Category Archives: neuroscience

Neuroscientist Dick Swaab says gender specific toys are a natural consequence of brain development


My homecountry is getting ready for Sinterklaas, which means lots of people need to buy toys and the large toy stores send these big books full of ads to people. Bart Smit, a large toy store in my homecountry, sent a book full of ads containing this one:

Translation of pink text:”You want to be as good as mommy!”

Indeed, not very gender neutral, and it gets even worse when on subsequent pages all the sciency toys are advertised with just boys.
Last night this was discussed in one of my homecountry’s late night tv shows “Pauw & Witteman”, where one of the guests involved in this discussion was Dr. Dick Swaab, a neuroscientist and former head of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience. You might think that a scientist is well aware of all the sociological science showing that when girls are presented with stereotypes like this (pink vacuum cleaners, women being the ones doing housework while men do science), they perform worse on things like math and science, and that therefore it would be good to try to get rid of these stereotypical images. On the contrary, Dr. Swaab stated that both research on monkeys and his own experience with his son and daughter (yes, n=1) showed that girls like to play with dolls and boys like to play with cars. He literally said that the only time when this is not the case, is when individuals have been exposed to toxins in utero. So according to him, it was totally justified to show people these stereotypical images of girls doing housework and boys doing science, because that was what they were programmed to do anyway. Yay neuroscience…. Perhaps not surprisingly, at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, out of the 20 research team leaders, only three are female. I could not find on the website how many of the people that clean this institute are male and female for comparison…
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Filed under attachment parenting, feminism, neuroscience, toys, women in science

This is your brain on pregnancy


Last pregnancy, I did mostly experimental work and very little writing. That was nice, as my auto-pilot worked very well, but my thinking and focus abilities seemed a bit disturbed by being pregnant. This time around, I still need to finish 4 grants before this baby is due by the end of November. Truth be told, one is a resubmission and the other three have been in the making for a couple months, so I still think this is very doable. However, I do feel that some days my ability to stay focused and remember where I read something, or which paper to refer to seems a bit off. Is this really a pregnancy thing? Is something happening to my brain?! The all-knowing Dr. Oz says the following about it

 “Dr. Oz says a woman’s brain also shrinks by about 8 percent. “You don’t lose cells. The cells get smaller,” he says. “It might be because you’re focused on one thing, but the good news is after you give birth, your brain begins to rewire quickly. … Your brain actually gets more powerful than before you got pregnant.”

Apparently he knows more than the rest of us, because the only data I could find were structural MRI studies showing that indeed the brain shrinks a bit, and the ventricles containing cerebrospinal fluid get a bit bigger when you are pregnant. The 8% (that you read on a lot of popular pregnancy websites by the way) seems to be a bit much too, as this study for example just finds a change of approximately 4% in brain size (in healthy pregnant women that is, women with preeclampsia have more brain shrinkage). And with MRI there is really no way that one can say that this is your cells shrinking and especially not that after birth your brain rewires quickly: you can simply not see that on an MRI.
Yes, this is your brain on pregnancy, from this study. A is the pre-pregnant brain, and B is the pregnant brain, at full term. Note that the ventricles are enlarged in B. (Are you also that annoyed by popular science magazines saying “this is your brain on… [insert whatever] and then show a picture of an MRI? Me too!)

So yes, your brain gets a bit smaller when you are pregnant. But does a 4% decrease in size affect your ability to write grants? Only time will tell.

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Filed under grant writing, neuroscience, pregnancy

Introduce people to each other!


My most awkward experience at the Society for Neuroscience meeting was the following: I was checking out posters and walked into one of our collaborators. I wanted to have his input on my work so I showed him some of my data and asked him what he thought. Before he had finished another person from the same field showed up. He’s a friend of the collaborator, but I also know him because he was at my old university. So we talked for a bit about how things were going, but I was still sort of waiting for our collaborator to finish what he had to say about my data. Next, another big shot in the field showed up and said hi to the two men I was talking to. They slapped each other on the back and started talking. I was kind of waiting for either the collaborator or the guy from my old university to introduce me but that didn’t happen. And I now realize that I should just have introduced myself, but they kept talking and I didn’t really know when to say something so in the end I said nothing. I was still kind of hoping to finish the conversation with the collaborator, but after some time it felt like I was obviously not part of the conversation anymore. I excused myself, left and kept feeling pretty awkward and regretted that I hadn’t said anything. 
So the point of this story is that it’s a small gesture to introduce people to each other, but that it makes a huge difference in how you make people feel. I’m glad that my advisor is really good at this and has introduced me to a lot of people he knows in science, and I try to always introduce people to each other too, because it just sucks to feel so left out.

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Filed under meeting, networking, neuroscience, SfN

