Flashes of brilliance in the brain – the best neuroscience images of 2013

Pretty pictures and popular neuroscience go hand-in-hand. People love to see the contours of their brain on an MRI and journalists are drawn to a brain flashing away with activity. There have been some fantastic images from neuroscience in 2013. Here are my favourites, one for each month starting way back in January 2013.

Disclaimer – We own no rights to any of the images on this page. All images are credited to the original authors and copyright holders. The MRC’s Biomedical Picture of the Day has been used as inspiration for some of the images.

January – New eyes for blindness

Blindness is a major challenge to the neuroscience field. Untreatable blindness is often caused by a degeneration of the light-sensitive cells of the retina. Here, researchers from University College London, UK have injected new photoreceptor cells into the retina of mice with retinal degeneration restoring normal responses to light!

Retina Repair transplant Flashes of brilliance in the brain – the best neuroscience images of 2013

Host retina cells are shown in blue, injected new photoreceptive cells are shown in green. The top left is a healthy mouse. The next three images show three different types of genetic blindness models in mice – all show integration of the injected cells. From Barber et al. PNAS 110(1): 354-359

February – Pathfinding connections in the brain

This year there has been a burst of activity in the ‘connectomics’ field. Mapping the connections of the brain is the next big challenge of neuroscience and the main topic of the Human Brain Project in Europe and the BRAIN initiative in the US.

Here, researchers from the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, France looked at how neurons find their way from the thalamus in the middle of the brain to the outermost folds of the cortex. 

Pathfinding Flashes of brilliance in the brain – the best neuroscience images of 2013

These figures show neurons in green making their way from the thalamus (Th) to the cortex (NCx). From: Deck et al. Neuron 77: 472-484.


March – Whole brain activity

Seemingly a burning campfire, this is actually a brain flashing with activity. In one of the most impressive images of neuroscience in 2013, researchers from Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm campus in the US used calcium imaging (see July) to view the activity of a whole brain.

Zebrafish Flashes of brilliance in the brain – the best neuroscience images of 2013

The brain of a zebrafish larvae – imaged by light-sheet microscopy. From Ahrens et al. Nature Methods 10: 413-420.

One of the biggest challenges of neuroscience is working out how everything links up together. The most accurate measurements we currently have can only take into account a handful of cells at once. The brilliance of this technique, utilising see-through zebrafish larvae, is that they were able to image more than 80% of the neurons of the brain at once. This can tell you how large populations of cells interact, allowing different regions to work together.

For more info see this article by Mo Costandi in the Guardian.


April – See-through brains

Another amazing technical feat designed to view how the brain links together, in April we were brought CLARITY. By dissolving the opaque fat of a brain whilst keeping the structure intact, researchers led by Karl Deisseroth at Stanford University, California were able to image a whole mouse brain.

CLARITY Flashes of brilliance in the brain – the best neuroscience images of 2013

The hippocampus of a mouse, visualised with CLARITY. Excitatory cells are green, inhibitory cells are red, and support cells called astrocytes are blue. From Chung et al. Nature 497: 332-337.

The images from this technique are truly breath-taking. Using this technology, researchers could look in detail at the structure of the brain, giving valuable information of the wiring of different regions. They even imaged part of a post-mortem human brain from an autistic patient, finding evidence of structural defects normally associated with Down’s syndrome.

For more info, see this article in New Scientist.


May – Brainbow 3.0

‘Brainbow’ is a transgenic system designed to label different types of cells in many different colours. Prime material for pretty pictures. Take a look at these:

Brainbow Flashes of brilliance in the brain – the best neuroscience images of 2013

Multicoloured neurons. b shows the hippocampus, c and d show the cortex. From: Cai et al. Nature Methods 10: 540-547.


June – Controlling a helicopter with your mind

In June, researchers from the University of Minnesota, USA showed that one could fly a helicopter with their mind! Watch below as the subject guides a helicopter using an EEG skullcap.

July – Better calcium sensors

More calcium imaging now. Calcium imaging works by engineering chemicals that will fluoresce when they encounter calcium. When nerve cells are active, millions of calcium ions flow into the cell at once, therefore a flash of fluorescent light can be seen. Here, researchers from Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm campus in the US have been working on better, more sensitive calcium sensors. Using these you can colour code neurons based on what they respond to.

Calcium sensor Flashes of brilliance in the brain – the best neuroscience images of 2013

Neurons colour-coded by their response properties. From Chen et al. Nature 499: 295-300.

They were also able to record a video of the electrical activity in dendritic spines, the tiny arborisations of nerve cells – see here.


August – Using electron microscopy to connect the brain

Drosophila are wonderful little flies with nervous systems simple enough to get your head around, but complicated enough to be applicable to our own.

