Science In The News (SITN) is a graduate student organization at Harvard with a mission to bridge the communication gap between scientists and general audiences. We achieve this through various avenues online through our blog, podcast, and Reddit AMAs, and through free, local events in Boston & Cambridge including seminars, Science By The Pint, and DayCon – an annual science conference designed for the general public. In addition to our website, you can follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.


In our recent Special Edition on Neurotechnology, we have written a series of articles covering recent technologies that are pushing the boundaries of what we know about the brain. Each article describes how these new technologies have already impacted neuroscience and where these technologies are taking us next. With the potential to improve countless lives, we believe the future of neuroscience is bright and will only get brighter.

For this AMA, we have gathered the authors of these articles and other Harvard PhD candidates conducting research in the field:

  • Kevin Sitek: Neuroimaging of speech production and auditory perception
  • Stephen Thornquist: Behavioral and computational neuroscience
  • Kelsey Tyssowski: Genetics in neurons, neuronal plasticity
  • Vivian Hemmelder: Reinforcement learning; time perception; curiosity
  • Jim Bohnslav: Systems neuroscience, computational ethology
  • Shay Neufeld: Reinforcement learning, addiction, habits, decision making, reward
  • Siva Nagappan: Neurodevelopment

We look forward to your questions. Ask us anything

Comments: 154 • Responses: 70  • Date: 

Donran17 karma

do you like memes?

SITNHarvard33 karma

Jim here: only the dankest memes

ssldvr12 karma

What is the future of stem cells in neuroscience? I've heard that the brain becomes less elastic as people age. Can stem cells counteract that?

SITNHarvard7 karma

Hello, Siva here. Stem cells will most likely keep pushing boundaries in neuroscience research both in terms of its therapeutic potential and its ability to serve as a model system for scientists to further study human diseases. For more on the role of stem cells in understanding disease check out our article http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2016/disease-in-a-dish-using-stem-cell-derived-neurons-to-understand-the-brain/

It is true that many brain cells become less elastic as we age. Stem cells have the potential to increase this plasticity in two ways: 1) Provide new neurons that may integrate into the adult circuit and 2) these new neurons can also secrete growth factors that can potentially enhance growth of mature neurons. With regards to the first role, stem cell transplantations are being used in mouse models of epilepsy. Since seizures occur from an uncontrolled increase in excitation, it is believed that transplanting stem cells that will become inhibitory neurons could potentially decrease seizures (https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2013/05/105666/epilepsy-cured-mice-using-brain-cells). The latter role is investigated in the case of stroke where stem cells are transplanted in the hope that the factors secreted by the growing stem cells will induce mature neurons to grow and regenerate.

ssldvr1 karma

Wow, I really hope this works. That would make a difference for so many people. Thanks for the response!

Another question - how can less industrialized countries benefit from this? It sounds like a lot of the research and ultimate treatments are still years away but is this type of technology something you envision can be shared throughout the world?

SITNHarvard3 karma

Siva here - I hope it does too! The great thing about stem cells, specifically induced pluripotent stem cells, is that the patient is the donor as well as the recipient. This makes access to, at least the cells, relatively simple and it decreases the ethical issues that used to exist with stem cell research since the donor can likely give consent. However, the reagents and techniques to convert these cells and transplant them would still need to be acquired. Since the research is still in the early stages, it is hard to tell what the ultimate cost of this technology will be but I suspect that stem cell therapy/technology would be among the more readily shared. At present, there already are a substantial number of countries discussing the use of stem cells in medicine. I think this is a promising start!

SITNHarvard3 karma

Kelsey here--just wanted to add that stem cells are also really useful in neuroscience in particular because unlike some other fields, it's really hard for us to get human brain tissue to study. The advantage of stem cells and particularly induced pluripotent stem cells (read more about it in the SITN article Siva posted) is that we can take other cell types from a person and then make them into neurons in a dish. This allows people to study human neurons in a way that we weren't able to before.

SandDollarBlues7 karma

Hi-I have the condition called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome/Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, so your work with Optogenetics has been of huge interest to me. I am keeping an eye on it and hoping for human trials in my area.

Do you believe that we will get to a point where we are able to image pain without there being an acute injury there, such as with the case with my disease, CRPS/RSD? One of the huge issues with chronic pain is that unless you can point to an obvious broken limb, spinal issue, etc, people tend to believe it isn't real-when in reality, you're in absolutely agonizing levels as was in my case. This is despite other visual changes such as edema, swelling, temperature changes, and redness that exist.

Thank you for doing this AMA and for all your hard work!

SITNHarvard3 karma

Hi there, this is Vivian - thank you for this great question! One of my classmates, Krissy Lyon, actually just wrote the following article about optogenetics and pain treatment! Our ability to find correlates of specific processes or feelings with imaging is definitely increasing. For example Jack Gallant's lab at UC Berkeley could decode which movies people were watching based on brain activity and recently could also decode what people heard in podcasts. However, pain has proven hard to track down in imaging studies. See this article for an in depth discussion I hope this was helpful! Please let me know if you have further questions!

furiousgeorgey136 karma

hi jimmy its george. why don't we hang out much anymore. why do you go by jim now? what substances are you under the influence of at the moment?

but more seriously, what do you guys think is the most over-hyped thing in neuroscience (the 10% myth does not count)

SITNHarvard1 karma

Hi, Jim(my) here: I suppose we should've made this an Ask Me Almost Anything.

The power of optogenetics is over-hyped. Being able to activate or silence neurons in a temporally and genetically precise way is an extremely powerful tool, but there's a lot more to neuroscience than pulling on metaphorical neural strings and seeing how the marionette moves. Being able to know which brain regions are involved in a behavior is important, but that's not all neuroscience is--if that's all we're doing, we're little better than phrenologists. We should be wary of Deisseroth-esque optogenetics triumphalism.

Another over-hyped technique is connectomics. Sure, understanding the wiring diagram of the whole human brain would be a great dataset to have. But we've had the worm wiring diagram since 1986, and we can't predict how an animal will behave to arbitrary stimuli (which is a reasonable standard for saying we "understand" the brain of an organism). Some connectomic evangelists think we'll essentially have the brain solved once we know the complete wiring diagram of every neuron. The likeliest scenario (imho) is that somebody will collect petabytes of electron microscopy data and they'll collect metaphorical dust on a server somewhere.

biodude876 karma

As someone who does molecular biology but is not aware that much about neuroscience (because let's face it, we're all pretty siloed in biology), what are the biggest/hottest new questions in molecular neuroscience right now? For instance in my field, one of the biggest questions is is there a general mechanism/function of enhancers RNAs, or is it kind of like what we see with lincRNAs and it's lncRNA dependent.

SITNHarvard3 karma

Hi--Kelsey here. One big molecular question in neuroscience right now is figuring out the underlying molecular mechanisms that allow memories to be stored in the brain. Ramirez, Tonegawa et al have done some studies to try to figure out which neurons store the memories of a place. These neurons can be defined molecularly (via gene expression), but more still needs to be done to determine the molecular mechanisms that underlie this memory storage in vivo. You can read more about their work: http://thepsychreport.com/research-application/featured-research/manipulating-memory-through-optogenetics-qa-with-neuroscientists-xu-liu-and-steve-ramirez/ or here http://www.scientifica.uk.com/neurowire/lost-and-found-reactivating-memories-with-light

You can also follow Steve Ramirez on Twitter at @ok_steve

SITNHarvard2 karma

Siva here. Another big question in neuroscience is understanding how our experiences affect connections in the brain and ultimately our behavior. One way this is thought to happen is through epigenetic modifications such as the regulation of chromatins and DNA (histones are of particular interest here). However, the mechanism of how this happens is still an area of active research.

kibblznbitz5 karma

Wow, I never thought I'd be the type to get starstruck, but I really admire those that delve into neuroscience, I don't even know what to ask.

