Why Communicating Science Matters: How the Scirens are Shaping Perspectives

In 2014, Taryn O’Neill, Tamara Krinsky, and Gia Mora formed the Scirens, the screen sirens for science. Their mission is to inspire science literacy in the general public through entertainment fueled by science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) storylines and featuring, as they put it, “diverse, multi-dimensional female characters." The Signal to Noise Magazine had the opportunity to sit down with the Scirens and discuss their mission to encourage science literacy and create science-infused entertainment.

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Disembodied Voices: Haunting Hallucinations and Their Origins

Do people actually hear voices, or are the sounds just figments of their imagination? Those who truly hear disembodied voices are likely experiencing a particular type of hallucination. Historically, hallucinations have been a powerful tool in storytelling, popping up in everything from the Euripides’ Greek tragedies to Shakespeare’s plays and more modern-day stories of demonic possession [12]. Sometimes these voices appear to have good intentions, like those which inspired Joan of Arc, while others seem to taunt or even torture, like those which ‘possess’ their victims, forcing them to do unthinkable things [3]. Hallucinations have captivated us for centuries, but the neurobiological basis for these phenomena is not well understood.

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Of Songs and Circuits: Freshly Made Neurons Make For Freshly Made Music

Image Credit: “WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW” by Gary L. Clark is licensed under CC-BY-SA-4.0.

The study of how new neurons are made in the adult brain (adult neurogenesis) has received much attention because newborn neurons can integrate into and reshape preexisting neural circuits, making circuits “plastic.” It's not clear, though, how neural plasticity relates to the behavior produced by a particular neural circuit. Songbirds exhibit seasonal plasticity: during breeding season they have an increased number of neurons called Higher Vocal Center neurons (HVCs), which connect different regions of the brain important for producing songs. The relationship between cyclic addition/removal of HVC neurons and song production in male white-crowned sparrows was addressed by Rachel Cohen and colleagues. To compare the number of newly added HVC neurons to song quality in breeding versus non-breeding sparrows, they first had to count the number of newly added HVCs. They then compared this to the types of songs the sparrows sang. Cohen and colleagues found a direct correlation between song structure and HVC neuron number. When HVC neuron number goes down, song structure degrades (corresponding to non-breeding birds), but as new HVCs are added, song structure recovers (corresponding to breeding birds). Generation of new HVC neurons was also correlated to increases in the amount of a steroid hormone known to be important for neuron survival. The authors provide highly suggestive evidence that the underlying basis for circuit plasticity in this song circuit is the regeneration of HVC neurons, a process controlled by hormones. The seasonal plasticity of songbird neural circuits may also serve as a new model for understanding how number of neurons and the connections they make produces specific types of behaviors.

Jennifer Lovick (@drjkyl)
Senior Editor, Science in Entertainment, Signal to Noise Magazine
PhD, Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology

References:

Cohen, R.E., Macedo-Lima, M., Miller, K.E., Brenowitz, E.A. Adult neurogenesis leads to the functional reconstruction of a Telencephalic neural circuit. J Neurosci 36, 8947-8956 (2016).

Monstrous Mutations in Our Creepy, Crawly Friend: The Fruit Fly

Monstrous Mutations in Our Creepy, Crawly Friend: The Fruit Fly

The unforgettable final scene of The Fly features a poor little fly stuck in a spider's web, screaming “Help me! Help me!” before being crushed to death. Although scientists in the real world don’t have disintegrator-integrator devices that could accidentally swap body parts between humans and flies, there are many remarkable genetic mutations that scientists can study to better understand how our bodies develop and why we have certain diseases. Many of these were first discovered in the fruit fly. Here are a few of these monstrous mutations for your viewing pleasure - hope they don’t give you nightmares!

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Scientists and Sci-Fi: A Spotlight on Two Dragon Con Science Experts

Scientists and Sci-Fi:  A Spotlight on Two Dragon Con Science Experts

Pop culture events like Dragon Con are full of activities aimed at satisfying our inner (and sometimes outer) nerd. What sets Dragon Con apart, though, is its elaborate Science Track, which dedicates over 40 hours of programming geared towards – you guessed it – science. But it's about much more than that. The Science Track aims to discuss science and science fiction in a fun, engaging manner, creating an environment where scientists and science enthusiasts can geek out together. We had the opportunity to chat with two scientists who are actively involved in the Dragon Con Science Track and in the field of science communication (SciComm): Dr. Raychelle Burks and Dr. Eric Spana. Both are sitting on a number of panels this weekend at Dragon Con.

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Exploring the Real Science of Sci-Fi at Dragon Con with Stephen Granade

Exploring the Real Science of Sci-Fi at Dragon Con with Stephen Granade

The day you’ve been waiting all year for is finally here. The doors open and you get the best seat in the house, front and center. You’ve prepared a question or two, hoping you get the opportunity to ask one of the speakers. Finally the lights dim and the panel begins. What’s the topic? Star Wars, naturally. Question one – could the Ewoks sustain themselves by eating Storm Troopers? I bet you didn’t see that coming. The special guests today are scientists, prepared to talk Star Wars science. They're speaking on just one of dozens of science-related panels at Dragon Con.

