Chapter 1. Biological Psychology: Scope and Outlook
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By Justin Gregg Santino was a misanthrope with a habit of pelting tourists with rocks. As his reputation for mischief grew, he had to devise increasingly clever ways to ambush his wary victims. Santino learned to stash his rocks just out of sight and casually stand just a few feet from them in order to throw off suspicion. At the very moment that passersby were fooled into thinking that he meant them no harm, he grabbed his hidden projectiles and launched his attack. Santino was displaying an ability to learn from his past experiences and plan for future scenarios. This has long been a hallmark of human intelligence. But a recently published review paper by the psychologist Thomas Zentall from the University of Kentucky argues that this complex ability should no longer be considered unique to humans. Santino, you see, is not human. He’s a chimpanzee at Furuvik Zoo in Sweden. His crafty stone-throwing escapades have made him a global celebrity, and also caught the attention of researchers studying how animals, much like humans, might be able to plan their behavior. Santino is one of a handful of animals that scientists believe are showing a complex cognitive ability called episodic memory. Episodic memory is the ability to recall past events that one has the sense of having personally experienced. Unlike semantic memory, which involves recalling simple facts like “bee stings hurt,” episodic memory involves putting yourself at the heart of the memory; like remembering the time you swatted at a bee with a rolled up newspaper and it got angry and stung your hand. © 2013 Scientific American
Many people, I've heard talk, wonder what's going on inside Republican speaker John Boehner's brain. For cognitive neuroscientists, Boehner's brain is a case study. At the same time, others are frustrated with Democrat Harry Reid. The Senate Majority leader needs to take a tip from our founding fathers. Many of the intellectual giants who founded our democracy were both statesmen and scientists, and they applied the latest in scientific knowledge of their day to advantage in governing. The acoustics of the House of Representatives, now Statuary Hall, allowed John Quincy Adams and his comrades to eavesdrop on other members of congress conversing in whispers on the opposite side of the parabolic-shaped room. Senator Reid, in stark contrast, is still applying ancient techniques used when senators wore togas -- reason and argument -- and we all know how badly that turned out. The search for a path to compromise can be found in the latest research on the neurobiological basis of social behavior. Consider this new finding just published in the journal Brain Research. Oxytocin, a peptide produced in the hypothalamus of the brain and known to cement the strong bond between mother and child at birth, has been found to promote compromise in rivaling groups! This new research suggests that Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi could single-handedly end the Washington deadlock by spritzing a bit of oxytocin in her perfume and wafting it throughout the halls of congress. One can only imagine the loving effect this hormone would have on Senate Republican Ted Cruz, suddenly overwhelmed with an irresistible urge to bond with his colleagues, fawning for a cozy embrace like a babe cuddling in its mother's arms. And it is so simple! No stealthy spiking the opponent's coffee (or third martini at lunch) would be required, oxytocin works when it is inhaled through the nasal passages as an odorless vapor. © 2013 TheHuffingtonPost.com, Inc.
Link ID: 18761 - Posted: 10.08.2013
At the TEDx conference in Detroit last week, RoboRoach #12 scuttled across the exhibition floor, pursued not by an exterminator but by a gaggle of fascinated onlookers. Wearing a tiny backpack of microelectronics on its shell, the cockroach—a member of the Blaptica dubia species—zigzagged along the corridor in a twitchy fashion, its direction controlled by the brush of a finger against an iPhone touch screen (as seen in video above). RoboRoach #12 and its brethren are billed as a do-it-yourself neuroscience experiment that allows students to create their own “cyborg” insects. The roach was the main feature of the TEDx talk by Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo, co-founders of an educational company called Backyard Brains. After a summer Kickstarter campaign raised enough money to let them hone their insect creation, the pair used the Detroit presentation to show it off and announce that starting in November, the company will, for $99, begin shipping live cockroaches across the nation, accompanied by a microelectronic hardware and surgical kits geared toward students as young as 10 years old. That news, however, hasn’t been greeted warmly by everyone. Gage and Marzullo, both trained as neuroscientists and engineers, say that the purpose of the project is to spur a “neuro-revolution” by inspiring more kids to join the fields when they grow up, but some critics say the project is sending the wrong message. "They encourage amateurs to operate invasively on living organisms" and "encourage thinking of complex living organisms as mere machines or tools," says Michael Allen Fox, a professor of philosophy at Queen's University in Kingston, Canada. © 2013 American Association for the Advancement of Science
Keyword: Animal Rights
Link ID: 18755 - Posted: 10.08.2013