So, I guess, do y'all happen to have any advice for someone aspiring to acquire a career in neuropathology?

And what do you think is the most interesting thing you've found, in your respective fields?

SITNHarvard4 karma

do y'all happen to have any advice for someone aspiring to acquire a career in neuropathology?

That depends a little on how you want to be involved - do you want to be a doctor? Or work in a clinic? Or be a scientist? These could all be 'careers in neuropathology', but would require very different career paths.

kibblznbitz3 karma

Well my impression so far from looking around for information is that in what I'm thinking of, I would be working as a doctor (though not on the front line like a regular doctor you go see; more "behind the scenes") - almost as a diagnostician, but not looking so much for the outlying less common stuff, and I would only cover neurological indications. Which I'm absolutely okay with, and I could consider going into research at some point farther down the road if I acquire the interest.

SITNHarvard2 karma

The traditional human neuropathology career path does usually begin with medical school. If you are interested in research as well though, you could consider the MD/PhD dual program.

kibblznbitz1 karma

I appreciate the answer :) I've also heard that medical schools care less about your degree, and more that you have satisfactory performance on the anatomical/biological and physical science classes? I was thinking that maybe I could get a degree in psychology (though I'd prefer neuroscience or microbiology if it's possible with my situation), and fulfill any unincluded classes outside of a degree program.

After that though, I'm not entirely sure which way I should go to complete both the typical and then further specialized pathology residencies.

SITNHarvard4 karma

(Shay) My advice would be if you prefer neuroscience or microbiology, than do that instead. If you are more interested, you'll work harder at it. You'll be more successful. And then you'll have more options available for your next step. Don't think too far ahead. The most important thing is that you are passionate about the next step, and that you become really good at whatever you do. If you can do that, you'll find out there are way more options and opportunities than you even knew existed.

SITNHarvard3 karma

Kevin here - the best advice is to get experience in the field in whatever way you can. If you're just getting started, you might just be filing papers in a lab or hospital, but you'll be able to see what scientists and doctors do on a daily basis. If you're a little more advanced, do some research in college or get a job as a research assistant in a lab to develop more skills and specific interests.

Which is another important point - bring your own skills and interests to the table. Technical skills always give you a leg up - you might be surprised how much of neuroscience research is computation-based, even if you're not doing "computational neuroscience" per se. Plus, it's good to bring a unique perspective so that you can approach a known problem in a new way or take on a totally new problem.

As for interesting research - a cool recent find in my field is that the motor cortex does some auditory processing of heard speech sounds - but the representation of heard speech in motor cortex is different from the representation of produced speech. We're not sure what it means yet, but it certainly takes a big whack at the motor theory of speech perception.

MurphysLab4 karma

What, in your view, are the best current hypotheses about the molecular mechanisms of memory? And how long will it be until we solve the question? It seems that eliminating hypotheses will be much easier now with CRISPR providing a quicker cycle of experimental feedback.

SITNHarvard3 karma

Hi hi! Vivian here. I mostly study learning and memory at a higher level, looking at how cells in specific brain area's change their activity during learning. One of the first things we learned in college about learning and memory was that 'cells that fire together wire together', a catchy phrase describing Hebbian learning, which is a theory stating that memories are formed by connections between cells. The molecular mechanism of memory was described as molecular changes in the synapses (connecting points) of neurons that enable the formation or strengthening of these connections. A lot of research has been done to identifying these molecules and understanding their function. A lab that does a lot of research to this at Harvard is the Sabatini lab. Shay is in this lab, so he might be able to tell you more about it! I personally study the dopamine system, which has a major role in learning and memory as well. For example, when we experience novel information our dopamine levels increase. Dopamine is a neuromodulator, which means that it can change the way other neurons respond to each other and connect to each other. Dopamine might thus be a molecule with which the brain can regulate it's own ability to learn about the environment. I agree that CRISPR will change this field a lot! By being able to quickly modify the genetic composition of specific cells in the brain, we can more easily make changes in which molecules are present in synapses and thus see what their function is!

MurphysLab2 karma

The molecular mechanism of memory was described as molecular changes in the synapses (connecting points) of neurons that enable the formation or strengthening of these connections.

Thanks for the response, Vivian! Do you (or is there?) a particular understanding of the "molecular mechanism" here? Is there a possible or putative protein or receptor that is specifically suspected in changing the nature of the connect, whether though activation, inactivation, concentration, structural, or conformational changes?

SITNHarvard2 karma

Hi! Thanks for your response! One of the key players are the glutamate receptors AMPA and NMDA. AMPA receptor are activated when neurotransmitter is released in the synapse and lead to a change in the neuron that is called depolarization. Basically, they let through electrical currents that make the voltage of the neuron more positive. If the neuron reaches a certain level of positive voltage it fires an action potential which is transmitted to other neurons and leads to the release of neurotransmitter unto these neurons (I'm sorry if you already knew this!). So AMPA receptors are able to activate the neuron and make it fire action potentials. NMDA receptors have a different role. They are only activated when they bind to neurotransmitter AND the voltage of the neuron is very positive. Thus if the neuron is weakly stimulated by it's neighbor only AMPA receptors are activated. Whereas if the neuron is strongly stimulated and the build up of positive current through the AMPA receptors leads to a high positive voltage in the neuron, both NMDA and AMPA receptors are activated. NMDA receptors let the same molecules through as AMPA receptors, but they also let through calcium. And calcium has a special function in neurons. It can activate cascades that lead to changes, in for example gene transcription, that change the neuron over longer time scales. This is thought to be the mechanism underlying memory formation, it is also called Long Term Potentiation. This article describes it, probably a lot more clearly then me! :) So the levels of AMPA and NMDA receptors on neuronal synapses lead to very cell-specific differences in the cell's ability to form and potentiate connections with other neurons. A lot of research has therefore been done to these two molecules and their role in learning and memory!

SITNHarvard2 karma

Kelsey here--one general idea is that there are more neurotransmitter receptor proteins brought to the synapse as synapses are strengthened. This makes it so that when the neuron on the signal-sending end of the synapse releases neurotransmitters, the neuron on the receiving end is better able to detect that signal.

There are also other proposed mechanisms (like changing neurotransmitter release) depending on the context/organism.

One hard part about this problem is validating mechanisms in actual brains in vivo and linking them to behaviors, and CRISPR will certainly make it easier to make mouse models for studying molecular questions. See our article about this here!

vwprime4 karma

Hi and thanks so much for being here today. I earned my BS in biological anthropology a long, long time ago (biology and philosophy being the bulk of my studies), and being gifted with the time and ability to go to school simply to learn led me to a wide range of seemingly unconnected, mutually exclusive areas of study. So I would like to ask if any of you find the lack of a synergistic approach to the acquisition and application of knowledge to be a problem, particularly in your given areas of specialization? To give an example, when I was in college, I was amazed at how little the students prepping to be preschool teachers knew about the biological development of the brains they would one day be shaping. And although there are schools/toys/learning games/etc., that are based on solid scientific research and likely very effective for the children lucky enough to have them, mainstream early childhood education does not often include them or even halfway decent substitutes. Do you think it is possible to create a holistic, synergistically based system of education that would potentially open the door to a more unified, successful and peaceful version of our species? Thanks again for being here to answer questions. I have immense respect for all of you and your work.

