Neuron Ink

IPRG cell

Sandra1 already had seven tattoos. Most of them were small. Lining her right outer thigh were six separate designs, the largest of which was about three inches in diameter. The seventh tattoo was more conspicuous, a First Nations bird on her right forearm, just above the wrist.

On her birthday in 2007, she wanted to get a new and unique neuron tattoo. Most of us are familiar with rods and cones, the classic retinal photoreceptors that transduce light into electrical impulses. Lesser known among the neurons in the retina are intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs). These neurons express melanopsin, a light-sensitive protein involved in the production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates circadian rhythms (including the sleep-wake cycle). The ipRGCs project directly to the suprachiasmatic nucleus in the hypothalamus, the brain’s circadian pacemaker.

Sandra had a deep interest in circadian rhythms because of their significance in bipolar disorder (she had bipolar I disorder). Disruptions of the sleep-wake cycle are a prominent aspect of this condition. Before the existence of the f.lux® program that limits the amount of blue light emanating from your screen at night, before the studies demonstrating that electronic devices can suppress the production of melatonin (thereby altering your circadian clock), Sandra went out and bought yellow light bulbs for the lamps in the house. “But I can’t read in this dim yellow light!” I complained.

In preparation for the ipRGC tattoo session, I sent her several articles illustrating these rare neurons, which comprise only 5% of all ganglion cells in the retina. She chose an illustration from a 2005 Nature paper.

ipRGC in Nature.jpgModified from Fig 3a (Dacey et al., 2005).  (Left) Drawing of a giant ipRGC cell (arrow indicates axon). The cell was recorded from the in vitro retina (“retina in a dish”) and then filled with a substance to visualize it.  (Right) Electrical responses (voltage traces) of this cell to a specialized light stimulus.

Most stereotypical neurons have a long axon, but this giant ipRGC does not (see arrow in Fig. 3a). Sandra wanted the tattoo to look like a standard neuron (and she enjoyed the idea of an axon running down her arm), so she had the artist embellish the drawing with an extra branch. She also had horrid arachnophobia, and did not want anyone to mistake this work of art for a spiderweb.

The results were quite impressive.

tattoo_003_cropped
Then,

In 2007, [science writer] Carl Zimmer posed a question on his blog: are scientists hiding tattoos of their science? It turned out that many of them were, and they were willing to share their ink with him and the world.

Hundreds of people sent in their science tattoos. The original chronicle of this collection is nearly impossible to reconstruct from Zimmer’s many blogs, hosted by ScienceBlogs, Discover, National Geographic, Typepad, etc. Fortunately, the best of these tattoos were collected in a book called Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed. Sandra was invited to submit a photo of her Neuron Ink.

tattoo_003
Photo by Maurice Li.

In an entry called “Ganglion Cell”, Zimmer eloquently wrote:

It is sensitive to blue light, but it does not paint the blue of a bluebird. Instead, it sends its color elsewhere: to neurons that control the size of the pupil, to regions of the brain that set the body’s clock, to other regions that release hormones that make us sleepy and wakeful.

Sandra got two more tattoos after that, both in January 2016. One of these was the cover art from her book, Reliant.

Her very last tattoo was a daffodil to represent being a cancer survivor.

daffodil tattoo_small.jpg

About this, she said:

Daffodils are the official flower of the Canadian Cancer Society and daffodil pins are sold each spring to raise funds. They’re the first flowers of the year, pushing through winter decay to burst forth with hope and life. A daffodil is a good symbol.

At the two year post-treatment milestone, the oncologist told her that the chance of recurrence was less than 5%. There was reason for optimism, because the doctors said she was cured. But six months later, after experiencing right upper quadrant pain, Sandra was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. There was an 8 cm tumour in her liver that was “missed” because her ten prior scans didn’t bother to screen the most likely sites of metastasis.

The irony of her final tattoo was not lost on me.

On her birthday this year, I decided to get the same ipRGC tattoo (sans axon). It was my first; I did not have any tattoos before this.

ipRGC tattoo_small

I wish she was there with me to see it.

Footnote

1 Sandra Dawson, my late wife. See There Is a Giant Hole Where My Heart Used To Be.

Field: “Brain Optimization” for the Wealthy and Gullible

An article in New Beauty magazine alerted me to the latest brain wellness scam NYC’s Hottest Club Is Selling ‘Designer Brains’:

Imagine the best moments of your life. … Then imagine you could wake up and feel that way every morning. According to the founders of Field, a center devoted to “brain optimization” that will open in New York City this winter, it only takes 19 electrodes and some neurological tweaks to get there.

