NIH Puts ‘Money Where Mouth Is’ Concerning Sex Differences Policy

Guest post by science writer Kayt Sukel

Earlier this year, the National Institutes of Health called for a sweeping policy change demanding that sex differences be addressed in future research programs funded by the agency [see Dana story, NIH Calls for ‘Sea Change’ Regarding Sex Differences in Research]. Most applauded the move as a vital first step in transforming how sex differences are currently handled in biomedical studies. But some worried that without proper funding, scientists would have difficulty complying with the new mandates.

“Money is a critical component of all this,” said Jill Goldstein, director of research for the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology and Harvard Medical School. “There has to be funding to focus on sex differences or else it’s hard to see how it is really going to happen.”

Today, the National Institutes of Health announced it has awarded more than $10 million in supplemental funding to help grantees better investigate the effects of sex in their research.

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Tales from the Lab: Choosing What to Study Can Be Complex

Test Tubes

Over the next three months, the Dana Foundation blog is pleased to host a new blog series, “Tales from the Lab,” featuring two neuroscience graduate student guest bloggers: Tim Balmer from Georgia State University and Grace Lindsay from Columbia University. Tim’s contributions will focus on life as a graduate neuroscience student (pay attention for helpful tips!) and Grace will focus on neuroplasticity. This is Tim’s first blog in the series.

How do students select research projects? Very carefully. Every project starts with a question: How does a specific neural process work? But how do you choose which specific process, and what aspects of that process?

The goal of principal investigators (PIs) who direct neuroscience research labs is to answer questions that will increase our knowledge of the working brain. Graduate students and post-docs in the lab (the people who spend the most time in lab coats) generally work on one or two independent projects relating to the lab’s general research question: how a specific brain mechanism operates in health or disease.

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Changing the Diagnoses

It's not a surprise that each time researchers and other experts revise the "bible" of psychiatric diagnosis in America, they change categories and definitions of disabilities. But when that change hits close to home—say, narrowing the definition of autism spectrum disorder—it gets a lot more press than usual.

The next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which psychiatrists and other practitioners use as a guide to diagnose psychiatric disorders, is in the late stages of a long revision process; it goes to the printers in December. Many of the suggested changes have been posted for comment for the past year. This past week, The New York Times weighed in on two proposed changes.

In "New Definition of Autism Will Exclude Many, Study Suggests," writer Benedict Carey describes a recent analysis by Dr. Fred Volkmar that estimates how many people now classified as having Asperger's syndrome or "pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified" (PDD-NOS) would not qualify as autistic under the proposed guidelines. Without the "autistic" label, these people might not qualify for extra help at school; insurers might not cover their therapy. Small wonder people started to panic (at least in the comments on the Times story). Still, as Gil Tippy of the Rebecca School in New York advised on the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism site, "If you, or your son or daughter has an appropriate diagnosis on the Autism Spectrum now, responsible clinicians will find that you or your children meet the criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder under the new guidelines."

Another change highlighted this week would add "grief and grieving" to the list of criteria used to diagnose depression (writer Benedict Carey also mentions other changes, too). A lively discussion follows on the Times's Well blog.

Back in 2009, when discussion about the DSM-5 was starting to roll, we invited the scientists leading the revision process to describe their plan. Their essay, for our Cerebrum periodical, may not have been one of our better-read pieces at the time, but has grown in interest since. We paired it with a call from Johns Hopkins psychiatry professor Paul R. McHugh that the editors focus on disorders’ causes and disease processes, in part to improve upon what the two most recent editions of DSM have produced: “a psychiatry that’s boring.”

Early in 2011, former Harvard provost Steven E. Hyman weighed in for Cerebrum on how the process was going—his title: "Diagnostic Classification Needs Fundamental Reform." (Hyman is a member of the DSM revision task force, but was writing as an individual.) In his argument, he acknowledges that radical reform may need more time (i.e., the 10 years until DSM-6). In terms of individual diagnostic categories, though, "I would recommend that the DSM-5 take a conservative approach, leaving criteria unchanged unless compelling new evidence suggests that a change would be beneficial. Whatever the ultimate approach to the DSM-5, it is critical that the scientific community escape the artificial diagnostic silos that control so much research, ultimately to our detriment."

(Also, Seth Mnookin has posted a great roundtable discussion on the image of autism, including who speaks for autistic people and how the spectrum is covered by the media.)

–Nicky Penttila

Learning About Learning

How does school work, brain-wise? Do children teach themselves or is it something about the instruction that gets their brains firing and wiring faster? Last fall, a few hundred neuroscientists, teachers, and curriculum-makers met for a weekend to hash out what we know about learning and how we could use it to help every child succeed at school. One early answer: Play. 

The Aspen Brain Forum was sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences, which has posted an extensive summary of the event as well as slides and audio from eighteen of the sessions. For an introductory taste of the event, though, try the 18-min podcast (which we sponsored). Science and the City's Nadja Popovich talked with three of the presenters, who sketch the growing field and describe a few surprising results.  