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The Making of Manhattan: Melding Science and Storytelling on the Road to Trinity

The Making of Manhattan: Melding Science and Storytelling on the Road to Trinity

Media is an important tool for communicating science. Popular media (film, television, etc.) plays a central role, providing not only a framework for our understanding of scientific concepts, but also a sociocultural context in which science and scientists are portrayed. Working side-by-side with talented writers, scientists have become increasingly involved in this process by serving as scientific consultants. Take, for example, the critically-acclaimed scientific drama Manhattan, which recently ran two seasons on WGN America. More than a fictional retelling about a famous scientific event, Manhattan is a story about the lives of the scientists responsible for building the world's first nuclear weapon in Los Alamos, New Mexico during WWII. We recently sat down with Sam Shaw (creator/executive producer/writer of Manhattan) and Dr. David Saltzberg (particle physicist at UCLA and science consultant for Manhattan and The Big Bang Theory) to learn more about what it's like to produce a television show which portrays both science and scientists.

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The Power of a Paradox: A Lesson About Time Travel from SyFy's 12 Monkeys (Part II)

The Power of a Paradox: A Lesson About Time Travel from SyFy's 12 Monkeys (Part II)

Science fiction is just that: fiction. The question of how much actual science is needed to support a great science fiction story is a subjective one. This is a challenging task for any writer, especially those responsible for bringing to life some of our favorite science fiction stories, including the time travel classic 12 Monkeys and its latest incarnation, the TV show 12 Monkeys currently airing on the SyFy channel. At its heart, 12 Monkeys is a story about predestination versus free will. It challenges us to think about space, time, and the natural laws which serve as the framework upon which our entire universe is built.

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The Power of a Paradox: A Lesson About Time Travel from SyFy's 12 Monkeys (Part I)

The Power of a Paradox: A Lesson About Time Travel from SyFy's 12 Monkeys (Part I)

A mysterious cult-like group releases a devastating super virus. The resulting plague decimates the population, ending the world as we know it. It’s a story you’ve heard before and are likely to hear again and again, at least in science fiction. How to fix it? Go back in time and stop it from ever happening, of course. We recently had the opportunity to chat with showrunner Terry Matalas about how time and time travel work in the 12 Monkeys, a show that's not as far removed from science as you might think. Without further ado, “Initiate splinter sequence…”

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Regulation of Fear and Anxiety in the Hippocampus

Cross section showing three domains of mouse hippocampus. Image credit: Panel from Figure 1B, 2016, Engin et al. Licensed CC BY 4.0.

Our responses to fear and anxiety are regulated by several regions in the brain, including the hippocampus. The hippocampus has neurons which express a receptor for the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA, a molecule known to be important for modulating fear and anxiety. Anatomically, the hippocampus is divided into three subregions, but studies have yet to show conclusively that these subregions are also functionally unique. There is evidence to suggest there is some overlap in the types of neurons in the hippocampus which mediate anxiety and fear, though it’s not clear if there is an “anxiety” neural circuit and a “fear” circuit, or if they share a common circuit. To try and distinguish between these possibilities, Engin and colleagues selectively “silenced” neurons in each of the three hippocampal subregions (CA1, CA3, and DG) of the mouse brain and asked which, if any, of the mice could respond to fear or anxiety stimuli. To do this, they generated three different transgenic mouse lines, each of which was mutant for a receptor of GABA in one of the three hippocampal subregions. Without this receptor, the neurons in these regions can’t communicate with other neurons in their respective or shared circuits. The three sets of transgenic mice completed behavioral tests which simulate anxiety or fear; during some of the tests they were given the anxiety/fear-reducing drug diazepam. When given diazepam, mice which were mutant for the GABA receptor in the CA1 subregion still showed a response to fear and not anxiety (diazepam couldn’t reduce reaction to fear stimulus); conversely, mice which were mutant for the GABA receptor in the CA3 subregion still responded to anxiety, but not fear (response to anxiety stimulus not reduced by diazepam). This suggests that anxiety and fear are mediated by distinct neural circuits located in different subregions of the mouse hippocampus (CA1 = fear; CA3 = anxiety). These findings provide a neurobiological basis for the idea that anxiety and fear are separate emotional states, each mediated by its own set of neurons within the brain.