SITNHarvard5 karma

Hey there-Siva here. Thank you for the great question. I definitely hope its possible but I believe that it is too soon to be effectively applying our understanding of biology in the structuring of educational policies. While there is some correlation between games or being bilingual to student performance, the biological underpinnings of this remain to be understood. Furthermore, it is unclear whether we can generalize studies done on small populations of children to the entire population. Nevertheless, this is indeed an active area of study. Here is a program within the Harvard School of Education that is working on integrating different fields: http://www.gse.harvard.edu/masters/mbe

SITNHarvard5 karma

Hi! This Vivian. Something I find very interesting with regards to neuroscience and educational policies is Transfer Learning - which means generalizing what you learned in one task to another task. Neuroscientists are trying to build computer models that can learn this type of generalization to hopefully get a better understanding of what is required for affecting learning transfer. It is very interesting with regards to education because that is some way the main thing we want to accomplish. We don't want to teach kids to do well in exams, we want to teach them how to learn about the world and effectively apply this knowledge to their own life. I found this article by Neuwrite San Diego about transfer learning, perhaps you'll find it interesting!

Elugelab4 karma

Hi!

I listened in on a lecture recently about how we're developing hearing aids that, rather than attempting to replicate cochlear impants, will focus on reading little neurotransmitted signals near the ear, broadening the scope of how we improve hearing... perhaps enabling the hard-of-hearing to focus their hearing rather than just have an implant that pumps up the volume on everything... If possible, it would be jolly good news and could spell an inadvertant development in our relationship with music. :)

What are the latest music-related developments/understandings in your fields, anything exciting or unforseen?

Also, have you come across anything nice to do with symmetry in your studies? A bit broad, but just curious. Thanks!

SITNHarvard5 karma

Hi Elugelab. This is Vivian. I love your questions! I can't say much about the hearing aids, but Kevin is working on that for you. I am very interested in the neuroscience of music as well. I did my bachelor's degree in Amsterdam and went to a couple of lectures by Henk Jan Honing there, a neuroscientist who studies music in the brain. One of my favorite studies he talked about was that newborn babies show 'surprise brain activity' when a beat is left out, suggesting that we are born with a sense of rhythm! Here at Harvard I spoke to Dr Aaron L. Berkowitz who studied improvisation in the brain. He found that very specific brain regions were active when we are improvising and not when we play music from sheets.

And symmetry is a very interesting phenomenon! Almost all animals are symmetrical. Studies have found that people find symmetrical faces more attractive and have suggested that healthier people develop more symmetrical faces and that symmetry is thus a sign of health and therefore attractive. Also find it very interesting that we have two brain halves. Although there are definitely very distinct differences between the two halves, we mostly have two of everything (two hippocampi, two amygdala's etc). It could be that we just always have an extra copy in case one of them doesn't work (suggestion from Siva), it could also be that there are more complex reasons. What I find very interesting is that they always have to coordinate with each other. In the end we are one person with one self who makes single decisions. Interesting studies to the collaboration and coordination of the two halves are studies in split brain patients. There used to be a time when the treatment for epilepsy was to cut the connections between the two brain halves. Split brain patients thus have very little communication left between their two brain halves. This is an interesting article about it: http://www.nature.com/news/the-split-brain-a-tale-of-two-halves-1.10213

Elugelab2 karma

This is excellent stuff, thanks so much, Viv!

Thanks to the whole team. Long may your neurons fire. :)

SITNHarvard3 karma

Haha, yours too! :)

SITNHarvard3 karma

Kevin here - thanks for your question! I'm not totally sure what you're referring to, but there are tons of people trying to improving hearing devices. Modern hearing aids can change which frequencies are amplified based on the listener's environment. They're also getting better at amplifying specific frequencies so they're not just turning up the volume for everything.

Some types of devices shift the incoming frequencies so that they're in the remaining hearing range of the listener - for instance, most people lose high frequency hearing first, so incoming sounds could be shifted down into the lower frequency ranges that the listener can still hear. This takes some practice to get used to, though, and some people aren't able or willing to shift their perception so that this works.

A massive problem with any hearing device is overcoming the cocktail party problem. Our brains are amazing at focusing on specific sounds even in noisy environments. Unfortunately, a lot of this happens higher up than the ear or auditory nerve, so it's difficult to design devices that help people focus their attention on only one sound when there are other sounds around.

As for symmetry, it's a pretty big topic in the speech production/perception world. For a while people thought everything important for speech and language happened on the left side of the brain (in most people). What we're finding now is that both sides can be used, and that people with stronger right hemisphere speech networks are better at recovering from disorders like dyslexia and stuttering or from traumatic events like stroke.

Pheer7773 karma

I hope this question doesn't come off in the wrong way, I am just intensely curious about the mind. For thousands of years philosophers have wondered about the nature of consciousness and its subjective nature. I have watched several videos and podcasts from Sam Harris, and I've started to doubt if science can quantify the qualitative nature of awareness and consciousness.

Granted, neuroscience is a relatively young field and great strides are constantly being made, but so far, the best explanations I've seen are neural "correlates" of consciousness, and that consciousness is an "emergent" property of the brain that arises from complex neural networks. It seems to me that even if every function of the brain is understood, it is impossible to bridge the gap between the subjective and the objective, especially from reducing every function to molecular levels.

Do you think that neuroscience will some day come to a solid conclusion for this question? Do you think a large paradigm shift in neuroscience may be necessary for understanding subjective experience?

Thank you

SITNHarvard3 karma

Kevin here - I'm first going to link to an interview with Christof Koch before saying... I don't know. And I don't think many people in the field have even thought about trying to figure it out. It's very difficult to test subjective experiences in any verifiable way, but consciousness is also a very difficult question to even define to begin with.

To answer your question more specifically, I think we'll keep chipping away at what we currently think of as "subjective experience" by finding and measuring their objective analogues--similar to what the field has done to define psychiatric disorders as brain-based disorders, not simply thought or personality or behavioral disorders. So while it may be true that there will always be a gap between the subjective and the objective, I think we'll be able to make the gap much smaller.

lostpatrol3 karma

Can your research be applied to cure Tinnitus?

SITNHarvard3 karma

Kevin here - thanks for asking this! Tinnitus is still incredibly poorly understood, but scientists are using these new tools to try to figure it out. Right now it seems like there are issues with how the brain responds to missing auditory inputs from the ear, usually due to hair cells dying in the cochlea. (Side note: wear ear plugs when it's loud!!) When the brain expects certain frequencies but doesn't receive them, it could result in tinnitus symptoms (most typically perceived as "ringing in the ears"). However, not everyone agrees with this, and the field is still very active, including other research using human MRI that finds functional and connectivity differences in people with tinnitus compared to people who don't experience it. To answer your question directly, I do imagine a cure for tinnitus in the future, either by fixing the auditory input problem or by changing the brain processing of sounds by some specific way.

herticalt3 karma

With the Iraq and Afghanistan war dominating the past decade or so there seems to be an increase in attempting to understand the so called "hidden injuries" veterans return home with. Referring to anything from PTSD to traumatic brain injury. Sort of just curious as to your opinions as researchers how in any way this might have impacted your work or the field of neuroscience in general?

