Thursday, September 14, 2006

Tiny Apocalypses

Three minor revelations I had today while attending the Presidential Symposium on Neuroscience at the U.

The first came at the end of the day, while touring through the posters being presented by grad students and techs. That was that even though I often tell people who ask what I plan to study in grad school that I'm undecided since everything's just so interesting, that's clearly sort of a lie since out of all the posters people were presenting today, I only really cared about a half dozen or so. And those all related to reward, drug addiction, or plasticity. So pretty clearly I've worked out at least a bit of a niche for myself.

The second was noting a common theme through many of the talks. One thing I should get out of the way now is that many of the presentations today (and tomorrow) are by big names--or big findings--in the field. We saw Masakazu Konishi presenting on the seminal work in sound localization in barn owls and the jamming avoiding response in Eigenmannia; a presentation by Eve Marder, the president-elect of the Society for Neuroscience; and James Hudspeth presenting on the role of the hair bundle in sound amplification. Tomorrow we'll get to see--off the top of my head--Wolfram Schultz and Eric Nestler, amongst many others. So because of that, it was interesting to see how they approached their research and would go about solving problems.

A common theme was that many of the presenters were able to sum up the idea of their work at the beginning of the talk in the form of a question, either about the big picture or just about the area they're looking at. A few of them follow (paraphrased):

David Anderson, from "Molecular Genetic Analysis of Neural Circuits for Innate Behaviors in Flies and Mice":

How are circuits that detect aversive stimuli wired to generate avoidance behaviors?

Is the negative valence associated with aversive stimuli hardwired or is it malleable?

Eve Marder, from "Variability, Compensation, and Homeostasis in Neuronal Networks":

How tightly tuned do the paramaters that govern synaptic strength and intrinsic properties need to be for "good enough" network behavior?

Masakazu Konishi, from "From Instinct to Brain":

Are there single cells responding to the location of a sound source?

There were more, but I forgot to right them down.

Finally, while Masakazu Konishi was talking about barn owls it occurred to me that part of what made his experiments work was his conscious focus on a model animal that exemplified the behavior he was interested in studying. Although this is an obvious enough aspect of experimental design, it's one that I at least often sort of lose in the shuffle. While randomly pondering the idea of a good model animal for reward and addiction (nothing really came to mind), I realized that the limbic system is A: the system which seems to be responsible for addictive behaviors and B: a phylogenetically old system, to the extent that (as I understand it) it's generally found in reptiles. As far as I can tell, no one's ever examined reptiles for addictive behaviors and precious little has been done on examining reward in general in reptiles. This makes me suspect that there is a fallacy in my logic, but it seems worth examining in more detail to figure out what it is.


At 15 September, 2006 08:54, Anonymous Plant Master Flash said...

I have a feeling that mammalian models would be met with a warmer reception in addiction research simply because we are most interested in addiction research for the purposes of dealing with humans, and mammals (usu. rats and mice) are typical model systems used to draw conclusions about humans. This tends to lead to more research on the same model organism, mainly because there is already an extensive body of literature on that organism's biology.

The same sort of thing happens in plant biology, for example, with Arabidopsis. I have actually heard that pollen tube researchers using lily as a model system have been criticized by other scientists for not using Arabidopsis -- this despite the fact that flowers, pollen, and hence pollen tubes in this species are ridiculously tiny and much harder to study than in lilies.

So...I think your idea of taking on your research questions in reptiles is a *very* interesting one, but it may not be something the neuroscience community is terribly open to if your goal is to extrapolate to humans. (Not knowing neuroscience well, I could be wrong on this, but in plants there are really only about 5 plants that are really considered "model organisms" that the field really thrives on, and you'd get looked at funny if you wanted to do molecular/physiological research on anything else.) On the other hand, trying to demonstrate something about the evolution of addiction or to do some other sort of comparative biology using a reptile system could probably be a successful approach. You would likely end up attracting the interest of an entirely different set of researchers and developing a different skill set than you would otherwise though -- which could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your goals.

At 20 September, 2006 13:36, Blogger JL said...

I remember attending to Andersons talk erlier this year, his way of presenting was really nice.
One thing regarding your thoughts about model organisms: In many cases chosing a specific organism seems to have a more historical reason than a scientific one. I once asked an electrophysiologist why his recordings were performed in cats and after thinking for a while he said: "Well, mostly we use it because all the guys before us did use it as well."
So, sure you could establish reptiles as a model system. But I think most of the people would just be to lazy to do that.

At 27 January, 2007 01:39, Anonymous Bob La Quey said...

I am a complete outsider to this community and only ran across this blog from a Google search on "reptile addiction biology". The impetus for the search was a conversation with a drinking buddy where I told him of the recent discovery of the "sudden extinction of addiction to smoking" in people who had the brain component known as the insula damaged by a stroke. See

This led us to wonder if lower level mental functions and their relationship to addiction had been studied in reptiles. And thus on to Google who pointed us to this blog.

It seems obvious that one can easily do quite a large set of experiments upon reptiles designed to map the relationship between the anatomy of their brain and their susceptiblity to addiction. I am surprised to learn that so little has been done in this arena.

I would like to encourage you to follow up this speculation with serious research. I am confidant that you are on to something.

I am by training a physicist, my friend a literary type evolved into a programmer, both of us ex pats of the southeast asian variety (Philippines, Thailand respectively) but quite active in various intellectual pursuits. See

Ain't the web a wonderful place?


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