Drosophila EM Flashes of brilliance in the brain – the best neuroscience images of 2013

An electron micrograph, colour coded for each individual neuron. From: Takemura et al. Nature 500: 175-181.

Here, researchers from Janelia Farm (again!) have performed electron microscopy on drosophila brains to connect up neurons across multiple sections. An algorithm colour codes them to line up the same neuron in different sections in what looks like a work by Picasso.


September – Astrocytes to the rescue

Astrocytes are support cells in the brain which become highly active following brain injury. Here, researchers from Instituto Cajal, CSIC in Madrid, Spain were interested in the different characteristics astrocytes take on when a brain is injured. The injury site can be seen as a dark sphere. Astrocytes with different characteristics have been stained in different colours. For example, the turquoise-coloured astrocytes can be seen forming a protective net around the injury site.

Astrocyte Flashes of brilliance in the brain – the best neuroscience images of 2013

The injury site (dark sphere) can be seen surrounded by multi-coloured astrocytes. From: Martín-López et al. PLoS ONE 8(9) .


October – Preserved human skulls

Not strictly neuroscience but these images need to be included. Published in October 2013, The New Cruelty (commissioned by True Entertainment), photographed a series of preserved human skulls.

NewCruelty Flashes of brilliance in the brain – the best neuroscience images of 2013

A preserved human skull. From the New Cruelty exhibition, commissioned by True Entertainment.


November – Brain Computing

Part of the vision of the Human Brain Project and the BRAIN initiative is to marry anatomy of the brain with computer models to try to produce a working computer model of the brain. This image represents BrainCAT, a software designed to integrate information from different types of brain scan to gain added information about the functionality of the brain.

BrainCAT Flashes of brilliance in the brain – the best neuroscience images of 2013

This image shows BrainCAT linking functional MRI data (blue and turquoise shapes) with connectivity data (diffusion tensor imaging – green lines). From: Marques et al. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 7: 794.


December – Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.

The last month of the year gave us preposterous headlines of ‘proof’ that “Men and women’s brains are ‘wired differently’”. This finally proved why women are from Venus and men are from Mars; why men ‘are better at map reading’ and women are more ‘emotionally intelligent’…. These exaggerated headlines have been kept in check recently on this blog but there’s no denying that the research paper did show some lovely images of male and female brain connections.

MaleFemaleConnections Flashes of brilliance in the brain – the best neuroscience images of 2013

The top shows the most interconnected male regions, the bottom shows the most interconnected female regions. From: Ingalhalikar et al. PNAS (online publication before print).

So that’s it. 2013 was a year of flashing brains, dodgy connections and overegged hype. Let’s hope there’s even more to come in 2014.

Post by Oliver Freeman @ojfreeman

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Battle of the brain’s sex differences…or not really?

Why some people are surprised at the very idea of there being differences between male and female brains I don’t understand. But, what really confuses me is when journalists misinterpret research findings and overextrapolate speculative comments to fit cliched gender stereotypes.

65464 web 300x225 Battle of the brains sex differences...or not really?

“Brain networks show increased connectivity from front to back and within one hemisphere in males (upper) and left to right in females (lower).”
Credit: Ragini Verma, Ph.D., Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, from press release.

Whenever I ask my (less sciencey) friends what they’d like to read on The Brain Bank, there is a perennially raised topic. At least one, usually single, hopeful will ask desperately for a guide on how men and women’s brains differ – and why they might work in different ways, scientifically speaking. Efforts to crack the mental codes of the opposite sex started as far back as Aristotle, who claimed that women were “more mischievous,  … more easily moved to tears[,] more apt to scold and to strike[,] … more void of shame or self-respect,…of more retentive memory” (History of Animals).

 Battle of the brains sex differences...or not really?

White matter tracts, as imaged using diffusion tensor imaging. Author: Xavier Gigandet et al., source here.

Earlier this month, a research paper from the University of Pennsylvania used a fancy imaging technique called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to solve the mystery behind the different ways guys and gals think. DTI basically gives you a picture of where the white matter tracts – the wiring between different brain areas – lie between various processing parts of the brain.

The technique works by looking at how water travels within the brain: water ‘prefers’ moving along bundles of fibres, such as white matter tracts. In this way, DTI examines the strength of ‘connectivity’ between various parts of the brain.

Researchers, led by Prof Ragini Verma, scanned the brains of 949 youths aged 8-22. They found that, in general, the connecting pathways within each half of the brain were stronger in guys, but that in girls, the wiring between the two halves was stronger. In other words, connectivity in girls tended to be more ‘left-right’, whereas in boys, ‘front-back’ connectivity was stronger.