Along those lines over the past few decades we've seen the classification of any number of disorders previously thought to be strictly behavioral in nature like ADD and some types of autism as neurological conditions. Going forward I imagine there will be more classifications for a wider range of behaviors. Common criticisms of this approach is that every child seems to be diagnosed with ADD, does this represent a problem that did not exist before or was it not understood. Are we in an era where there has been an increase of cases or an increase in our ability to classify neurological conditions?

Thanks for doing the AMA and dedicating your lives to important research.

SITNHarvard5 karma

Hi, Jim here:

how in any way [PTSD in veterans] might have impacted your work or the field of neuroscience in general?

There are certainly large numbers of great labs doing research on PTSD. In that sense, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have highlighted the need to understand memories, how the brain remembers fearful information, and why in very high-stress situations this memory storage feature becomes a bug. There was some very exciting research from Susumu Tonegawa's lab where they used genetic techniques to "tag" the neurons that were active when mice encountered a fearful situation--later, they artificially activated these neurons and the mice behaved as though they were afraid. Check out a great summary in the Guardian

long those lines over the past few decades we've seen the classification of any number of disorders previously thought to be strictly behavioral in nature like ADD and some types of autism as neurological conditions.

One important thing to remember, that PTSD, ADD, and Autism Spectrum Disorders all highlight, is that behavioral disorders are neurological disorders! Behavior is generated by patterns of neural activity, so anything wrong with behavior is a function of something being wrong with neurons.

TheNerdyBoy3 karma

When did you know you wanted to study neuroscience?

SITNHarvard8 karma

Hi, Jim here: I took an amazing course in undergrad taught by a psychologist named Dan Gilbert. I highly recommend watching his very popular TED talk here. As a professor, he did an amazing job showing how complex human behaviors have biological underpinnings. Plus, he let us hold a human brain after class once. It was pretty mind blowing--it's like holding a hard drive storing someone's personality and memories, if only we knew the code. I knew then I wanted to help crack that code.

SITNHarvard7 karma

Vivian here -I think I knew it was somewhere halfway through high school. I wrote a paper about humor in the brain and was just amazed by how everything I found funny could be linked to activity patterns in the brain. What I love about neuroscience is that we understand so little about the thing that we use to understand everything else around us. It seems like a beautiful paradox to me!

SITNHarvard3 karma

Shay here. I've always had a ton of interests and it's been hard for me to choose what to focus on (I changed majors 3 times in undergrad...). For me, what really appealed about neuroscience was that it exists in this fascinating intersection between biology and philosophy. You get to study proteins, synapses, record electricity from neurons, image morphology of dendrites - but the implications of these studies can have philosophical consequences: what is a memory, why do we get afraid, what makes us decide between two choices, etc...

Now, it's actually really hard to make a lot of progress answering those kinds of 'philosophical' questions, but it's a lot of fun thinking about them and designing experiments to try and chip away at their mysteries.

TheNerdyBoy3 karma

Thanks for the answer! What other majors did you consider?

SITNHarvard5 karma

(Shay) I actually started out in undergrad studying classical literature, then switched over to immunology. I did that for a couple years before changing to neuroscience, and eventually ended up with a degree in neuroscience and physics.

I really enjoy doing neuroscience research, but I'm also open to changing fields after my PhD. There's so many interesting things to think about :)

SITNHarvard3 karma

Kevin here - it was little bit of a slippery slope for me. I was interested in language, so I studied linguistics in undergrad. I got more interested in the capacity for language (vs. learning languages), so I also studied cognitive science. I did some lab research in speech perception, but I couldn't answer all the questions I set out to answer because the research inevitably led to what the brain is actually doing when we hear speech. So I dug deeper and ended up in neuroscience focusing on speech and auditory perception.

online443 karma

Thanks for doing an AMA. 1 In your opinion what is the next big thing in neuroimaging? 2 What advances can we expect in the near future from the field? 3 What do you think is the most amaizing thing about our brains?

SITNHarvard6 karma

Kevin here - Great question! In terms of human neuroimaging, there are advances in both software and hardware that are making big changes.

As for software, our recent article talks about using MRI in combination with machine learning to predict psychiatric disorders. People like Randy Buckner are also working to get reliable single-subject results - most studies right now look at 20-30 subjects and average their brain activity, which is good for statistical power but bad for exploring variability between people.

Machine learning is also helping us figure out the complicated structure of brain activity with tools like multivoxel pattern analysis (MVPA) and data-driven clustering of brain regions based on activity patterns.

As for hardware, teams at GE, Siemens, Phillips, and institutes like the Martinos Center at Mass General Hospital are creating awesome new scanners with much better resolution. Current research is typically done on 3-Tesla machines (which refers to the strength of the magnet in the scanner), giving about 2-3mm cubic resolution during functional imaging. 7T machines can get us below 1mm, which will be awesome for more specific localization of processing. And even higher tesla machines are in the pipeline for the near future, at least for research purposes.

Other machines like the Connectome are giving us our best look at the physical connections between brain areas by measuring water diffusion along white matter tracts.

All these advances are awesome in their own right, but it's going to be amazing watching them combine together to make some incredibly powerful research and diagnostic tools in the near future. To date, brain imaging hasn't directly influenced psychiatry or diagnostics in meaningful ways - this should be changing in the next ten years.

SITNHarvard6 karma

Jim here: thanks for the great questions!

What advances can we expect in the near future from the field?

In essence, we're going to be seeing neural recordings from more neurons, faster, at higher resolution. There has been a lot of progress in calcium imaging. When brain cells are active, they take in lots of calcium. Researchers measure this by adding proteins to neurons that absorb blue light and emit green light only in the presence of calcium, thereby measuring activity. We usually shine blue light on the neurons with high-power lasers. There's progress every single day on better lasers, faster microscopes, and better and faster proteins.

There's been a lot of progress in zebrafish recently with a technique called light-sheet microscopy, which essentially shapes light into a sheet and excites a whole plane of neurons at once. This lets one record from individual neurons from the entire brain! Check out this amazing video from Misha Ahrens, a scientist at Janelia Farm. You can see individual brain cells lighting up as the fish "moves" in a simple virtual reality environment.

In the near future, these techniques are going to allow us to record neural activity at high speeds from the entire fish brain. That's the dataset we really need to figure out how fish--and hopefully "higher" brains-- work!

TL;DR: We'll be able to measure from more neurons, faster, with better signal. This is the type of data we need to understand how brains perform computations.

