NOTICE: Posting schedule is irregular. I hope to get back to a regular schedule as the day-job allows.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

NEAT STUFF: Backyard Brains [Full link to blog for email clients.]

The annual Society for Neuroscience meeting is a massive show of current science, communication, debates, and outreach.  This year we have nearly 30,000 attending scientists with over 2000 presentations a day.  Getting to the posters involves walking among several hundred vendors - ranging from funding agencies, publishers, and research chemical companies to lab equipment manufacturers all vying for our attention.  This is not a bad thing, since it is well worth taking a morning or afternoon to walk through the exhibits.

Today I encountered a trio of our graduate students loaded down with tote-bags, notepads, mouse pads, t-shirts, free books and journals and goodies ("Plush Neurons!").  As a student, I loved the free stuff, and collected postcards from the vendors (mailed out before the meeting) to collect free pens, coffee mugs,  and more (Actually, my favorite were the fridge magnets showing coral reef photography from a chemical supply lab with links to the Cayman Islands).  As a postdoc and junior faculty member I collected items and took them back to the techs in the lab ("Ooh, Timers!").  As a more "experienced" faculty I now browse the vendors looking for things I need ("More Wireless!"), talking to the people who make the stuff I use ("Okay, how do we solve the power supply problem..."), and trying to figure out what I might be able to do with the discovery around the next corner ("You mean I can actually use that inside an MRI machine?").

But every once in a while, something absolutely jumps out of the background noise.  I was told - "Go to booth 305, you'll be glad you did!"  So I went, and discovered "Backyard Brains."

Screen capture from
Backyard Brains sells teaching kits for electrophysiology - this is a $100 kit that allows students of any age to learn principals of neurons and muscles.  The box is so simple - just plug it into stick the needles into an insect muscle, plug it into a laptop/iPhone/iPad, and you have an instant electrophysiology laboratory.  The concept is great - here is an affordable way to take an experiment that formerly required expensive amplifiers, oscilloscopes and stimulators - and make it inexpensive and portable.  Elementary, middle and high school classrooms; Science Fairs, after school programs, Scouts, community events - each of these can become a Neuroscience lab.

The "SpikerBox" show here records and displays (via sight *and* sound) the neuron and muscle action potentials - typically from an insect: cockroach, grasshopper, cricket are best - similar to what many of us trained on in the lab.  I'm sure it can be adapted to other nerve/muscle systems as well.  The EMG SpikerBox does the same thing, but with muscle signals that can be recorded from humans using adhesive electrode pads that stick right on the skin and pick up contractions associated with muscle movement.  While the visual display is important, the sound of neurons "popping" or muscles "whooshing" is one that is certain to stick with anyone who encounters electrophysiology for the first time.

The "RoboRoach" system takes it even a step further, allowing control of electrical stimulation to cause a cockroach to move around in directions that you control.  I know this sounds kind of "squicky" to adults, but just imagine the reaction of a classroom full of kids - I promise you from personal experience that there will much more "Cool!" than "Ew!" by the time the demonstration is over.

As I said, every once in a while, a vendor, product or research report really jumps out at you, and Backyard Brains certainly did it for me!

Check them out, and tell a teacher.  Meanwhile, keep exercising those brains, nerves and muscles - we may even hook them up to let you see and hear them in action!

Monday, October 15, 2012

NEWS: Brain Awareness - Quick Brain Facts and Video Winners [Full link to blog for email clients.]

Just a heads' up, I am at the 42nd annual Society for Neuroscience meeting this week in New Orleans.  I came across some very timely and topically info today at the society's Brain Awareness Campaign.  I've mentioned the organization before, in conjunction with the annual video contest.  I promised to provide an update on this year's contest, and here it is (

The winner was announced today (Sat. 10/13) and it's a great video.   "The Carrot" - was a collaboration between an undergraduate student, a grad student and a postdoc, and represents the international reach of the program.  You can see all of the videos at the link above, but here's the winner =================================>

Along with the "fun" aspects of promoting brain awareness, the Society sponsors "" which provides an excellent source for separating fact from myth about the brain.  It highlights recent brain research, provides links and resources for finding out more about the brain, and even has their own (text) version of mythbusters: "Neuromyths" (