The researchers also reported that the girls performed better on tests involving attention; word and face memory; and social cognition, whereas boys fared better on spatial processing and sensorimotor speed tasks.

 Battle of the brains sex differences...or not really?

NOT REALLY. Author: Miz Mura.

This paper and its associated press release rallied some…OK, a lot, of interest from the press. But then something strange happened. Something was lost in translation between the original paper and the resulting newspapers reports, claiming that ‘hardwired’ differences between men and women’s brains might explain ‘why men are better at map reading’ and women are more ‘emotionally intelligent’…

OH dear…

 Battle of the brains sex differences...or not really?

Seriously, NOT REALLY. Author: Miz Mura

…Then there was a knee-jerk reaction against the potentially neurosexist connotations of this ‘kind of science’, and not just because the research was published in PNAS (hehe). In my opinion, if a conclusion is based on valid and reliable science, you shouldn’t really argue unless you have definitely read the research. If, on the other hand, the offending ‘conclusions’ are the result of a bizarre ‘Chinese Whispers’ scenario where no one has actually read the original research, then no,  it’s probably not worth listening – but then, mistranslation isn’t based on science anyway…I digress.

While we all know that there are some obvious – and other more subtle – distinctions between men and women. This research article doesn’t actually claim to explain anything besides the physical connections between different parts of the brain. Just to clarify, here are some of the problems with treating this particular research paper as the Holy Grail of sex differences:-

1. There’s no saying whether there’s a big difference or not. The authors present (undeniably) a very striking diagram, with the statistically significant bits indicated in gender-relevant colours. However, just because a difference is statistically significant, doesn’t mean the effect of being male, or female is a big deal. In fact, as the study uses such a large sample (949 youths), even very small differences between male and female brains may prove significant.

2. Less wiring doesn’t necessarily mean lower ability. The authors don’t actually indicate anywhere in the paper that the ‘wiring’ is associated with men and women’s differing abilities on the tests – though Prof Verma has been quoted speculating on the possibility. Instead, the authors have pointed out the brain’s physical differences and then separately comment on behavioural differences without saying whether the two correlate.

If the hypothesis is that men or women with mega-strong connectivity left-to-right, or front-back are respectively better at, say, language, or football, you could easily find that out with a bunch of correlations. Not that correlation would imply causation anyway. In fact, the strengthening or weakening of physical connections could even suggest that women and men’s brains change to compensate for innate differences!

3. Size/proportions might matter. It’s pretty well-known that men have larger brains than women – the situation is pretty complicated though, as women reportedly have more grey matter, less white matter and a thicker cortex than men. However – please correct me if I’m wrong – the authors don’t correct for brain sizes (either front-back, left-right, total volume or any other measure), which could be very important. Especially considering the people being imaged are aged between 8 and 22, when brains grow a lot anyway. Not to mention that girls and boys grow at different rates too. Oh well.

 Battle of the brains sex differences...or not really?

Social media word clouds for females (top) and males (bottom). Size = strength of the correlation; color = relative frequency of usage. Underscores (_) connect words in phrases. Words and phrases in center; topics surround. Author: H. Andrew Schwartz et al.; Source. Apologies for the bad language!

4. There are many more potential mechanisms than meets the eye. Yes, it’s very possible that exposure to sex hormones could change the brain’s connectivity. But, there’s a whole host of other possible influences on a child going through puberty that can’t be ruled out, because the brain is notoriously/amazingly plastic. Environmental influences, influences that can’t ever be controlled for, such as parents, peers, teachers and the media – could just as easily alter the physical structures of the brain, or the brain’s abilities. In fact, hearing in the news that ‘men are better at map reading’ because it’s ‘hardwired’ in their brains is conceivably rather likely to make guys feel a bit more confident navigating, while discouraging women from taking that responsibility instead.

This piece of research is not the first and certainly won’t be the last to be accidentally misinterpreted or overhyped. Research into the differences between men and women will continue to fascinate us because, for whatever reasons – social, biological or otherwise – people of different sexes tend to look, sound and act differently. More seriously (and the authors of the paper explain the motivation of their research), sex differences are linked to brain disorders like autism and depression, so the differences between ‘Martians’ and ‘Venetians’ should be properly understood, and carefully reported.

For further examination of this topic, here’s another blog article and a BuzzFeed piece with a few more reasons why it should all be taken with a pinch of salt.

Post by Natasha Bray

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The confusing science behind weight loss

It’s getting to that time of year when it becomes socially acceptable to stuff yourself full of the fattiest foods imaginable and then do nothing for 48 hours. You may be one of those people who is planning on upping your exercise regime to compensate for the increased calories consumed over the holidays. Unfortunately, I have some bad news for you: It’s probably not going to work.