Memoirs of an Addicted Brain – a review

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As I said before, I like reading books about addiction, so when I read on twitter about this new book by Marc Lewis, a recovered addict turned neuroscientist, I immediately ordered it.
The book is Lewis’ biography that starts when he is sent to a boarding school where he has his first encounter with alcohol. As with all the other drugs that follow, he describes vividly how he feels upon taking those first sips and then gulps of alcohol. He enjoys that it makes him feel different and that for a while it takes away the depressed feelings he has because of not fitting in well in school. I quickly got carried away by the story and how well it is written. But then he says:”The cerebral cortex is the most complex structure on earth”, and that type of neuroscience-arrogance almost made me put down the book. And he continues to talk about the brain, and how alcohol, and all the subsequent drugs he takes modify brain chemistry and hijack the neural circuits used for learning and memory, thereby causing addiction. At first all this neuroscience talk kind of put me off, mostly because I felt that it interrupted the story he was telling, but also because I felt that Lewis sometimes oversimplified things or made too harsh statements just for the sake of telling a nice story. However, I think for the average lay-person it is an interesting mix of the story of Lewis’ life and the biology behind what drugs do to the brain and more importantly, that addiction is a brain-disease caused by the repeated taking of drugs, and not ‘just’ a couple of bad choices in life.
The story of his life continues to be very interesting and well written. He moves to California and continues to experiment with how he can modify and improve his mood. He first experiments with LSD: “The room swells and changes in shape and size. It becomes more than a room: an enormous space broken down into subspaces with gripping dramas unfold with each glance, each word spoken or withheld, each facial movement. The skin of those faces decomposes into exotic fabrics made of pores, features, facial hair that seems to grow while I stare, transfixed, horrified. I don’t need this much detail. I am overwhelmed by the acceleration itself.”
And later he takes other hallucinogens and eventually starts to use heroin. Using opioids is what truly gets him addicted, with horrible withdrawal when he quits for a while. It is also what drives him to start to break into doctor’s offices and go down a road of caring less and less about the world around him and more about getting high. I don’t want to spoil the end of the book, but the fact that Lewis is now a neuroscientist already tells that in the end he managed to overcome his addiction and change his lifestyle.

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Filed under addiction, books, neuroscience, review

Books about addiction

I think I was 13 or 14 when I first read Wir Kinder from Bahnhof Zoofrom Christiane F. It’s a true story about a German girl in the seventies who starts to experiment with marihuana, moves on to try different pills and by the time she is 14 she is a heroin-addict and a prostitute behind the train station (Bahnhof Zoo) in Berlin. I found it fascinating that someone who was my age at the time had such a different life, and I was most intrigued by the fact that drugs could make you do things that I thought no one would ever have to do. After this book I read a couple other books about addicts and addiction of which I cannot find the English versions online anywhere. And for mandatory English reading in high school I read Trainspottingfrom Irvine Welsh. Both of these books are films too, if you don’t like reading.
I love reading about drug addiction, because I find it fascinating how drugs can change someone’s sense of what is important in life. The main reason though is that I’m curious what it feels like to take drugs but at the same time I am reluctant to try it for myself (okay I have tried a few things myself, but that is nothing compared to the people in these books). So I love the detailed descriptions of what it feels like to shoot up heroin so that I never have to try that myself. I live my junkie-life vicariously through these books.
  
Currently, I have almost finished reading Memoirs of an Addicted Brainby Marc Lewis, who is a neuroscientist himself. I’ll soon tell you what I thinkabout it!

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Filed under addiction, books, neuroscience

The people from the future took our jobs!

Robots in science are usually awesome: it’s nice not to have to pipette a whole bunch of 96 wells plates, and it’s a good thing when you don’t have to sit next to the mass spectrometer the whole night to feed it new samples. Those are relatively easy things to do, and it’s nice to have robots to them for us.

Electrophysiology, and specifically whole cell patch clamp recordings are a different game in my opinion: it’s difficult to do, and not a lot of people are able to do it well. It puts those of us who are able to patch cells in the luxurious position that people want to collaborate with us, and put our names on their papers. I’ve heard it’s an excellent skill to have on your CV when looking for jobs. (And, but this is not as relevant here: it’s such an awesome technique because it allows you to listen to what cells are saying to each other!).
However, this article gave me this industrial revolution feeling, that the machines will take over our jobs and the awesomeness of being able to patch cells will soon be available to everyone. Ed Boyden and Craig Forest developed a robot that can patch cells to do whole cell recordings. And even worse: the robot can patch cells in a living brain, which is even way harder than patching cells in a slice.

So for as long as it is going to last, I am going to feel special that I have mastered the art of whole cell recordings in brain slices, and I am hoping that it’s going to be a while until robots can think of research projects and write papers.

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Filed under electrophysiology, neuroscience, science

All play and no work?

I generally love the lab that I am in: I’ve learned to patch cells here and even though I (still) don’t have my own funding, my PI allows me to do the research that I want, and I even got a technician who is helping me with that. I love that we go sailing in the summer on a weekday, and I love that every single person in my lab likes to cook and eat delicious food (which we often do). I love that we help each other out: this past week all 15 of us helped a labmate move to a new place. I love a lot of other things about the lab that I am in too.
What I don’t love (and I’ve written about this before), is that all this fun that we’re having means that some people rarely ever do any work anymore. There are days when people come in, start with coffee at the coffee table that is strategically placed in the middle of the lab, sit there long enough for lunch to start, and then hang out until it’s time for an ever-present beer from the lab fridge. New people that join our lab do so because they like that we’re having shots at 2PM or because we have a potluck every week when the PI is traveling. 
And I hate to feel like such a grumpy person, but this really annoys me (as I said this morning on twitter). Especially now that I have BlueEyes, I try to work pretty efficient, which means that for most of the day I am busy doing something. And being busy while other people are sitting at the table laughing together makes me feel lonely. It makes me feel a loser for being at work instead of hanging out. And when I’m doing a slice experiment, I’ll usually hang out and talk when I’m waiting for my drug to wash onto my cell, but especially on days when I’m working hard but stuff doesn’t work, it makes me feel alone. 
I’ve debated whether I should talk to my PI about this, but that feels too much like telling on people. Besides, I leave everyday around 4PM to pick BlueEyes up from daycare, so who am I to say something anyway? And my PI takes pride in his so-called ‘hands-off’ mentorship. The one time I suggested that one of the grad students could perhaps use a bit more guidance (he’s in his 7th year with no papers yet); he said that he wasn’t that type of a mentor.
So I guess I’m going to continue to find a balance between work and play, keep a smile on my face and remember that somewhere in the world there are people working.

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Filed under life in the lab, neuroscience, procrastination, science