SITNHarvard2 karma

Hey, Shay here. Thanks for your questions! I'll let Kevin answer about human neuroimaging, but there's also a lot of cool advances in 'neuroimaging' with respect to studying animal models. One of the best ways we have to image neural activity is by monitoring calcium influxes (which correspond to when the neuron is transmitting information). Now there are actually miniaturized microscopes that we can implant into the brain of a mouse or rat to image their brains while they are awake and doing behavior! This is a big advance from traditional methods which require the animal to be fixed into one place underneath the microscope. Here is one company that has really headed this effort: www.inscopix.com

emidway3 karma

first i know that this a naive question but bare with me i still have hope in you guys and in humanity since you have a knowledge on how the the research world works i always wondered..... ( competition verses benefit for man kind) do research lab in privet or public sectors interact with each other on findings that might be very crucial to other researchers or such information is withheld so the benefactor would gain the reaps of their investment ? ( i understand its a very capitalistic world out there but wouldn't it be more beneficial for both competitors by speeding up the process of finding a cure or that break through needed for the next step) wish you the very best and success in your endeavors

SITNHarvard2 karma

Shay here - not a naive question at all. Basically I think there should be more communication between academia and private industry. I think the more open we make data, the more efficiently it can be tested and used. As you mentioned, it's hard in a capitalistic society when so much money is at stake. And in academia there is a lot of value in being the first to publish a discovery, which makes people less likely to share their data.

SITNHarvard2 karma

Vivian here. Yes, I agree with Shay. I think that the scientific world is still mostly very collaborative though. I recently found out that I was working on a very similar subject as a lab in New York and we immediately contacted each other to find out how we could work with/beside each other instead of against each other. I believe this is how it goes at least 80% of the times. I personally think that publishing is the biggest problem. I think it ridiculous that research that is funded by the government is published in journals that only a very select group of people can actually read. There are many interesting initiatives coming up right now that try to change this. For example eLife is a free journal. Or the center of open science also does great work bringing together science and community and checking the quality of research findings.

emidway1 karma

yeah it is reality
it is sad that our brightest only work together when an epidemic accrues, but it is the truth

another question if don't mind not a gloomy one i promise

how far are we from thought controlled technology and when do u think it will be a normal thing like an ipad or a smartphone

SITNHarvard2 karma

Jim here:

how far are we from thought controlled technology and when do u think it will be a normal thing like an ipad or a smartphone

As Shay said, we already control technology through our thoughts--our thoughts control our hands, which act on our iPads! More directly, researchers are using brain-machine interfaces to help paralyzed patients control robotic arms, or cursors on screens so that people with ALS syndrome can communicate. Check out this recent report from Krishna Shenoy's lab. However, we're still pretty far from this becoming commonplace for controlling our iPads--you still need a device like an EEG to measure brain activity, and no one wants to be walking around with electrodes on their heads all day every day. Once EEGs become smaller, less intrusive, and better, perhaps people will control technology with our minds. In the longer term--decades from now--perhaps we will permanently surgically implant electrodes to measure brain activity and control devices. Check out the work of Ray Kurzweil for some interesting perspectives on the future of melding brains and machines together.

In the very long term, we'll be using technology to read our neural activity constantly, change our thoughts, induce virtual realities, and perhaps upload our brains to computers, a form of immortality. Ray Kurzweil thinks this will happen in our lifetimes--I'm very skeptical.

SITNHarvard2 karma

Jim here:

do research lab in privet or public sectors interact with each other on findings that might be very crucial to other researchers or such information is withheld so the benefactor would gain the reaps of their investment ?

This is a great question. The function of publicly funded research in society is to generate knowledge that helps everyone, whose benefits are too long term for the private sector to pay for it. For example, the private sector could (and does) discover new drugs for neurological diseases. However, it's not profitable to discover the basics behind how neurons communicate with each other, which proteins are involved in healthy brain function, etc. However, this non-profitable information is required for eventually profitable endeavors, like curing neurological diseases. In that sense, the private and public sectors cooperate and both perform essential functions.

emidway1 karma

but shouldn't the privet sectors at least fund some of the public sectors work or future finding that they benefit from ....and if so how could you make sure that happens so that more advanced research see the light ( at least so that the brilliant minds are not stolen by the money grabbers and stay on the public sectors )

SITNHarvard2 karma

Jim again: they do fund the public sector's work, through their taxes!

The_Great_Phatsby3 karma

As neuroscientists, do you ever think about the ethical implications and potential abuses of your technology? When I read about how scientists are imaging brains to potentially interpret our thoughts, one of the first things to spring to my mind is how a government could use that technology for nefarious political ends.

SITNHarvard6 karma

Hey, Shay here. Great question. Everyone in the room is nodding... I think it's safe to say we all think about the ethical implications and potential abuses of the technology we work with and try to develop. It's really hard to strike a balance between pushing forward and generating progress for progress' sake - because you never know what kind of amazing things you will stumble upon - versus being cautious about what you work on for fear that it will be used in the wrong way. It's something I think is really important to talk about often - both amongst ourselves in the field and with the public, to make sure we are being both bold and responsible in our endeavors to understand the brain.

The_Great_Phatsby2 karma

Thanks! I have another question, if you don't mind. Many philosophers have tried to understand concepts related to neuroscience before neuroscience was a thing--consciousness, sense-perception, and whatnot. Do you find these older philosophical approaches helpful in your work, or are they dated ideas that don't stand up to scientific rigor?

SITNHarvard4 karma

Shay again. I'm not an expert in philosophy (I wish I was), but from what reading in the subject I've done I will say this: when it comes to designing experiments, interpreting results, etc..., I would say the vast majority of us do not really consider classical philosophy. However, just because we have fancier tools to study what is going on inside the brain doesn't mean that we have rendered these ideas useless or dated. I think we can learn a lot from philosophy, how to think about what life means, what morals are, etc... They may not stand up to the scientific method, but I don't think they really need to.

So I guess I would say that generally these philosophical approaches don't factor into my personal research, but they do factor into my personal life.

Oldhippyface3 karma

What is your favorite mystery about how the brain works?

Thanks for this great AMA.

SITNHarvard3 karma

This is Vivian! Ohh, there are so many, I would not know how to choose. For a whole bunch of brain wonders in one place I would recommend reading Oliver Sack's books. Whenever I need to remember why it is I love neuroscience I read one of his books. My favorite is probably 'the man who mistook his wife for a hat'. He was a physicians who wrote about encounters he had had with interesting neurological patients throughout his career.
Otherwise, I think my current favorite mystery is probably our sense of self. It has become more and more clear in the past years that different brain regions are constantly working in parallel, processing the same information in slightly different ways and all building up to a decision around the same time. How can it be that we feel so much like one person with one line of thought if all these processes are happening at the same time in all these different places in the brain?

SITNHarvard2 karma

Hey there-Siva here. This is a tough one because I think there is so much we still do not know about the brain. One of my favorites though is how what we experience (smell, see, taste, hear, feel) can shape the connections in our brain and how that then translates to behavior.

moosepaw112 karma

Do you have a table of data? Something like what the Particle Data Group has, a big booklet with experimental data about the various fundamental particles and their resonances.

SITNHarvard2 karma

Kelsey here--There are places where a bunch of neuroscience data is compiled. That being said, the brain is pretty complex, so it's difficult to be comprehensive. One example is the Allen Brain Atlas, which has a lot of data about what genes are expressed in certain parts of the brain or in brains at different ages. Hopefully the BRAIN initiative will also generate similar sources of info/data about brain circuits.

nunnehi2 karma

Hi everyone, thanks for doing this. I'm currently a graduate student in cognitive psychology at my university (with a focus in cognitive and affective neuroimaging) and I have a two part question that I'd love to hear your perspectives on.

