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…)

The touch of a fly

Our sense of touch has an innate connection with our emotions. Gentle touches are soothing for not only us but also other animals. For example, classic experiments by psychologist Harry Harlow in the 1950s found that an infant monkey raised with two robots, one providing food and the other wearing soft cloth, spends more time cuddling with the cloth robot1. When scared, the infant monkey also goes to the cloth robot for protection. Clearly, there is a special pathway that guides touch sensation to the depths of animal instincts. Working out this pathway requires knowledge about the neural circuitry processing touch sensation.


How falling off a horse led to discovering the opiate receptor

“Any way you can make love, somebody’s already thought of. Any crazy caper you can get up to, any great meal you can think of, any combination of children or idea of how to raise them – somebody’s already thought of. But nobody’s ever discovered an opiate receptor before.”

– Candace Pert1


What does cocaine do in the brain?

Not all drugs can completely change who we are. Cocaine is one of the few with this power. Like many other psychoactive drugs, cocaine was first used as an anesthetic, but its potential effect on one’s mind and will was soon discovered and overshadowed its original usage. Cocaine’s power does not lie within the molecule itself, but rather in its interaction with the brain’s reward system (see a previous TBT post for the discovery of this system).


The winter blues: Is it all in your head?

“February is my favorite month.” said no one living in Boston ever. The short days, cold temperatures, and repetitive snow really throw a dagger (presumably made of ice) into good times. I tend to think of Dec-Feb as my hibernating months; I am more lethargic, less motivated, and my fiancé and labmates can vouch for the fact that I am slightly more irritable than the good natured loving person I always am in better weather.  I’ve come to attribute my noticeable seasonal downswing to Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD (an acronym that ironically makes me quite happy), a self-diagnosis I probably made from seeing a commercial. Being the curious graduate student that I am I decided to do a little research on the subject and see what I could learn—really trying to go above and beyond what pharmaceutical advertising taught me.

Boston Winter, 2015. Image from CBS News Feb. 16, 2015



Zika virus: from mosquito bites to locating centrosomes?


Since the beginning of this year, pregnant women are advised not to travel to Brazil or a long list of other Central and South American countries. The reason is a dramatic increase in the number of Brazilian newborns with microcephaly.

Dashboard 1


[Throwback Thursday] A gene to unite hot and hot

It is no linguistic coincidence that high temperature and spiciness share the same word in the English dictionary: they induce the same burning sensation. The biological basis for this commonality was discovered in 1997 by David Julius’s group at UCSF1.


Tagging a snapshot of life with prions

“As you know, in most areas of science, there are long periods of beginning before we really make progress.” – Eric Kandel

In a typical maze experiment, a hungry rat enters a moderately complicated maze, in which it does its best to find a “reward room” with food. After some guesses, the rat finds its way, consumes the food, and is returned to the entrance of the maze. From then on, the rat makes fewer bad guesses and finds the food faster after each round. Eventually, it completely masters the maze layout and finds the perfect route every time. To explain this improvement, scientists have coined the term reward reinforcement, which essentially suggests that the reward that the rat collects at the end reinforces its correct choices, until it eventually learns a perfect route. This model may sound very simple, but is it?


Zero degrees of separation

How connectomics is revealing the intricacies of neural networks, an interview with Josh Morgan



Complete scan of a volume of mouse cortex, and complete reconstruction of a few neurons within it (Berning et al., 2015).


[Throwback Thursdays] The rat that became addicted to shocking its brain

All addictive substances exert their effects by harnessing the powerful reward system that is normally used to guide an animal’s behavior. One simplistic way to build a reward system is to have neurons that carry positive and negative values. These reward centers would then, and have been shown to, be the primary target of the addictive substances. To find these reward centers, researchers must devise a way to stimulate a brain region and ask the animal how it likes it. How can one do this?


3 rat self stimulating

Figure 1. A rat presses the lever to stimulate its own brain. Adapted from Olds 19581.