Conference on Neuroprosthetic Devices

The First International Conference on Neuroprosthetic Devices will take place at National Chiao Tung University, Hsinchu, Taiwan on March 19th and 20th, 2009. The mission of this newly founded conference is to foster West-East interaction and collaboration in the rapidly advancing clinical use of neuroprosthetics. The specific aim of the first conference is to expose unique technological and neurological research opportunities in Taiwan. National Chaio Tung University is one of the best universities in Taiwan and is located right next to the world-famous HsinChu Science Park hosting hundreds of biotechnology, semiconductor, and electronics companies.

The conference sessions will cover several key areas in the neuroprosthetic development, such as deep brain stimulation for treatment of Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy, devices for restoring hearing and overcoming muscle paralysis, microelectrode biocompatibility, and novel microelectrode technologies. For detailed conference program and registration information, please visit http://www.bsrc.nctu.edu.tw/ICND/.

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NIH stimulus funding: Some (mostly) good news

Since President Obama started discussing his plans for funding science and economic stimulus, I think many scientists have been excited with the possibility of a sea change in levels of federal funding for science. Happily, the Senate just passed an amendment to increase the NIH’s stimulus funding to a big $9.2 billion (the House version however is still at $3.5 billion, so we won’t know the actual number for some time). Even though these numbers seem small compared to the overall NIH Budget ($29 billion last year), remember this is a stimulus (well, one kind of stimulus, here’s another interesting idea from Harvard’s Greg Mankiw), meaning funding in addition to the regular budget to help stimulate the economy.

Amazingly, the NIH has escaped the stimulus cutback that other scientific  agencies seem to be facing. According to this NYT article, the cost cutting efforts

to trim the size of the stimulus appear to take a chainsaw to the physical sciences and leave the N.I.H. money untouched at $10 billion.

According to a version of a memo describing the cuts, the stimulus for N.S.F. and the energy department’s Office of Science would be cut to zero and there would be cuts to the NASA and NIST portions as well.

Clay Westrope, Sen. Nelson’s spokesman, said the senator was not anti-science, but that he felt the stimulus bill was the wrong place to add financing for long-term research. “If they were in a spending bill, he would probably support them,” Mr. Westrope said.

Mr. Westrope said he could not explain why biomedical research was regarded as a stimulus, but physics research would not.

Puzzling. At least, it’s reassuring to see the support for the NIH, which, according to an article in Science this week, will result in new challenge grants for high risk projects along with increased large RO1 grant funding. (I highly recommend the Science article which has a nice summary of the recent legislative motions and what the funding agencies are planning to do with the stimulus money.) I’m pleased to see such strong support in the Senate and this kind of action is one of the reasons that I was happy to renew my SfN membership earlier this week (yes, I know I should have done it back in December). Among those lending his support to the Senate’s increased NIH stimulus funding was Patrick Swayze, writing in the Washington Post: I’m Battling Cancer. How About Some Help, Congress?

Interdisciplinary academic jobs or not?

Today, I received this announcement from EPFL’s Center for Neuroprosthetics recruiting for several new faculty positions at “the interface of neuroscience and bioengineering”. As I’m starting my search for postdoc positions myself right now, I can’t help but think what types of academic jobs I might be looking for in a few more years. The conventional wisdom (as I have heard) seems to indicate that floating between two different disciplines is not good when it comes time to apply for a job or for large (eg. R01) funding.

But is that true? I, for one, feel like more and more positions are going to be these types of interdisciplinary offerings — the idea being that science advances in larger part due to new, better tools rather than incremental work. What do Neurodudes readers think?

Social neuroscience fMRI: Specious correlations?

Nature is reporting on potential flaw in multiple imaging (fMRI) studies of social neuroscience. Ed Vul (a graduate student in my dept) and colleagues have a paper in press that says that many of the high correlations between brain regions and social behavior are implausible, given the inherent variability/noise in fMRI. Furthermore, based on a survey of methods from individual investigators, they created a list of papers that commit, in their view, a statistical mistake (non-independence). Naturally, the authors named in the paper aren’t happy and, according to the Nature article, several rebuttals are in the works. At the very least, to my non-expert eyes, this seems like an important discussion to have about data analysis and methodology.