Many of these results are connected to the cognitive properties of executive function, especially attention: inhibiting distraction, focusing on the correct aspect of a task, and maintaining focus. For example, Adele Diamond of the University of British Columbia describes the "red-pencil technique" for children who are writing their letters or numbers the wrong way (mirrored). Asking them to remind themselves to stop before they have to write a "6" and switch from their regular pencil to another one to write that number slows them down enough that they write the number correctly, a change that seems to last. Diamond also points out that learning programs that include social, emotional, and physical components (such as play) "are better for academic achievement and executive function" than those that focus solely on academics. "Addressing only the cognitive seems to be less beneficial," she says.

On the subject of play, Daphne Bavalier of the University of Rochester offers tantalizing research into the benefits of often-denigrated video games. Studies done on undergraduate non-gamers who played games for the first time for a few dozen hours seem to show they have improved vision acuity and speed as well as attention. How might programmers tweak games to foster improvements that could last?

Bruce McCandliss of Vanderbilt University describes research that suggests that differences in learning abilities and styles may have a grounding in attention, tooor rather, what we focus our attention on. Brain scans of young people focusing on the beginnings and endings of spoken words differ in predictable ways from the scans of those who focus on the melody of the sentences, for example. Might "poor" readers be focusing on a less-helpful aspect of the language, perhaps enjoying the music of the language and missing its meaning? "Different learning styles may rely on different styles of attention," he says, and might benefit from different methods of instruction.

Like most of neuroscience, questions are more plentiful than answers. We do know some things work better than others, though; Diamond cites the Montessori, Tools of the Mind, and Path curriculums; Jump Math also seems to be making mathematicians of entire classrooms, not just a lucky few, according to John Mighton (who was not on the podcast but did attend the meeting).

The main take-away? Everyone learns a little differently, so relax about it. As Diamond says, "stress impairs executive function."

–Nicky Penttila

Brainbows and the Hungry Brain

When you look at an image of the brain, it is hard to imagine that such an alien-looking form no bigger than a cantaloupe facilitates our breathing, moving, and even our ability to contemplate difficult philosophical questions like “chocolate or vanilla?” I am fascinated by the extensive and incredibly efficient communication network I have underneath my skull.

Brain imaging is starting to tell us more about the various brain areas and how they communicate with one another to accomplish tasks from picking up a pencil to processing complex calculus. I hadn’t thought of it as an eating machine, though, until I heard about a lecture entitled “Imaging the Hungry Brain.” I had to find out what that meant, so on Monday night I went to the lecture, given by Elizabeth M.C. Hillman of Columbia, hosted by that university’s neuroscience department and the Mind Brain Behavior Initiative and sponsored by the Dana Foundation.

Hillman is a professor in biomedical engineering and radiology and director of the Laboratory for Functional Optical Imaging. She is a perfect blend of an engineer and a brain enthusiast. After listening to her enthusiasm and excitement about the future of brain imaging, I couldn’t help but be excited myself.

Currently, human brain imaging relies on observing how it consumes energy—as the lecture’s title implied, imaging the hungry brain. Techniques like positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) allow researchers to view the brain as it eats up glucose and the oxygen in blood. With these scans, we can see which areas of the brain are active or inactive in terms of energy consumption during different activities. But, Hillman pointed out, energy consumption doesn’t tell us everything about the brain.

Hillman’s hope is that imaging can help us figure out how the brain’s energy consumption actually translates into the neural activity. Much of neurovascular control is still a mystery to scientists, she said, and a clearer understanding of it may lead to a greater understanding of many neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.

Hillman sees a bright future ahead for brain imaging, including work she is doing using in-vivo optical imaging, which uses light to detect functional changes in the animal brain.

One of the most exciting brain imaging techniques she discussed is the Brainbow, which uses fluorescent proteins to label each individual neuron a different color. This way, scientists can get a detailed image of individual neurons as they fire during different activities. Hillman described how researchers can use the image provided by the Brainbow to create a 3-D model of the brain’s neurons in action. While such a technique has only been used with animal brains, Hillman said it’s likely to a play a major role in future neuroscience research, including wathing how pharmaceutical drugs affect different brain areas. If we could label a drug in a way similar to the way neurons are labeled with fluorescent proteins, we could follow it through the brain in order understand exactly where it is going and what it is doing, she said.

Brainbow_HippocampusImage courtesy of Jeff Lichtman/Harvard University. See more images here.

The lecture was part of series of speakers from Columbia promoting the forthcoming Jerome L. Greene Science Center in Manhattanville that will host Columbia’s Mind Brain Behavior Initiative. One of the initiative’s goals is to understand the inner workings of the brain and apply that knowledge to improved methods of brain disease prevention and treatment. Scientists like Dr. Hillman, who embody the relationship between neuroscience and engineering, may be key to this process.

The next speaker in the series will be Dana Alliance member Thomas M. Jessell, on Nov. 16 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the Carlyle (35 East 76th Street at Madison Avenue). He will be discussing “Measured Motion: The Science and Syndromes of Motor Control.”

–Simon Fischweicher

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