Exercise and weight loss: is it a myth?

Exercise bikes 300x200 The confusing science behind weight lossIt’s long been burned into our brains that doing exercise is a good way for us to lose weight. This link was first noted by the scientist Jean Mayer in the 1950s, who observed that girls who did less physical activity tended to be obese.  Since then, we’ve been regularly targeted with gym adverts and equipment aimed to get us moving and help us lose weight. You “burn off” calories when you exercise and so don’t gain weight, right?

However, in recent years the message has become increasingly confusing. There is an increasing level of evidence (examples here, here and here) that suggests that exercise alone is not an efficient way to lose weight. According to the Mayo Clinic, you’d have to remove 500 calories every day for a week to lose 1 pound in weight. To put that in context, you’d have to do about an hour of high-impact aerobics every day for a week to burn off 100 grams worth of cookies. Not eating the cookies in the first place would be a far more effective way of losing weight.

It is important to remember that exercise is important for maintaining your weight. Therefore if you’re trying to lose weight and keep it off, experts believe that the best thing to do is to gradually reduce the amount of calories you eat but also to do regular exercise. People who crash diet or severely restrict the amount of calories they eat have a tendency to regain weight quickly once the diet is over. Crash dieting also leads to other health problems and can even reduce your ability to lose weight in the long term.

Another message which seems to be getting lost is that there is a big difference between “weight” and “health”. Exercising will keep your body and mind healthy. Some scientists believe that being obese does not necessarily mean that you are unhealthy in the same way that being thin does not automatically make you fit. It would be better if people aimed to be “healthy” rather than “thin” and exercise is essential if you want to be healthy.

Sugar, sugar

Sugar 300x200 The confusing science behind weight lossEven more confusing than the exercise/weight loss conundrum is the recent idea that fatty foods such as butter and red meat may not be as bad as we thought. Some scientists, such as Dr Robert Lustig, believe that it is sugar, not fat, which is causing the current obesity trend.  Dr Lustig attributes the toxicity and addictive nature of sugar (specifically fructose) to the rise in obesity levels. The increase in sugary drink consumption has also been attributed to the skyrocketing levels of type 2 diabetes.

This advice has been taken on board by some governments.  In the UK, the official line from the NHS is still that obesity is caused by “eating too much and moving too little”. However, the Swedish government has implemented a dogma of eating a high-fat, low-carb diet.  This is essentially a less extreme version of the Atkins diet in that you limit the amount of carbohydrates you eat (including sugar and “starchy” foods such as potatoes, pasta and wheat bread) but can eat as much butter, cream and bacon as your heart desires. This diet could also explain the French Paradox; that is, the observation that people in France are relatively healthy despite a high consumption of fatty food.

When is a healthy food not healthy?

Fruit 300x201 The confusing science behind weight lossWhen it’s a smoothie. If you take into account the idea that sugar, not fat, is the cause of the country’s dietary health crisis, then smoothies and fruit juices are unfortunately categorised as “a bad thing”. It seems hard to stomach after being told for so long that fruit is a “healthy” alternative but fruit is packed full of sugar. More sugar is released from fruit when it is in liquid form. You’ll be relieved (or horrified, depending on your outlook) to hear that vegetables are still classed as “healthy” as they contain less sugar than fruit.

There are also questions about “sugar-free” drinks, which contain artificial sweeteners such as aspartame. Whilst the alleged link between aspartame and cancer is so far unclear, there are people who think now that aspartame and other artificial sweeteners may cause weight gain.

Who do you call?

Part of the confusion that stems from this crisis is the vast array of information coming at us from all sides. Some scientists say one thing (“fat is bad”), other scientists oppose them (“sugar is bad. Exercise is good but not for weight loss”). The government takes the advice of one side of scientists (currently the “fat is bad” side) and informs us about lifestyle choices according to the advice they receive.

The “professional” dietary industry is confusing. There are differences between a dietician and a nutritionist. A dietician is accredited and is a protected title, a nutritionist isn’t. This means anyone can refer to themselves as a nutritionist, even if they have no background or knowledge on the subject. So the information that is being spread by some so-called “expert nutritionists” could be entirely false.

What’s even more confusing is even if you do consult a dietician, the information is changing all the time. Fat is bad, fat is good, avoid sugar, exercise a lot, exercise moderately. All of these have been given as scientific-based advice in recent times.

Evil, bad scientists?!