Finally, I'd like to call everyone's attention to a charitable foundations that funds brain science and brain awareness - in this case, both "applied" and "basic"science - the Dana Foundation (  In the 1950's, the Charles A. Dana foundation was founded by it's namesake to fund philanthropic endeavors in eduction and the arts.  The first research grant - also in the 50's - was for cancer research, and funding for cancer continued, with the addition of brain science funding in the mid 80's.  However, in the early 90's, the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives was founded, placing the Dana Foundation in the forefront of Neuroscience research, launching Brain Awareness Week and the radio program "Gray Matters."  The Dana Foundation continues to fund cancer, brain and other science research, as well as promoting all types and levels of education; and in partnership with the Society for Neuroscience, is the leading force behind "Neuroeducation."  Many of us in the field are in their debt.

I'll be back with more from the SFN meeting as well as continuing The Lab Rats' Guide to the Brain and current news and comment in the days to come.

Friday, October 12, 2012

COMMENT: In Search of "Basic Science" (Includes DCAAR: "Funding Science") [Full link to blog for email clients.]

This week my laboratory had what is called a "site visit" in usual academic terms.  In general, a Site Visit (or SV) means that one or more representatives of a scientific agency (typically a funding agency, but it can also be other types of scientific review) come to your "Site" to see your research, environment, and talk to the key personnel on the project.  There are also "Reverse SVs" when the agency has all of the reviewers in one place and the "Visitee" has to take their whole team to go put on the "Dog and Pony Show" are a different Site.

I have been involved in many of these SVs, and they typically cause you to drop everything for 1-2 weeks to prepare, then rehearse everything to make it look like you know what you are doing!  SVs serve another valuable purpose, though, the reviewers get to see your environment, hear from your administrators, get a feel for how the lab works - and those being reviewed get a first-hand chance to meet the reviewers and get a better idea what they are looking for.

The topic of this blog, however, is less about the SV itself, but about the purpose behind the SV.  You see, the funding agency didn't want to fund research directed at drug discovery, finding a cure for a disease, or creating a device.  They wanted to fund "Basic Science."

What, you may ask, is "Basic Science?"  [Go ahead, I'm waiting.  Feel free to ask.]

Why, thank you for asking!  Basic Science is just that - it's basic - the science that forms the basis of other discoveries.  In an age where we may argue about *who* should fund scientific research (, whether certain research is "appropriate" (, and even the ethics of scientific peer review (, the notion of doing science just for the sake of discovery is endangered - Congressmen and animal rights activists claim that it is repetitive and useless, while society and industry are often not interested in anything that does not result in a product.

When I entered academic science, there were two main divisions that received the most attention - "Basic" and "Applied."  For a memory researcher, Basic Science would be to study a brain area and report any discoveries regarding mechanisms of encoding, recall, patterns, structures - and even negative results. ("We tried this and it didn't work, therefore we can rule out...") Basic science is about exploration, building on discoveries, and hypothesis testing.  Since a well-formulated hypothesis can only be negated, and not affirmed, this means a lot of "We tried this" papers. 

Applied science was anything directed to a product - a drug for Alzheimer's Disease or a neural Prosthetic, for example.  A lot of Applied research started out with Basic Science, and only after essential principles were proven, did the application suggest itself.  In modern biomedical research there is a new term "translational" which encapsulates this latter thought - fundamental science that is still directed at a medicinal goal - a "translation" of Basic Science in Applied Science.

As stated above, Basic Science research is endangered in this country and around the world.  It is endangered by the economy, decreased government funding of science in light of increased government spending on everything else, increased regulatory and compliance burden, animal rights activism, and the unrelenting push to *prove* something and justify our science.  The National Science Foundation funds some Basic Science research (around 10% of total science research, depending on the field), but so much of their budget is consumed with national science education and public science infrastructure (such as museums).  The National Institutes of Health are much more focused on the "Translational" buzzword, and so swamped with applications, that funding only 7% of applications translates to only 2% Basic Science support - even though they fund around 50% of the research in biomedical fields.  Private industry funding (anywhere from 40-60% - again, depending on the field) must answer to the corporate bottom line and goals - such as drug discovery - and even there they are increasingly focused more on finding new uses for old drugs than finding new drugs. 

That leaves charitable foundations, and private university funding.