By John Horgan Last spring, I kicked up a kerfuffle by proposing that research on race and intelligence, given its potential for exacerbating discrimination, should be banned. Now Nature has expanded this debate with “Taboo Genetics.” The article “looks at four controversial areas of behavioral genetics”—intelligence, race, violence and sexuality—”to find out why each field has been a flashpoint, and whether there are sound scientific reasons for pursuing such studies.” Behavioral genetics has failed to produce robust evidence linking complex traits and disorders to specific genes. The essay provides a solid overview, including input from both defenders of behavioral genetics and critics. The author, Erika Check Hayden, quotes me saying that research on race and intelligence too often bolsters “racist ideas about the inferiority of certain groups, which plays into racist policies.” I only wish that Hayden had repeated my broader complaint against behavioral genetics, which attempts to explain human behavior in genetic terms. The field, which I’ve been following since the late 1980s, has a horrendous track record. My concerns about the potential for abuse of behavioral genetics are directly related to its history of widely publicized, erroneous claims. I like to call behavioral genetics “gene whiz science,” because “advances” so often conform to the same pattern. Researchers, or gene-whizzers, announce: There’s a gene that makes you gay! That makes you super-smart! That makes you believe in God! That makes you vote for Barney Frank! The media and the public collectively exclaim, “Gee whiz!” © 2013 Scientific American
Smart, successful, and well-connected: a good description of Albert Einstein … and his brain. The father of relativity theory didn’t live to see modern brain imaging techniques, but after his death his brain was sliced into sections and photographed. Now, scientists have used those cross-sectional photos to reveal a larger-than-average corpus callosum—the bundle of nerve fibers connecting the brain’s two hemispheres. Researchers measured the thickness of the famous noggin’s corpus callosum (the lighter-colored, downward-curving region at the center of each hemisphere, above) at various points along its length, and compared it to MRIs from 15 elderly men and 52 young, healthy ones. The thickness of Einstein’s corpus callosum was greater than the average for both the elderly and the young subjects, the team reported online last week in the journal Brain. The authors posit that in Einstein’s brain, more nerve fibers connected key regions such as the two sides of the prefrontal cortex, which are responsible for complex thought and decision-making. Combined with previous evidence that parts of the physicist’s brain were unusually large and intricately folded, the researchers suggest that this feature helps account for his extraordinary gifts. © 2013 American Association for the Advancement of Science
by Colin Barras SHAKEN, scorched and boiled in its own juices, this 4000-year-old human brain has been through a lot. It may look like nothing more than a bit of burnt log, but it is one of the oldest brains ever found. Its discovery, and the story now being pieced together of its owner's last hours, offers the tantalising prospect that archaeological remains could harbour more ancient brain specimens than thought. If that's the case, it potentially opens the way to studying the health of the brain in prehistoric times. Brain tissue is rich in enzymes that cause cells to break down rapidly after death, but this process can be halted if conditions are right. For instance, brain tissue has been found in the perfectly preserved body of an Inca child sacrificed 500 years ago. In this case, death occurred at the top of an Andean mountain where the body swiftly froze, preserving the brain. However, Seyitömer Höyük – the Bronze Age settlement in western Turkey where this brain was found – is not in the mountains. So how did brain tissue survive in four skeletons dug up there between 2006 and 2011? Meriç Altinoz at Haliç University in Istanbul, Turkey, who together with colleagues has been analysing the find, says the clues are in the ground. The skeletons were found burnt in a layer of sediment that also contained charred wooden objects. Given that the region is tectonically active, Altinoz speculates that an earthquake flattened the settlement and buried the people before fire spread through the rubble. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Link ID: 18741 - Posted: 10.05.2013
Intelligence tests were first devised in the early twentieth century as a way to identify children who needed extra help in school. It was only later that the growing eugenics movement began to promote use of the tests to weed out the less intelligent and eliminate them from society, sparking a debate over the appropriateness of the study of intelligence that carries on to this day. But it was not the research that was problematic: it was the intended use of the results. As the News Feature on page 26 details, this history is never far from the minds of scientists who work in the most fraught areas of behavioural genetics. Although the ability to investigate the genetic factors that underlie the heritability of traits such as intelligence, violent behaviour, race and sexual orientation is new, arguments and attitudes about the significance of these traits are not. Scientists have a responsibility to do what they can to prevent abuses of their work, including the way it is communicated. Here are some pointers. First: be patient. Do not speculate about the possibility of finding certain results, or about the implications of those results, before your data have even been analysed. The BGI Cognitive Genomics group in Shenzhen, China, is studying thousands of people to find genes that underlie intelligence, but group members sparked a furore by predicting that studies such as theirs could one day let parents select embryos with genetic predispositions to high intelligence. Many other geneticists are sceptical that the project will even find genes linked to this trait. © 2013 Nature Publishing Group
