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What are some of the most surprising things that can damage someone's brain?

This is another post inspired by an answer I left on Quora. This is all stuff I learned about from teaching neuroanatomy for three semesters.



This is an infection cause by the tapeworm Taenia solium. After eating infected, undercooked pork, the tapeworm's eggs can migrate into the brain and/or other tissues where the larvae develop and mature, leaving behind cysts.

Moral of the disease: cook your pork.

    Central pontine myelinolysis

This is a disorder almost always caused by an incorrect treatment of a basic disorder: hyponatremia. Hyponatremia literally means "below natrium", or too little sodium. This can be caused by many situations such as prolonged diarrhea or vomiting with too much water intake without enough electrolytes (e.g., sodium).

If a patient presents hyponatremic the obvious treatment is to give the patient sodium solution. However if the doctor tries to correct the sodium levels back to normal too quickly it may result in central pontine myelinolysis.

What this means is that the pons (part of the brainstem) loses myelin (the insulating wrapping around the axons of the neurons). This can lead to a mind-blowing disorder known as "locked-in syndrome" wherein the person is conscious, awake, and aware, but cannot interact with the outside world.

If you haven't read it or seen the movie, I highly recommend The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a book written by former journalist and Elle editor-in-chief Jean-Dominique Bauby, who had locked-in syndrome.

He wrote the book by using his eyes to select a letter, one letter at a time.

    Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome

This disorder is usually induced by prolonged alcohol abuse, but is actually caused by a thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency associated with poor nutrition in severe, long-term alcoholics.

For some reason, neurons in the mammillary bodies are especially susceptible to thiamine deficiency, causing them to preferentially die off. The mammillary bodies are heavily interconnected with the hippocampuses, and when damaged can cause severe anterograde amnesia as was seen in patient H.M. (and portrayed very oddly in the movie Memento).

As with central pontine myelinolysis, this disorder can also be caused by a physician. For example, if a patient is in a long-term coma and are not being given IV thiamine, they patient may awaken with Wernicke–Korsakoff. A "banana bag" (an IV solution containing a multi-vitamin solution including thiamine, so-called because of its yellow color) should be used for such patients. I've been told that experienced doctors will look in on comatose patients from time to time just to make sure their IV solution is yellow.

    MPTP Toxicity

This is an odd case that lead to a breakthrough in neuroscientific and neurology research for disease treatment.

In 1982, seven young people in Santa Clara County were diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. Parkinson's is very rare in people under the age of 40.

Turned out, all of these people were heroin users, and their particular batch of "synthetic" heroin (MPPP), it was later discovered, contained an impurity: MPTP.

MPTP (1-methyl-4-phenyl-1,2,3,6-tetrahydropyridine) selectively destroys dopaminergic neurons in the substantia nigra, the same neurons that degenerate in Parkinson's Disease.

MPTP is actually now synthesized and used as an animal-model of Parkinson's Disease to aid in understanding and treating the disease.


Radio Interview: Wired for Thought

Last week I did an interview with Molly Bentley from the SETI radio show Big Picture Science and the episode is NOW ONLINE.

This is super cool to me because the other guests include Michael freakin' Gazzaniga, Art "my hero at UCLA" Toga, and Jan "I don't know him so don't have a cutesy nickname" Rabaey.


The episode in which I appeared was titled "Wired for Thought".

Here's their blurb:

A cup of coffee can leave you wired for the day. But a chip in your brain could wire you to a machine forever. Imagine manipulating a mouse without moving a muscle, and doing a Google search with your mind. Welcome to the future of the brain-machine interface.

Don your EEG thinking-cap, and discover a high-tech thought game that may be the harbinger of machine relationships to come.

Plus, the ultimate mapping project: the Human Connectome Project aims to identify all the neural pathways in the human brain. It may help us understand what makes us human, but could it also point the way to making us smarter?

And, what all this brain research reveals about the mind and free will – who, or what, is really in charge?

