The eclipse was a celebrated experience across America, especially for the scientific community. Researchers across Emory University campus poured out of laboratories and joined in make-shift viewing parties. Rollins Research Building had its own celebratory group, partaking in eclipse glasses fashion shows and using the green space for crescent tree shadows gazing.
Spurred by good ol’ program spirit and the promise of free booze, Emory’s finest showed up dressed to the nines for the 2017 Neuroscience Awards Ceremony.
Leadership Award Chris Sinon
GIN ex-president Chris Sinon has enthusiastically served the Emory Neuroscience community in almost every capacity imaginable. Aside from fearlessly hosting recruitment parties and successfully campaigning to increase the GIN budget in dicey economic times, Chris has continually worked behind the scenes to organize, support and rally the program to both improve our community and expand our connections with other programs in Laney and beyond.
University Service Award Elyse Morin
Elyse Morin has excelled in service both within and outside of the scientific community. Elyse has taken an active role in science advocacy, meeting with GA representatives and joining her advisor, Mar Sanchez, to speak to the House Committee on Appropriations in DC. In addition, she has served as senior coordinator for the Emory RespectCon, led workshops bringing together Atlanta resources for rape survivors and spent more than 1,700 hours on call for the Rape Crisis Center.
Outreach Award Desiree De Leon
Though her outreach efforts may sometimes put her in hot water with advisors Larry Young and Mar Sanchez, Desiree has made a huge impact on the community. As the graduate representative for the Atlanta Chapter of SfN, Desiree has built a multi-university outreach empire, growing outreach efforts by nearly 1,000 students while serving as chair of the Atlanta Brain Bee and coordinator of Brain Awareness month and the ATL Science Festival Booth.
Outstanding Early Achievement Award Andrea Pack
Andrea Pack had the honor of being the sole nominee for this award. When you view her CV it’s not hard to see why. In her two years at Emory, Andrea has been placed on two training grants, received an NSF graduate research fellowship, presented at two international conferences and is currently preparing a first author manuscript. In addition, she is extremely active in scientific outreach, pioneering her own course to teach science within a local prison.
Outstanding Scientific Achievement Award Elizabeth Pitts
Elizabeth Pitts has presented at too many conferences to count and is an author on eight publications, including first authorship on a paper in Neuropsychopharmacology and a review in Neurobiology of Disease. While spanning two distinct model systems and actively teaching, Liz has remained active in the program and received multiple awards for her research, including the prestigious honor of presenting to prospective students during the Emory recruitment process.
Excellence in Teaching Award Arielle Valdez
Arielle Valdez has served as a teaching assistant for a variety of rigorous courses on a variety of topics: everything from human anatomy to the ethics of vegetarianism. Arielle has reached students far beyond the neuroscience realm in which most of us live. In each course she’s taught, both her instructors and students have recognized her excellence, so much so that she was awarded the GDBBS-wide TATTO Teaching award. Despite already hitting this ceiling of recognition, she plans to continue broadening her teaching experiences.
Excellence in Mentorship Award Elizabeth Pitts
Liz Pitt’s excellence in mentorship is reflected through both the quality and quantity of her students. Liz directly mentored eight undergraduates while at Emory, guiding them through in depth, long-term research projects. Her students have graduated with highest honors and – even more remarkably – a literature based understanding of their field and the ability to think critically about it. Some might say that thanks to Liz, they’re now positioned to have their own outstanding scientific achievements.
GIN Faculty of the Year Shannon Gourley
Dr. Shannon Gourley, pictured here with her Elizabeth’s, was selected from a sea of wonderful mentors because of her passion and dedication for her students. Perhaps best said by one of the Elizabeth’s themselves, “Her altruistic and well-organized use of her time” and “dedication to her students’ and colleagues’ success” make her an exemplary representative of what makes Emory neuroscience a wonderful place.