Cake 200x300 The confusing science behind weight lossBefore you grab your torch and pitchforks and hunt out all the scientists for releasing this confusing information into the world, please remember that research into diet is very complex. For example, is it that inactive people are fat or that fat people are inactive? Whilst certain elements may cause obesity in laboratory animals, humans are a different kettle of fish. People have a tendency to lie in surveys about our eating habits, and weight can fluctuate a lot. This means that accurately researching the causes of obesity and related illnesses is extremely complex.

The problem is not so much to do with the scientists, who are doing the best they can, but the way that the market is controlled. The advice from the government doesn’t really take into account more recent data. Additionally, people who sell smoothies or own gyms will keep marketing their product as “good for losing weight”. We’re targeted with a lot more adverts for gyms and food than we are with the latest scientific information. Scientists accept that data and findings are changeable and accurate data takes many years and many, many people. Advertisers and businesses are not so patient.

This is all making me want to curl up into a confused little ball. And comfort-eat a tonne of chocolate. What should I do?

I’m sorry to say I can’t help you. I am not a dietician (or even a nutritionist).  My inexpert advice, (coming from nothing but reading a few articles and journal entries on weight loss) is that we should all aim to be “healthy” rather than “thin”. Healthy means different things to different people. Do what you need to do to feel healthy. This could include exercising regularly, trying to cut down on your sugar intake and/or avoiding fast food, which is usually packed full of sugar and salt.

Comfort-eating the chocolate may not be as bad as you think (maybe eat less than a tonne though). There have been papers published which find that eating chocolate (fat, sugar and all) can lead to weight loss, in both children and adults. Chocolate consumption has also been linked to lower incidences of cardiovascular disease and stroke.

So what do we know, really, about diet, obesity, health and exercise? Not an awful lot, I’m afraid.

Post By: Louise Walker

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Gambler’s mind: The thrill of almost winning

Brain 1 300x238 Gamblers mind: The thrill of almost winning

Taken from Sescousse et al 2013

Almost three quarters of the British population participate in gambling of some form, despite the fact that we know the odds are so heavily stacked against us.  So why do we gamble despite the massive risk?

The answer to this question lies in the biology of our brains; exactly how does the brain change during addiction? Circuits known as the ‘reward system’ connect to regions of the brain involved in memory, pleasure and motivation. When we enjoy something these neurons release dopamine, a chemical neurotransmitter that makes us feel happy, a feel-good chemical that makes us satisfied and encourages us to continue our habits. This is similar to what happens in the brains of drug addicts.

A collaboration between Drs Luke Clark from the University of Cambridge and Henrietta Bowden-Jones from the only NHS clinic for gambling addicts is trying to address what makes some of us so hooked on gambling and what happens in our brains. We know that there are both external and internal factors that influence our gambling habits such as our personality type, neurobiological and neurochemical make-up, as well as the different features of the games themselves.

Using a number of control and ‘gambler’ subjects, behavioural tests looked at impulsivity, compulsivity and dopamine levels. As suspected, gamblers were more impulsive than controls; something which is mirrored in drug addicts and alcoholics. Brain imaging studies have shown that near-misses recruit areas of the brain that are associated with winning. The ‘near-miss’ phenomenon is the theory that losing a game acts as an aversive stimulus- it actually puts us off gambling. But, coming close to winning acts to fuel our desire to gamble. The fact that the same areas are activated when we almost win, and when we actually do win may encourage us to gamble – and this is something that can be exploited by game manufacturers.

Is the degree of brain activation during winning related to gambling severity? Subjects were asked to play on a slot machine whilst an fMRI machine measured brain activity in response to the game (functional magnetic resonance imaging- looking at the level of blood flow to areas of the brain in response to stimuli). Results found that those subjects with severe gambling addictions had the greatest activity in their midbrain in response to near-misses, but the activity to a real-win did not differ with gambling severity.  This brain region is of interest because dopamine is produced here, and is implicated in other addictive behaviours such as alcoholism.

This leads us to ask if there is a chemical basis to gambling addiction.  Well, scientists know that there are a decreased number of dopamine receptors in the brains of drug addicts, but is this mirrored in the brains of gambling addicts? Surprisingly, although there were no differences overall in the amount of dopamine receptors in gamblers compared to controls, gamblers that were more impulsive did have a lower number of dopamine receptors. Strikingly, when they studied the gambling behaviour of patients who had suffered a brain injury, the ‘near-miss’ response observed in gambling addicts was not seen in patients that had damage to their insula. The insula may be central to the distorted thinking patterns seen in gamblers.

Compulsive gamblers are not necessarily greedier than the rest of us, but their brains may be wired differently. Gamblers are more likely to prioritise money over other basic needs such as food and social interactions. Perhaps there are changes in a gamblers brain that render them hyper-sensitive to the ‘rush’ of winning. On the flip-side, it is possible that pathological gamblers are less sensitive to the things that the rest of us would find rewarding, such as alcohol or sex.

