Wednesday, November 11, 2009

I'm a "No" man... oh, and alcohol doesn't kill brain cells.

So, I've been reading Randy Olson's new book Don't be such a scientist: talking substance in an age of style, and in it, he talks about the disconnect between the general public (in our modern overly stimulated society) and scientists (who cloister themselves in their labs and ivory towers).  A large part of the communication breakdown he posits comes from the nature of science itself which is a bare bones, take no prisoners, purely data and fact driven culture that breeds overt skepticism at all costs.  This is important for how science works and for maintaining integrity in research, and it can actually be quite helpful in making your experiments better, but when you are trying to convey your findings to a broader audience they tend to find all the negativity and information overload to be, well, boring.  Partly this is because the attention of the average person is now a hot commodity, and the marketplace for the average joe's attention is filled with advertisers, marketers, politicians, television, music, movies, you tube, and on, and on.  Spend a few minutes going on about the role of bone morphogenetic proteins, wnt-beta catenin signaling, hedgehog singnaling, and several other factors in the differentiation of stem cells in the development of different aspects of the central and peripheral nervous system, and zzzzzzz.....  Of course, I don't know if its the training, or if people of a certain mind set just gravitate to science, but a lot of us are like that.  We go off on our research as if its the most important thing in the world, and we are obsessed with facts and with being accurate, and, we are very negative, we are always questioning the validity of what we're seeing or being told (it's what we do, we get paid to be skeptical). And so, as I've been reading this book, I've realized that I am no different, and that even this whole blog is devoted to negativity.  I have set out to debunk, demystify, and disprove many common misperceptions about neuroscience.  I am a "no" man.  That's not how this works... That idea is wrong... I have become the person who constantly annoys everyone by correcting their grammar, escept I do it with neuroscience.  Well, I can't help it.  It's who I am, and part of my nature as a scientiist. BUT... despite my obsession with factual accuracy and my desire to negate the myths that are out there, it doesn't mean I always have to be the bearer of bad news.  For example, today, the myth I want to debunk is the myth that drinking (alcohol) kills brain cells.  As it turns out, there is very little (if any) conclusive evidence to suggest that drinking alcohol kills brain cells.  So where did this myth come from?  Well the obvious memory loss and headaches that come from binge drinking suggested that some sort of brain damage was occuring.  And more recently, MRIs have shown that the brain shrinks after drinking.  Don't worry, it's only temporary, but apparently it shrivels like a prune.  Also, alcohol can damage parts of cells known as neurites that form synapses which are the connections between cells that allow them to communicate.  Synapses are critical for forming new memories, and it appears to be this aspect of alcohol's effects that result in the short term memory loss we've all experienced at some point or another.  Of course all that being said, overdosing on alcohol (or alcohol poisoning) can most definitely cause cells to die (and could cause you to die).  Also, drinking and driving could kill brain cells by smashing them into the windshield at 60 miles per hour.  But if your just going to have a few drinks with some friends, live it up, and relax, confident in the knowledge that your brain cells aren't lightweights, but they're actually tough enough to handle a couple beers, and maybe even a shot or two.  Hey, some studies have even suggested that moderate drinking can improve mental abilities.  So maybe a glass or two of wine a night is the way to go (since it's good for your heart too).
Normally I link to a bunch of stuff to back up what I'm saying, but I am off to Wisconsin, so these links will have to suffice....

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