"Proust was a neuroscientist" on Salon

Jonathon Keats (no, not that one) has written a scorching review of neuro grad student Jonah Lehrer’s new book, Proust was a Neuroscientist.

I saw this somewhat more favorable review a few weeks in the NYT and was intrigued by the book. As an undergrad, I majored in cognitive science and English and, naturally, was fascinated by the cultural differences of academics in these disparate fields.

As in the Salon article, I also think attempts to unify the “two cultures” (ie. arts and sciences) are misguided. A work like Lehrer’s book (which I have not read) will need to work hard to “prove” its thesis and likely sound very forced. What can we really say about arts vs. sciences? For that matter, is it important to make value judgments on this topic? I’d say, no. We seem to have a natural urge to categorize our activities and then try to order them. Science is more worthwhile. Art is a more creative endeavor. Are these blanket generalizations productive?

But there is overlap between the two cultures and those regions seem more and more important to me. And I think neuroscience in particular has a lot to say here, too. If we know what makes good art good (in a scientific way), will we stop appreciating it or enjoying it? (This is similar to the idea that if someone told you free will was simply an illusion would the illusion be any less powerful than it is right now?) Often, the surprise of creative thought underlies the best science and the best art. Okay, there’s my attempt at a unification!

On a separate note, there certainly seems to be a hunger amongst the reading public for neuroscience books, despite our incomplete picture of how the brain works. For those frustrated with slow progress in research, maybe we should just go write a book.

Count of orphan G protein-coupled receptors

The relatively recently discovered cannabinoid receptors has me wondering how many other neuroreceptors may be left to discover. One way to estimate the number of these is to screen the genome and look for sequences that look like receptors. This paper says that people have done that for the special case of G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs), and that the result is that, excluding receptors involved in “chemosensory responses such as taste and olfaction”, there are “367 receptors (1), of which some 200 have been shown to bind known transmitters (3). This leaves about 160 orphan GPCRs that are not activated by any known transmitters and thus are genes with unknown function.”

CB1 antagonist seems to contribute to depression

I didn’t notice this before, but in a study of about 4000 subjects, people who took Rimonabant (marketed as Acomplia), a selective antagonist of the cannabinoid type 1 receptor (CB1), apparently had a 3.2% incidence of depressive disorders where placebo-takers apparently had a 1.6% incidence. Also, irritability went from .6% to 1.9%, parasomnia from .2% to 1.5%, nervousness from .2% to 1.2%, sleep disorders from .4% to 1.0%, memory loss from .9% to 1.6%, hypoesthesia from .6% to 1.6%, and sciatica from .4% to 1.0%. Psychiatric adverse events were dose-dependent.

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