Brain Bits, 2/21/15


credit: A. Ajifo

Ok guys, so I’m starting a new thing where I’m going to highlight some of the major news that happened this week in the world of neuroscience. These will be relatively short posts that for now I’m calling “Brain Bits”. I think it’ll be good to engage myself and you guys in the broader world of neuroscience on a regular basis, and it’ll also give you something to read on weeks when I haven’t managed to finish a new longer post (umm yeah, I know we’re going on 3 weeks now… sorry!).

Without further ado, I now present the first ever Brain Bits.

A study came out in Nature describing why marijuana makes you hungry. It was hugely overhyped in the media, for obvious reasons, but it’s a pretty interesting paper. This study by Tamas Horvath’s lab at Yale identified a specific set of neurons in the hypothalamus that are activated by cannabinoids and control feeding behavior in mice. If reading the actual article is too much for you, here’s a summary by Nature (with possibly the best accompanying photo ever) and an even more simplified summary by Reuters.

Another popular paper in the media this week was the one about how penguins have lost their tastes of sweet, savory, and bitter, which represent three of the five basic tastes (the others are salty and sour; I’ve written more about taste here). Obviously I was super excited to read this paper by Zhao et al. since taste is what I study and penguins are my favorite animal (I’m talking WAY before the rest of the world jumped on the penguin bandwagon). But the study was rather limited: it just looked at the genes thought to be involved in the different taste modalities and determined whether the genes are intact or broken in penguins. This kind of analysis may tell you something about how these specific genes are changing in different species, but it can’t tell you which tastes penguins can actually perceive. If you want to know what penguins can taste, you have to actually give them different-tasting foods and see how they respond! Here’s a BBC summary of the article.

Some very sad news: Xu Liu, a brand new professor at Northwestern who published some high-profile papers on memory circuits as a postdoc in Susumu Tonegawa’s lab, just passed away at the age of 37. His work showed that you can manipulate memory in a mouse by activating specific cells, including implanting false memories like in the movie “Inception”.

The journal Nature announced that Nature and other related Nature journals will start offering double-blind peer review, meaning that it will be possible to have your paper reviewed by people who don’t know who you are. As the announcement describes, many scientists believe that double-blind review is more fair: it might prevent a reviewer from screwing you over just because they personally dislike you or from giving you special treatment just because you’re their friend.

A paper published in the Journal of Neuroscience about the brain activity involved in memory was retracted after the authors discovered a typo in their Matlab code: a single unnecessary apostrophe. (As many of you know, this would transpose the matrix and turn the data into a meaningless jumble.) The night after I heard about the retraction I had nightmares about this happening to me! I have to give huge props to the authors who discovered the error on their own, contacted the journal to retract the paper, and described the typo and its impact in detail. I think it’s likely that typos in analysis code happen all the time, even if you’re super careful, and these typos might be quietly affecting the results and conclusions of all kinds of papers. There should be no stigma in bringing a mistake to the public’s attention; correcting mistakes in science is the only way to achieve progress.

Did you see any neuro-related news this week that you’d like to share? Leave a comment below!

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