Brain 2 300x200 Gamblers mind: The thrill of almost winning

Taken from Ted Murphy

Healthy controls and pathological gamblers were put into an fMRI scanner to record brain activity during a task where they had to press a button in response to money-based or sexual images. The faster the button was pressed, the more motivated the subject was to get the reward.  Despite stating that they found both money and sex equally rewarding, results found that gamblers pressed the button 4% faster when viewing money-related images than sexual images. Indicating that gamblers attributed a higher value to money than sex. The gambling cohort had increased blood flow to the ventral striatum (part of the brain involved in reward processing) in response to monetary images, more than to sex. In contrast, no difference was found in the controls. Interestingly, they found altered activity in the orbito-frontal cortex of gamblers, which is also involved in reward processing. Past studies have shown that different parts of the orbito-frontal cortex are activated in healthy individuals in response to money and erotic images- which is thought to reflect the dissociation between rewards that are vital to survival such as food and sex, and secondary rewards such as money and power. In gambling addicts, the same region of the orbito-frontal cortex was activated in response to sex and money, suggesting that they have an altered perception of money as a more primal reward.

A large proportion of future work will focus on uncovering the precise role of the insula in addiction by observing how its activity changes whilst gambling. Another area of interest is looking at relatives of gambling addicts, and trying to identify if differences exist in both their brain activity and also in their behaviours when gambling. This may be of huge importance as therapies and treatments may be able to focus on targeting affected areas of gamblers’ brains.

For more information:

Clark L, Lawrence AJ, Astley-Jones F, Gray N. Gambling near-misses enhance motivation to gamble and recruit win-related brain circuitry. Neuron. 2009; 61(3):481-90.

Sescousse G, Barbalat G, Domenech P, Dreher JC. Imbalance in the sensitivity to different types of rewards in pathological gambling. Brain. 2013

Image taken from Ted Murphy, Flikr

Post by Samantha Lawrence




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Should Backyard Brains bug out?

roach1 Should Backyard Brains bug out?A US company, Backyard Brains, has recently been criticised for marketing a device which allows users to create their own ‘cyborg’ cockroach, using a mobile phone app to control the critter’s movements. The ‘kickstarter’ funded project, headed by graduate students with a passion for science education, has caused serious controversy, including accusations that the device will “encourage amateurs to operate invasively on living organisms” and “encourage thinking of complex living organisms as mere machines or tools”. But is it possible that these concerns are misguided?

As a scientist with a passion for public engagement, on many occasions I’ve struggled with two fundamental and opposing concepts which make this work a very delicate balancing act:

  1. Science is complicated and often a bit dry.
  2. If you want to engage non-scientists, it is often necessary to ‘sex things up’ with provocative language and concepts which pique their interest.

And here lies the problem.

Let’s take Backyard Brains’ ‘RoboRoach’ as an example. The students who began this project noticed a fundamental problem: “One in five people are likely to suffer from a neural affliction at some point in their lives and many such disorders are currently untreatable. Thus, we are in desperate need of more research in this area”. However, unlike chemistry, physics and some other aspects of biology; there are no hands-on ways to engage young people with neuroscience.

This means that when most budding nBrain copy Should Backyard Brains bug out?euro-researchers reach university (myself included), they are often woefully unprepared for the work they will be doing. I still remember struggling with the concepts of electro-chemical gradients and the technology used to record signals from the living brain. After 8 years I’d say I’m finally getting there. But, with our lab looking into early Alzheimer’s diagnostics and treatments, I can’t help but wish I had been better prepared to move quickly into this complicated and immensely important field of study.

The Backyard Brains tool kit certainly ticks all the boxes as a cheap, easy to use method to teach future scientists. And I don’t doubt that the procedures they use balance causing the least possible harm with giving young scientists a chance to learn things they would otherwise not encounter until late in their university education. So I have no qualms with the premise behind ‘RoboRoach’. But I do see a problem with how this teaching tool has been marketed. Terms like ‘RoboRoach’ and ‘cyborg’, not to mention this t-shirt, cheapen the premise behind this project and give critics ample fodder to argue that these scientists are heartless and happy to make light of (and profit from) a serious matter.

