More sexism in science

Following on my post the other week on Gender bias on both sides of scientific research, I want to draw attention to an incident that occurred at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting last week in New Orleans. SFN is by far the largest neuroscience event every year, drawing over 30,000 attendees to come and revel in nerdy neuro madness for a week (think of it as a music festival for science geeks). With so many talks, poster sessions and symposiums, not to mention the sheer number of people, the conference can be overwhelming. But it is also overwhelmingly positive and exciting, allowing you the opportunity to check out new research, get new ideas, forge new relationships and collaborations, and, if you’re lucky, even meet your academic super-star crush (I’m looking at you David Eagleman).

However, one conference-goer decided that the quality of the researchers wasn’t quite up to his standards. Dr. Dario Maestripieri of the University of Chicago complained on Facebook that the cosmetic caliber of the female attendees was lacking this year, stating “there are…an unusually high concentration of unattractive women [at the conference]. The super model types are completely absent.” The comment, originally discovered and posted by Drug Monkey on his blog, went on to ask, “Are unattractive women particularly attracted to neuroscience? Are beautiful women particularly uninterested in the brain?”, and considerately topped it off with, “No offense to anyone…”

Fortunately many people did take offense to Maestripieri’s comments, including Dr. Janet Stemwedel who posted an eloquent rebuttal on Scientopia, which I highly recommend. Maestripieri’s overt sexism demeans female scientists, belittling them and insinuating that their value is only measured by their looks, not their research, intelligence or contributions to the field. And keep in mind that this comment was made at a professional scientific conference, where the emphasis should especially be on one’s intellect and creativity, not on beauty or breasts. The response to Maestripieri’s comments has been overwhelmingly negative, and a Wikipedia page about him has even been updated to mention the controversy. However, others still think his behavior was acceptable, writing it off as a joke and telling people to not take it so seriously. This is particularly problematic given the underlying gender bias we know to still exist in science. If we accept overt and covert discrimination against women in science we all lose out, not just women who are dissuaded from the field because of it, but everyone who might have benefited from their future work.

SFN ’12: Vulnerabilities for drug addiction

For anybody who’s in New Orleans for SFN this week, come by room 273 at 1pm today to learn about vulnerabilities for drug addiction. It’s an excellent nanosymposium set up by the fantastic Dr. Jenn Murray covering both human and preclincial studies into risk factors for addiction. The talks will include investigations into the classic predictive traits of impulsivity, anxiety and novelty-seeking, and they’ll also delve into environmental risk factors for addiction, such as maternal care and environmental stimulation.

I’ll be presenting first (so be there at 1pm sharp!) on my work on endophenotypes for addiction. This involves studying both dependent drug users and their non-dependent biological siblings, who share 50% of their genes and the same environment growing up, but who never developed any sort of drug or alcohol abuse. I’ll be looking specifically at cognitive control deficits and frontal cortex abnormalities in both of these groups compared to unrelated healthy control volunteers. There are some surprises in the results, so if you’re at SFN come by at 1pm to find out what they are!

Thought-controlled robot arms: Welcome to the future!

It’s the year 2012, and while we don’t all have jetpacks or flying cars, there have been some pretty incredible scientific discoveries as of late. Two amazing studies, in particular, have come out recently involving advances in spinal cord injury rehabilitation. In the first, paralyzed rats were made to walk again, and in the second a tetraplegic woman used a thought-controlled robotic arm to take her first self-directed sip of coffee in 15 years.

The first study, published in Science by a Swiss research group, used rats to study physical rehabilitation in paraplegic animals. The researchers partially severed the spinal cords of a group of rats, paralyzing their hind-legs but crucially sparing some of the sensory nerve tracts up to the brain. They then stimulated the spinal cords of these animals in the affected region with an electro-chemical current, hoping to excite the remaining nerve cells. The idea behind this is that if you can activate somatosensory signals (the sensations of touch and position of the body) in the affected limbs, you can help rewire the brain to potentially encourage firing of motor neurons as well.

Researchers also fitted the rats with a prosthetic harness that helped support the animals and placed them on a tiny treadmill while simultaneously stimulating their injured spinal cords with the electro-chemical signal (the article has amazing videos of this here). By zapping the spine with this current and artificially moving the animals’ legs, it is possible that any lingering neurons involved in these motor and sensory regions will be stimulated, and possibly re-wire to facilitate further repair and improve locomotion. Sure enough, after just three weeks of this training program some of the animals were able to take steps voluntarily, and after six weeks all of the rats could walk with help from the stimulation. After two more weeks of training these formerly paralyzed rats were even able to go up stairs and jump over obstacles!

Confirming the researchers’ theory of assisted neurogenesis, the rats who had undergone the training program had significantly more new neurons and connections from the spinal cord to the motor area of the brain than animals who had not been trained.

In the second and even more fantastical study, two patients with tetraplegia (complete paralysis of the body) were able to self-direct a robotic arm using only their thoughts. Led by Dr. Leigh Hochberg at Brown University and published in the journal Nature, scientists implanted an electrode into the motor area of the paralyzed individuals’ brains. The patients practiced for months, training the computer chip to read their motor neurons’ signals by imagining moving their arms in various prescribed motions. The chip learned to decode the relevant firings from these cells, measuring the corresponding output from each neuron for the specified movement, and then used these signals to communicate with a computer and direct a nearby robotic arm.

Starting with just simple point and touch actions, the patients trained the system on increasingly more difficult motions involving precise speed, force, and direction. By the end of the study, the communication and interpretation of one of the patient’s thoughts was so well coordinated she was able to use the robotic arm to grasp a cup, raise it to her lips, and drink through a straw (there are some pretty amazing images of this as well).

I’m going to repeat that: with the help of science and a microchip, this woman controlled a robot with her mind!

So while I’m still waiting for my jetpack, these studies are pretty exciting examples of advances in health and science research, showing just how far science has come and giving us a glimpse into the next generation of neuro-engineering. Welcome to the future.