GIN Student Service Award Byron Gardner
Byron Gardner continually attends, assists, and invigorates GIN events. He is always willing to use his creative energies for the betterment of the program and he stands out in his ability to make prospective students want to join in the fun. Ironically he could not attend this ceremony, but his efforts to go above and beyond at almost everything else make him more than deserving of the award anyway.
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!
Not everyone comes entirely prepared for the annual Society for Neuroscience (SfN) meeting. Some of us are working on our posters up to the last second, or wondering why we booked a townhouse 40 minutes from the convention center during a polar vortex. But that doesn’t provide an excuse to miss the important things in life, like national landmarks, free swag, and entertaining episodes of self-loathing.
Our swashbuckling editors Don Noble and Mandy Bekhbat attended SfN 2014 in Washington D.C. for at least one of these reasons. Don’s account reflects the experience of a seasoned veteran (i.e. old man) while Mandy’s reflects that of a second-year who on more than one occasion was sighted passed out on the convention floor from sheer exhaustion. Indeed, one’s first time going to SfN can be quite an experience. This year, more than 31,000 neuroscientists convened at SfN’s annual meeting, presenting 15,000 abstracts, and approximately 600 vendor booths exhibited their products and services. Just looking at these numbers, Mandy braced herself for an overwhelming experience. But in this case, she learned that one can never quite be fully prepared for being overwhelmed by the breadth of different types of neuroscience research and the sheer number of posters.
Additionally, throughout the five days of the meeting, the evenings were filled with SfN-sponsored socials. While some of them, including Alzheimer’s and Behavioral Neuroendocrinology socials, were packed full mostly of postdocs and junior investigators, others, such as the Clinical neuroscience social, were events where undergraduate researchers could mingle with some of the biggest names in the field. Below we describe the conference and provide photographic documentation that rigorous science and human inanity are not mutually exclusive.
Self-loathing: Michael McKinnon contemplates his own intrinsic nature, and the reason his poster got assigned to row VV.
Landmarks: There was also ample time to visit museums and admire the incredible (in)efficiency of government.
The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History provided some pleasant respite on the last night of the conference.
The vendors: If you still had energy left from meeting so many people and being mind-blown by their awesome research, there were also vendors to be explored.
One notable vendor was Backyard Brains, a start-up that designs and offers affordable electrophysiology experiment kits for students of all ages to learn about neural communication. One of their products, the Roboroach, is what they describe as the world’s first commercially available cyborg. It comes with a surgical kit that enables the insertion of electrodes into the antennae of the roach, thus allowing the experimenter to control its movements using his/her smart phone. Other products, such as the SpikerBox, are equally straightforward and interesting to students of all ages
Many of the vendors were also giving away freebies (see Mandy, now with 2% less chimp!). For the first time, we release top-secret techniques for augmenting your ‘bag’ or ‘swag’ inventory.
If you didn’t know, SfN is all about carry-bag game, and select vendors produce some beauties. In scoring the crème de la crème at SfN, you’ll need to master good bag technique. Even if – aside from drinking enough PBR at the Clermont Lounge to start your own indie band – you usually refrain from the hipster lifestyle, you’ll want to be a Hipster Bag Hag. Let us break down what this means:
i) First and foremost, you want a dank ass bag. But this means other people will also have your awesome bag, unless it is…
ii) a limited edition bag that was only available during the Sunday session, which means it’s cooler if….
iii) you managed to swipe one from someone else, so it doesn’t look like you spent a full week at the conference to avoid doing research.
Some examples that escaped our grasp were the Abcam and Bethyl photo bags. Nice neurons are in style for a hot minute, and these were top of the line neurons.
However, after some back-and-forth about undergraduate research in zebra finches, Don landed his favorite bag of the year: a simple yet swanky specimen from F1000 that featured a stylin’ ‘Bird Jesus’ doing im-peck-able science, crafted from exquisitely unassuming material that rivaled Kroger’s reusable grocery bags.
Ethics often go out the window when it comes to swiping science swag. Roommate and program legend Travis Rotterman stole Don’s mail in order to get his pick of the litter: a 2GB mouse thumb drive from Jackson Laboratories.
