Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Your home is probably contaminated with mouse urine!

Unless you're R. Kelly, in which case it is likely contaminated with both mouse urine and human urine.  But seriously, according to an article in Pacific Standard Magazine approximately 82% of homes in the U.S. have readily detectable levels of mouse urinary proteins, and if you live in urban areas, the likelihood is close to 100%.  Dr. Elizabeth Matsui at Johns Hopkins University is worried about this mouse urine contamination for 2 reasons: 1. the proteins in mouse urine are apparently very stable and thus hang around for a long time (likely accumulating over time to higher and higher levels), and 2. mouse urinary proteins can elicit allergic responses and may cause asthma in children who are exposed to these ever increasing levels.  That being said, while mouse urine is likely to get a lot of attention, there are actually many things we should be worried about in and around our homes that are known to cause or worsen allergies and asthma in children... like common house dust, proximity to automobile traffic, drinking too many soft drinks, cleaning agents, plastic bottles, and flooring made from PVC... even when they aren't saturated with mouse urine.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Does Scientific Research Need a Purpose?

A recent article in Science by the title of "Does Scientific Research Need a Purpose?" addresses something I think is very important to keep sight of... some of the most important scientific discoveries come from the most unexpected places.  The whole of the human genome project and all of the biomedical advances in genetics that have been made in the past few decades would not have been possible if not for scientists who were curious about whether or not bacteria could live in certain hot springs in Yellowstone Park.  And similarly, almost all of the work that has been done in biomedical research in the past couple of decades would not have been possible if it weren't for researchers who were interested in studying North American jellyfish.  That's right, jellyfish.  See, the bacteria in Yellowstone have an enzyme called Taq polymerase that is stable at high temperatures, allowing for its use in amplifying DNA rapidly, which is needed for gene sequencing, and was perhaps the most important advance that made the human genome project possible on a reasonable timescale.  As for the jellyfish, they make a protein that glows when you hit it with light of a certain wavelength (like a highlighter under a blacklight).  By joining this protein to other proteins, or by engineering genes in other animals to make this protein, biologists are able to visualize gene activity and the localization of proteins within individual cells.  This level of detail allows biologists to track individual cells during development or in disease states like cancer or Alzheimer's and has led to numerous breakthroughs at almost every level of biology.  So much so, that this discovery was awarded a Nobel prize in 2008.  Anyway, the point of all of this is that, while it is easy to get caught up in the idea that scientific research should have a somewhat short-sighted focus, like studying cancer cells to find ways to treat cancer, this is not always how science works, and if we start dismissing, overlooking, or under funding scientific research that asks seemingly irrelevant questions like, "I wonder what this jellyfish looks like under a blacklight" we may inadvertently delay some "more relevant" discoveries by several decades.  Of course, this is not to say that we should abandon studying cancer cells, rather I believe we should be pursuing BOTH the science that seems relevant AND the science that may not seem so relevant (yet).   

Friday, August 10, 2012

Do Nice Guys Finish Last?

Well, I don't know about last, but they apparently earn almost 20% less than men who are significantly more disagreeable.  At least according to an interesting post over at the Harvard Business Review:

"People who are disagreeable earn more than people who are agreeable, and the gap is biggest among men, according to an analysis of four surveys spanning almost 20 years. Men who are significantly less agreeable than average earn 18.31% more than men who are significantly more agreeable than average, while the comparable figure for women is 5.47%, says the study, led by Beth A. Livingston of Cornell. Men's disagreeable behavior "conforms to expectations of 'masculine' behavior," the authors say."

And that is just one in a pretty interesting list of factoids... check it out.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Total Recall: Science Fiction or Science Fact?