Maggie Fox NBC News School officials in an area near New Orleans have shut off water fountains and stocked up on hand sanitizer this week after a brain-eating amoeba killed a 4-year-old boy and was found thriving in the local tap water system. Water officials say they are “shocking” the St. Bernard Parish system with chlorine to try to kill off the parasite and get the water back up to a safe standard. And while health experts say the water is perfectly safe to drink, some school officials are taking no chances. They’ve shut off water fountains until they are certain. Dr. Raoult Ratard, the Louisiana state epidemiologist, says the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 may ultimately be to blame. Low-lying St. Bernard Parish, where the boy who died was infected while playing on a Slip ‘N Slide, was badly hit by the flooding that Katrina caused. “After Katrina, it almost completely depopulated,” Ratard told NBC News. “You have a lot of vacant lots and a lot of parts of the system where water is sitting there under the sun and not circulating.” That, says Ratard, provided a perfect opportunity for the amoeba to multiply. Without enough chlorine to kill them, they can spread. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Monday that it had found Naegleria fowleri in St. Bernard’s water supply – the first time it’s ever been found in U.S. tap water. The amoeba likes hot water and thrives in hot springs, warm lakes and rivers.
Link ID: 18662 - Posted: 09.18.2013
Karen Ravn It’s safe to say that wildlife biologist Lynn Rogers gets along better with the black bears in Minnesota than with the humans in the state’s Department of Natural Resources. Rogers, a popular bear researcher who has made numerous TV appearances, is engaged in quite a row with the department. At issue: should the department renew Rogers’ permit to study black bears? In June, the department said “no.” But trying to come between Rogers and his bears is a bit like trying to come between a mother bear and her cubs. He took the agency to court, and late last month, the parties came to a temporary agreement. Rogers can keep radio collars on the ten research bears that have them now, but he can’t keep live-streaming video on the Internet from his internationally popular den cams. His case will go back to court in six to nine months. Earlier this month, Rogers received a big boost from renowned chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall, who wrote to Minnesota governor Mark Dayton praising Rogers and saying that it would be “a scientific tragedy” if his research were ended now. The department gave three reasons for not renewing Rogers’ permit: he hadn’t produced any peer-reviewed publications based on data collected over the past 14 years when he had a permit; his work was endangering the public; and he had engaged in unprofessional conduct. © 2013 Nature Publishing Group
Link ID: 18577 - Posted: 08.29.2013
Daniel Cressey A few chance encounters hundreds of metres underwater seem to have solved the long-standing mystery of what one squid species does with its unusual tentacles: it pretends they are fish to lure its prey into range. Until now, the deep-sea-dwelling squid Grimalditeuthis bonplandi had never been observed in the wild by researchers, and most of the knowledge about it came from partially digested specimens pulled from the stomachs of large fish and whales. Most squid have a pair of tentacles with hooks or suckers that they use to grasp food, but in this species the corresponding tentacles are thin, fragile things — and their function has puzzled squid researchers. Henk-Jan Hoving, a squid researcher at the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany, and his team obtained videos of seven of these animals seen in the Atlantic and North Pacific. One of the observations came from an expedition run by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, California, and the other videos were made by commercial remotely-operated submersibles used by the oil and gas industry, and later supplied to Hoving and his team. Hoving and his team saw the squid move the ends of their unique appendages, known as tentacle clubs, in a way that “really looked like a small fish or squid”, he says. They describe their observations in Proceedings of the Royal Society B1. The movement of these tentacles attracts the crustaceans and other cephalopods that G. bonplandi eats. Thinking they are going to get dinner, the prey species move towards the flapping arms, only to be eaten themselves. © 2013 Nature Publishing Group