Anyway, give it a listen. I'm on for about 10 minutes around 19 minutes in.

And I don't think I suck.

I tried to do the right balance between interesting, honest, and accurate... but I'd really like to hear how others think I did. I'm not a fan of feel-good pop neuroscience, but at the same time I really want to convey to the public how exciting I think the field is because of how hard it is.

Because (at this point) I don't think this will be my last media appearance, I'd really like feedback.

In case you're wondering (because I am), I assume I'm on this episode for my hemicraniectomy/BCI research, but who knows?


A Time article that literally makes my brain lobes explode

Time has just published the most frustratingly annoying piece of neurobabble I've come across (thanks for pointing me to it Avgusta!).

What I'm about to say is hard for me, because I love Time; they've twice named me their person of the year, and I hate to bite the hand that feeds me.

But forget it... that New York Times piece that I was annoyed about from this weekend has got nothing on this one.

It's a "very timely piece" about John Edwards. Is Time confused? They do know the American media is only supposed to talk about Republican presidential candidates right now, right?

Anyway, the very first sentence of the article sets the scientific tone.

John Edwards is the putrefied meat of the American political system — literally, as far as your brain is concerned.

Really? According to my brain Edwards is literally putrefied meat?

Allow me introduce you to grammar, as explained by the Oatmeal:

The article then goes on to say:

Think about Edwards for a moment — the perfect hair, the honey voice, the oleaginous smile. Your lip curled ever so slightly, didn't it? A teensy bit of bile may have risen in your throat. The lip curl is a threat display, the bile is an attempt to purge a toxin. Both were triggered at least partly by your prefrontal cortex and your temporal lobes — and both would have also occurred if you'd smelled a piece of food gone bad.

Okay, so the author asks me to think about Edwards and then tells me what my reaction should have been (my lip curled and bile rose in my throat? Has that ever happened to anyone ever?) and then tells me that my imaginary responses reflect some nonsense from my prefrontal cortex and temporal lobes (i.e., half my brain).

Okey dokey.

There's some blah blah requisite crap about fMRI, some terrible quotations from psychology faculty who are overstepping their research by talking about political outcomes, and then some amusing bits:

Edwards, a bad guy who cheated a sickly and suffering woman, practically makes our brain lobes explode.

Paradoxically, the more his critics — to say nothing of his prosecutors — are seen to be piling on, the more our temporal lobes and prefrontal cortices may switch the valence once more, turning even a deeply loathed perpetrator into an unlikely victim.

Journalists, please take heed: don't do this kind of stuff. These bits about neuroscience add nothing to the story at all, and in fact the only reason they're in here is most likely to add an air of authority (as McCabe and Castel have demonstrated... see what I did there?).

The story would have been relatively fine if it had focused on the solid psychology research into how peoples' perceptions of attractiveness affects their decision making. Instead the author threw in some loose neurononsense that cheapened the piece.

ResearchBlogging.orgMcCabe DP, & Castel AD (2008). Seeing is believing: the effect of brain images on judgments of scientific reasoning. Cognition, 107 (1), 343-52 PMID: 17803985


The New York Times on the "Cognitive Neuroscience REVOLUTION"

The New York Times is at it once again in their Opinion Pages, this time with a book advertisement titled "Seeing the Building for the Trees".

It starts out with an all-caps pronouncement, which cognitive neuroscience has taught me means what is being said is VERY SERIOUS BUSINESS:

A REVOLUTION in cognitive neuroscience is changing the kinds of experiments that scientists conduct, the kinds of questions economists ask and, increasingly, the ways that architects, landscape architects and urban designers shape our built environment.

(EDIT: It's been pointed out to me that the all-caps beginning is a NYT style convention, however as a cognitive neuroscientist it's clear to me that the author is subverting the standard convention of all-caps to her own purpose because prefrontal cortex, evolutionary psychology, dopamine.)

