Buying the neuroscientist in your life a great present has been made easy this winter, with the following list of limbic system stimulating treasures.
Nothing makes anatomy glimmer like AKAFoil‘s vintage anatomical illustrations with real gold foil. Starting at $22 you can adorn your office wall with the beauty that is the brain and cranial nerves (above). Or, who likes the cerebellum? No one? … Really? Well, who needs it, but GABAergic Purkinje neurons are still things of beauty. Choose the image, background, frame and purchase today for the special scientist in your life.
Think Geek is serving it up right, by protecting the wood finish of every nerd’s coffee table. Each one of these Brain Section Coasters is another horizontal slice of the human brain.
These wall hangings available on Houzz boil down the chemistry of the brain with charming simplicity. Houzz offers: “Bliss”, Dopamine; “Love”, Norepinephrine; “Happiness”, Serotonin; as well as “Mary Jane” THC, Estrogen, and Prozac options.
This handmade stationary features vintage images of the brain’s gray matter and comes with brown kraft envelopes, a hand-stamped brain tag as well as brain and science stickers for $20. Or check out the other beautiful science themed cards on society 6 (Neuron stationary).
Consider picking up the book The Drunkard’s Walk, a book recently reviewed on this blog.
The Note Taker:
These notebooks starting at $12 for everything from creative writing or lab meeting notes. Above are Brain B&W, Brain Phantom, and Brain Control. The best part, if you fall in love with any of Society6’s hundreds of images, is that they’re available to cover your digital notebook as laptop skin stickers.
This stylish pillow features REM EEG recordings and is perfect for an afternoon lab nap.
The Kitchen-Bench Scientist:
A great way to ensure you eat well is to spread cooking knowledge across your friends and family. The Food Lab cookbook is an International Association of Culinary Professionals award winner which takes the reader through classic American dishes with scientific specifics and in full color.
Refine your culinary protocols! For the ultimate food nerd, pick up Cooking for Geeks, which ensures you never have a burn “practice” pancake and also explains why the perfect pancake needs certain portions of baking power and baking soda.
With this Floral Anatomy Brain small carry-all pouch you can organize your life for only $11.90. Available in three sizes with wraparound artwork, these pouches are perfect for toiletries, headphones, or your favorite lab supplies you secretly hoard. With a durable canvas-like exterior that’s machine-washable, so brain washing has never been easier.Brain freeze carry-all pouch.
Do you or some scientist you know love SciFi but doesn’t have time to read? Then the Nature Journal’s Futures collection is for you. This collection of short science fiction stories makes it easy to jump in and out of mind-expanding fiction. For a taste, give the loneliness of the long-distance panda story a glance. And for the wet scientist, consider purchasing the audio book version for bench work listening fuel.
A bold move by the iconic jewelry company, Tiffany’s & Co. has released a line of dendrito-dendrite inspired pieces for the winter season. The graphic angles and clean lines of every item of the new ‘Tiffany T‘ line has subtle hints of inhibitory intrigue. The color of these stones are sure to activate the dendro-dentric homologous gap junction in the alpha-Ganglion Cells of your special someone, when you surprise them with one of these dazzling diamond studded bracelets, rings or necklaces. The white gold bracelet with princess-cut diamonds featured above is available for only $45,000.
Recent studies have found evidence for the healing properties of blood from younger individuals, but the fascination with “young blood” has been a part of the human condition for centuries.
In ancient Greece, Hippocrates introduced the concept that our health and temperament were controlled by the four humors, proposing that blood was the one responsible for courage, playfulness as well as hope. From the 16th century story of Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed of Hungary, the idea of “blood baths” acquired decidedly more sinister connotations.
Hungarian children were told the legend of Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed. The “Blood Countess” holds the Guinness World Record as the most prolific female murderer.
With 80 confirmed kills, Báthory might have lured up to 650 peasant girls to her castle with the promise of work as maidservants or courtly training. Instead of etiquette lessons, they were burned, beaten, frozen or starved for the Countess’ sadistic pleasure. Folk stories told how she would bathe in the blood of virgins to preserve her youth and beauty.