By Harvey Black The intelligence of the corvid family—a group of birds that includes crows, ravens, magpies, rooks and jackdaws—rivals that of apes and dolphins. Recent studies are revealing impressive details about crows' social reasoning, offering hints about how our own interpersonal intelligence may have evolved. One recent focus has been on how these birds respond to the sight of human faces. For example, crows take to the skies more quickly when an approaching person looks directly at them, as opposed to when an individual nears with an averted gaze, according to a report by biologist Barbara Clucas of Humboldt State University and her colleagues in the April issue of Ethology. The researchers walked toward groups of crows in three locations in the Seattle area, with their eyes either on the birds or on some point in the distance. The crows scattered earlier when the approaching person was looking at them, unlike other animals that avoid people no matter what a person is doing. Clucas speculates that ignoring a human with an averted gaze is a learned adaptation to life in the big city. Indeed, many studies have shown that crows are able to learn safety behaviors from one another. For example, John Marzluff of the University of Washington (who co-authored the aforementioned paper with Clucas) used masked researchers to test the learning abilities of crows. He and his colleagues ventured into Seattle parks wearing one of two kinds of masks. The people wearing one kind of mask trapped birds; the others simply walked by. Five years later the scientists returned to the parks with their masks. The birds present at the original trapping remembered which masks corresponded to capturing—and they passed this information to their young and other crows. All the crows responded to the sight of a researcher wearing a trapping mask by immediately mobbing the individual and shrieking. © 2013 Scientific American
By April Neale An innovative two-part series, "Brains on Trial with Alan Alda," airing Wednesday, September 11 and 18, 2013, 10-11 p.m. on PBS (check local listings), explores how the growing ability to separate truth from lies, even decode people’s thoughts and memories, may radically affect how criminal trials are conducted in the future. As brain scanning techniques advance, their influence in criminal cases is becoming critically important. Brains on Trial centers around the trial of a fictional crime: a robbery staged in a convenience store that has been filmed by the store’s security cameras. A teenager stands accused of the attempted murder of the store clerk’s wife who was shot during the crime. While the crime is fictional, the trial is conducted before a real federal judge and argued by real practicing attorneys. The program is divided into two-parts: the first hour examines the guilt phase of the trial concluding with the jury’s verdict; the second hour looks at the sentencing phase, when arguments for and against a severe sentence are heard. As the trial unfolds, Alda visits with neuroscientists whose research has already influenced some Supreme Court decisions, as well as Duke University law professor Nita Farahany, a member of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. On these visits, neuroscientists show how functional MRIs and other brain scanning techniques are exploring lie detection, facial recognition, memory decoding, racial bias, brain maturity, intention, and even emotions. The research Alda discovers is at the center of a controversy as to how this rapidly expanding ability to peer into people’s minds and decode their thoughts and feelings could – or should – affect trials like the one presented in the program. As DNA evidence has played a major role in exonerating innocent prisoners, Brains on Trial asks if neuroscience can make the criminal justice system more just.
Link ID: 18527 - Posted: 08.20.2013
By D. D. GUTTENPLAN LONDON — With its battered desks, fluorescent lights and interactive whiteboard showing an odd creature that, depending on how you look at it, could be either a duck or a rabbit, this could be a class in any university philosophy department. But this is a class with a difference. It is the Maudsley Philosophy Group, a seminar that meets regularly on the grounds of the Maudsley Hospital, Britain’s largest mental health teaching hospital, which is affiliated with the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London. Participants at the last session included psychiatrists, psychologists, philosophers and an actor who had just finished working as a chaplain in a locked men’s ward at the hospital and who was about to organize a storytelling group there. “We started out as a reading group for trainee psychiatrists,” said Gareth S. Owen, a researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry who co-founded the group in 2002. “Then, gradually, we developed and started inviting philosophers — at first it was quite low key. We would talk about our clinical experiences and then they would relate those experiences to their way of thinking.” Robert Harland, another co-founder of the group, said he had known Dr. Owen since they “cut up a corpse together at medical school.” “The analytic philosophers brought a real clarity to our discussions,” Dr. Harland said. “We were looking at various models to help us understand what we were doing as psychiatrists. “There is lots of applied science now in psychiatry: neuroimaging, genetics, epidemiology. But they don’t have much to say about sitting with a patient and trying to understand that person’s experiences.” © 2013 The New York Times Company