Reality check:  Most universities are struggling.  They don't have deep research pockets filled by tuition.  Professors with primary appointments to *teach* only get about 30% of their time to do research as it is. Anything more relies of getting grants from sources outside the institution.

Oh, but there's another player - The U.S. Department of Defense funds 25% or more of the research in certain defense-related or soldier-related fields (such as PTSD and Neural Prosthetics).  However, it is more accurate to describe them more as a "corporate" funding agency due to the focused "Applied" nature of the research.
So, that really leaves only charitable foundations.  Fortunately, they do exist, but nationwide, they come in a distant fifth place to NIH, NSF, DoD and Industry funding.  Still, some of the foundations are quite large and challenge the National Institutes in amount of funding - especially large charities such as American Heart Association, Muscular Dystrophy Association, etc. but again, those are again better described as "industry" due to their singular focus on Applied or Translational research. 

Philanthropic foundations, such as Gates, Keck, Templeton, Dana and many others are the last bastion of Basic Science... and there's only so many billionaires to go around.

Basic Science is in danger.  Despite protestations to the contrary, there is still so much we don't know in science...
...and we'll never find the answers if we close those doors.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The GUIDE: Sleep and Sleep Deprivation [Full link to blog for email clients.]

Still recovering and still struggling with time, the lone writer sits at his computer... and falls asleep.

Sorry, folks, today we had the major canine and small equine festival - i.e. "Dog and Pony Show" at work. Tomorrow night I leave for our annual scientific meeting.  Needless to say, I'm a slacker, as Tom Kratman takes great pleasure in informing me.

One of my regular correspondents writes:  "Speaker, you did a post on sleep and sleep deprivation effects fairly recently. I would like to look at it again and can't find it. Could you point me to it?"

Sure, Sanford.  I imagine that the post you are thinking of was my "Black Friday" piece from last year:

 An Open Letter to U.S. Retailers -

In it, I equate sleep deprivation with intoxication and point out the issues with sudden changes in work shifts, the effects of extended wakefullness and disruption in sleep. You are welcome to read the original, but I've extracted the highlights, below:

The frank truth is that lack of sleep produces many of the same mental effects as being drunk or high, and Black Friday will be staffed by employees operating on too little sleep.  The busiest retail day of the year is also the day when clerks and shoppers both are at the greatest risk of making serious judgmental errors at potentially high costs.
Critical factors are:
  1. Sudden shift from working during the day to working during normal sleep hours.
  2. Long work hours
  3. Difficulty in sleeping during the day
The effects:
Essentially, people who are sleep deprived show many of the same impairments of a person with a legally impaired blood alcohol level even though they do not show the same physical effects [Citek at al., Journal of Forensic Science, September 2011, volume 56, number 5, pages 1170-1179].  While factories, shops and offices that normally operate evening and night shifts have employees who are accustomed to working in the dark hours of the morning, most retail employees (and shoppers) are not.  Thus, not only are Black Friday employees *working* impaired, the customers are also *shopping* and driving while impaired.  The increase in traffic incidents and police responses on Black Friday is commonly attributed to the size of the crowds, however, the increasing trend of early opening and sleep-deprived public has to be be compounding the problem.  

The causative factors are that individuals who normally go to work at 8 AM, and now go out into public at Midnight will essentially start their work period during the times of the day when they are usually asleep and all bodily functions are at a minimum.  This is the equivalent of suddenly travelling from the U.S. to Europe, with all of the symptoms of jet lag, without the elapsed time.  It's even worse when people attempt to go to sleep in the afternoon or early evening so that they get a decent amount of sleep before getting up and going to out to shop or work.  Normal daily cycles and rhythms involve 6-10 hours of sleep, followed by 16-18 hrs awake.  It is difficult to sleep when a person has been awake for less than 12 hours (provided that the person is not already sleep deprived), so trying to go to sleep at 6 PM means spending a lot of time *trying* to sleep, but not succeeding.  It takes "swing-shift" workers about a week to adjust their sleep schedules from day to night shifts (or vice-versa) [Kolla and Auger, Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine, October 2011, volume 78, number 10, pages 675-684].