Humors remained a staple of traditional western medicine until the 1800s when medical research and our modern concept of medicine emerged. In this new, enlightened age, people started sewing animals together to see what would happen. In the mid-1800s, a French zoologist named Paul Bert first experimented with the creation of parabionts: the surgical joining of two animals, usually two rodents of the same species, in order to study the effect of one’s blood on the other. The first manuscript looking at parabionts was published by Bert in 1864, titled ‘Expériences et Considérations Sur la Greffe Animale’, which when loosely translated means ‘I’m a sick bastard and IACUC hasn’t been invented yet’.
As if parabiosis were a great rainy day activity for the kids, Bert described how to attach two animals together through their skin in an attempt to determine if a common circulatory system capable of exchanging nutrients would form: “the process is one the simplest: a strip of skin is removed along the opposite flanks of the two experimental animals; stitches and others handling systems that I described in my memoirs, maintain the animals attached and prevent frictions.”
In autopsy, he showed that vascular channels developed connecting the attached animals and that fluid injected in one would pass to the other. He was awarded the prize in Experimental Physiology by the French Academy of Science in 1866 and his discovery was later memorialized in a Simpson’s Tree House of Horror’s episode featuring a “Pigeon Rat”.
Using parabionts wasn’t just grossly cool, it was the beginning of transplant research. Fifty years after Bert, around the turn of the century, a scientist named Dr. Alex Carrel was performing experiments studying the ability to sustain living tissue outside the body, eventually connecting it to other living bodies. His methods of blood vessel connection won him the Nobel Prize. Once immunosuppressant drugs were developed, this research paved the way for organ transplants.
Transplanting organs is all well and good, but can it guarantee the promise of everlasting life? While not the goal of the study, the first evidence that healthy blood could extend lifespan came from a parabiont muscular dystrophy study in the 50s (Hall et al., 1959).
Recent parabiont research has been proving what 17th century Hungarian villagers always knew, “dysfunctions associated with normal aging might likewise be rescued by parabiosis to a ‘healthy’, that is younger, partner and that lifespan itself might be amenable to prolongation by heterochronic parabiosis” (Conboy et al., 2013).
However, it isn’t a panacea. Quinn et al. found that there was no significant difference in post-surgery mortality between patients who received plasma from young versus old donors (Guinn et al., 2016). Being alive is wonderful, but the second best thing has got to be being alive and able to make and recall memories.
Even though young blood won’t rejuvenate your skin, recent research discovered young blood rejuvenates your synaptic plasticity (Villeda et al., 2014). Using heterochronic parabiont combinations of young and aged animals, neuroscientist Villeda and colleagues found that exposing an aged mouse to young blood reverses pre-existing brain aging by acting at the molecular, structural and cognitive level.
The hippocampus is an area of the brain associated with memory formation. In the older of the parabiont mice there was an increase in dendritic spine density and synaptic plasticity when their circulatory system was connected with that of a young mouse, a physiological marker associated with memory (Yang et al., 2009). Old animals connected with young ones also showed improvement in learning tasks like fear conditioning and spatial learning. While this means I’ll have to wait for advances in cosmetic surgery to reach Photoshop quality, having the cognitive capacity to remember to pluck that one mole hair on my cheek will have to do.
But what is so special about sweet, sweet virgin blood?
That question is yet to be completely answered, but there are some likely culprits. One difference between old and young blood could relate to immune function. The choroid plexus is the site where blood is filtered to make the cerebrospinal fluid bathing the brain. In the choroid plexus of older mice there were more signs of an inflammatory response than in younger mice (Baruch et al., 2014). When an immune signal called cytokine interferon-I was inhibited, cognitive functioned improved.
There’s also a really boring ‘anti-aging’ agent called “nuclear factor erythroid-derived 2-related factor” but his friends call him Nrf2. Nrf2 kicks in when cells are under oxidative stress and normally is involved with vascular smooth muscles. It’s also produced by neural stem/progenitor stem cells (NSPCs). These cells are present in the subventricular zone of your brain into adulthood and they depend on Nrf2 to maintain their function and survival. Upregulation of Nrf2 increased cognitive performance in elderly animals who have smaller NSPC populations (Corenblum et al., 2016). Now put it in a jar and sell it to me. Other pathways which are likely to be influenced by blood magic include the Wnt and TGF-B signaling pathways (Brack et al., 2007; Carlson et al., 2008).
