Exploring the Geography of the Brain

Early world explorers worked with crude maps, painfully charting the geography of new locations for future generations. Today, anyone can log on to the internet for detailed descriptions of the countries, cities, and roads of our world. In comparison, the map of the brain still has a long way to go. In fact, a map of the brain made over 100 years ago is still being used by neuroscientists today.

Cartographers of the Brain: Mapping the Connectome,” a discussion at the World Science Festival in New York City, focused on efforts by neuroscientists to create new, more detailed maps of the brain. Deanna Barch, Washington University School of Medicine; Nim Tottenham, Columbia University; Dana Alliance member Jeff Lichtman, Harvard University; and Dana Alliance member David Van Essen, Washington University, formed the expert panel.

wsf_connectome

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Is Gender Hard-Wired in Our Brains?

Men and women are obviously born physically different, but are our brains hard-wired to display masculine and feminine traits? Wednesday’s SciCafé event, “How the Brain Shows its Feminine Side,” at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, explored this question.

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Putting Genetic Studies into Perspective

The genetics field has grown dramatically in recent years as we look to our DNA to explain our health and predict future diseases and disorders. At-home genetic testing kits are readily available and relatively affordable these days, though the tests may not live up to the hype and raise some ethical questions.

Beyond pursuing answers about our health, researchers, funders, and the public have grown increasingly interested in behavioral genetics, as we seek insight into cognition, intelligence, and personality. But don’t be too quick to buy into simple causal explanations about why you may have certain traits. For example, scientists argued in a New York Magazine article last year that Catechol-O-methyl transference may cause certain people to handle stress better than others. In our new briefing paper, “How Should We Be Thinking About Genetic Studies?” a number of experts note that the science is not that clear-cut:

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Summer Reading List: Brain Books

As someone who recently finished the latest Dan Brown book, I understand the entertainment value of a fluff read–particularly when on vacation. But as the Fourth approaches and many of you look forward to beach getaways or some down-time in the back yard, consider reading one of the brain-related books recently published by our Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives (DABI) members. You’ll certainly learn something and your friends are sure to be impressed.

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Bringing do-it-yourself science to the masses

This past Saturday, the New York Hall of Science, a Dana grantee, hosted the Maker Faire in Queens, NY. The Faire, in its fifth year, is a do-it-yourself wonderland of science gadgets and experiments presented by “Makers.”  As defined on the event’s website, makerfaire.com, Makers are “a growing community of highly imaginative and resourceful people who undertake amazing projects in their backyards, basements, and garages.”

Exhibits ranged from the playful to the practical, and many invited viewers to participate, which Saturday's crowd was eager to do. One of my favorites was the BioBus, a mobile science lab where people could test their DNA to see if it carries the bitter taste gene. We took our own saliva samples and after some hands-on processing and a half-hour wait, could discover whether we were among the 70 percent of the population who carry the gene.

BioBus; credit; Ann WhitmanThe BioBus gives attendees the chance to participate in a genotyping project.

Many of the more than 500 exhibitors emphasized how important it is to share information beyond just answering the in-person questions of the day. Instructables, for example, offers instructions for thousands of projects on its Web site, from how to make chocolate truffles (yum!), to how to build a computer mouse out of a taxidermied mouse (no thanks!). One table promoted DIY reflective covers for bike helmets so night riders would be more easily visible to car drivers, decreasing the chance of accidents (take note, Brain Injury Awareness Month organizers).

With so much going on, the event was a little overwhelming at times, but just when I felt like my brain might explode, I stumbled upon the soothing sounds of the Amygdaloids, a brain science-themed rock band led by Dana Alliance member Joe LeDoux, playing on the Science Stage.

LeDoux; credit Ann WhitmanScientist rocker, Joe LeDoux (far right), sings "Mind over Matter" on the Science Stage.

The Faire had something for everyone, but one of my most rewarding experiences of the day came afterward — listening to the animated conversations of a group of teens on the subway ride home, discussing the science they learned that day.

–Ann L. Whitman

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