By Neuroskeptic Back in April a paper came out in Nature Reviews Neuroscience that shocked many: Katherine Button et al’s Power failure: why small sample size undermines the reliability of neuroscience It didn’t shock me, though, skeptic that I am: I had long suspected that much of neuroscience (and science in general) is underpowered – that is, that our sample sizes are too small to give us an acceptable chance of detecting the signals that we claim to be able to isolate out of the noise. In fact, I was so unsurprised by Button et al that I didn’t even read it, let alone write about it, even though the authors list included such neuro-blog favorites as John Ionaddis, Marcus Munafo and Brian Nosek (I try to avoid obvious favouritism, you see). However this week I took a belated look at the paper, and I noticed something interesting. Button et al took 49 meta-analyses and calculated the median observed statistical power of the studies in each analysis. The headline finding was that average power is small. I was curious to know why it was small. So I correlated the study characteristics (sample size and observed effect size) with the median power of the studies. I found that median power in a given meta-analysis was not correlated with the median sample size of those studies (d on the left, RR on the right):
Link ID: 18487 - Posted: 08.12.2013
Daniel Cressey Killing research animals is one of the most unpleasant tasks in science, and it is imperative to do it as humanely as possible. But researchers who study animal welfare and euthanasia are growing increasingly concerned that widely used techniques are not the least painful and least stressful available. This week, experts from across the world will gather in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, to debate the evidence and try to reach a consensus. “There are lots of assumptions made about the humaneness of various techniques for euthanizing animals,” says Penny Hawkins, deputy head of the research animals department at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, a charity based in Southwater, UK. “Sometimes an animal might not appear to be suffering, but might be conscious and suffering.” Much of the debate centres on rodents, which make up the vast majority of research animals. Current techniques for killing them include inhalation methods — such as chambers that fill with carbon dioxide or anaesthetic gases — and injecting barbiturates. Physical methods include cervical dislocation (breaking of the neck), or decapitation with specialist rodent guillotines (see ‘Methods used to kill lab rats’). Experts hotly debate which method is preferable. The most-discussed question at the meeting is likely to be about the use of CO2. © 2013 Nature Publishing Group
Keyword: Animal Rights
Link ID: 18469 - Posted: 08.07.2013
John Hawks Humans are known for sporting big brains. On average, the size of primates' brains is nearly double what is expected for mammals of the same body size. Across nearly seven million years, the human brain has tripled in size, with most of this growth occurring in the past two million years. Determining brain changes over time is tricky. We have no ancient brains to weigh on a scale. We can, however, measure the inside of ancient skulls, and a few rare fossils have preserved natural casts of the interior of skulls. Both approaches to looking at early skulls give us evidence about the volumes of ancient brains and some details about the relative sizes of major cerebral areas. For the first two thirds of our history, the size of our ancestors' brains was within the range of those of other apes living today. The species of the famous Lucy fossil, Australopithecus afarensis, had skulls with internal volumes of between 400 and 550 milliliters, whereas chimpanzee skulls hold around 400 ml and gorillas between 500 and 700 ml. During this time, Australopithecine brains started to show subtle changes in structure and shape as compared with apes. For instance, the neocortex had begun to expand, reorganizing its functions away from visual processing toward other regions of the brain. The final third of our evolution saw nearly all the action in brain size. Homo habilis, the first of our genus Homo who appeared 1.9 million years ago, saw a modest hop in brain size, including an expansion of a language-connected part of the frontal lobe called Broca's area. The first fossil skulls of Homo erectus, 1.8 million years ago, had brains averaging a bit larger than 600 ml. © 2013 Scientific American
By DAVID CRARY, AP National Writer NEW YORK (AP) — There's extensive evidence that pigs are as smart and sociable as dogs. Yet one species is afforded affection and respect; the other faces mass slaughter en route to becoming bacon, ham and pork chops. Seeking to capitalize on that discrepancy, animal-welfare advocates are launching a campaign called The Someone Project that aims to highlight research depicting pigs, chickens, cows and other farm animals as more intelligent and emotionally complex than commonly believed. The hope is that more people might view these animals with the same empathy that they view dogs, cats, elephants, great apes and dolphins. "When you ask people why they eat chickens but not cats, the only thing they can come up with is that they sense cats and dogs are more cognitively sophisticated that then species we eat — and we know this isn't true," said Bruce Friedrich of Farm Sanctuary, the animal-protection and vegan-advocacy organization that is coordinating the new project. "What it boils down to is people don't know farm animals the way they know dogs or cats," Friedrich said. "We're a nation of animal lovers, and yet the animals we encounter most frequently are the animals we pay people to kill so we can eat them." The lead scientist for the project is Lori Marino, a lecturer in psychology at Emory University who has conducted extensive research on the intelligence of whales, dolphins and primates. She plans to review existing scientific literature on farm animals' intelligence, identify areas warranting new research, and prepare reports on her findings that would be circulated worldwide via social media, videos and her personal attendance at scientific conferences. © 2013 Hearst Communications Inc.