Total Recall Poster    
This past weekend the reboot of Total Recall (titled after the 1990 film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger which was based on Philip K. Dick's "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale") hit theaters, and the timing is rather auspicious since just earlier this year, a paper came out in the journal Science that described a cutting edge attempt to implant artificial memories into the minds of some very special mice. So, the question is, did they succeed? and if so, could the implantation of false memories that are the basis of Total Recall soon be a reality?  This new research suggests that it just might be so... Recently, researchers at the Scripps Research Institute used some very interesting genetic manipulations to try and implant an artificial memory into the mind of a mouse.  To begin, we have to understand what memories are, which is possibly one of the biggest questions still to be answered in neuroscience today.  Yet, for our purposes here, let's agree to assume that a memory is a specific pattern of neurons communicating with one another in the brain.  As an example, when you walk into a place you have never been, let's say a restaurant you are trying for the first time, you sense all of sights, sounds, and smells that are particular to this restaurant.  If it is a Mexican themed restaurant, there are probably bright colors painted on the walls, and the smell of chili and cumin are likely in the air, and all of this activates a specific pattern of neurons in your brain.  Now, if you close your eyes and try to remember what this restaurant looks, smells and feels like, and picture it in your "mind's eye", research shows us that most of the neurons that were active when you were seeing the restaurant for real become active again when you recall the image from memory.  Using this as an analogy, what the researchers at Scripps tried to do was to artificially activate neurons associated with a room that had specific, memorable qualities, similar to the restaurant in the example, then artificially activate those same neurons while inducing fear in a completely different room, and then go back to see if the original room ("Mexican restaurant") would now be associated with the fearful memories.  They did this by genetically engineering mice so that their neurons would express a drug activatable receptor (called DREADD, or designer receptor exclusively activated by designer drug) whenever those neurons had been excited.  They then put the mice into a novel environment for a whole day, kind of like spending the whole day in our Mexican restaurant, and all day long, neurons in the mouse brains were being activated in a pattern that conveyed all of the sensory aspects of the room (all the sights, smells, etc.).  And while those neurons were being activated, they were making this DREADD receptor.  On the following day, the researchers put the mice into a new and different room, and carried out classical fear conditioning.  That is, they exposed the mice to something that would elicit fear, a small foot shock, and after repeated exposure, the mice would normally begin to associate the environment they were in, this new room, with the fear of being shocked.  BUT, what they did in this study was to give some of the mice the designer drug which activated the DREADD receptors, in turn activating the neurons that were active when the mice were in the original room (the "Mexican restaurant").  By doing this, the researchers hoped that they could make the mice think they were in the original room while receiving the foot shock, so that when they put the mice back in the original room on the third day, they would display behavior suggesting that they were afraid to be in the original room , even though they had never been shocked in that room.  Sadly, however, when the mice were put back into the original room on day 3, they did not show any more fear-like behavior than the mice that did not have their DREADD neurons artificially activated, suggesting that artificially activating a specific set of neurons does not completely convince the brain that it is in that environment. Now, if the researchers had stopped there, we would say that the experiment didn't work, and this attempt to implant a false memory had failed, relegating the memory implanting plot lines of Total Recall to the realm of science fiction for a long time to come.  BUT, the researchers wondered, what does the brain think is going on when you artificially activate a set pattern of neurons?  Maybe activating a bunch of neurons that wouldn't be activated naturally just messes things up, BUT, maybe what was actually happening is that the researchers were creating a hybrid memory, where the mice were not just experiencing the artificial sense memories, but also actively experiencing all the aspects of the new environment.  Following our analogy, this would be like moving them from the original Mexican themed restaurant to a McDonald's or Burger King and while in the fast food environment, activating the artificial memory of the Mexican restaurant made the mice feel like they were in a hybrid environment that had a lot of the aspect of both, say a Taco Bell.  If this was the case, then the researchers predicted, the mice would not have learned to fear the second environment UNLESS they were ALSO given the drug to activate the artificial memory.  This is exactly what happened.  When the mice were placed back into the fear conditioning room, without the drug, they did not display any fear behavior, suggesting that they did not associate that environment with the foot shock.  BUT, when they were given the drug again AND placed into the fear conditioning environment, they DID remember, and they exhibited fear behavior.  SO, while the experiment was not a complete success, it seems that the researchers were at least able to alter the mice's perceptions of the environment they were in to a certain degree and create a memory that was different from reality.