Neuroscience of voting

As the first presidential debate nears, there’s a lot of excitement (and worry) regarding the election. Today, Salon had an interesting piece on voter behavior and irrational attachment to ideologies and candidates. Recounting a recent psychology paper’s punchline:

The article’s conclusion should be posted as a caveat under every political speech of those seeking office. And it should serve as the epitaph for the Bush administration: “People who lack the knowledge or wisdom to perform well are often unaware of this fact. That is, the same incompetence that leads them to make wrong choices also deprives them of the savvy necessary to recognize competence, be it their own or anyone else’s.”

Slate had a story (“Why is every neuropundit such a raging liberal?“) about how neuroscience and neuromarketing are changing political consulting (also here’s a link to a similar story in NYT last week):

According to a study of political psychology published last Thursday in Science, conservatives tend to be the jumpier lot.

The researchers called 46 political partisans into their laboratory at the University of Nebraska, affixed electrodes to their fingertips and eyelids, and measured sweat output and eye blinks in response to a series of startling stimuli. (Subjects were forced to endure images of bloody faces and maggot-infested wounds, as well as sudden blasts of white noise.) The results: Social conservatives—those who supported the death penalty, the Patriot Act, prayer in school, and the like—sweated more, and blinked more intensely, than the liberals.

The Slate and NYT articles in particular suggest something that I have long believed to be true. The Republican “story” is, from a neuroscience perspective, simply better because it tends to view the world in clear-cut terms with no middle ground and, thus, is more effective at rallying emotional processing areas of the brain (eg. limbic system). It is well-known in neuroscience that emotionally salient events that activate these limbic structures are better remembered than less charged memories. The Democratic “story” tends to be more complicated with shades of gray and therefore requires higher-level processing (eg. cortical areas involved in conflict resolution). Clearly, I’m oversimplifying things here a bit (see, I’m designing this post to appeal to your limbic system!) but I think that this hypothesis might have some legs.

Of course, if it’s true, why doesn’t everyone vote Republican if that story is the neurally more rewarding one? Or perhaps the more relevant question: Is it even possible for the Democrats to tap into the similar evolutionarily older limbic structures that seem to dominate the Republican story?

Also, although I prefer Neurodudes to stick with the science over any partisan politics, I must say I found this statistic interesting (from the Slate article):

in 2002, Daniel Klein and Andrew Western tallied the political affiliations of professors at Berkeley and Stanford and found that even in the hard sciences, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a factor of almost 8 to 1. Among professors of neurology and neuroscience, Klein and Western counted 68 registered Democrats against just six Republicans.

Aging faculty and the decline of liberalism in universities

On Campus, the 1960s Begin to Fade as Liberal Professors Retire – NYTimes.com

Although the shift away from liberalism amongst faculty is interesting, this graphic caught my attention:

Should we take this to mean that there should be more faculty jobs as the avg age increases? (Or is this negated by the fact that people are living longer and working longer?)

PBS: Not so neuroscience-savvy

Salon has an interesting piece condemning a recent PBS show purportedly on Alzheimer’s treatment but really more of a sketchy informercial. The program concerns a neurologist with tenuous ties to UC Irvine who advocates SPECT (single photon emission computed tomograpy, a technique which, similar to PET, uses a radiotracer) and some unfounded preventative treatments for Alzheimer’s. The neurologist Bill Amen has appeared on many big-name media outlets including CNN, the Today Show, and Fox News (and the real sign of media success — Oprah) although his approach to Alzheimer’s detection and treatment is lacking in scientific credibility:

“SPECT scans are not sufficiently sensitive or specific to be useful in the diagnosis of A.D.,” neurologist Michael Greicius , who runs the Stanford University memory clinic, and has a special interest in the use of functional brain imaging in the diagnosis of A.D., tells me. “The PBS airing of Amen’s program provides a stamp of scientific validity to work which has no scientific validity.”

Continued pontification on neuroethics issues after the jump. Continue reading