  1. How big of a concern is pigeon-holing yourself into a extremely narrow focus as far as research goes? I have so many things that I'm interested in, but I'm a bit apprehensive to nail something down for a dissertation topic until I'm 100% sure.

  2. Is mirror neuron research something I should pursue as a Cognitive Science graduate student? Is there still interest in this topic among neuroscientists generally?

SITNHarvard3 karma

Hi there-Siva here. To answer question 1: I think in grad school we have to focus down on and really know the sub-field related to our thesis work. There is just so much going on that it'll be difficult to try to know it all. That being said, there is no harm in keeping an open mind and keeping in touch with the rest of the field either by reading articles or attending seminars. Choosing a dissertation topic is important and you want to be interested in what you choose. However, in my experience, it does seem like research often goes in directions that you dont initially expect it to. And that can be a good thing.

With regards to question 2: Mirror neurons were definitely talked about a lot a couple years ago with work from VS Ramachandran in primates. I do not personally know too much about it but I believe that the field is still split on the role of mirror neurons especially in humans. Here is a review that does a good job in listing out what we know and what remains to be learnt about mirror neurons (http://www.cell.com/current-biology/pdf/S0960-9822(13)01326-2.pdf).

nunnehi2 karma

Thank you very much, Siva! I really appreciate that you took time to respond. Best of luck with your future pursuits!

SITNHarvard1 karma

All the best to you too!

WhiteHarem2 karma

Are You Aware Of The 10 Conciousnesses Postulated By Budhism Sight,Smell,Touch,Taste,Hearing,Integrating,Thinking,Judging,Remembering,Freeing?

SITNHarvard1 karma

Hi, Vivian here, thank you for your question! I do not know a lot about the 10 consciousnesses postulated by budhism, but I do know that there is more and more research being done on meditation right now! Very interesting studies have found effects on meditation on for example our senses. See this article for instance!

theaustralian1232 karma

Hi, what topic in neuroscience do you think is gonna blow up in the next five or so years?

SITNHarvard1 karma

Hi, Jim here: I'm extremely biased, but I think one of the next huge areas will be on very rich computational descriptions of behavior. This goes by a few names, like computational ethology or ethomics. Check out this great article by the esteemed David Anderson: it's open access! http://www.cell.com/neuron/fulltext/S0896-6273(14)00793-4

In the past ~50 years, we've gone from recording single neurons extracellularly (Hubel and Wiesel) to recording from thousands of genetically-identified neurons. However, in the realm of behavior, we're often doing basically the same things we've always done: train mice to press levers, record a few parameters like the time in between lever presses, make a bar graph comparing your two groups and voila! you've analyzed behavior. However, even casually observing an animal you'll see that their behavior is incredibly rich. Think about something seemingly simple like mosquito bites. They're balancing their need to feed with the risk they'll get swatted, constantly monitoring their environment, landing sneakily on a fast-moving object. And if they see your hand coming, they have to stop feeding, push themselves off, and start flying in milliseconds. Think about building and coding a robot to do that--it's enormously difficult! Check out the uber-slowmo videos on this page for an example in Drosophila.

There's been some great work done by Bob Datta's group here at Harvard on analyzing mouse behavior in an unbiased way--they made an absolutely beautiful video that is very approachable and everyone should watch.

TL;DR: in recording and analyzing neural data, we've made huge advances--that's just starting to happen for behavior!

chollen2 karma

Hey one more question... Kevin posted an interesting article here about cortical speech processing. I recently heard an interesting lecture on Aprosodia/Affective speech. They attempted to isolate a specific deficit in patients with right hemisphere strokes and aprosodia with a specific acoustic feature loss (volume, frequency, frequency slope) and found that all of those acoustic parameters were impaired. Is there any neuroimaging research looking into these sorts of affective speech deficits?

SITNHarvard2 karma

Very interesting! A common but oversimplifying thought is that the left hemisphere handles specifics while the right hemisphere does more general processing. This is too coarse, but it does get at some hemispheric differences. In terms of speech, it's becoming increasingly clear that the right hemisphere speech network is involved in monitoring speech outputs to make sure we say what we meant to say in the way we meant to say it.

As for affective speech specifically, I'm not totally up on that research, but it seems to have some right temporal lobe activity associated with it. My lab is actually looking at how people produce emotional sentences with an fMRI experiment. We see differences between neutral and emotional speech in the medial prefrontal cortex, which does a lot of introspective processing. We're also going to look at how people with depression produce these utterances to see if there are brain differences. But we haven't yet looked at the acoustic features of these emotional sentences and tied them to brain activity - that's the next task!

AutoModerator2 karma

Users, please be wary of proof. You are welcome to ask for more proof if you find it insufficient.

OP, if you need any help, please message the mods here.

Thank you!

I am a bot, and this action was performed automatically. Please contact the moderators of this subreddit if you have any questions or concerns.

SITNHarvard4 karma

Happy to provide proof!

Unuhi2 karma

Can you explain in clear language what exactly can you see in fMRI if you have no background info? Also are there more advanced neuroimaging applications?

So can you see (and also how) from fMRI images if e.g. the subject whose brain you are looking at is

  • blind
  • deaf
  • amputee (can you see which parts?)
  • using and speaking in their not-comfortable language, say the 3rd or 4th
  • has old TBI
  • has PTSD
  • is autistic
  • is dyslexic etc

Or do all those details need to be known? If a doctor orders fMRI I'm curious of what are the reasons, so what do they expect to see. Can the fMRI or otther imaging results be all messed up if for instance little detaila like history of TBI and current status of blidness are not available or are ignored by the person looking at thenfMRI image? Also since I know my brain is functionally wired blind... Would that show? When audio and touch get visual cortex activated, and sight input probsbly shows like as visual tinnitus.

SITNHarvard1 karma

Jim here!

Can you explain in clear language what exactly can you see in fMRI if you have no background info? Also are there more advanced neuroimaging applications?

Great question! This isn't my field, but here goes. Essentially, an MRI machine is a gigantic magnet. When the hemoglobin in your blood has oxygen bound, it has different magnetic properties. When your neurons are active, they use more energy, and therefore the body delivers more oxygen there (the haemodynamic response). Functional MRI uses these different magnetic properties to measure which parts of your brain are receiving these oxygen deliveries. This is called blood-oxygen-level dependent (BOLD) imaging.

can you see (and also how) from fMRI images if e.g. the subject whose brain you are looking at is

I'm not sure about 100% of these, but I'll take a crack. First let me say that MRI has the advantage of being non-invasive, safe for humans, and measures the whole brain at once. However, it is super slow (one measurement every ~2 seconds), and each "pixel" of the images you obtain have millions of neurons in them. Therefore, there are some limitations to fMRI. However, one could imagine imaging a variety of people and using machine learning to predict whether or not they were blind, deaf, etc. I bet you could do better than randomly guessing!

Some interesting factoids:

Bgtex2 karma

How can the general public help increase research funding?

There are too many unfunded researchers with great ideas that end up closing down their labs. I know deli slicers, hedge fund reps, and bakers who all have a PhD in neuroscience and many of them DID have great ideas, but sadly they weren't funded after numerous grant applications. Basic science doesn't seem to get funded as much anymore and even translational research rarely gets funded.

Do you think we should we still be pushing STEM if higher educatuon can't support researchers once they reach graduate school and beyond?