P.S. If you want to read the original Philip K. Dick short story, you can get a pdf of it here Garner AR, Rowland DC, Hwang SY, Baumgaertel K, Roth BL, Kentros C, & Mayford M (2012). Generation of a synthetic memory trace. Science (New York, N.Y.), 335 (6075), 1513-6 PMID: 22442487

Thursday, July 19, 2012

More from the intersection of science and music

On the origin of music by means of natural selection is an article over at science daily about using principles of evolution by processes of selection (in this case artificial rather than natural) to generate the "ideal" pop song.  I think it has already been written, it is called Pachelbel's Canon in D...
But seriously, if you want to check out how the sounds "evolved" into music, you can read the paper here (might still be behind a paywall, sorry), or you can sample some of the music here.  I think the crucial point where it starts to become "music" to me is between the 250th and 400th generations. But if you listen to any of the early versions and then skip down to the more current ones, it will blow your mind.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

More Science and Music: Ode to the Brain

Yesterday I linked to the Symphony of Science website when I compared the musical presentation of Higgs boson data to the auto-tuned videos of Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, and Neil deGrasse Tyson at symphony of science.  Since I hadn't listened to the videos in a while, I scrolled down on the site, and saw that in the interim a bunch of new videos have been added, including this one entitled an "Ode to the Brain"

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

This is pretty cool: Scientific data is music to my ears

So, by now, you have probably heard that physicists at CERN have discovered the infamous Higgs boson.  Though I am no physicist, my understanding of Higgs bosons is that they are the particles you get when you (metaphorically) smack empty space really, really hard. In essence, their existence provides evidence that empty space is probably not actually empty space at all, but instead is filled with "dark energy" which is responsible for the universe's continued expansion. Anyway, since I can't do it justice, I will stop trying to explain it here.  Instead, I want to draw attention to an interesting presentation of the data, put together by one of the groups working at CERN... If you click on this link you will be taken to an mp3 that was created by taking the data points from the Higgs boson experiment and giving them each a corresponding musical note.  Though I am pretty sure the samba beat on the third repetition was added in for effect, it's still pretty amazing, possibly even better than autotuned physicists.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Now blogcasting from my tablet

I have been very spotty in keeping up with the old blog here lately, but I finally downloaded the blogger app, so hopefully I will get back into the swing of things. I only ask that you bear with me while I fumble around the touchpad with my giant fingers and thumbs, and try to figure out how to add videos and other content that aren't saved on my tablets.  Btw, if anyone's curious, i did not get an iPad... i used to have one, but traded it in for an Asus transformer prime, which I find to be an excellent droid tablet, but only a passable autobot.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Sunday comics: Teaching "Both Sides"

I always love when Doonesbury tackles the evolution "debate"...

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Another mistake by the creation museum

As a scientist, I could probably write reams and reams (or the internet equivalent thereof) about the inaccuracies and mistakes made by Ken Ham's creation museum in their presentation of the supposed history of life on earth.  I will not waste my time. Instead, I would like to simply point out something that I thought of after posting an image of this billboard of a fire-breathing dragon the other day.  As P.Z. Myers does a good job of explaining on his blog Pharyngula, the dragon billboard, and its accompanying dinosaur billboards (below), are nothing more than a marketing campaign to draw in more family visitors to the creationist museum.
As I said yesterday, the dragon billboard, and its corresponding exhibit at the museum, was likely inspired by biblical verses that mention the existence of dragons.  And it is here that I think Ken Ham has missed out.  You see, there are also a fair number of references to the existence of unicorns in the Bible, and let's face it, not all kids go crazy for dinosaurs and dragons, some prefer unicorns and "my little ponies".  So, where are their billboards?  Oh well, I am certainly not going to lament the fact that the creation museum has missed targeting a key demographic.  Instead, I will just post a picture of a unicorn here, and hope that many children and their families will find there way  to reliable, science-based information about the history of life on earth (whether it be here or elsewhere).