With a combination of neurotechnology and new age philosophy, Field’s founders describe brain optimization as the new frontier of wellness. Devon White, a performance consultant, expert in human behavior and one of the team’s four founding partners, compares neurological treatments to acupuncture.  …  “Most of us don’t have control over our brains—until now,” says White.

[NOTE: complete and utter BS]

Field has been described as a gym for the brain, a clinic/spa/laboratory hybrid and a luxury cognition center. But instead of deadlifts or massages, the space will offer transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).

This procedure involves placing an electromagnetic coil against the scalp to deliver magnetic pulses that alter electrical current flow. TMS is a valid brain modulation technique approved for specific medical uses, but there’s absolutely no evidence that it can make you relive the best moments of your life or improve your day-to-day cognitive function.

 

But actually, the illustration in the New Beauty article appears to be a cap for transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), a cheaper and easier to administer type of neuromodulation that works in a different  manner.

The Field website is a masterclass in neurogibberish…

Your experience at Field is entirely personalized. We begin by creating a comprehensive model of you at your best as well as a deep understanding of your desired goals from the Field experience. This multi-dimensional assessment of who you are is complete with psychodynamic history, autonomic data, psychometrics, performance analysis, hormone and gene panels, and a qEEG reading of your brain.

…and elitism:

Field is a private membership club dedicated to transforming the way our clients use themselves and their brains. Our innovative and personalized application of cutting edge neurotechnology will revolutionize everything you know about personal development and high performance.

. . .

Membership during our first year of operation in Manhattan is limited.

As the world leaders in this technology-augmented approach to consciousness enhancement, we are intent on ensuring all-around excellence in the culture at Field, both for our team and our members.

During our charter year, we are working exclusively with superlative individuals interested in creating positive personal and global impact. The intention of Field is to vault these already remarkable clients into new domains of power, satisfaction, performance, and Flow.

…and from New Beauty:

…Field is open to “superlative individuals” who can afford the entrance fee. In addition to the upcoming physical location in NYC, the company is planning a 10-day intensive that combines neurological treatments with networking, body work and meditation. The experience costs $25,000 and participants are vetted for more than just money. The spots will be reserved for those with generally good mental health (not bipolar, schizophrenic or suffering from major psychiatric disorders), and, as Devon describes it, “good people.” The New York space also has a membership application process, making Field feel like a SoHo House for wealthy wellness junkies.

More like wealthy wellness monkeys, willing to pay for the privilege of being experimental socialites in a beauty spa of unproven neuromod technologies.

“Complaining Shrinks the Hippocampus” – the study that doesn’t exist

gray739-emphasizing-hippocampus

The “complaining is bad for your brain” trope is making the rounds again. In How Complaining Rewires Your Brain For Negativity, Dr. Travis Bradberry (“Author of #1 bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, and president of TalentSmart, world’s leading provider of emotional intelligence”) claims:

Repeated complaining rewires your brain to make future complaining more likely. Over time, you find it’s easier to be negative than to be positive, regardless of what’s happening around you. Complaining becomes your default behavior, which changes how people perceive you.

And here’s the kicker: complaining damages other areas of your brain as well. Research from Stanford University has shown that complaining shrinks the hippocampus—an area of the brain that’s critical to problem solving and intelligent thought. Damage to the hippocampus is scary, especially when you consider that it’s one of the primary brain areas destroyed by Alzheimer’s.

What is this compelling research from Stanford? A link to an article in Fast Company, Why Complaining May Be Dangerous To Your Health (1/12/15):

A half hour of complaining every day physically damages a person’s brain, according to research from Stanford University. Whether you’re the one griping or you’re the one listening, exposure to negativity peels back neurons in the hippocampus—the part of the brain used for problem solving and cognitive function. Over time, complaining becomes a habit. If you’re surrounded by complainers, then you’re more likely become one.

The research on “peeling back neurons in the hippocampus” is a link to a non-existent article in iaap-hq.org. Pulling up the extinct page in archive.org yields this gem, Complaining Hurts Your Brain (3/27/14):

Scientific research from Stanford’s medical school revealed that exposure to 30 minutes of negativity every day (including negative news on TV) can physically damage the brain. It damages the neurons in the hippocampus, the part of the brain used for problem solving and cognitive functioning. This is significant because research also shows that in Alzheimer’s disease, the hippocampus is one of the first regions of the brain to suffer damage.

Now let’s look for a study where the participants had their brains scanned, watched 30 minutes of negative news every day for three months, then had their brains scanned again. For good measure, we should assign half of the participants to a control condition, where they are forbidden to watch negative news for three months. Then we can compare hippocampal volumes in the two groups.