SITNHarvard1 karma

Hi there - Siva here. The current funding situation is unfortunate but I definitely think that STEM in education is important and should continue to be pushed. Even if a career in research science may be limited by funding, I believe that learning STEM related subjects teach skills and shape a way of thinking that can be applied to many other careers even non-STEM related ones. As a grad student, I've come to realize that academia is not the only career option following graduate school. So it's important to keep an open mind and learn what you can.

window52 karma

Can neuroscientists approximate a persons IQ from their genome? Will that be achievable some day? What about a person's propensity to violent behavior?

SITNHarvard1 karma

Kelsey here--Short answer is not really. A person's genome definitely influences how their brain works. For example, we know there are genetic causes for schizophrenia, depression, and other psychiatric disorders. However, because the brain is so plastic, experience also has a large impact on brain function.

IQ and propensity for violent behavior are complex traits, meaning that they're determined by many genes, and they're also likely influenced by a person's environment. There are studies showing that IQ is influenced by genetics, but it's been difficult to find specific genes that are involved. Because we actually don't know most of the genes that are important for determining IQ, it would be pretty much impossible to guess someone's IQ from just their genome. This could be more achievable someday if genome sequencing becomes cheaper and we can more easily get data from more people (which will help us to find more genes involved in complex traits). However, because of the environmental component, it's unlikely that we'll ever be able to predict IQ from a genome alone. I believe the same is true for propensity for violent behavior.

Thomas_Zottos2 karma

How can you conduct experiments on the human brains?

SITNHarvard1 karma

Jim here:

It's pretty tough to conduct experiments on human brains. Here are a few ways:

SITNHarvard1 karma

Kelsey here--I also want to add that the BRAIN initiative also has some cool projects funded that will allow us to more easily research human brains. You can see them here.

One example is adding new capabilities to deep brain stimulation devices. These devices are implanted in the brains of people with certain diseases such as Parkinson's to help stimulate regions of their brains that aren't working correctly. Some researchers plan to modify these devices so that they can not only stimulate the brain but also record its activity. This would allow us to record what neurons are doing in a human brain as the person does normal, every day things!

GGRuben2 karma

I've practiced various forms of meditation for the last 15 years and I'm extremely interested in legitimate neurological research on the potential benefits and effects of different meditative techniques.

I believe that there is the potential for neuroscience to discover with real certainty what the most efficient techniques may be.

Have you participated in any neurological studies on meditations? What are your thoughts on the quality/legitimacy of studies that have been conducted thus far?

SITNHarvard1 karma

Hi! This is Vivian. Thank you for this very interesting question! My colleague Katie recently wrote a blog post about the neuroscience of mindfulness. I think it's a very interesting field! Many studies have found effects of meditation on behavioral tests and on brain activity-especially in the sensory regions. I have not participated in any of the studies so far, but I do believe that most of them are legitimate. However, Katie discusses this issue in much more detail! Let me know if you have any further questions and I can try to answer them myself or forward them to Katie!

jeanfelixpiccard2 karma

How does the BRAIN initiative plan to create complete circuit diagrams of the human brain?

SITNHarvard3 karma

Kelsey here--The BRAIN initiative doesn't aim to make COMPLETE circuit diagrams of the human, but rather to add more detail to what we know now about human brain circuits. Right now we have a sort of general idea of what certain regions do and how they're connected, but we want to have a more complete and detailed picture: what specific neuronal cell types are involved in certain diseases and behaviors?, how are these different cell types connected? can we better define regions of the brain?

With model organisms like mice and zebrafish, we might be able to come closer to a complete diagram by using in vivo imaging in a behaving animal to see when each neurons fires followed by electron microscopy to physically trace how neurons are connected to one another.

The hope of the BRAIN imitative is that we can apply what we learn from these studies of model organisms to humans. And also that we can develop new technologies for studying human brains (e.g. non-invasive ways to measure neuronal activity or image the brain) that will help us to do this.

We recently did an interview with one of the scientists on the working group that determined the goals/plan of the initiative, which I think also answers your question. We also have a more general article about the BRAIN initiative and large scale science initiatives.

AllForwardTogether2 karma

Thanks for finding time to do an AMA series! I remember reading an article on the advancement of neurotechnology in the area of dyslexia. What is the current status of this progress and if this is successful, how much longer until the same technology research can be used to start looking into cures for blindness and hearing loss? Thanks again in advance!

SITNHarvard2 karma

Hi! This is Vivian. Thank you for your question! I had not really heard about this before, but have just been reading about it! It is a very interesting initiative using transcranial magnetic resonance (influencing brain activity with a big magnet on top of the skull) to influence the activity of specific area's involved in understanding and processing language. I don't know much more about the current status besides this article and this website What distinguishes dyslexia from blindness and hearing loss is that dyslexia is not a peripheral problem. It is not the visual cortex that is dysfunctioning, rather it is the higher level area's involved in language processing. Thus, I don't think that we could use similar techniques to help cure blindness and hearing loss. Unless these are the result of problems in higher cortical area's. An interesting example of higher level blindness is neglect syndrome in which patients neglect (can not consciously see) one half of their visual field, which results from damage to the parietal lobe. Possibly this could be treated by activating the parietal lobe with transcranial magnetic resonance !

chollen2 karma

Hey! Can you tell me anything about the connectome project and where we are in using diffusion tensor imaging to map neural pathways? What practical/clinical applications do you think we can look forward to in the near future?

SITNHarvard2 karma

Kevin here - great question! Diffusion-weighted magnetic resonance imaging is getting better all the time. You mention the Connectome project, which has a couple components. One, it's collecting massive amounts of data from tons of people, which we can also relate to other structural MRIs and functional imaging. Two, some of it is done with a super-optimized MRI scanner that gives us even better data. This lets us see smaller bundles of white matter more accurately.

Other advances are in how we computationally process the data. For instance, you referred to diffusion tensor imaging, which is one specific computational approach to inferring the direction of white matter bundles from the MRI scans. However, they have a lot of shortcomings - most notably, the tensor model is bad at identifying white matter bundles that cross over or touch each other. Newer algorithms are making huge strides at overcoming these issues.

Why is this useful? If we get to the point where diffusion-weighted imaging is accurate, we can learn a lot about how brain networks are connected in people with different brain disorders. We can also look at smaller and smaller white matter tracts, such as the cranial nerves, which can help us figure out what's going wrong in people with sensory or motor disorders.

A key limitation of diffusion weighted imaging is that it's always an inference of white matter - we're looking at how water moves in the brain, which we know is greater along the paths of white matter, but we aren't directly measuring white matter. Also, a single voxel will have tens or hundreds of thousands of neurons in it, so we're never looking at specific neurons using diffusion weighted imaging (at least not yet, and not in vivo).

chollen2 karma

I'm a neurology resident but I like keeping tabs on all the cool, sometimes non-clinical, neuroscience like what you guys are working on. What resources (blogs, podcasts, etc) might you recommend for someone that isn't in an academic setting to keep tabs on? Thanks for doing this AMA, great answers so far.

