The Spooky Neuroscience Behind Fear and Zombies

Halloween is the one time of year that we seek out scary situations. Some people decorate their houses like a creepy lab or cemetery, others go to haunted houses to see classic monsters and gory scenarios. We dress up like witches, devils, vampires, zombies, and other creatures of the night. What causes us to seek out these frightful situations? Why are we afraid of what we see? What happens when we look at these scary creatures with a scientific lens?

These spooky questions inspired the latest Halloween themed Taste of Science, formerly Pint of Science, a series of science lectures over beers at Ryan’s Daughter bar in Manhattan. Nathan H. Lents, Ph.D., discussed fear and Erin Coffey, Ph.D., examined the science behind a monster that many of us fear, zombies.

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Pints and Plasticity

On Tuesday afternoon in New York City, science enthusiasts gathered at Ryan’s Daughter, a bar on the upper east side. It is also one of the many locations of “A Pint of Science,” an annual science festival that takes place for three days in May, in various locations around the country. The premise of the festival is to give adults an outlet for learning about science in a fun and casual environment.

pintofscience aoki

The evening’s focus was on brain plasticity, which is the brains ability to adapt and change throughout life. Chiye Aoki, professor of neural science and biology at NYU, explained her work concerning learning and synapse formation. Synapses play a role in the connectivity of neurons. Synapse formation happens throughout life, and is a key component in learning.

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Pint of Science: Perception

Many factors weigh into how we perceive the world, and last night we tapped into two areas: hearing and memory, at a “Pint of Science” gathering at DROM in the East Village. Beer in hand, attendees packed the venue, eager to learn more from hometown scientists James Hudspeth of Rockefeller University and Paula Croxson of Mount Sinai.

Hudspeth, a Dana Alliance member and hearing expert, spoke about how hearing works, and the role of tiny hair cells in the cochlea. As explained on his Howard Hughes Medical Institute page, “Each cochlea normally contains about 16,000 hair cells, which convert mechanical inputs derived from sounds into electrical signals that the brain can interpret.”

It is the loss of these hair cells, which don’t regenerate in humans, that leads to the most common form of hearing loss, said Hudspeth. Lucky for us, other species can regenerate these cells (amphibians and reptiles, for example). Dr. Hudspeth is using zebra fish in his lab to study this ability; he hopes new therapies can be produced for people in the next five to ten years. In the meantime, cochlear implants are being used by more than 300,000 people in the US.

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