Travis: I feel bad for stealing your mail Don, use my AAAS/Science membership email to get this free coffee tumbler.
Thorlabs, famous for the complimentary lab snacks they provide when well-intentioned but verdant labmates order overpriced epoxy, gives out free t-shirts sporting their crazed wolf and some mushy-looking organ.
Play the BIOS brain tracing game to win a stuffed dragon and an outer space-esque black and green t-shirt that you may even wear at some point in your life. Protip: visit at the end of each half hour to catch the crowds by surprise and cherry-pick the dank ass swag late. Yoooiinkk!
Overall, SfN 2014 was a winning experience. Can you contribute your own pictures or story? Think you have what it takes to win some official SfN 2014 swag? Then see below!
Announcement of picture competition #2
Do you have pictures that are more beautiful (nope), more academically impressive (e.g. you surrounded by a large poster crowd, i.e. presenting something with ‘optogenetics’ in the title), or sexier (e.g. you presenting something with ‘optogenetics’ in the title) than the ones shown here? Send them to email@example.com to win official SfN souvenir swag and be featured in an upcoming edition of the Sulcus!
In Current Biology this month, a paper titled “Neurological and Robot-Controlled Induction of an Apparition” features neuroscientists exploring a sensation that’s ubiquitous among humans in every culture; the feeling or chilling sensation that someone is behind you when no one is present. Feeling of Presence, or FoP, is a phenomena present in both healthy individuals and those with psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia. But like most sensory experiences, this one has its roots in neuroscience and not the occult or divine.
First author Olfe Blake and senior author Giulio Rognini, both out of Switzerland, conducted this study using mostly epileptic patients, who frequently experience this body delusion, to determine which brain location is commonly affected. They determined that the frontoparietal lobe was specifically associated with FoP. Responsible for the integration of sensory stimuli, these researchers suggest that the parietal lobe is the location responsible for that creepy feeling we all get when we turn out the lights in the basement, and then we have to walk up the stairs in the dark, and we swear there’s a monster behind us, and we run up the stairs and slam the door behind us, and we realize we’re breathing heavily and crying just a little bit, but we’re not embarrassed at all because this is totally something everybody does.
To experimentally replicate this sensation in a healthy population, the researchers designed a robot whose movements were guided by the fingers of study participants. Blindfolded and in a room alone, the participants would control the robot, making it touch their back. One group controlled the robot in real time, the other group had robots that would mimic their movements, but with a time delay. Subjects in the time delay group reported the experience to be more like another person was in the room with them, touching their back. This method induced FoP in some participants and made a smaller subset feel so uncomfortable that they had to stop the experiment! In this way the asynchronous robot stimulation was capable of simulated FoP in healthy participants. Scientists failed to control for the possibility that actual ghosts were present in the room during the experiment.
Blanke et al. concluded that they were able to create “a conflict between proprioceptive-motor signals and tactile feedback” that is similar to the FoP experience. Shining light on the cause of this sensation, researches believe that “abnormal integration of sensorimotor signals” is responsible for ghosts, I mean, FoP. So the experience of an unknown “other” just behind you and out of sight is simply a confusion between the brain’s sensation of the “self” and the “other.”
The researchers went further, suggesting that schizophrenics have deficits in the integration of sensory inputs, and this causes these individuals to be more likely to attribute “self-generated” sounds or touch as being “other-generated.” The authors hope that this study will have applications to schizophrenic individuals who experience this specific delusion. As the phenomenology behind the feeling of presence is explained, science puts another nail in the coffin of the “supernatural.”
Share your thoughts and criticisms of this paper in the comment section below.
Blanke, O., Pozeg, P., Hara, M., Heydrich, L., Serino, A., Yamamoto, A., Rognini,G. (2014). Neurological and Robot-Controlled Induction of an Apparition. Current Biology, 24(22), 2681-2686. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2014.09.049