You know where this is going. The peeling hippocampus study does not exist. It’s completely fictional.

Further Googling pulls up a 2012 article from the Community Corner section of the Carlsbad Patch, Stress and Negativity May Change Size and Function of the Brain:

Robert Sapolsky is a professor and researcher in the field of stress and the effect it has on health. For the past three decades Sapolsky has been studying how the mind and body handle stress. In an interview with Stanford Report, he said:

It’s becoming clear that in the hippocampus, the part of the brain most susceptible to stress hormones, you see atrophy in people with post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression. … There’s a ton of very exciting, very contentious work as to whether stress is causing that part of the brain to atrophy, and if so, is it reversible. Or does having a small hippocampus make you more vulnerable to stress-related traumas? There’s evidence for both sides.

Ah ha, Robert Sapolsky, a famous professor at Stanford. He’s best known for his research on the negative effects of stress in baboons, who generally do not watch TV, neither in the wild nor in captivity. Here’s a 2000 review article on Glucocorticoids and Hippocampal Atrophy in Neuropsychiatric Disorders (cited over 1,000 times):

An extensive literature stretching back decades has shown that prolonged stress or prolonged exposure to glucocorticoids—the adrenal steroids secreted during stress—can have adverse effects on the rodent hippocampus.

Yes indeed, the invasive studies that examine actual neurons in the hippocampus are in rodents.

Sapolsky continues:

More recent findings suggest a similar phenomenon in the human hippocampus associated with many neuropsychiatric disorders. This review examines the evidence for hippocampal atrophy in (1) Cushing syndrome, which is characterized by a pathologic oversecretion of glucocorticoids; (2) episodes of repeated and severe major depression, which is often associated with hypersecretion of glucocorticoids; and (3) posttraumatic stress disorder. Key questions that will be examined include whether the hippocampal atrophy arises from the neuropsychiatric disorder, or precedes and predisposes toward it…

Notice that both here and in his 2007 Stanford News quote above, he questions the direction of causality.

So where did the complaining and negative news come from? The Carlsbad Patch article 1 also linked to Listening to Complainers Is Bad for Your Brain (8/12/12):

Do you hate it when people complain? It turns out there’s a good reason: Listening to too much complaining is bad for your brain in multiple ways, according to Trevor Blake, a serial entrepreneur and author of Three Simple Steps: A Map to Success in Business and Life. In the book, he describes how neuroscientists have learned to measure brain activity when faced with various stimuli, including a long gripe session.

“The brain works more like a muscle than we thought,” Blake says. “So if you’re pinned in a corner for too long listening to someone being negative, you’re more likely to behave that way as well.”

Even worse, being exposed to too much complaining can actually make you dumb. Research shows that exposure to 30 minutes or more of negativity–including viewing such material on TV–actually peels away neurons in the brain’s hippocampus. “That’s the part of your brain you need for problem solving,” he says. “Basically, it turns your brain to mush.”

Ah ha, so we can finally blame serial entrepreneur Trevor Blake, who made up the whole thing. Or at the very least, extrapolated wildly from studies in monkeys and rodents. From Three Simple Steps: A Map to Success in Business and Life:

like-watching-fearful-news

[so Mr. Blake actually used the more accurate “pruning back” not “peeling back”]

What about complainers? 2

chronic-complainers

Oh no!! This blog post is increasing the rate of cell death in my hippocampus!

But think about it… reading Donald J. Trump‘s toxic and negative (and horrifying) tweets is raising our anxiety. Does complaining about them make it any worse?

 

link to HuffPo via Neuroskeptic

 

Footnotes

1 The Carlsbad Patch article by is actually the best of the lot.

2 The unclear origins of this claim were also discussed by the skeptics at Stack Exchange.

Here Comes Optomom!

Optogenetic manipulation in a naïve female mouse induces maternal behavior in response to pup distress calls (Marlin et al. 2015).

Video 6: Pup retrieval by Oxt-IRES-Cre virgin female after optical stimulation of left primary auditory cortex (Marlin et al. 2015).

One of the really amazing things is that neural activity in response to the distress cries is left lateralized in the auditory cortex. In a mouse!

This is markedly similar to the asymmetry of speech processing in human temporal lobe43, 44, and supports earlier behavioural observations of auditory lateralization in maternal mice19.

A number of separate experiments showed that the hypothalamic hormone oxytocin was a key player in modulating neural activity and behavioral responses to the pup’s calls, with the requisite demonstrations of maternal behavior being turned on and off at the will of the investigators.

