On science blogs this week: Brainy

ALL BRAIN, ALL THE TIME. The plan was to point you to a few revelations from the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting, just concluded in San Diego. But I was quickly feed-swamped. I had forgotten how gigantic the SfN meeting is; this year well over 31K attendees. On the basis of this meeting n of 1, I am prepared to hypothesize that blogging volume is related to meeting size. Of course the intrinsic fascination of the organ under discussion to its possessors may have something to do with it.

At Functional Neurogenesis, Jason Snyder has kindly helped out by providing a list of SfN bloggers, official and non-. That will get you started exploring your particular compulsions, fixations, and obsessions. Although, the blogosphere being the lovably anarchic universe that it is, others doubtless lurk about. There is, for example, a string of SfN posts at New Scientist's Short Sharp Science.

Let's get the celebrity stuff out of the way. At least there were no rock stars, a refreshing change. At the Great Beyond, David Cyranoski described how actor Glenn Close described the mental health organization she founded and introduced her bipolar and schizoaffective relatives, who described what it's like to live with their maladies. At the Dana Foundation Blog, Nicky Penttila reported that pol Patrick Kennedy called for another moon shot, this time to inner space, for example to find ways of fixing traumatic brain injuries that happen during wars. (Or, just a thought, we could give up wars.) You can find the videos here.

UPFRONT, LET US ALSO DEAL WITH THAT FEMALE ORGASM VIDEO YOU MAY HAVE HEARD ABOUT. Not porn, except perhaps by implication. No, just fMRIs of women's brains as they experience self-induced sexual satisfaction.

There was some pre-SfN buzz about the planned showing, although it's a little hard to tell from a distance whether the video actually came out at the meeting. Perhaps someone who was at SfN could tell us in the Comments. (Yipee, we have Comments now!) At Short Sharp Science, Helen Thomson seemed to be reporting only on a poster. With, I might add, a very odd and internally contradictory choice of lede.

The best assessment is at Scicurious's new venue, Neurotic Physiology. It ran before the meeting, but that didn't stop her; she parsed a 2004 paper by the same AU that covered similar work and suggested that, in women at least, sexual stimulation can travel to the brain not through the spine but through the vagus nerve. The study women also experienced reduced pain sensitivity, suggesting, Sci says,

like it could be an interesting avenue of treatment for pain. NO, not giving women orgasms, that would probably be too distracting. :) But proper stimulus of the vagus nerve (possibly more sensitive than what we have now) could maybe be pursued.

Both the 2004 study and the new one show that sexual stimulation and orgasm recruit many parts of women's brains, areas involved in touch, memory, reward, and pain, including the amygdala, the basal ganglia and insula, and, during orgasm, the nucleus accumbens, hypothalamus, and hippocampus. Sci again:

what the authors saw was a gradual and HUGE recruitment of structures all over the brain, til the whole thing goes off like fireworks at orgasm.

In short, a woman's orgasm pretty much takes over her brain and body and shuts out other experiences while it's happening.

Well, duh. This is news? Every now and again it occurs to me that science is sometimes about using extremely expensive technology — fMRIs, for heaven's sake! — and the time of a lot of smart people to confirm what we already know from experience.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

IT DIDN'T HAPPEN AT SfN, BUT, FORTUNATELY, THIS WEEK WE CAN GRANT EQUAL ORGASM OPPORTUNITY TO MEN, in the person of Jesse Bering, of Bering in Mind at SciAm. He muses on the notion that, from evolution's point of view, premature ejaculation isn't premature at all, given that men who move quickly can maximize their chances to procreate while reducing their chances of arousing — in whatever sense you like — other males. One paper calls it survival of the fastest.

Bering's speculations are a tribute to PubMed and what appears to be his full-text access to a splendid collection of obscure journals; I am awash in envy. And I am happy to report that Bering eventually winds up back at our seminal topic, What Women Want.

OTOH, Jon Hamilton reports at NPR's Shots that what women really want is oxytocin. Oxytocin, you'll recall, is the hormone now believed — by some — to foster trust. It's another one of those college student studies so beloved by academic social scientists who would like to turn their teaching duties into CV-worthy material. In this case the n was a whopping 60.

For a higher-level view of oxytocin, see grad student Hillary Blakeley's Blogging on the Brain for an account of a talk by vole guy Larry Young on the neurobiology of social bonding and monogamy. The work might also help understand autism. There's some mild sneering at the trust hormone notion.

WHAT NEUROSCIENCE GRAD STUDENTS WANT Get a feeling for what this meeting is like through the eyes of a grad student, Jeremy Biane, who is writing at the OneSci site. His subject matter ranges from deeply molecular neural circuits to complaints about the early hour of talks — 8am. I'll assume he's usually in the lab until dawn.

This is my first encounter with the OneSci network. Its ambition is astounding:

The OneSci Network is an online research community built and operated by active scientists and researchers across various scientific disciplines. OneSci has many specific goals under one broad mission: building a web-portal that encompasses all things considered useful for conducting research.

Find more grad student input at QScience, a site run by one of the SfN official bloggers, Marquicia Pierce. (I Googled QScience, and my best guess at its derivation is that Q is the Library of Congress classification designation for Science.)

The assignment was to cover cellular mechanisms of neural excitability, synapses, and glia, but before long Pierce meandered toward a more favored topic, oxidative stress and natural substances — nutraceuticals — that combat it. One suggestion: 1-3 grams of cinnamon/da. That's a lot of cinnamon toast and sticky buns.

BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE. Sample the physics of neuroscience with Mo Costandi's account of the mini-symposium on optogenetics. Optogenetics employs the light-sensitive proteins rhodopsins from algae and bacteria to monitor and control nerve cells.

Eventually, optogenetics will enable the cumbersome neural implants used in humans today to be replaced with wireless implants containing miniature light-emitting diodes. Early pre-clinical trials conducted in primates show that the technique is safe and does not elicit an immune response.

At Wired Science, Science News's Laura Sanders reports on an animal study showing that jet lag induces stupidity. Another "duh" moment. Bottom line: Hamsters shouldn't fly long distances. Even in First Class.

AND, FINALLY, NEWS YOU CAN USE. At the Great Beyond, David Cyranoski reports on a study showing that rats remember better if they move slowly. The idea is that

the faster the animals moved, the more they focused on taking in and processing sensory information in the rapid, direct pathway. This suppressed the extra steps of the indirect pathway, which are likely involved in information processing that is necessary for memory consolidation.

The brain, Cyranoski says, undergoes constant refreshing. He notes:

any time the brain has time to rest, it will start consolidating. If a rat, or you, is running around all day, neither of you will have time to remember.

Words to live by, and a perfect segue to Simon and Garfunkel. I'm feelin' groovy and giving thanks, and I hope you are too. See you in a couple of weeks.

November 18, 2010

Biedler Prize for Cancer Journalism