Josh Howgego Thresher sharks can use their lengthy tail fins to swat sardines from shoals, researchers have found by taking underwater footage. Such tactical use of the tail fin during hunting — which was previously observed only in mammals such as dolphins and killer whales1 — might indicate that sharks are more intelligent than scientists thought. Pelagic thresher sharks (Alopias pelagicus) are nocturnal and notoriously shy. Researchers have long suspected that the shark uses its tail — which makes up half of its body length — to stun its prey, but the behaviour has not been documented before under natural conditions2. Simon Oliver, lead investigator of the Thresher Shark Research and Conservation Project, and his colleagues studied the sharks off the coast of Cebu, an island in the Philippines. Oliver, who is based at the University of Liverpool, UK, has been watching the animals during the day since 2005, but he hadn’t seen the sharks hunting until some divers saw it happening and phoned him. “Immediately I dropped everything and went to investigate,” he says. The sharks hunt by first lunging into a school of fish, priming their tails as they move in. They then swipe the tail in a trebuchet-like motion through an arc of 180o in just one-third of a second — fast enough to both physically hit the fish and to create a stunning shock wave (see image below). Each strike can take out up to seven sardines, so Oliver thinks it is probably the most energy-efficient way for the animals to hunt. The team published the results today in PLOS ONE3. © 2013 Nature Publishing Group
By MICHAEL WINERIP PETA, considered by many to be the highest-profile animal rights group in the country, kills an average of about 2,000 dogs and cats each year at its animal shelter here. And the shelter does few adoptions — 19 cats and dogs in 2012 and 24 in 2011, according to state records. At a time when the major animal protection groups have moved to a “no kill” shelter model, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals remains a holdout, confounding some and incensing others who know the organization as a very vocal advocacy group that does not believe animals should be killed for food, fur coats or leather goods. This is an organization that on Thanksgiving urges Americans not to eat turkey. “Honestly, I don’t understand it,” says Joan E. Schaffner, an animal rights lawyer and an associate professor at the George Washington University Law School, which hosts an annual no-kill conference. “PETA does lots of good for animals, but I could never support them on this.” As recently as a decade ago, it was common practice at shelters to euthanize large numbers of dogs and cats that had not been adopted. But the no-kill movement has grown very quickly, leaving PETA behind. In New York City last year, 8,252 dogs and cats were euthanized, compared with 31,701 in 2003. “Through spay, neuter, transfer and adoption programs, we think New York City can close the gap toward becoming a ‘no-kill community’ by 2015,” said Matthew Bershadker, the president and chief executive of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, one of 150 rescue groups and shelters that make up the Mayor’s Alliance for N.Y.C.’s Animals. © 2013 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Animal Rights
Link ID: 18356 - Posted: 07.08.2013
Gregory Gage is being honored as a Champion of Change for his dedication to increasing public engagement in science and science literacy. Science has a rich history of everyday citizens assisting in great discoveries, and I am honored that our work to encourage amateur neuroscience has been selected by The White House for the Citizen Science Champion of Change award. We know a lot about how our amazing brain works, but there is much, much more that remains to be discovered. In fact, we have no cures and only insufficient treatments for neurological disorder, even though about 1 out of every 5 people will be diagnosed with a brain disease. Change is indeed needed in our nation’s approach to science education to bring more focus on neuroscience. I am a “DIY” neuroscientist. I co-founded a low-fi company called Backyard Brains with my grad-school labmate, Tim Marzullo. While working on our Ph.D., we would often go out to local public schools to talk about the importance of studying neuroscience. We developed our lesson plans using models and analogies about how the brain works, but what we really wanted to teach the students was “electrophysiology”... as this is truly is how the brain works. The brain is an electrical organ, and the cells (neurons) communicate with “spikes”: a brief pulse of electricity. In my research at the university, I would record these spikes to learn what the neurons were telling us about how the brain worked. Traditionally, to do experiments with electrophysiology, one needs to be in a Ph.D. program and use expensive equipment (our electrophysiology rig cost $40,000). To make this accessible for our outreach goals, Tim and I set out on a self-imposed engineering challenge: to reduce this equipment down to the basic components, and record a spike for <$100. Less than a year later, we got our first prototype to work and were able to bring spikes into the classrooms! After getting requests from colleagues and teachers, we launched Backyard Brains. We are now a growing education company with neuroscience gear in over 45 countries on all 7 continents!
Link ID: 18349 - Posted: 07.06.2013