[Student Post] What i lerned in skool today part deux.

WARNING. What follows is a a bit of a rant. Worse, it’s an undergraduate rant. If awkward phrases, fallacious arguments and poor grammar offends you, I would suggest skipping this post.

It could be that I’m seeing the world through cobalt-colored glasses– it is winter in MN and very cold and dark– and it is highly probable that the onslaught of medical school rejection letters biases me, but I think today was the most depressing day of school I’ve had in recent history.

It started with neurobiology (Ok…this one’s a bit of a stretch) when we learned about the development of nervous tissue and how progenitor cells literally compete via lateral inhibition with each other to see who will become what. Neuroectoderm cells that “lose” become dispensable support cells while the ones that “win” are lavished with ‘cytoplasmic gifts’ (PZ’s words) and differentiate into a neuroblasts. I couldn’t help but think, “Wow, our very cells viciously jockey to establish hierarchies!?” I mean… who wants to be the little peon cell? They lied to us in kindergarden…

Next came ecology. This was a killer. The professor even had a disclaimer before lecture warning us that what would ensue would be upleasant. Yep. It was the global warming lecture. I had seen the “hockey stick” graphs before and the receding glacier pictures and yes, they’re all very disturbing, but what really got me was a picture of the arctic circle in the summer. There appeared to be about half of the ice cover that usually persisted pre-industrial revolution.

Things got worse in ecology lab. We had to calculate our carbon footprint. Apparently I use about 24 acres to support my lifestyle. It would take 4 earths for everyone to live like me (and I didn’t even count this l’il methane producer):
…or these guys…

The final blow was a film screening for my class on human aggression. The movie? Natural Born Killers. It was a double whammy. Even if the self-destructing, unsavory, hopeless nature of the characters doesn’t get to you than the indictment of society’s commodification of violence certainly does.

Man. Days like today almost make me yearn for the good ol’ days when I had my class on” critical pedagogy” with excerpts from Paulo Freire on the necrophilic and dehumanizing nature of oppression.

I… think I need to go hold one of the bunnies…

Student Post: More on (not) sleeping with the fishies

My fish have (theoretically) been sleep deprived for three days. I can’t tell much of a difference. If anything they seem more active than the other fish, but they do have to constantly outswim a rotating ruler and their tank is pretty small. There is also a bright lamp on a timer that turns on and off every 30 minutes, so even if I can’t prevent sleep I know they’re regularly disturbed.

This is what the set up looks like:

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I’m testing the sleepless group against control fish in a behavioral assay. I wanted to use a T-maze adopted from Mark Antimony’s experiment but the initial results were dismal. It took some fish over ten minutes to find the food reward (during which I once left to find a food reward of my own. Sweet sweet NutterButters…).

So… I modified the test. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that now I’m prodding the fish with a pen and timing how long it takes them to “escape” (go to a protected side of the tank). The results are definitely cleaner than the ones from the maze, but I still don’t think I’ll be able to describe a difference between the groups. What is cool is to see the way fish learn. Individuals generally get faster each trail; I think that trend should be significant.

Student Post: Dear PZ,

We, the students of BIOL 4003: Neurobiology have a proposal. We will clean your lab for extra credit. Think about it. That tank with the yellow stagnant water and other unidentifiable bits of matter? GONE. Those countless bottles of fruit fly carcasses? Sparkling clean and ready for next semester’s genetics class. We would also consider not having a final test an acceptable trade.

Respectfully awaiting your reply,
The Students

Student Post: Sleepless in Morris

Well… it’s about that time. You know, the end of the semester where you start every project you’ve had the semester to complete. At least that’s what I’m doing. I finally made some headway on my Neuro project during the past few weeks. I’m sleep depriving zebrafish; I had planned to devise a scheme using streams of bubbles that work on some obnoxious structure to generate a regular disturbance (alright it was PZ’s idea). However I finally admitted defeat about the same time I shattered a water heater and realized I had gotten nowhere.

Desperately I went to a local farm supply store to look for what I could only articulate as “a really really slow motor.” (I don’t want to hear any comments about torque or gears… A: I probably won’t understand you and B: at this point in the semester, it might make me weep.) I tottered over to what looked like the motor isle… although they could have been bombs or anchors because I wouldn’t have known the difference. I waited until my confused expression attracted an employee and asked if they had any of those “really really slow motors… to… um… turn a rod in my fish aquarium.” The guy actually looked offended like I asked for adult entertainment products. “We wouldn’t sell any of that here.” He replied stiffly. Fortunately his buddy overheard and offered, “You mean like a rotisserie?”