So this is where my earlier points come into play. I understand why Backyard Brains used this marketing technique. I’ve been to a number of public engagement lectures where one message is constantly driven home: if you want people to care about your scientific work, you have to make it sound “cool”. So, to be honest Backyard Brains are following this message to a tee. If you read through their web page they even admit this:

“The name “The RoboRoach” and the tagline “Control a Living Insect from Your Smartphone” was chosen to be provocative and to capture the public’s interest. A more accurate though much drier title would have been: “The RoboRoach: Study the effect of frequency and pulse duration on activating sensory circuits in the cockroach locomotion system, and the subsequent adaptation.” This is an accurate description, and these devices are currently used by scientists at research universities. However, such a description though would have alienated novices who have never had any exposure to neuroscience or neural interface experiments. We aim to bring neuroscience to people not necessarily in graduate school and thus chose an easily understandable, provocative name.”

However, I also understand why critics have called their stance ‘disingenuous’, especially when their website contains honest, well argued, ethical considerations alongside seemingly flippant statements which appear to trivialise the whole project; like this: “The RoboRoach is the world’s first commercially available cyborg! That’s right… A real-life Insect Cyborg! Part cockroach and part machine”statement from their kickstarter page.

Unfortunately, although this marketing may have bought them funding, it has also cost them the trust of many critics.

But if you can step outside the controversy and look at the basics of this project, I do believe that this work is both timely and necessary. Here, budding researchers learn how nerve cells communicate and, on a basic level, how to interface with a living brain. The techniques they learn are similar to those used in deep brain stimulation for treatment of Parkinson’s disease; a procedure which has given many sufferers a whole new lease of life! (see video below) And, to top it off, the cockroaches in question continue on to live a full life following the experiments (a fate preferable to that of most wild roaches).

So, although I certainly understand the criticisms aimed at this product. I also honestly believe that, if used as intended as an academic tool, this kit could be an important first step in training future neuro-researchers; perhaps even giving them the head start they need to cure some of the most devastating neurological afflictions.

Post by: Sarah Fox

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Why are all the bees dying?

HoneyBee Why are all the bees dying?

Photo by Erik Hooymans

Bees are great. They have an amazing social hierarchy, they provide medical care for their sick, they have ruthless security ‘bouncer-bees’ and each bee travels huge distances to gather about one twelfth of a teaspoonful of honey. For us humans, the benefits of bees don’t stop at honey. About a third of our crops – approximately $220 billion-worth globally – are inadvertently pollinated by foraging bees and, from what I’ve heard, we really don’t want to have to start doing that ourselves.

The problem is that bees are dying at an alarming rate. As it happens, my father is a budding bee-keeper and has just received a letter from the Food and Environment Research Agency that reports a halving of honey production in South-East England in the last six years alone. This problem is, however, happening all over the world. Imaginatively dubbed ‘colony collapse disorder’ (CCD), a mystery disease is wiping out huge numbers of bees yet no one can pin down exactly what the cause is. There are several theories, so I’ve taken the liberty of making a list akin to a ‘Top Six Most Wanted Villains’ of the bee world.

Varroa destructor on honeybee host Why are all the bees dying?

A varroa mite feeding on a honeybee (Wikicommons)

Varroa mites: Affectionately known as ‘vampire’ mites, these teeny-weeny bugs are big trouble. They suck hemolymph (the bee’s version of blood) from honeybees and, in so doing, weaken the bee and may even transmit deadly viruses (more later).

Neonicotinoids and other pesticides – Neonicotinoids (NNs) are chemicals designed to kill insects that feed on farmed crops. They bind to acetylcholine receptors on the cells of the insect’s nervous system, eventually blocking their normal use, causing paralysis and death. In the past couple of years, various research groups have shown that these chemicals get into bee hives at dangerous, though not lethal concentrations. Not only that, but a paper published in Nature showed that a cocktail of these chemicals may lead to CCD by affecting bee behaviour, presumably through their effects on the bees’ brains. Bees affected by these chemicals tend to forget where they are in relation to the hive, and produce less food. Other research has shown that NNs may affect the way that bees metabolise their food to produce energy. Scientists have even shown that exposure to NNs affects an important immune defence pathway, which may make bees more vulnerable to parasites and viruses.

Viruses: Viruses such as Israeli acute paralysis virus, deformed wing virus and acute bee paralysis virus are spread by varroa mites and have all been identified as possible causes of CCD. Deformed wing virus is particularly tragic; if pupae are infected and develop wing deformities, they are kicked out of the colony, and the number of healthy bees dwindles. Israeli acute paralysis virus has been shown to interfere with the bees’ cellular machinery that produce proteins.

Nosema – this is a fungus that causes intense diarrhoea when swallowed by a bee, leading to worker bees pulling a sickie, which means less food for the hive. To add insult to injury, the queen bee becomes infertile and the colony stops producing young.

