Tag Archives: science

Rita Levi-Montalcini

30 Dec

Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini, 103-year-old neuroscientist and all-around impressive individual, has passed away this weekend. (2012 has been a bad year to be a personal hero of mine, statistically.)

Graduating medical school in 1930s Italy as a Jewish woman, Levi-Montalcini faced unbelievable amounts of adversity from the beginning of her academic career. Nonetheless, she went on to share the 1986 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with Stanley Cohen for their discovery of nerve growth factor (NGF). NGF is crucial to the survival of many neurons, and is therefore a focus of ongoing research into disorders where cell growth is abnormal, including dementia.

While her loss remains a loss to us all, Levi-Montalcini was also the first Nobel Laureate to reach 100 years of age, and if that’s not the best that can be hoped for in a lifetime, I don’t know what is.

The Guardian has a profile that is well worth a read. The following is my favorite passage:

“Making her own microsurgical and tissue-manipulating equipment – using, among other things, reshaped domestic sewing needles and modified watchmaker’s tweezers — she began her fruitful investigation into normal and abnormal neural development and its mechanisms of control. Discovery of her activities could have resulted in imprisonment or death, but she attracted little interest by buying fertile eggs to investigate the early phases of nerve growth in chick embryos. As a bonus to concealment, many of the experiments could be eaten when they were finished.”

2012: A Solstice Review

21 Dec

If you’re anything like me (and I suspect a solid 95% of people are, in some meaningful way), this year has been approximately one half fevered nightmare and one half giddy joy. Which is probably the human condition, or whatever. But with recent and less-recent events making me feel like life is an overwhelming horror, I thought it would be nice to dwell on the positives of the past cycle around the sun.

It’s the winter solstice today! Axial tilt: it’s the reason for the season. The days are going to start getting longer again, which is in itself something to be thankful for.

The first thing I am grateful for this year is the ability to find beauty anywhere. My un-love for LA in my last days there furnished me with a brand new motto: “You will find joy wherever you go, idiot.” And three weeks in South Bend provided additional proof, should any be required.

Sunrise in South Bend

A sunrise in South Bend, of all things. Who’d’ve guessed?

2012 was also a fantastic year in pop culture. By which I mean I Netflixed a bunch of tv shows from the 90s. By which I mean that if I had done nothing else this year but watch Babylon 5 for the first time, it would have been a good year. By which I mean I may have a slight Babylon 5 addiction.

Ahem.

Fortunately, I also happened to graduate college (what?), attend two kickass weddings, read a lot of cool stuff, and get a job (again, what?).

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A Sense of Smell

6 Sep

Olfaction is not one of the topics most people look forward to with bated breath when going into a neuroscience course; at least, that hasn’t been my experience. Most people (often myself included) are looking out for the trendier stuff — consciousness, phantom limbs, schizophrenia, hallucinations. But it should come as no surprise that the neuroscience of olfaction, or the sense of smell, is both a hotbed of current research and a fascinating area of study. The 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Linda Buck and Richard Axel for their discovery of the family of genes (about 1,000 genes total) which code for olfactory receptors in humans.

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Never Be Bored

3 Mar

Once again I’ve abandoned you all for weeks. Midterms plus interviews plus presentations plus pointlessly raging against politics leaves little time for blogging.

But there’s so much exciting STUFF going on, so this is sort of a round-up post.

  • Oxygen detected in the atmosphere of one of Saturn’s moons. Dione, not Titan. Which brings us to….
  • The Sirens of Titan. I’m on a Kurt Vonnegut kick. I last read most of his books about five years ago, and picked up Cat’s Cradle up at the library a couple weeks ago on a whim. And everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.
  • Probably the reason I needed so badly to read some Vonnegut was that the last book I read was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Which I highly recommend, and all, but which is not something you want to read if you’re looking to feel good about yourself as a member of the human race or of the biological sciences. For my money, the two most important things civilization has given us are science and basic human rights (fancy coffee drinks are a close third). So what happens when those two fundamental values clash? Nothing light-hearted enough to be reading during midterms, that’s for sure.
  • But if you want to feel good about something humanity has done, may I suggest our treatment of baby sloths with little teddy bears and bandages that look like jammies? (Preceded, I am afraid, by an advertisement)

 

  • And finally, in case certain ongoing incidents are making you, like me, feel kind of down about the whole history of mankind along with the future of both your gender and your chosen career, and in case the baby sloths did not provide a permanent fix, let me just point out that you are made of atoms whose emergent properties can rather conveniently be altered by atoms that have formed molecules like caffeine or ethanol. So, being alive? All in all, pretty cool.

