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I spy, I spy with my little eye

For the last couple of years I have been studying the retinal circuits of mice. While it is amazing how similar visual circuitry is among many species, I am always fascinated by surprising unique strategies that have developed in this system. The human visual system (from the retina to visual cortex) is a remarkable network that can see colors, adapt to a wide range of light intensities, perceive depth and distance, and much more. It is perfectly put-together such that each part contributes to a specific function: the lens focuses the image on the retina, different photoreceptors allow for color detection, our two frontal eyes allow for depth perception through parallax. The visual system of some animals has found other strategies to achieve the same functions, sometimes even using the same tools in new ways!

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Shortly after the burst

Prof. Mike Greenberg talks about his research on Immediate Early Genes

Despite similarities in the numbers of genes and structure of neural circuits, primates have evolved vastly more complex brains and behaviors. What do those differences look like in the brain? A recent paper from the labs of Michael Greenberg and Margaret Livingstone at Harvard Medical School examines how a short (85 base pairs!) sequence in the regulatory region of the OSTN gene, which was previously known as a secreted protein in bone and muscle development, has allowed it to be expressed in the brains of primates, but not those of rodents. The expression of OSTN is special for another reason: it is one of the first primate-specific genes regulated by immediate early genes (IEGs) to be found. IEGs are a group of genes whose transcription in neurons is transient and commonly follows a burst of spiking activity. In their short window of expression many IEGs are known to regulate expression of specific downstream genes. The new paper from the Greenberg and Livingstone labs gives us a peak into how small differences in common molecular pathways may be implicated in the diversity of species. The journey of our knowledge and understanding of IEGs and the genetic response to neural activity is also the journey of the scientist who first observed the expression patterns of IEGs, and who has since dedicated a great deal of his scientific career to investigating them: Professor Michael Greenberg. A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of sitting down with him to talk about his work, past, present and future.

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Golgi stain of human pyramidal neuron

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Thinking Fast and Slow about Thirst

Out of all motivational states, thirst should have been a simple one to understand. One feels thirsty when one is dehydrated, which can be detected from blood volume and osmolarity. Drinking water hydrates one’s body and quenches thirst. This is a homeostatic model. Intuitive, right? Well, the strange thing about thirst is that it is quenched within seconds to minutes after drinking water, which is too fast for any changes in the blood to happen. This is as if the brain gets hydrated before the body, which makes little sense since there is no specialized canal that passes water from mouth to brain (thank goodness). On the other hand, the buildup of the thirst drive is usually rather slow, meaning that thirst state can change on both a fast and slow time scale. How does it work?

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True Beauty

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
– John Keats in ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’

The scientific field prides itself in its objectivity. Truth is found by a search free of personal biases, personal commitments or emotional involvements. Still, a great many scientists have said beauty guided their way. For example, physicist Paul Dirac stated: “It is more important to have beauty in one’s equations than to have them fit the experiment”.

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Keeping your head cool

During these hot summer days, lying in the shadow puffing and sweating, my arms and legs pulling down like bags of sand, it is sometimes difficult to believe that my brain is still functioning fine. How do we manage to keep our head cool, even on hot days like these?

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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.

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The secret life of our brains

A peek into the unconscious brain under anesthesia

In our everyday lives we are aware of ourselves, our behavior, and the sensory perception of our environment. This awareness during awake states is known as consciousness. As much as it is central to our brain activity, it has also been one of the greater mysteries of neuroscience. In our lifetimes we all experience changes in our state of consciousness, particularly in the alternation between sleep and wake states. We may also experience changes in consciousness state when fainting, during an epileptic seizure, and through the effects of psychoactive drugs. What is happening in our brains when our conscious selves are not present?

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Morton’s ether inhaler, as used in one of the first successful demonstrations of general anaesthesia in October 1846. (6)

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