From being one of the four humors to a source of rejuvenation, humans have always found blood fascinating. The identification of factors with ‘pro-aging’ or ‘anti-aging’ affects is a hot area of research because everybody sucks but no one wants to die.
Now, if you excuse me, I’m going to draw myself a Hungarian bath.
When I need a book that will force me into an existential crisis, my go-to authors are Rand or Kafka—you know, because I like to sound cool at parties. So it came as a surprise that despite my academic intentions in reading this book on the history and implications of probability, The Drunkard’s Walkblew my mind.
I’m fairly confident (95% confident, one might say) that Mlodinow didn’t set out to make people question their existence with this fun non-fiction. It’s full of human interest stories about the Greeks, gamblers, and gamers that made probability theory what it is today. Mlodinow lets the reader solve problems along with the historical figures, making math history more fun and interactive than I would have thought possible.
Mlodinow also has plenty to say to the “lay-statistician” about probability in daily life. Jury duty, medical diagnoses, sport predictions, even business decisions are victims to common misjudgments based on faulty understanding of probability. For that reason alone, this book is worthwhile.
More than that, though, The Drunkard’s Walk got under my skin. Near the beginning of the book, Mlodinow discusses the human tendency to favor stories over statistics. We have a natural, almost insurmountable tendency to find meaning and purpose in the events around us, even when (especially when?) those events are random. I started questioning my long-held life paradigms—was I just searching for patterns in a world void of order? In the later chapters, a discussion on chaos theory hammered the nail in the coffin of my sane state of mind. The sheer overwhelming permutations of possibilities that fractionate infinitely into the future…the crushing weight of chance that brought us to where we are in the world today…the endless array of paths forward, paths to which we don’t know the ending…I felt flattened by the enormity of it all. Why make choices? Why pretend that working hard has any real bearing on future happiness?
I found myself frustrated when my roommate, after I had blurted all these questions in an ever-more-feverish pitch, answered with what I saw as simple assurances and trite self-delusions. Doesn’t she see that we’re walking the lines of an infinite fractal, seemingly moving forward, but really only subjects to the whims of the chaotic law that rules our lives? It was only after talking to some other friends who had read the book that my perspective began to change. I had thought that all-pervasive chance stole every happiness from us, because we could never really work for it. They, instead, thought that chance stole every failure, because how can we be hard on ourselves if chance plays a part in our faults? This, at last, was a hopeful way to navigate life and its inherent randomness.
The Drunkard’s Walk has something in it for everyone—for the scientists who bemoan their lack of proper statistical training, for historians looking for the human side of science, for risk-takers who want to know if their next chance will pay off. For me, now, it has come to remind me to be hopeful and gracious, to not be too devastated when I fail and to not be too proud when I succeed. I recommend to everyone, and would love to hear if it sends you to the pit of despair and back like it did to me. We’ll discuss it and be super fun at parties.
Dr. Tanja Jovanovic is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University School of Medicine. Her research interests focus on the interaction between neurophysiology, neuroendocrinology, and genetics in traumatized populations. She is the Director of the Grady Trauma Project and also a Co-Investigator in the Human Psychophysiology of Emotion Laboratory at Emory University.
I wanted to start this interview with one of Tanja’s favorite quotes: “Don’t become a mere reporter of facts, but try to penetrate the mystery of their origin” by Ivan Pavlov. Pavlov was a Russian physiologist mostly recognized for his work in classical conditioning. Pavlov is also the name of Tanja’s cute collie….stay tuned!
How did you become interested in science and what steps did you take to pursue that interest when you were younger?
I first wanted to be a scientist when I was six or seven years old watching nature shows. I wanted to be the guy in the savanna who watches the animals. Then, as I got older, I decided that life in the savanna was boring most of the time, and, instead, I was going to be the zoologist at the zoo.
Early on, I really wanted to know about vocal communication in animals. Because I was a big animal lover, we would just collect animals, my brother and I. Somebody from the immunological society in Croatia gave me a pregnant mouse. This turned into 20-30 mice very quickly. So, we built this big glass mouse hotel that had little rooms where they could roam around.
Konrad Lorenz was my big hero, and he got me thinking about vocal imprinting. So, I got little guinea pigs. Guinea pigs are precocious, so as soon as they are born they run around and vocalize immediately. I wanted to see if you could force them not to. I made these little sound proof chambers, and I would put the little baby guinea pigs in as soon as they were born. I would feed them, and it was great because they imprinted on me. I mean, they wanted to be around me all the time. It was so super cute!