The article then goes on to say that... embodied cognition tells us that our heads are in the clouds, therefore architecture is like trees and that, something... something... Avatar?

Honestly I don't get the neuroscience connection at all.

This metaphorical, embodied quality shapes how we relate to abstract concepts, emotions and human activity. Across cultures, "important" is big and "unimportant" is small, just as your caretakers were once much larger than you. Sometimes your head is "in the clouds." You approach a task "step by step."

Some architects are catching on to human cognition's embodied nature. A few are especially intrigued by metaphors that express bodily experience in the world.

Take the visual metaphor of a tree as shelter. Most people live around, use and look at trees. Children climb them. People gather under them. Nearly everyone at some point uses one to escape the sun.

That's a direct quote, from one paragraph to the next, in the appropriate order in which they appear in the article. I have not removed any words, rearranged any text, or done anything but hit ctrl-c and then ctrl-v.

The logic connecting one paragraph to the next--and one idea to the next--escapes me.

Even the author abandons the whole "cognitive neuroscience" device somewhere half-way through the article, and instead says something more likely grounded in reality:

Architects may also like tree metaphors because a tree's overall structure is regular, while its fine-grained composition, its tangles of branches, are irregular, an arrangement conducive to the kind of design experimentation offered by new digital technologies.

No need for any cognitive neuroscience here! Hell, by the end the author admits that the cognitive neuroscience angle may not even exist:

How many designers are clued in to the ongoing cognitive revolution and its potential for the built environment is unclear.

Blah. Whatever.

I'm too confused to even be annoyed enough to write a rebuttal. At least the New York Times iPhone piece that Russ Poldrack so deftly countered (and that I signed) was a coherent misapplication of neuroscience.

This latest Avatar, neuroscience, architecture piece is at least as silly as their "neuroscientists go canoeing" article. Or whatever that one was about.

Maybe they've got some pop-neuro quota to fulfill?


5 Reasons to Love Academia

1. Freedom to set your own schedule
Academia's not a 9 to 5, cubicle slave job! We didn't go to school for 20+ years to work a measly 8 hours per day for 40 hours a week.

You see, there's a certain... "culture"... of academia that equates "good, smart work" with "endless hours in the lab".

This kind of mentality leads to famous suggestions such as the following from my PhD institute (also referenced in Nature):
1. Every one works at least 50 hr a week in the lab (e.g., 8+ hr a day, six days a week). This is by far lower than what I am doing every day and throughout most of my career. You may be smarter or do not want to be as successful, but I am not asking you to match my time in the lab

2. By working, I mean real bench work... I suggest that everyone puts in at least 6 hr concentrated bench work and 2+ hr reading and other research-related activity each day. Reading papers and books should be done mostly after work. More time can be spent on reading, literature search and writing during working hours when you are ready for writing a paper....

I expect everyone to have made sufficient progress in the research so that a good paper is in sight (at least to the level of J. Neuroscience). If you cannot meet this goal at that time, I will have to ask you to prepare to leave my lab by the end of August.

Or this gem from Caltech:
I have noticed that you have failed to come in to lab on several weekends, and more recently have failed to show up in the evenings. Moreover, in addition to such time off, you recently requested some vacation. I have no problem with vacation time that is well earned, but I do have a problem with continuous vacation and time off that interferes with the project. I find this very annoying and disruptive to your science.

I expect you to correct your work-ethic immediately.

I receive at least one post-doctoral application each day from the US and around the world. If you are unable to meet the expected work-schedule, I am sure that I can find someone else as an appropriate replacement for this important project.

You may be a unique and beautiful snowflake when you're being recruited, but once you're in, you stay in, science slave!

2. Swimming in your pools of money
Seriously though, the time spent in lab is worth it. If for no other reason than the strong pay. Why go into industry when you can make $28-30,000 per year during your 4-7 year PhD, especially when that will be followed up by 1-5 years as a post-doc making upwards of almost $39,000 annually?!