Malnutrition – Bees that collect their food from a variety of sources tend to be more hardy and resistant to infection than those that rely on only one or two types of flowering plant. In the US where farms cultivating one or two crops such as wheat or corn are vast, bees may become malnourished and more susceptible to disease.

Female Apocephalus borealis ovipositing into the abdomen of a worker honey bee Why are all the bees dying?

Female phorid fly laying eggs into a worker honey bee. Core A, Runckel C, Ivers J, Quock C, Siapno T, et al. (2012).

Parasitic phorid fly – Last year, a researcher found a phorid fly larva in a test tube containing a honeybee that had died from suspected CCD. Phorid flies (which apparently scuttle more than they fly) lay eggs on the bee’s abdomen, which then hatch and feed on the bee. Weirdly, bees that carry this parasite end up acting more like moths than bees (foraging at night, buzzing around bright lights) before abandoning the hive.

What’s most likely is that CCD is caused by a mixture of two or more of the culprits mentioned above working in tandem. For example, varroa mites weaken bees and give them viruses. While a colony may be able to withstand either the mites or the virus, the two knocks together could be lethal. This interplay between several different factors makes it all the more difficult for scientists and beekeepers to research and prevent CCD.

So what’s being done to stop all the bees dying? Aside from all the tried and tested treatments for the parasites and viruses known, there are new efforts to save the bees via various industrial collaborations. Earlier this year, Monsanto set up its own Honey Bee Advisory Council including scientists, beekeepers, industrial and governmental representatives to try and tackle the issue. In 2011, Monsanto also bought Beeologics, a company in Israel that researches possible solutions to CCD. One strategy used by Beeologics against bad viruses is to deliberately infect bees with a special artificial ‘good’ virus. In turn, this good virus infects any varroa mites feeding on the bee. Amazingly, this good virus acts to prevent the mites from being able to pass on bad viruses to the bee. This treatment is currently passing through regulatory tests, but it will hopefully represent the start of a new approach to keeping bees alive for the benefit of humanity – and not just for the honey.

Post by Natasha Bray

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Why do dogs wag their tails? A new insight.

Wikipugnap 150x150 Why do dogs wag their tails? A new insight.

Observe the majestic pug in his natural habitat, the flower garden.

If there are two things that pique my interest in life, it’s Biology and dogs (specifically pugs). So imagine my delight when I saw that there was an actual research paper in Current Biology all about dogs [1]. The study showed that dogs can communicate their emotions with other canines through tail wagging. It has already been shown that tail wagging to the left is linked to anxiety while wagging to the right is linked with more positive emotions [2]. What this new study showed was that dogs can actually respond to the left- or right-tail wagging of other pooches. It is thought that this behaviour is linked to the processing of different social queues in different sides of the brain [1,2].

Longhaired basset hound 300x199 Why do dogs wag their tails? A new insight.

This is a pretty relaxed Basset Hound.

In this study dogs were shown movies of other dogs wagging their tails more to the left or more to the right and the viewing dogs’ heart rate and behavioural reactions were recorded. The same experiment was also repeated with a silhouette of another dog, to reduce other social queues like facial expression. The results showed that the heart rates of dogs shown left-wagging went up, a sign of anxiety, while dogs shown right-wagging had a lower heart rate and relaxed behaviour.

Interestingly, when the canines were shown a movie of a still dog they had higher levels of anxiety than when shown a movie of a right-wagging dog. The authors proposed this may be due to confusion as the dogs tried to work out what the dog in the movie was doing or that this might be linked with human responses to neutral faces: in experiments where people were shown faces with neutral expressions they tended to assign negative emotions to them [3]. Perhaps like the humans, these were pessimistic pooches.

Putamen 150x150 Why do dogs wag their tails? A new insight.These results are interesting in terms of understanding the nuances in social communication between dogs but also hint at something relatable to other animals. They also  support the notion that processing of certain social situations can favour one side of the brain over the other. This may well help us understand our own brains better and aid research into how the brain responds to different emotions. All I know is, there should be more serious scientific studies that have this in the supplementary figures…




[1] Marcello Siniscalchi, Rita Lusito, Giorgio Vallortigara, Angelo Quaranta, Seeing Left- or Right-Asymmetric Tail Wagging Produces Different Emotional Responses in Dogs, Current Biology, 2013.

[2] Claire L. Roether, Lars Omlor, Martin A. Giese, Lateral asymmetry of bodily emotion expression, Current Biology, Volume 18, Issue 8, 22, 2008.

[3] Eun Lee, Jee In Kang, Il Ho Park, Jae-Jin Kim, Suk Kyoon An, Is a neutral face really evaluated as being emotionally neutral?, Psychiatry research, volume 157 issue 1, 2008.

By Liz Granger

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