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Sunday Comics: Fire Breathing Dragons

Though not actually a comic, or intended to be funny, this is a picture of a new billboard advertising the Creation Museum here in the "Bible belt" of the United States.

While this should be hilarious, I find it sad that there is a place masquerading as a "science museum" that is teaching people that fire breathing dragons were real, and co-existed with humans sometime in the past 5,000-6,000 years, all because dragons happen to be mentioned quite frequently in the bible.  I'm all for the right to teach people your fundamentalist religious beliefs if you so desire, but don't claim that it has anything to do with science.  In fact, I'm even willing to help the cause by pointing out that the most prominent references to dragons in the bible are in the book of revelations, which relates events that, even by biblical literalist standards, have not ever actually happened.  AND, in that book, the dragon is described as being red and having seven heads and ten horns... so, perhaps the joke here is that the creation museum can't even get the bible right... and yet, so many visitors will go there and think that they have actually learned something about paleontology and the history of our world.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Sunday Comics: Women (Zombies) in Science

This one comes from xkcd, you can check it out here.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Dire Wolves are real! (Dragons, not so much)

Yes, dire wolves are real, or, at least, they were...
If you are a fan of the "Song of Ice and Fire" series of books by George R. R. Martin, or the more recent "Game of Thrones" tv series adapted from them, then you likely know about dire wolves: the overly large wolves that are portrayed as almost magical beasts and tremendous hunters.  Well, as it turns out, dire wolves did exist... and they could grow to about double the size of modern wolves.  Though it is believed they were better scavengers than hunters, eating the leftovers  (perhaps) of saber-toothed tiger kills.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Science as Art

One of the things I love about being a neurobiologist is just how stunningly beautiful so many neural systems can be.  Truthfully, there are many of these types of images that can be found throughout biology and really in all branches of science, however, this one comes from a blog I recently discovered that appears to be dedicated to all things neurosciencey.  My thanks goes out to the Neuroimages blog, where you can see lots more like this one...

... it's a mouse retina in case you were curious.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The worst supplement ever, and no, this is not a made up news story

I don't think (or at least I hope) you don't need a scientist to tell you: "DON'T EAT THE PILLS MADE FROM DEAD BABIES!"  Similarly common sense should tell you that these "supplements" (made by microwaving dead human stillborn infants and then grinding them into powder) will almost certainly NOT increase your sexual stamina or cure whatever ails you (which I am not basing on any scientific studies, just the fact that every supplement that has ever claimed to cure everything has turned out to cure nothing).  BUT, in case you do need some science to help you determine whether or not you should go ahead and try these things anyway, the BBC reports that harmful, antibiotic-resistant bacteria have been detected in confiscated samples.  Something to think about the next time you order some poorly labeled "herbal" stamina-boosting pills from the internet or tell someone that their baby is "cute enough to eat".

Monday, April 30, 2012

Are anti-smoking ads really effective?

If you've seen these commercials anywhere, you have probably had a strong reaction to them (good or bad).  Personally, I think they are great, and I would have guessed (gut feeling only, not scientifically based) that they would not only be effective, but more effective than milder commercials.  Of course, it would seem that people are terrible at guessing which anti-smoking ads are most effective, so perhaps I am wrong...
Your brain knows which ads are winners, better than you do: Study on smokers' brains may mark dawn of new age in advertising
Although, another recent study suggests that just about any anti-smoking messages that get out there are effective  to some degree...
So, I look forward to seeing this and hopefully many other anti-smoking ads during my (far too regular) tv viewing.