Look at those Ivory Towers!
So sketch up some quick grant on climate change and make it rain!
"What a strange business this is: We stay in school forever. We have to battle the system with only a one in eight or one in ten chance of getting funded. We give up making a living until our forties. And we do it because we want to help the world. What kind of crazy person would go for that?"—Nancy Andrews, Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Duke University School of Medicine


3. Expanding humanity's knowledge
So the work environment is nice and lax, the pay is great, and your spouse certainly isn't rethinking their life decisions when it comes to marrying you.

But who needs those things?! We academics eschew time, family, and money for a higher purpose! We are adding to humanity's knowledge. One tiny (insignificant) nudge at a time:
(Source: Matt Might)

As long as you're fast enough:

4. Interacting with brilliant peers
Because in the end, pushing those insignificant boundaries of knowledge afford you the esteem of your peers. This, in turn, allows you to perpetuate the circle of scientific life!

Because someday, you too get to review scientific manuscripts and help build upon the foundations of progress.
* The writing and data presentation are so bad that I had to leave work and go home early and then spend time to wonder what life is about.
* This paper is desperate. Please reject it completely and then block the author’s email ID so they can’t use the online system in future.
* The biggest problem with this manuscript, which has nearly sucked the will to live out of me, is the terrible writing style.
* I suppose that I should be happy that I don’t have to spend a lot of time reviewing this dreadful paper; however I am depressed that people are performing such bad science.


Enclosed is our latest version of Ms. #1996-02-22-RRRRR, that is the re-re-re-revised revision of our paper. Choke on it... Hopefully, we have suffered enough now to satisfy even you and the bloodthirsty reviewers...

To handle [the reviewers' suggestions], we have modified the Introduction and added, after the review of the relevant literature, a subsection entitled "Review of Irrelevant Literature" that discusses these articles and also duly addresses some of the more asinine suggestions from other reviewers.

We hope you will be pleased with this revision and will finally recognize how urgently deserving of publication this work is. If not, then you are an unscrupulous, depraved monster with no shred of human decency. You ought to be in a cage. May whatever heritage you come from be the butt of the next round of ethnic jokes. If you do accept it, however, we wish to thank you for your patience and wisdom throughout this process, and to express our appreciation for your scholarly insights.


5. Educating young minds
But all of these awards pale in comparison to the cornerstone of academe: the student. As academics we are privileged with the highest of honors of educating tomorrow's thought-leaders!

One student complained that a professor was not posting lecture slides to the course’s Web site:
Is this a technical glitch, or are you being a jerk about it? I don’t think you know what your doing in this class. I have gone to the deprtment chair about it and she doesn’t know either. How can I study and take the exams without the notes? Its bad enough your lectures don’t have sound and video.

"I didn’t come to class today because i had a soar throat and couldn’t hear. I think it might be strep," the student wrote.
"Hello, Student X. I’m sorry you’re not feeling well. Did you intend to send this message to someone else? You’re not registered for any of my classes this semester. Oh, and I’m pretty sure that strep doesn’t cause loss of hearing," the professor replied.
"Ouch! i clicked the wrong address. can you forward that message to dr. DifferentProfessor for me? i can’t open the directory cuase my computer memory sucks and i have another program running. except change the hearing to talking. thanx!"

(Source 1 and 2)

(In all seriousness, despite these things, I really do love this job. "What kind of crazy person would go for that?" What kind of crazy person indeed.)

ResearchBlogging.orgCyranoski, D. (2011). Neuroscience in China: Growth factor Nature, 476 (7358), 22-24 DOI: 10.1038/476022a
Glass, R. (2000). A letter from the frustrated author of a journal paper Journal of Systems and Software, 54 (1) DOI: 10.1016/S0164-1212(00)00020-0
Lawrence, P. (2009). Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research PLoS Biology, 7 (9) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1000197
Powell, K. (2006). Winning ways Nature, 442 (7104), 842-843 DOI: 10.1038/nj7104-842a