Brilliant! They tried to sell me a one hundred dollar rotisserie which I declined, but the idea was invaluable. Why didn’t I think of that? I was imagining a Rube Goldberg machine with a lot of hot glue. Anyway I found an old rotisserie motor for $5 and am quite pleased. Also, PZ put together a big black box in which I’ll hang a light on a timer. Not only will these fish be gently stirred but they’ll have the lights going on and off all night.

I would feel bad except I’m not sleeping either.

Student Post: Immortalized Mules

I spent a summer working on an Arabian horse ranch when i was 17. I loved that place and am crazy about Arabians but… let’s face it. We’ve severely inbred horses for show. Exhibit A:

It’s not uncommon for an Arabian pedigree to boast seven lines of relation to one horse. Bask, for instance, was a famous Arabian stallion and today a large percentage of Arabs are his decendents including my horse, Rebel, of whom I’m foolishly fond:


Well, I learned some interesting news at today’s Senior Seminar. Why inbreed when you can clone! It’s all the rage among mule racing enthusiasts. Don Jacklin, president of the American Mule Racing Association, almost single-handedly funded cloning research at the University of Idaho of his champion mule line. Cloning champion horses has been made into a very lucrative business in France. Cryozootech turns a large profit cloning gelded or aged horses so that their clones can be used for breeding. If I had 300 grand I could clone Rebel.

It will be really interesting to see what happens to these animals as they age. The mules are reported to be healthy and competitive racers but concerns over telomere length have yet to be addressed.

…And yes. I did just want to use the phrase “mule racing enthusiasts.”

Student Post: Mirror-Touch Synesthesia. I Feel Your Pain

For this week’s in-class “NeuroSlam” I spoke about a paper on mirror-touch synesthesia– a condition in which an individual reports feeling an actual tactile sensation in response to seeing someone else touched. For example, this synesthete would feel as if someone touched their arm if they saw someone touching another’s arm. Inspired by an fMRI of a mirror-touch synesthete that showed hyperactivity of mirror-touch network neurons (mirror neurons we all have in the somatosensory cortex, premotor cortex, and parts of the temporal lobe that fire in response to touch and viewing touch), researchers Micheal J Banissy and Jamie Ward wanted to study empathy in mirror-touch synesthetes as empathy is believed to be related to mirror neurons.

In addition to providing evidence for mirror-touch synesthetes experiencing a synesthesia very similar to actual touch, Banissy and Ward measured empathy in these individuals using a psychological test. They reported that synesthetes scored much higher in the “emotional reactivity” subset of the empathy quotient but not in “cognitive empathy” or “social skills.” This supports the theory that mirror neurons do play a role in empathy as well as the idea that empathy is a complex neurological process that can’t be be wholly described in one neural network.

Banissy, M.J., Ward, J. Mirror-touch synesthesia is linked with empathy. Nature Neuroscience 10, 815 – 816 (2007)
Published online: 17 June 2007 | doi:10.1038/nn1926

Student Post: Hurts so Good

I once overheard an interesting confession from a friend of a friend. This guy had been drinking and was admitting to his buddy that he just wanted to get into a fight, punch the next person that walked through the door, stir things up. That sort of thing. I complained to my companion that it was precisely this attitude that causes so much conflict in society and, though my friend agreed, he sheepishly added that sometimes he too enjoyed the thrill of physical violence.

I was reminded of the incident recently in a class on the origins of aggression when we read a passage from Journalist Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs. Buford spent eight years documenting violent episodes in sports crowds and riots. He wrote of the intensity of a violent experience:

I am attracted to the moment when consciousness ceases: the moments of survival, of animal intensity, of violence, when there is no multiplicity, no potential for different levels of thought: there is only one–the present in its absoluteness

If we really can find a sort of solace, release, or even satisfaction in violence, I think this says something about our race, and it makes me wonder if peace is really attainable. We may find it difficult to identify with violent people as we are now, but how would we react if a loved one were taken from us? Would we want revenge? Maybe revenge is the search for the relief that violence can bring however transient or ultimately tragic.

Student Post: It’s my party and I’ll change my receptor compositions if I want to.

