Welcome to Brain Bits, where I highlight important or interesting recent news in the world of neuroscience. This week: more oxytocin hype, rethinking how our brain controls movement, engineering for neuroscientists, and Newt Gingrich takes a stand on funding science…?!
Just as I finished writing last week’s post about how the hormone oxytocin isn’t really a “love drug”, another oxytocin paper hit the news and triggered a whole new round of oxytocin hype. The new study in Science shows that interactions between dogs and humans trigger the release of oxytocin in both species, potentially representing a bonding mechanism similar to how humans bond with each other. While I’m sure we all appreciate seeing adorable puppy-dog eyes plastered all over the news (I mean, look at them!), if you really want to learn about what oxytocin is doing in the brain you’d be much better off reading last week’s Nature paper about oxytocin and maternal behavior.
A special issue of Neuron featured a set of reviews on the intersection between neuroscience and engineering. While several of the articles look interesting, I especially appreciated Brian Litt’s perspective on how we need to rethink neuroscience training with a greater emphasis on engineering and technical skills. Some of you might not realize this, but almost all neuroscience these days relies on engineering. Whether we’re testing animal behavior, monitoring brain activity, analyzing data, or doing practically anything else, programming and instrumentation skills are becoming essential. Which is a problem for classically trained biologists like myself—we either have to get other people to do this stuff for us (good luck with that) or we have to learn them on the fly, while under all kinds of time pressures as a grad student or a postdoc. Litt outlines how neuroscience training should change and which technical skills should be emphasized.
The cerebral cortex is generally considered the “highest” and “most evolved” part of the brain. A portion of this area called motor cortex is thought to be important for controlling motor skills, from playing sports to texting on your iPhone. However, a new study in Neuron argues that motor cortex is required for learning motor skills but not for actually performing them. In this study, rats were trained to press a lever in a precisely timed sequence. Inactivating the motor cortex prevented rats from learning this motor skill, but not from implementing skills they had previously learned. This study may change the way we think about motor control: the “lower” parts of our nervous system, such as the brainstem and spinal cord, are the underappreciated workers who actually execute motor skills, while the motor cortex is like their boss who teaches them what to do and then just sits back and watches them work.
Another recent paper in Neuron also investigated a longstanding question about cerebral cortex. In Neuroscience 101 you learn that most information from our senses is transmitted to the cortex through a relay center called the thalamus. What you don’t usually learn is that the cortex actually transmits ten times more information back to the thalamus, suggesting that it modulates the incoming information in some way that has never been well-understood. Now a new study shows that the influence of cortex on thalamus is complex and multifaceted. When the cortex is only kinda active it suppresses activity in the thalamus, but when cortex is super active it enhances thalamic activity. How this might help animals process information and make decisions is an open question for future study. (Non-technical summary of the paper here.)
Scientists across the U.S. were stunned when Newt Gingrich wrote an editorial in the New York Times arguing that we need to drastically increase government spending on biomedical research. Yes, you heard me right. Yes, THAT Newt Gingrich. He’s right: funding basic science research should not be a partisan issue, especially when it accounts for such a tiny portion of the U.S. budget (about 1%). But in this political climate, even believing in science seems like a partisan stand, let alone funding it. We’ll have to see whether Gingrich’s appeal changes any minds.
A serious discussion of the pros and cons of going to grad school was published here. Just kidding, it’s from the Onion but equally enlightening. “Con: could lead to career in academia.”