SITNHarvard3 karma

(Shay) Firstly ... check out our own blog! We just started last fall and post about once a week: https://harvardneuro.wordpress.com/

Here are some others I really like: https://neuwritesd.org/ https://mindhacks.com/ https://neurophilosophy.wordpress.com/ http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/#.VyT4GaODGko http://neurocritic.blogspot.com/ http://www.neuwritewest.org/ <-- these guys also do great podcasts!

seemefly12 karma

Hey! I am currently getting my bs in Neuroscience but I am still stuck on getting into a lab that is fitting for my interests. What helped you guys refine your research ideas and begin working on them in labs?

SITNHarvard2 karma

Hi! This is Vivian! In our program we have rotations that allow you to try to work in different labs. I also worked in a couple of different labs before starting the PhD. I think just trying out different things, working in different labs for short periods of time is a really great way to find out what you like. Things you will need to start finding out for yourself is not only what research questions you are interested in, but also what kind of work you would like to do (more wet lab, or more modeling) and what kind of lab environment you want to be in. How many hours do you want to spend in lab, what kind of relationship do you want with your advisor. You will spend 5/6 years in this place, so it is not just the science that is important!

seemefly11 karma

thanks for the reply! I had the notion that joining a lab to then just rotate to another wasn't appropriate in my position but I guess I just need to get my feet wet and see where it takes me.

SITNHarvard3 karma

Yes, I wouldn't join a lab as in join it for graduate school. Then it would be strange to leave after a short time. But you can join it as a research technician or as an research intern and just say in advance that you might only stay for half a year/a year!

dystrophin2 karma

Thanks for doing this! I saw that Brazil had changed their microcephaly cut off from 33 cm to 32 cm, changing it from -2 to -3 SDs. The reasoning behind it seems to be that no structural anomalies were found in the brains of infants with head sizes between -2 and -3 SDs. How accurately can one predict whether a baby will have developmental delays in the future based on an MRI? If the MRI of an infant with a head circumference of 32 cm is normal, does that rule out developmental delays?

SITNHarvard2 karma

Hi! This Vivian. Thanks for your question! I actually recently wrote a blog post about the zika virus, see here. I think with regards to the Zika virus, the babies don't simply have microcephaly, but also show many other abnormalities in their brain. See for example this article. So for Zika-babies, an MRI scan might be enough to see if the baby is affected or not. However I'm not sure about other microcephapy cases. Siva is trying to find more information about that now!

SITNHarvard2 karma

Hey there-Siva here. Brain development in humans goes on well into adolescence and is thought to be “complete” in your 20s. There are multiple stages to development that scientists believe are regulated by different molecules and mechanisms. Therefore, an MRI done on an infant is definitely not the sole predictor of developmental delays. A normal MRI in an infant doesn’t mean that a disorder may not show up later. For example, schizophrenia is a disorder that shows up only in adolescence. However, MRIs definitely serve as a useful early predictor that a child may undergo developmental delays and this then allows for earlier intervention. With regards to accuracy of an MRI, I am unable to find you exact statistics. However, there does seem to be a correlation between MRI and various developmental disorders like microcephaly, autism as well as in premature babies.

Byrth2 karma

Neuroscience is widely interdisciplinary, which means students frequently can take multiple paths to work in the same lab doing the same research. For instance:

1) Enter a neuroscience graduate program and work on channel kinetics

2) Enter a molecular biology graduate program and work on channel kinetics

 

What are the advantages of a neuroscience graduate program?

SITNHarvard2 karma

Hi, this is Vivian. I chose for a neuroscience program because I preferred taking neuroscience classes to taking molecular biology classes. It depends a lot on what program you are in, but at least in the Harvard graduate programs there is a mandatory set of classes you have to take. If you are more interested in neuroscience I would suggest to apply to neuroscience programs rather than molecular biology programs. Another important factor to take into account is who you want your colleagues to be. You will probably hang out quite a lot with your classmates. So it might be useful to consider who you think you would have more interesting/stimulating conversations with or which network would be more useful to you in the future.

Marduk-worldbreaker2 karma

How bad is it to be knocked unconscious from severe impact and stay unconscious for 7 hours?

SITNHarvard1 karma

Hi there, Jim here: While I'm not an MD and none of this should be considered medical advice, I'm pretty confident that that is really, definitely bad for you. While consciousness is pretty tough to define, it's clear that sudden blunt-force-induced unconsciousness is a result of physical damage to the brain. Check out this article about the health effects of concussions. Some research claims that one can detect the effects of a concussion for years.

throwaway666o1 karma

What about me is so general?

SITNHarvard3 karma

This is Vivian! Hmm, that could be a very deep question:) Many things about you are very general. For example, we share 99% of our genome with Chimpanzees and Bonobos. And our brains all look very similar. And even when we are sick, they usually dysfunction in very stereotyped ways. So on the large scale almost everything about you is so general! :) However, the 1% of our genome that is different and all the small differences we have in our brain connections, plus of course the different experiences we have all had -further changing our brain connections-, make us all unique. So we are both so general and so special at once!

pm_your_selfiees1 karma

How would you rank all of taylor swift albums?

AFRICAN_BIG_COCK1 karma

[deleted]

SITNHarvard3 karma

Hi! This is Vivian. The average maximum of our group is 1 week, and we all agree that it did not make our brain happy! This might be an interesting study for you to look into. People have been studying the circuits behind cleaning ( grooming) in flies and other animals. There seem to be very specific area's and circuits active in our brain when we are covered in dirt!

window51 karma

Are there any supplements, treatments, drugs that middle aged people can take to stave off cognitive decline as they age?

SITNHarvard2 karma

Hi! Vivian here. Thank you for your question! As far as I know the only thing that has been proven to work is cognitive training. For example, this recent study showed that staying intellectually active and continuing to learn new things seems to reduce cognitive decline. Another, more science fiction-like story is that researchers have found that linking the blood circulation of an old mouse to that of a young mouse leads to a 'rejuvenation' of the old mouse's brain. It thus seem like there are molecules in our blood that make us young/old. Several researchers are currently trying to figure out what these molecules are and how we could use them to fight, among other things, cognitive decline.

two_off1 karma

What's the silliest informational video you've made?

Have you contacted popular YouTube channels to try and help you push your message? (What I'm getting at is, for example, I generally wouldn't care to learn about the entire history of another country, but I've watched this video a dozen times.)

SITNHarvard2 karma

This is Vivian. Thanks for sharing that movie. I'll definitely make sure to watch that sometime! I have never contacted popular youtube movies and have not made many information video's, so I can't answer that part. The silliest video I have ever made was together with my friend when we were both 5/6 years old. We decided to make a movie about how children are made. We build up a whole story starting with a walnut and an egg, ending with her pushing out my baby born. I think it was great that we understood the biology already at that time (thanks to our Dutch progressive upbringing:)), the movie itself apparently made our parents laugh for weeks though!

two_off2 karma

Wow. I feel so conflicted about hearing that story. I'm happy that there are places that teach sex ed and basic things that I think everyone should know, sad that I live in a place that doesn't have as good of an education system (Canada), yet glad that I don't live in the USA where teachers get fired for simply saying, "vagina".

SITNHarvard2 karma

Thank you for your response!! Yes, I think a lot can definitely be improved in American sex education and I feel very lucky to have grown up in a country where this was always a subject open for discussion! :)

SITNHarvard2 karma

Jim here:

What's the silliest informational video you've made?

I haven't made any myself, but the best silly neuroscience video I know is this music video made by the graduate students at UCSD. If you want to some insight into the life of a graduate student in neuroscience, this is a great video.