Tomorrow is the big day. Much to my liver’s dismay, I’m turning 21, so I thought it would be appropriate to discuss the effects on alcohol on the brain in this post.

I searched through article databases reading abstracts about how alcohol shrinks the brain, depletes white mater, inhibits growth of and destroys neurons etc…, until I stumbled on a study that examined acutely intoxicated rat brains. Over hour intervals after alcohol exposure, researchers were able to document neuroplastic changes involving tyrosine hydroxylase, proenkephalin and cannabinoid CB(1) receptor gene expressions. That alcohol alters receptor expression in neurons is a sobering thought. It turns “I only like you when I’m drunk,” into “I only like you when I slowly alter the chemical and physical composition of my brain.” The researchers hypothesize this may play a role in addiction and the immediate feel-good affects of alcohol.

I thought about volunteering my services if the authors ever wished to document their findings in human subjects until I learned I’d have to consume 3g/kg of alcohol (which works out to be about 18 standard drinks for me… a bit too life-threatening for comfort) and that the rats were killed by decapitation (I’m attached to my head). I guess the more I think about it the less I’m interested in incurring a great deal of brain damage this weekend; I’m not sure I could make it through the rest of Neurobio firing on a few less cylinders. I might just take my shiny new ID down to the grocery store and pick me up some O’Doul’s.

Reference: Oliva JM, Ortiz S, Pérez-Rial S, Manzanares J.Time dependent alterations on tyrosine hydroxylase, opioid and cannabinoid CB(1) receptor gene expressions after acute ethanol administration in the rat brain. Eur Neuropsychopharmacol. 2007 Oct 24; [Epub ahead of print

Student Post: Oh the badger’s life is the life for me.

A friend of mine has a badger preoccupation. It was his expertise I consulted for last week’s blurb on badger culling. Between speaking with him and trying to plan a mad dash to Madison for its famous Halloween party, I’ve had badgers on the brain all week, so for this week’s post, I decided to couple “badger” and “neurobiology” in a literature search.

I found a delightful 2001 article on “Daily Activity Budgets of the Taiwan Ferret Badger (Melogale moschata subaurantiaca) in Captivity” by Kurtis Jai-Chyi Pei. It turns out ferret badgers spend most of their awake time traveling about followed by eating, drinking, playing and “staying alert.” But don’t give a ferret badger cause to think unfavorably upon you. The article goes on the describe how “…the noxious anal secretion is the most apparent weapon of the ferret badger.” This works best on mammals; apparently if you’re a bird of prey it isn’t so bad.

The point is… I want to be a ferret badger. Besides avoiding predation and competing for mates etc., it sounds like my kind of fun. We humans do too many activities that make us unhappy. I mean, what would a badger analysis of my activity budget look like?

Individual spends 33% sleeping, 15% eating/drink, 5% feigning disinterest in prospective mates, 5% time running in place, inordinate amount of time depleting natural resources, and somewhat less time complaining about the depletion of natural resources. For the remainder of active time, individual toils at some task or another the direct benefit of which is not apparent at this time. There is a curious lack of play exhibited– a behavior that has myriad benefits (Bandit and Thumper, 1996).

I think one of these days I’m going to relax and have myself a ferret badger day. If anyone nags me…POW. I’ll hit ’em with the noxious secretions.

Student Post: What I learned in skool today…

… well not today. I learned very little today , but generally, here are some interesting things I’ve picked up in class:

-If you sever a cat’s cerbral cortex from its hindbrain it can still walk on a treadmill (in a harness that compensates for the poor feline’s lack of balance). This was the topic of one of PZ’s many tangents.

-One way to inhibit the HIV virus is to make a drug that targets a protein our cells make. The key is to identify a protein the virus needs but that we do not. CYC202, a cyclin-dependant kinase inhibitor, may be one such drug.

-“HIV virus” is redundant, but hey, so is the genetic code.

-If you race flatworms in a maze, grind up the fastest ones, and feed the product to flatworms having yet to try the maze, you might find that they run the maze faster than their non-cannibal counterparts. Of course, you would consider that flatworm may simply be highly nutritious, because you’re a scientist, and that’s what they pay you the big erlenmeyers for.

-Badger culling. That’s right. Badger. Culling. It’s used to decrease badger/cow contact in Great Britain as badgers function as a bovine tuberculosis infection reservoir for cattle.

-EtOH and H20 are miscible. Whew… and to think I almost made myself an acetone martini…