2013 in the World of Neuroscience

The festive season is upon us, and with 2014 fast approaching, this is the perfect time for a bit of reflection. In this spirit, here […]

The festive season is upon us, and with 2014 fast approaching, this is the perfect time for a bit of reflection. In this spirit, here are a few neuroscience related news or discoveries that you may or may not have read about in 2013.

Neuroscience is tweeting

Earlier this month, the neuroscience twittersphere witnessed fostering scientific debate.

A paper recently published in PNAS used MRI to look at gender differences in the brain. The study discussed how the network of wires that carry information across the brain are arranged slightly differently in males and females, even at a young age.

As expected, this catchy result was widely publicised and various media outlets, including the BBC, wrote about it. One of the interesting things that came out of these broadcasts was that it quickly got neuroscientists talking about it, or rather, tweeting. Over the course of a day, researchers were debating the various pitfalls of the paper on Twitter. Among the tweets and re-tweets were discussions about the paper’s failure to properly explain their methods and some of its misleading conclusions regarding how the brain is wired. What used to take months of debate and discussion in opinion pieces was taking hours. The progression of this debate over the course of the day has been very well documented in this post.

Since then, the original paper has been critiqued quite extensively in science media. This story serves to show that platforms like Twitter can help neuroscientists (and scientists in general) to evaluate the research out there and take scientific debate to a whole new level.

Taking a stand against the peer-review kings

Also this month, Nobel Prize-winning biologist Randy Schekman made the headlines by announcing his boycott of three big journals – Nature, Cell, and Science, a.k.a. the big dogs in science publishing. This could be a promising step forward in the debate on whether we should rely on a journal’s impact factor or its ‘coolness’ factor to determine how good a scientific paper is.

Put into context, Randy Schekman is the editor of eLife. The freely accessible publication aims to compete with the big journals and, perhaps most importantly, is all about transparency in how it reviews submitted manuscripts. Their editing process is out in the open; reviewers are a group of scientists that discuss the paper as a team, but unlike other journals, their reviews are not anonymous. This could help prevent the jaded or jealous competitor from hiding behind the anonymity of sometimes harsh or spiteful comments. Not only does this approach hold reviewers accountable, but it also promotes a more positive and rigorous scientific debate.

Most scientists would agree with the ideas behind this boycott. The fact that this is coming from a prominent scientist is important as it brings publicity and credit to the message, but some could interpret it as a bit ironic or even hypocritical. In the academic world, these high impact journals are important in building a scientist’s reputation; unless you have a handy Nobel Prize in the lab and can also afford to boycott them, they will remain appealing. However, the ball is now rolling, so it will be exciting to see where the debate takes us in 2014.

Major advances in Alzheimer’s research

Dubbed a major turning point in Alzheimer’s research, a publication in October’s Science Translational Medicine describes a technique that prevents the death of brain tissue in an animal model of prion disease.

Prion disease is very similar to other neurological diseases (like Alzheimer’s) in that it produces misfolded proteins in the brain. As these misfolded proteins do not match the traditional protein shape, healthy brain cells cannot recognise them and believe them to be viral. Their natural response to such an attack is to shut down protein production altogether. As the disease progresses, the amount of misfolded proteins in the brain increases, and so protein production is never re-instated. Proteins are vital to cell health, so cells that do not produce them will eventually wither away – a process called neurodegeneration.

To counteract this effect, a team at the University of Leicester gave some of their prion mice a compound that prevents cells automatically turning off protein production when they encounter misfolded proteins. The mice that did not receive the compound succumbed to neurodegeneration associated with prion disease, and died. However, the mice that did receive the compound treatment survived, without any signs of brain tissue damage.

It is important to note that in its current form, the compound could not be used as a drug against neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. This is mainly because of some of its side effects; the team found that the treated mice lost weight and suffered pancreatic damage. However, these findings are very significant in that they reveal a pathway that future treatments could target in preventing neurodegeneration.

David H. Hubel (1926–2013)

September saw the loss of David Hubel, a Nobel laureate and giant in the field of neuroscience. His pioneering work with Torsten Wiesel in the 1960s and 1970s set the foundations for our understanding of how the brain processes visual information. Their research taught us how information from the two eyes is organised in the brain, in particular, how individual brain cells are dedicated to specific functions. Their work laid the foundations for our understanding of how vision, and the brain in general, is shaped by the first few years of our lives.

Your very own mind control device

The University of Washington surprised us this summer with their new brain-to-brain interface that enables you to control the movements of another human being.

Neuroscientist Rajesh Rao sat in front of a computer with electrodes on his head and played a video game in his mind. The electrodes were wired to computer 1, which was connected (via the internet) to computer 2. Computer 2 controlled a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) coil placed over the head of fellow neuroscientist Andrea Stocco. TMS allows you to send an electrical pulse through someone’s brain in order to activate a specific brain area, usually the regions that control our movements. Roa’s thought of pressing a keyboard key with his finger was recorded by the electrodes and it delivered a TMS pulse that made Stocco’s finger move.

Although it would be tempting to conjure up various sci-fi applications for this device, the researchers were very clear that this could not control someone against their will and that it would only work with certain types of thoughts. They hope to work on extending the device to allow information to be sent back and forth between two people.

The transparent brain video

If you were anywhere near the neuroscience YouTube channels in April, you will no doubt have come across this rather incredible video.

Using a light microscope, neuroscientists at Stanford University were able look at a whole mouse brain made transparent by their new technique called CLARITY. By removing the opaque fat normally holding the brain together and replacing it with a transparent frame, they were able to fluorescently label the whole brain. The resulting video speaks for itself, and is well worth a watch.


Wishing you a very happy New Year!

About Gaelle Coullon

Gaelle is a graduate student at St Johns College, studying for a DPhil in Clinical Neurosciences.