Welcome to the second installment of Brain Bits, where I highlight important or interesting recent news in the world of neuroscience. This week: how to build a human brain, what female fruit flies do after sex, DIY brain stimulation, and celebrating crappy results.
A hallmark of the human brain is the dramatic enlargement of the neocortex, which is believed to mediate higher-level thought and cognition. Last week a new study in Science identified a single gene that may be responsible for the expansion of the neocortex in humans. Only humans have this gene, called ARHGAP11B, and injecting it into mice caused them to develop bigger brains that looked more human-like. A summary of the paper’s findings can be found here and here.
An interesting (and slightly racy) new study in Current Biology describes how female fruit flies actively eject male sperm from their uterus after mating. The study identified specific neurons in the brain that control how long females keep the sperm. This brain circuit may thereby allow females to control which of their mating partners gets to father most of their kids, an important evolutionary advantage since some males have better genes than others.
The Economist published an interesting article called “Hacking your brain”, describing how ordinary people are using homemade or commercially available devices to electrically stimulate their own brains. The idea is that stimulating specific parts of your brain by properly positioning the electrodes may improve your concentration, memory, or mood. But as the article points out, some scientists worry about whether this sort of DIY brain stimulation is safe, let alone effective.
An article in the New York Times Magazine by Carl Zimmer ponders whether or not most of our DNA is junk, as you may have heard before. Interesting points on both sides, but the debate still rages on. My hunch is that (like most scientific arguments) the answer lies somewhere in between: there’s probably a bunch of junk in there, as well as some useful stuff that we haven’t yet appreciated.
Fruit fly geneticist Ron Konopka has passed away. In my post about circadian rhythms I mentioned how Konopka and Seymour Benzer identified the period gene in 1971. Their work essentially launched the field of behavioral genetics, or the study of how genes influence behavior. Much of Konopka’s story is described in Jonathan Weiner’s excellent biography of Seymour Benzer, Time, Love, Memory, which I highly recommend. As Weiner poignantly describes, Konopka’s story was one of discovery as well as disappointment. He was hired by Caltech but was denied tenure; then after moving to Clarkson College he was again denied tenure and left science, living out his days “a few blocks from the Caltech campus, alone in a small house half hidden by palm trees and magnolias”.
In a previous post, I discussed how high-profile scientific journals only like to publish clear-cut, sexy stories. They don’t like confusing or conflicting data. They don’t like negative results, meaning results where you don’t see an effect (e.g. drug X does not cure disease Y). The thing is, confusing or negative results are still valuable. So I was happy to read that one journal, PLoS ONE, is launching a collection of studies called “Missing Pieces” to highlight “negative, null, and inconclusive results”—as described in a Vox article, “a celebration of the seamier side of botched and boring experiments that usually never sees the light of day”. Hopefully this collection will further the idea that even messy results are important in science.
Did you see any recent neuroscience news that you’d like to share? Leave a comment below!