An extensive literature (dating back to the 1940s-50s) has already established that oxytocin plays a role in promoting maternal behavior, so that part did not come as a surprise (e.g., Pedersen et al., 1982). But modern optogenetic methods provide more precise control of specific neuron populations (and more dramatic videos).

Media outlets: do not extrapolate from this mouse study to potential interventions in neglectful human mothers. There are no implants for bad moms!

 

Reference

Marlin, B., Mitre, M., D’amour, J., Chao, M., & Froemke, R. (2015). Oxytocin enables maternal behaviour by balancing cortical inhibition. Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature14402

I’m a Lumberjack

Image

The eighth and final season of the hit series Dexter took a scientific look at serial killers. Dr. Evelyn Vogel, a neuropsychiatrist who wrote the definitive book on the brains of psychopaths, consulted with Miami Metro Homicide on a series of unusual cases. The killer would saw open the skull and scoop out the “empathetic” part of the brain (the anterior insula) with a melon baller. The most brutal of these murders occurred while the victim was alive and awake.

Dr. Vogel was ultimately killed by the “Brain Surgeon” who turned out to be her own psychopathic son (presumed dead for over 25 years; he faked his death by starting a fire in the asylum where he was housed).

But now the show has ended in a most unsatisfying way. The reasons for this are succinctly captured in the tweet below. Our favorite serial killer lives on, but in an unexpectedly isolated and self-punishing way after (you guessed it) faking his own death and moving far away from his son and girlfriend.

In an interview, Jennifer Carpenter, the actress who played Dexter’s sister Deb, had this to say about the end of the series (where her character dies due to a horrible mistake in her brother’s judgment):

“I’m picturing an older model television where you have to get up to turn the TV off and then it slips into that tiny little dot until it’s all gone — that’s what I feel like is happening to me.”

It’s a great interview from an actress who got better and better as the series progressed. I always thought of Deb as the most traumatized woman on television.

Finally, here’s an alternate ending from an executive producer who left the show after four seasons:

“In the very last scene of the series,” Philips explained, “Dexter wakes up. And everybody is going to think, ‘Oh, it was a dream.’ And then the camera pulls back and back and back and then we realize, ‘No, it’s not a dream.’ Dexter’s opening his eyes and he’s on the execution table at the Florida Penitentiary. They’re just starting to administer the drugs and he looks out through the window to the observation gallery.

“And in the gallery are all the people that Dexter killed—including the Trinity Killer and the Ice Truck Killer (his brother Rudy), LaGuerta who he was responsible killing, Doakes who he’s arguably responsible for, Rita, who he’s arguably responsible for, Lila. All the big deaths, and also whoever the weekly episodic kills were. They are all there.

“That’s what I envisioned for the ending of Dexter. That everything we’ve seen over the past eight seasons has happened in the several seconds from the time they start Dexter’s execution to the time they finish the execution and he dies.  Literally, his life flashed before his eyes as he was about to die. I think it would have been a great, epic, very satisfying conclusion.”

Overcoming Consumerism Through Neuroscience

We’ve to widen the knowledge
of how our brain works to understand
Or nothing will, will ever change

–Stereolab, Margerine Melodie

stereolab-margerine-eclipse

The French pop / post-Krautrock English band Stereolab are known for their vintage synthesizers and socially conscious lyrics. Margerine Melodie, from their 2004 album Margerine Eclipse, suggests that neuroscience research will help us overcome a hyper-competitive world of struggle and domination.

Our brain makes us act
behave and react
A pulsion that drives us to stay alive

Need to satisfy our fundamental needs
The nervous system enables that drive

Through consumerism, escape and struggle
As well as inhibition

All these mechanisms that preserve balance
Biological well being

Seems that until now we have used our brain
Just to dominate, just to dominate

–Stereolab, Margerine Melodie

Functional MRI: The Fast Track to Fame and Fortune

Stahl_says_the_money_is_in_the_front_of_the_brain

The seductive allure of fMRI was initially revealed by the New York Times in 2000. According to Dr. Christopher Moore, the method is easier than 1, 2, 3! And your papers will write themselves:

The technology is seductively easy to use, said Dr. Christopher Moore, a postdoctoral fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston who is carrying out a number of imaging studies. ”You can think of an idea, throw five friends into the scanner overnight and write up your results the next day. People don’t have to think very hard about what they’re doing.”

-from Just What’s Going On Inside That Head of Yours?
 By  SANDRA BLAKESLEE
 Published: March 14, 2000

-image from DLPFC Rap