mice mostly leads to them running around more, because of the heavy cerebellum expression, leaving scientists with no good model organisms for experimentation.
In humans, CR1 is expressed in so many different areas of the human brain that listing them wouldn’t help explain its actions. But perhaps its expression in the areas of the brain involved with processing reward, such as the basal ganglia and substantia nigra, could explain its connection to feeding behavior. Any Washingtonian or Coloradan knows that ingesting the exogenous THC molecule will induce feeding behavior, because of its interaction with the CR1 receptor (Williams, 1999). Even though its activation is not essential for feeding behavior, blocking CR1 would lead to better control of appetite. However, few clinical trials have assessed intervention that up regulates the eCB system, presenting a need to explore it as a promising intervention (Williams, 2014).
Cocaine and Amphetamine related transcript (CART): CART is a neuropeptide that produces similar behavior in animals to cocaine and amphetamine, such as increased locomotor and a preference for places associated with the drug (Nakhate, 2011). CART peptide’s expression is regulated by leptin and ghrelin and interacts with several hypothalamic appetite circuits. Researchers have targeted this peptide as a possible treatment for eating disorders, cocaine abuse and even Parkinson’s disease, yet its receptor is still unknown.
Donkin’s study reports the methylation of a number of “distal intergenic” areas. Located between genes, distal intergenic is another way of saying junk DNA which, is another way of saying we don’t know what it does yet. The CART and NPY genes show higher levels of methylation in the sperm of Lean versus Obese men at specific distal intergenic areas. This finding suggests that these locations are not junk DNA but are involved with increasing CART gene expression, making them prime targets for future experimental research.
Behind cravings and overeating there’s a complex neurological system ready to be blamed. Donkin’s paper provides evidence that simply reducing intake (post-GBP surgery group) can affect the expression of 2681 genes, which are differently expressed between Obese and Lean men. Although this new article still doesn’t answer the pressing question of “how” spermatozoa production factors in recent behavior or environmental changes, it indicates the existence of an epigenetic mechanism, which could effect behavior across generations. Perhaps the most important takeaway is that methylation can change to aid in more healthy homeostatic regulation benefiting the individual and their offspring.