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.