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Sleeping on the Wing

There is an old Monty Python skit where John Cleese and Graham Chapman play airplane pilots. Presumably on a long, tedious flight, they are clearly bored and keen on amusing themselves at the expense of their passengers.

They find entertainment through relaying worrisome, nonsensical messages. Cleese begins their prank with the truism, “Hello, this is your captain speaking. There is absolutely no cause for alarm.” And after some internal discussion about what there should be no cause for alarm about, they add: “The wings are not on fire.” The messages get more ridiculous, and hilarity (at least for the pilots) ensues.

While fictional pilots can pass the time during long flights by pranking their passengers, real pilots have to find other ways to stay awake. Unless, of course, you happen to be a great frigatebird, in which case you can just sleep on the wing, as a paper published in Nature Communications this August reported. (more…)

Consider the Fun

Scientists are often portrayed in pop-culture as pedantic types, with personalities as stiff as their starched white lab coats. While they may have a pressing work ethic and incessant care for detail, their work is creative by nature. Scientists must create knowledge by designing and building experiments. In this way, a scientist is closer to a starving artist than to an automaton.

A scientific project might be spawned from reading a paper and finding an unanswered question, or just observing a phenomenon and wondering how it happens. This stage is quite exciting – you imagine yourself doing experiments that will answer your question (or you imagine collecting data using some brand-new technique, and the results would be unlike anything anyone’s ever observed). The prospect of discovering something new is as thrilling as falling in love. (more…)

Animal Welfare in Research

I recently had the opportunity to write a post for Nautilus on a subject that is dear to me – the use of crows and other intelligent members of the corvid family for neuroscience research. Corvid intelligence has been noticed by humans for millennia, and more recently by ethologists and psychologists. The fascinating thing about these animals is that like all birds, they do not have a neocortex – the part of the mammalian brain that has countless times been implicated in intelligence. Now, there is just one lab in the world – Andreas Nieder at the University of Tübingen –  that has started peering into the brains of these fascinating creatures to try to understand how crows’ cortex-less brains enable them to perform amazing cognitive feats. You can read the full story on Nautilus.

The post received moderate praise (thanks, mom!), but some of the comments on Nautilus struck me because they focused not on the ideas or experiments I proposed, but on the treatment of animals in research. Ricky, for example, wrote:  (more…)

TBT: Responses of Neurons of Primary Visual Cortex of Awake Unrestrained Rats to Visual Stimuli

In my research on the rat visual system, I have been designing an apparatus that would allow me to record neuronal responses to visual stimuli in freely moving rats. Most visual neuroscience experiments are now performed on restrained animals, who are usually treated with different drugs to suppress movement (anesthetics, muscle relaxants). But as anyone who has tried reading while falling asleep knows, just because your eyes are open does not mean that information is getting through to the brain. It makes more sense to study how neurons respond to images when the research subject is awake and paying attention.

While few researchers are studying vision in unrestrained rats today, I was surprised to find that the basic setup I have been working on for my experiments had already been created — in 1980’s Soviet Russia.

Working at the Moscow State University, Sergei Girman wanted to study the visual system in freely moving animals. So Girman chose to perform his experiments on rats, noting two features that made them convenient to use –  “the eyes in this animal are relatively immobile,” making it easy to know where they are looking (researchers go through a lot of trouble training a monkey to look at computer monitors in visual experiments), “while the visual analyzer is well developed” (analyzer being perhaps the fashionable word of the time to refer, in this case, to the visual areas of the brain).


Cortical Activity is a Mess: The Trouble with Averaging

Neuroscientists recording activity of single neurons in cortex have known for a long time that neural activity in cortex can be extremely variable. Even when the timing of a stimulus presentation or behavioral measurements are tightly controlled, a cortical neuron is likely to fire action potentials at slightly different times and rates on any given trial.

Take a look at this example raster, where each tick represents an action potential, each line is a separate trial, and the green vertical bar is the time when a stimulus was presented (or a behavior was measured):


Looking closely at the timing of cortical action potentials, it is striking how noisy the activity appears, despite being aligned to the same event. The distribution of spikes is usually well described as a Poisson process, where the timing of any one spike is independent from the times of other spikes (this is only an estimation, since realistically the timing of spikes is constrained by a neuron’s refractory period – a neuron can’t produce action potentials closer than 1ms apart). (more…)

Luck in Science

One of the most fascinating results in brain research – one that revolutionized neuroscience, launching it into the modern age – came from David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel in a series of papers in the early 1960’s. Hubel and Wiesel were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1981 for finding that the brain breaks down visual scenes into elementary components, dedicating networks of neurons to compute simple features that are eventually built up again into ever more complex representations.

As we wait to learn who this year’s Nobel Prize winners are, I can’t help but wonder how those women and men come upon their fascinating findings. From Galileo’s revolutionary work in astronomy to Oswald Avery’s determination of DNA as the molecule of heredity, the scientific method has been the unrivaled system of discovery in a world full of mysteries. While there is no doubt that the scientific method is still producing incredible new knowledge, it is not clear why some scientists are more successful than others at utilizing that method. If all scientists – supposedly intelligent, driven people – employ the same general strategy, why are some so much better at discovery than others?


Hello, World!

Welcome to the blog of the Harvard neuroscience community! Our mission is to share with you our excitement about the brain’s inner workings. Whether you are someone vaguely interested in how the brain works or a seasoned veteran of the lab, we hope to make this blog a place where you can learn something about the brain.

Unfortunately, these days science news is filled with sensationalist tales far removed from data (e.g. did you know that your brain changes as a result of…. just about any experience?), while research articles read as if they were written by robots or zombies (some have in fact been written by machines and promptly accepted by journal editors). Not only are so many papers mind-numbingly boring, but they also filter out the amazing stories that shaped the research. Rarely are discoveries so linear or coldly logical as they appear in scientific journals. We hope to share with you not only critical interpretations of neuroscientific discoveries past and present, but (where we can) stories of how those discoveries came to be.

At the same time, we aim to relate what it means to be a scientist, from a graduate student’s or postdoc’s perspective. What scientists do day to day is a mystery to most. Pop culture decorates us with thick glasses and poor social skills, while some politicians paint us as chronic fund wasters, mooching off the hardworking taxpayer. We won’t aim to debunk any myths, but we will use this platform to show what we do and what we’re thinking about.

Our goal with this blog is simply to share exciting science and relate our experiences. Those experiences are by no means authoritative or all-encompassing, either in science as a whole or in neuroscience specifically. And they certainly won’t be homogenous. We hope that through our personal stories we can show how awesome, scary and intellectually empowering it is to be a scientist, and how fascinating it is to work on the brain.