The experiment I did was to switch chinchilla babies and guinea pig babies because chinchilla babies are also precocial species. The tricky part there is that chinchilla gestation is twice as long as guinea pig gestation period. So, I had to breed my guinea pigs after my chinchilla was already pregnant. How old were you at this point? I was about 15 or 16. How did you know the gestation period of a chinchilla? Well, I read about it, she says nonchalantly. A chinchilla was hard to get in Croatia. So, my brother and I took a train to Slovenia to a big expo type thing for chinchillas and rabbits. I had found someone who had a female chinchilla. The downshot to all of this is that the chinchilla never had babies. So, either he tricked me and didn’t really sell me a pregnant chinchilla or she could have maybe not gotten pregnant after he bred her.
Then, when I started as an undergraduate at Oklahoma Christian, Regina Sullivan was at the University of Oklahoma. She was doing olfactory imprinting. So, I tried to mimic everything she did. There is no graduate school [at Oklahoma Christian], but I had professors who would give me keys to a lab. I would buy mice and guinea pigs at the pet store, and I would feed them and take care of them. I built a little odor preference chamber. It was a radial arm maze that I made out of, probably milk cartons, and I would just use a stopwatch to measure how quickly they went into each arm. That was officially my very first publication. It was this tiny tiny magazine that published this little experiment. I was just beyond myself that I wrote this paper. Today, I frequently talk to Regina and she is very supportive of my research, so I feel I have come full circle.
When new graduate students join the lab, one of the first things you say is that you would support a decision to have children in graduate school. This is really a progressive perspective, and you seem to generally emphasize work-life balance. Can you tell me more about this?
I think that to be really satisfied and fulfilled with what you are doing, you really do have to have things that are important to you outside of work. That will make you a more productive scientist because you will be more satisfied with your life.
Specifically talking about family issues, this is something I feel very strongly about, probably because I think we are still not there- where it is considered acceptable to dedicate enough time to your family. There is a lot of lip service paid to that without people really truly believing that you can, in fact, be a dedicated, outstanding scientist AND be a dedicated outstanding parent. I think the danger with women is that there is an assumption that, if you get into a position where you have to choose between parenting and science, you will choose parenting. I think there is a concern that you are not going to seem serious or committed to your career development. So, the side effect of that is it is hard for women to discuss family issues with senior advisors or mentors.
It was very hard for me to tell my mentor that I was pregnant, and it was REALLY hard for me to tell him that I was pregnant AGAIN. The first one could just be a hobby but the second one- now this was really going to suck up a lot of my time. So, what I have learned is that you can do it well, you just have to be organized about it. I don’t think everyone needs to have children. I don’t think it is a key to success or anything like that, but I think a lot of people do want to but feel like they have to compromise or postpone it. It is important to communicate that you don’t have to and that it is perfectly doable. I like to talk about that. It’s a very hard conversation to begin from the student’s perspective, so I just like to open that door so that people feel comfortable when they have that conversation.
This applies to general work life balance issues. I don’t expect people to be in the lab 24/7. Unless I have a deadline, I don’t work that much on weekends. Most of my weekends are family time and me time, and I don’t feel guilty about that. Science is such a hard endeavor. You are going to get rejected so many times, you have to have an underlying joy in what you do to persevere through that. I think that [not having a joy for your work] is a bigger danger of people dropping out of science than having a family.
What would you be doing if you were not an academic researcher?
I wanted to be a dog breeder, but that was always planned to be my hobby on the side. I thought I could still do it when I got Tesla, but she turned out to not be full breed. Tesla’s mom had an affair with someone in the forest. I had never had a collie before, so I kept thinking, the gene expression for the long head- when does that happen? Tesla just never got it. When she was 10 months old, the breeder called me and told me they had found out she was actually only 50% collie. Then, they said I could get the pick of the litter for the next one. Pavlov was tested, and I have all his genetic paperwork. He is full collie. But I will probably neuter him. If I got a third one and I bred them then there would be puppies and chaos! So, I’ve decided that this will be part of my retirement plan.
What would be a place you would go for the weekend, a place you’d go for a week, and a place you’d go for a month?