Why Cells Age

7 Feb

I’m in the middle (er, maybe the first third) of a class on the neurobiology of aging. As such, we’ve covered a few different theories of aging, from the molecular (telomeres!) to the evolutionary (grandparents!). There are about as many overlapping theories of why we age as there are branches and specializations within biology. Aging affects all of us if we’re lucky, and all systems within our bodies, yet we don’t know precisely why it happens at all.

A new paper from scientists at the Salk Institute theorizes that cellular aging may be linked to “extremely long-lived proteins” (ELLPs). Keep in mind that cellular aging is slightly different from aging as a person; some cells throughout your body are constantly aging, dying, and being replaced, no matter what your age is. Other cells are mostly with you from birth until death — neurons are one such group of cells. With some slight, recently-discovered exceptions, there is very little neurogenesis (the birth of new cells in the brain) after childhood.

This new research into ELLPs focuses on the aging of brain cells, which is important, as they are not replaced when they are damaged or die off. Culturally, it’s also important because brain aging is a big deal in our population. I mentioned above that some cells (like skin cells or the lining of the stomach) are being replaced fairly regularly. Another mechanisms that cells use to repair damage is to replace or recycle the proteins that carry out cellular activities.

One important class of protein in brain cells is the transporter protein. The ELLPs in this study form channels that allow ions and other small molecules in and out of the cell past its membrane, which is how neurons signal to each other.

If this type of protein gets worn down or damaged, it is not able to be replaced or recycled, according to this paper. In that case, neurons will have a hard time signaling to each other, and the accumulated damage over many years could lead to problems throughout the brain.

This paper is new and interesting, although it doesn’t provide any easy answers, and definitely requires further study (For instance, the study was done on rats, which are a good model organism, but which also have much shorter lifespans than humans have). It does, however, illustrate one of my favorite differences between physicists, who have variously flavored quarks, and biologists, who have “extremely long-lived proteins.” I don’t know what that says about our respective fields, but it must mean something.

T-Minus Six Months

6 Feb

… Mars Science Laboratory, MSL, is scheduled to land on August 5th!

Via NASA: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/msl/index.html

I was going to be glib and convert that 1/2 Earth year into Martian years, but it turns out (as it usually does) that things are complicated. I came up with 0.266 Martian years, but don’t quote me on that. After all, I’m not even 12 Martian years old, according to this Nerdiversary calculator. On the other hand, I’m 92 Mercurial years old….

Good luck, MSL and team! The best is yet to come!

MSL launch. Godspeed? I will not rest until "Science speed!" catches on. Considering how clunky and unpoetic it sounds, I will probably never rest.

In which I am a stereotypical scientist because my first response is “Neat!”

5 Feb

Apparently there’s been a story making the rounds lately, about a dozen junior high and high school girls in New York with what is being diagnosed as conversion disorder, a psychological disorder that manifests itself in tics and other motor or sensory symptoms, for which you would normally expect a biological (rather than psychological) interpretation. The disorder on display in New York doesn’t appear to be traditionally contagious, or caused by environmental factors. Naturally, this makes people a little nervous.

Being a firm if somewhat facetious believer in House’s definition of “idiopathic” — “from the Latin meaning we’re idiots ’cause we can’t figure out what’s causing it” — I was skeptical. But the school district, department of health, and related agencies have conducted what appears to be a pretty thorough check on all the other possible causes, as seen in this report. Some of the highlights (what, you don’t want to read an 8-page scientific report in your spare time?) follow:

  • The 12 cases have nothing in common save for their school, which has been checked for environmental factors that could have caused the symptoms, and their gender.
  • 1 of the 12 cases had a preexisting diagnosis of Tourette’s syndrome, and 2 other cases had earlier diagnoses of other illnesses associated with tics.
  • The cases have been dispersed and ongoing over the past seven months.
  • The time course of the cases indicates that it was NOT (repeat: was NOT) linked with Gardisil or any other vaccination.
  • Of the 12 cases, 8 were examined by a pediatric neurologist. All 8 of those cases had experienced “significant life stressors.” (This one seems to be the big blinking red lights sign, at least from my point of view.)