PLoS Biology: Men, Women, and Ghosts in Science

PLoS Biology: Men, Women, and Ghosts in Science [open access article]

I don’t agree with all of the conclusions of this article but it is the #1 article on PLoS biology right now. (For example, I’m not so sure that the genetic differences in “thinking style” predisposes physics to be a field with less than 50% women.) But there are several interesting thoughts here, including a bit on autism as an extreme form of the “maleness” in the brain.

Blue Brain Project News

Henry Markram, the director of the IBM-sponsored Blue Brain Project has written an article in the latest issue of Nature Reviews: Neuroscience that provides the most technical details about the project to date.

From the article:

“The three-dimensional neurons are then imported into BlueBuilder, a circuit builder that loads neurons into their layers according to a ‘recipe’ of neuron numbers and proportions. A collision detection algorithm is run to determine the structural positioning of all axo-dendritic touches, and neurons are jittered and spun until the structural touches match experimentally derived statistics. […] Probabilities of connectivity between different types of neuron are used to determine which neurons are connected, and all axo-dendritic touches are converted into synaptic connections. The manner in which the axons map onto the dendrites between specific anatomical classes and the distribution of synapses received by a class of neurons are used to verify and fine-tune the biological accuracy of the synaptic mapping between neurons. It is therefore possible to place 10–50 million synapses in accurate three-dimensional space, distributed on the detailed three-dimensional morphology of each neuron.”


Music and speech

I haven’t read these myself, but if anyone’s interested, Aniruddh Patel does neuroscience research on the relation between music and speech. This 2003 Nature article also has a review of some cognitive science models of musical perception as they relate to testable predictions; and this article looks for correlations between linguistic and musical idiosyncracies in different cultures (specifically, if a culture’s language is “stress-timed” vs. “syllable-timed”, does the rhythm of their music reflect that?).

If you’re into music cognition, I compiled a brief list of links (starting from Patel’s publication list and a Google search, I don’t know this field) at NeuroWiki:MusicCognitionResources.

rtMRI biofeedback to control pain

Rein on pain lays mainly in the brain, researchers find

People looking at their own anterior cingulate are able to control their pain. Neat.

Importantly, here are the controls cited in the press release:

Researchers used multiple control groups to ensure against this: The first remained outside the MRI machine; the second received no imaging feedback; the third was shown different areas of the brain that don’t process pain; and members of the fourth group were shown someone else’s brain activity. None of the control subjects showed an ability to control pain levels.

Full PNAS article here. (free via Open Access)

Posit Science: Exercises for your mind

As you know, here at Neurodudes, we’re always interested in seeing how people are applying results from neuroscience to areas outside of academic neuroscience. Today, I got the following in my inbox:

Special Lecture
Wednesday, February 1, 2006
10:00 am 46-4062
Bonnie Connor, Ph.D., Laila Spina, Psy.D., and Natasha Belfor, Ph.D.
Posit Science Corporation
San Francisco, CA

Leading me to the natural question: What is Posit Science Corp? Well, here is their website. They seem to be a company focused on keeping mental abilities sharp. To that end, they have lead seminars and sell computer programs based on aging research results.

I haven’t looked over their website in detail but they do seem to have a lot of information on the science behind their techniques and Mike Merzenich is their Chief Scientist. (There’s quite a few names you might recognize on their list of advisors and consultants.)

The Geometry of Excitability and Bursting

Wow, i finally downloaded and paged through (like literally just flipped through the pages, I haven’t read the book) Eugene Izhikevich’s new textbook, The Geometry of Excitability and Bursting, and many parts of it look awesome! It looks like it goes into more detail than i need to know about many things, but for once, here’s a book that lays out in clear terms, categorizes, and contrasts the various types of neural models, and also explains how nonlinear dynamical theory can be applied to these models and to synchronization etc in their network.

This book is being added to my ideal computational neurobiology curriculum.

Personality in animals

The Animal Self – New York Times

Interesting read on the return of personality psych (and the use of the term “personality”) to ethology.

Some tidbits:

It was back in 1991 that Anderson and Jennifer Mather, a psychologist from the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, first decided to undertake a joint personality study of 44 smaller red octopuses at the aquarium as a way to begin to codify and systematize what they thought they had been observing. Using three categorizations from a standard human-personality-assessment test – shy, aggressive and passive – their data would ultimately show that the animals did consistently clump together under these different categories in response to various stimuli, like touching them with a bristly test-tube brush or dropping a crab into the tank.

“The aggressive ones would pounce on the crab,” Anderson told me. “The passive ones would wait for the crab to come past and then grab it. The shy animal would wait till overnight when no one was looking, and we’d find this little pile of crab shell in the morning.”

Anderson and Mather’s resulting 1993 paper in the Journal of Comparative Psychology, entitled “Personalities of Octopuses,” was not only the first-ever documentation of personality in invertebrates. It was the first time in anyone’s memory that the term “personality” had been applied to a nonhuman in a major psychology journal.


Alison Bell has done related experiments with sticklebacks. It has long been clear to researchers that fish that have lived for many generations in the proximity of dangerous predators are less bold and less aggressive than animals that have lived relatively risk-free. What Bell discovered is that those cautious tendencies outlast the presence of risk, even by a generation. When she moved sticklebacks who had always lived in a high-risk environment into a low-risk environment, she found that not only did they retain their cautious tendencies, but so did their offspring. Even fish raised from birth in a low-risk environment behave more fearfully if raised by a particularly vigilant father from a high-risk background.

“There’s definitely the effect of genetic difference,” Bell explained, “but there’s also the effect of what is experienced as they grow up. Genotype and environment interactions make it difficult to detect the effects of genes, because you have to take the environment into account. This is annoying to geneticists.” To scientists like Bell who are studying the interplay of genes and environment, however, it is of profound interest.

When Bad People Are Punished, Men Smile (but Women Don't)

When Bad People Are Punished, Men Smile (but Women Don’t) – New York Times

I think there has been studies similar to this before… here’s the relevant details:

Furthermore, researchers found that the brain’s pleasure centers lit up in males when just punishment was meted out.

The researchers cautioned that it was not clear if men and women are born with divergent responses to revenge or if their social experiences generate the responses.

Brain Hard-wired For Geometry?

A few places on the internet are talking about a study conducted on Amazon tribespeople which demonstrates that basic concepts about geometry are independant of culture and level of education.

Here’s the story from Science News and here’s the story from Slashdot.

If this is the case, it suggests that there might be something special about geometry that made it evolutionarily advantageous to hard-wire into the brain. Or, from another perspective, some evolutionary adaptation makes geometry easy for our brains to understand. After all, a triangle is just the combination of three bars, which V1 is very good at responding to. As vision research continues to study the brain’s representation of increasingly complex objects, it may shed light on how this works from a systems neuroscience perspective.


Junkyard PCR: Cool science engineering

A neat example of how really understanding a scientific tool can lead to innovation of a simpler version. In this case, a PCR thermocycler (for amplifying nucleic acids, like DNA) was built with a glass slide and some wire! Normally, I wouldn’t post such a process-specific tool as a PCR machine, but I love the simplicity of the idea.

Junkyard PCR – Nature Methods

Remember when a thermocycler was the most expensive equipment in your lab? This may no longer be the case, but even so, the idea of building your own PCR equipment out of a rubber sheet, a glass slide and a bit of wire may sound like something from an episode of ‘MacGyver’. Nonetheless, a pair of German scientists have done just that, proving that reality can still occasionally get the edge on fiction.