Progress in science and technology today is so fast and so complex, societies and their governments are struggling to keep up. A daylong session on neuroethics Tuesday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) raised more questions than answers, but it also brought home hard the necessity for answers.
Look out for a
festival of brain-science news in the next couple of weeks. The Society for Neuroscience annual meeting starts on Saturday
in New Orleans, with auxiliary events starting as early as Wednesday. More than
30,000 scientists, government and industry folks, and reporters will share
and opinions on the cutting edges of the field.
We will be there starting on Thursday, with the
two-day meeting of the International
Neuroethics Society [see our earlier preview
by meeting chairman Paul Root Wolpe]. Also look for our take on SfN's
"Dialogues Between Neuroscience and Society" session, featuring
iconic portrait artist Chuck
Close, and, of course, the special session on Brain Awareness Week.
During the mission on which he was the first man to walk the moon, Neil Armstrong, who passed away this weekend, spent just eight days total in space. Since then, astronauts have spent months and years in orbit. How has it affected their brains?
Armstrong and other Apollo astronauts reported occasional tiny flashes in their visual fields, even when their eyes were closed, writer Jim Schnabel recounted for us in his story this May, “Would a trip to Mars damage the brain?” NASA-funded researchers are looking for ways to protect astronauts’ brains from this and other effects for the three years it would take to voyage to Mars.
We love to learn, and the researchers and presenters at the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting give us more than we could possibly handle. Every year, along with developments in familiar areas like cognition, motor and sensory systems, and development, we also pick up on new areas of research—and new words.
Here's a short list from the news around this year's meeting. Are we behind the curve, or are they new to you, too?
Angiophagy: A cellular process small blood vessels use to clear clots. Vesicles envelop the clot and expel it through the cell wall. In a young brain, the vessels survive, but in older (mouse) brains, the vessels often die and surrounding vessels can suffer permanent injury. This may be why stroke recovery can be more difficult in older people, suggested Jaime Grutzendler of Yale during one of the press conferences. (abstract 891.17/DD23)
Convergent science: When people pursuing two directions of research in a lab discover that each has a relation to (or complements) the other. Special lecturer Andrew Feinberg used this word to describe what happened in his lab when they investigated how gene expression varies in cancer cells and in a (they thought) different process in normal cell tissues.
Exposome: The soup your genome is in, what it affects, and what can affect it (environment, diet, social factors). These effects change over time and may explain how a person is predisposed to certain diseases at various stages of life. (The epigenome is changes to the genome itself due to environmental factors or your own thinking.) This comes from NIMH director Thomas Insel's post on "precision medicine"; we heard him talk at the NIH press conference during the meeting.
Pharmacogenetics: Applying genetic technologies (genome sequencing, methods of switching genes on and off) to the development of new drugs and the discovery of new uses for current drugs. We first saw this in a post about the History of Neuroscience lecture given by Dana Alliance member Anne Young on neurodegenerative diseases.
STEP: It’s a protein (full name: striatal-enriched protein tyrosine phosphatase) that regulates synaptic connections when working properly. It was the star of the press conferences this year: Levels of STEP are abnormally high in Fragile X, schizophrenia, and other neuropsychiatric disorders. In animal research, reducing STEP levels has led to positive behavioral differences.
Telempathy: Ability to feel another's emotions through the use of brain technologies. We heard this during a talk by writer Michael Chorost at an auxiliary event, the International Neuroethics Society (INS) meeting. Chorost's latest book is World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machines, and the Internet.
— Nicky Penttila