So what's the problem with being a bit sleepy at work? 
Sleep deprivation slows reaction times, impairs memory and alters judgment.  A study in primates a few years ago demonstrated that following a single night of lost sleep, critical brain areas showed reduced activity, while other brain ares have to work harder to compensate [Porrino et al., Public Library of Science - Biology, September 2005, volume 3, number 9, page e299].  When sleep deprived, it is difficult to form and use short term memory and make critical decisions.
For an employee, it may mean a driving incident or accident with heavy machinery.  For employers, it may mean lapses of judgement ranging from charging an incorrect price to making the *wrong* decision when other people's health and safety are at stake. Yes, many businesses, manufactories and professions work through the night, but those people have adjusted their schedules to that purpose.


I suspect that the summary above is the article you were thinking of, Sanford.  You may in fact want me to expand on the topic, and I would be happy to do so in a future blog.  

In the meantime, let me close with a few myths and truths about sleep deprivation:

Myth:  You can make up short sleep hours by sleeping in on the weekend.
Truth:  In the short term, you need to "make up" as much sleep as you lose.  If you rn short an hour a night, you'd need to sleep 5 extra hours on Saturday. The that bit about needing to be awake for 12 or more hours before your next sleep cycle kicks in - and you can't get to sleep that night, so you sleep in the next day, and end up losing sleep by Monday morning... In the long run, accumulated sleep debt can only be discharged by a drastic change in schedule & health - a new exercise program, diet, stress relief, seasonal change - all of which can help reset your sleep cycle.

Myth:  You need less sleep as a child or elder adult.
Truth:  Children under age 8-10 seem to need about an hour more sleep a night.  For about 3-4 years, the sleep need *seems* to go down, but by mid teens, kids are back to the same sleep needs - except that teens seem to function better with a later waking time in the morning.  Past age 60, the apparent need for sleep diminishes more due to insomnia than any need for less sleep.  Insomnia is often tied to daytime sleepiness, so there may even be the same number of hours of sleep, just broken up through the day.

Myth:  The best sleep is continuous through the night.  
Truth:  Actually, we seem to sleep in cycles of 1-2.5 hrs.  There will be 4-5 of these a night, and it is not at all unusual or unhealthy in waking all the way up between bouts.  Usually the morning tiredness we feel comes when the alarm awakens us in the middle of a cycle.

Note:  The best way to determine how much sleep you need is to stay awake for about 16 hrs, then go to sleep in a cool, dark, quiet room.  Now, sleep until you awaken naturally in the morning - first waking - don't hit the snooze alarm or pull up the covers and roll over.  If you can get up and feel awake, not fuzzy, you've had a full night's sleep.  Repeat a few times.  Now try to adjust your bedtime so that your average wake time is about 5 minutes before your alarm.  I happen to know that I can awaken normally after about 7.5 hrs of sleep.  The normal range is 7-9 hours.

Myth:  Coffee will get me through.
Truth:  All stimulant drugs - and caffeine is *definitely* a stimulant drug (albeit, quite pleasant in most forms) - extract a price, and that price is a crash due to accumulated sleep debt - and by the way, if you are tired enough, you'll sleep even with the whole pot of coffee.  Stimulants don't always improve mental capacity, either, so it's possible to be "awake" yet not aware or fully cognizant of your environment.


Thanks to all of my readers, I have to report that the carpal tunnel surgery was a success - so much so I can't wait to get the other wrist done (my dominant hand) mostly because it's the one that really hurts, now. 
At three weeks after the surgery, nearly full sensation has returned to the fingers of that hand, and I'm gradually regaining strength and dexterity.

So, keep those cards and letter rolling in, folks, and I'll see you next time!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Guest Post [Full link to blog for email clients.]

Not here, actually - but over at Stephanie Osborn's Comet Tales (

I realize I've been pretty slack about posts the past 2 months.  It's not that I don't have the material, but I have had very little time.  Between 3 week-long trips in two months' time, wrist surgery, a site visit & annual scientific meeting to prepare for, it's been a hectic time.

I wrote this essay for Steph a couple of months ago and she posted it late yesterday - I think it will ring true for a number of my regular readers.  I also highly recommend Steph's blog - it's a great source of info on space science and solar weather.  Just as Steph says I'm her go-to person for neuroscience, I do the same and go to her for space info.

Read and enjoy, and I'll get some new content up as soon as I can.