For a weekend, I like busy bustling things that I couldn’t do for longer than 72 hours. So, like Manhattan is really good for these short bursts of these dynamic, stimulating events that would be exhausting if you were there for too long. But for short-term, it is a tremendously energizing place to be and absorb the energy. For a week, I would do, maybe, Napa Valley. I’d like to do a tour of vineyards or something like that. In my mind, if I had a month, I think I would read a book for three days, and then write something, like a mini-sabbatical. I would probably write an opinion piece about science. I would like to have a sequestered sort of place – very tropical and relatively remote. It would have to be a month, not any longer. It’s all I could do of being by myself in an isolated destination. So, for that I would do Greece or the Caribbean, somewhere warm and nice where I could just be in flip-flops all day near the water.
If you could send a note to your former graduate school self, what would it say?
I had lots of times in grad school where I didn’t know what I was going to do- lots and lots of times! My advisor was very hands-off, and he wanted his students to work independently. Unless I had something to meet about, my advisor and I would not meet and if I wasn’t working, I didn’t have anything to talk about, so it was a vicious cycle of nothing getting done. I watched a whole lot of TV in that year!
I think the world of him, but I think I would have intervened earlier with myself. For a long time, I didn’t know what I was going to do for my dissertation, even though now it seems like I was meant to do cross fostering in monkeys all along. I think my message would be, even when you think you are being unproductive and spinning your wheels and doing nothing, you are still on the right trajectory. Uh, can we put this on our quote wall? Tanja giggles.
Where do you see the lab in ten years, and if you had unlimited funding, what experiment would you do?
As you know, my absolute love is developmental research. So what I really want on the developmental side is to have this longitudinal program where we start following women during gestation and we have information on this child from conception essentially to birth, to early development, pubertal development, and adolescence. In ten years we can be well on our way to having this longitudinal cohort. I like the idea of sensitive periods and critical windows for intervention. What I would really like to do also is start thinking about innovative interventions. I don’t really like most of our interventions. I don’t like psychotherapy as an intervention. I don’t like the idea of a kid taking a pill for the rest of his life. I would like to train the brain to be more effective and efficient and heal itself. I would develop really high tech innovative interventions that you can do while watching changes in the brain. I would actually have them in the scanner so we can see what is being activated and doing this at different ages. That is the ultimate goal- some kind of prevention- but knowing when and what is still where we are right now.
You were born abroad; can you tell us more about your early life?
This is a very interesting story in that I think about my grandparents. They [paternal grandparents] were from a very small rural place in Georgia, very strict southern Baptists. They had a son who goes off to Georgia Tech. He wanted to be a chemical engineer. He was 20 years old and decided he wanted to do an internship abroad. So, he went to Yugoslavia and worked at an oil refinery, and, being a southern Baptist, he found the only Baptist church there. So, he met my mother there. At the end of the 6-month study abroad from Georgia Tech, he was married and he had decided he was going to quit school and become a missionary. I just think how they [her paternal grandparents] must have gone nuts!
My dad wanted to go into the mission field. So, they [her mother and father] went to a theological seminary in Switzerland. My brother and I were born there. Then, when I was five, we moved to the states. My dad went to a seminary in Louisville and got a PhD in theology. Then, my parents were appointed to go back to Yugoslavia as missionaries, so we went back.
Growing up in a communist country was normal for me then. Now, in hindsight, it seems weird. For example, there was an induction ceremony into the communist party when you were 7, when you get your red star. It was indoctrination. So, when you look at it now it seems a bit shocking, but back then it was a thing to celebrate, “Yay, you’re now part of the communist party.”
Although Yugoslavia was politically atheist, my family was very religious. My upbringing was that there is only one way to live. There was only God’s way and no other way, so never stray from this path; there was a fear of veering off. It took me a long time to realize that that is not really true. If there is a man-made GPS navigation system that could redirect you if you make a wrong turn, then any spiritual being that you would believe in should be able to do the same. I now think there are many different ways to get to the same place in life. So, never be afraid of making the wrong turn. So, even if you are standing there deliberating, you’ll come back to the right place. You can always correct back. You can spend an entire year watching TV and still be okay!
Each year for the Neuroscience retreat weekend, the Central Sulcus produces a packet of articles and fun content for attendees. If you couldn’t attend the retreat last weekend, check out the packet here!
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!