Jennifer Lovick (@drjkyl)
Senior Editor, Science in Entertainment, Signal to Noise
PhD, Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology

References:
Engin E, Smith KS, Gao Y, Nagy D, Foster RA, Tsvetkov E, Keist R, Crestani F, Fritschy JM, Bolshakov VY, Hajos M, Heldt SA, Rudolph U. Modulation of anxiety and fear via distinct intrahippocampal circuits. eLife. 5,e14120 (2016). DOI: 10.7554/eLife.14120

Stabilizing the Blood-Brain Barrier Against Invading Parasites

African trypanosomes, a brain-infecting parasite, surrounded by red blood cells. Image Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

When it comes to defending the brain from parasites, the immune system, if not kept under tight control, can actually do more harm than good. The brain is immunologically privileged: it is protected from outside threats by both the blood-brain barrier, a tightly-packed layer of cells that allows only certain molecules to enter the brain from the bloodstream, and by specialized immune cells located inside the barrier. When the brain comes under siege by parasites, immune cells from the bloodstream are recruited to the area to help attack the invaders. This flooding of immune cells into the tissue surrounding the brain damages the cells in the blood-brain barrier, inadvertently allowing more parasites into the brain. Olivera et al. show that nitric oxide helps prevent immune cells from overwhelming the blood-brain barrier. When immune cells first reach the brain from the bloodstream, they stimulate immune cells in the brain to produce nitric oxide. As more nitric oxide is produced, it inhibits signaling molecules that would normally recruit additional immune cells to the brain. This negative-feedback loop ensures that some immune cells arrive to provide additional defenses for the brain, but not so many that damage is caused to the fortification keeping the parasites at bay.

- Stephanie DeMarco
Staff Writer, Signal to Noise Magazine
PhD Candidate, Molecular Biology

 

Learning what makes us happy, with a little help from dopamine

Photo credit: Allan Ajifo (aboutmodafinil.com), Wikimedia Common

Photo credit: Allan Ajifo (aboutmodafinil.com), Wikimedia Common

Imagine you are eating a delicious slice of chocolate cake. You may feel happy inside just thinking about it - you don’t even need to see, smell, or taste the cake. How does your brain create this effect? There are neurons in your brain which produce a neurotransmitter (a chemical messenger that neurons use to communicate with each other) called dopamine. High levels of dopamine make us feel good. When you think of the cake, neurons in your brain release dopamine, which relays a message to other neurons to tell your body to feel happy. This is called a reward response: it helps us to learn and remember things in our environment that we like [1]. To better understand how dopamine-producing neurons regulate the reward response, researchers can look to the fruit fly as a model system. In the latest issue of Current Biology, Rohwedder et al. identified a novel set of dopamine-producing neurons in the larval brain which appear to connect with neurons of the mushroom body, a known center for learning and memory in the fly [2]. By expressing genes in these neurons that either killed them or caused them to become active, they showed that depending on where these dopamine-producing neurons contact the mushroom body, this results in a reward response to a different type of sugar. This novel set of neurons behaves in stark contrast to a previously described set of dopamine-producing neurons, which are known to be important for aversive behaviors (for instance, when you spit something out because it tastes awful). Identification of distinct sets of neurons that regulate reward versus aversion is a common feature observed in adult fruit flies and in mammals, but until now has never been observed in developing individual neurons. This study lays the groundwork for the possibility of studying in great detail the reward-aversion behavioral paradigm at the level of single neurons.

Jennifer Lovick (@drjkyl)
Senior Editor, Science in Entertainment, Signal to Noise
PhD, Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology

 

Reference:
1. “Dopamine Is __________ Is it love? Gambling? Reward? Addiction?” Bethany Brookshire for Slate. July 3 2013. www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2013/07/what_is_dopamine_love_lust_sex_addiction_gambling_motivation_reward.html

2. Rohwedder A, Wenz NL, Stehle B, Huser A, Yamagata N, Zlatic M, Truman JW, Tanimoto H, Saumweber T, Gerber B, Thum AS. Four individually identified paired dopamine neurons signal reward in larval Drosophila. Curr Biol. 26, 661-669 (2016). DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2016.01.012

Studying Neural Circuits Using Fluorescence Confocal Microscopy

Studying Neural Circuits Using Fluorescence Confocal Microscopy

Microscopes magnify very small objects that are difficult to see with the naked eye using lenses and a source of illumination. Confocal microscopes use a combination of lenses and mirrors illuminated by lasers to view small samples that are labeled with fluorescent molecules (called fluorescence confocal microscopy). 

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Neurons Tell Time

Female fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster (This work has been released into the public domain by its author, Botaurus at German Wikipedia.)

Our ability to see when it’s light or dark outside helps us tell time and also helps our bodies pattern our daily routines, such as when we eat or sleep – but how do cells in our brain, which are important for creating these patterns, know? The circadian or molecular clock consists of molecules which activate and synchronize neurons that regulate organisms’ behaviors in accordance with the 24-hour light/dark cycle. Liang et al. developed a technique to study the activity of these neurons (by measuring calcium levels within the cells) in brains of live fruit flies. They observed that some neurons are active in the morning while others are active in the evening, corresponding with morning or evening locomotor activities such as flying or walking, and that this activity is regulated by the molecular clock in conjunction with the neuropeptide pigment-dispersing factor (PDF). This system, then, acts as a timing mechanism telling neurons when to become active so that they can initiate behaviors at the right time of day.

Jennifer Lovick (@drjkyl)
Senior Editor, Science in Entertainment, Signal to Noise Magazine
PhD, Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology
 

References:

Liang, X., Holy, T. E. & Taghert, P. H. Synchronous Drosophila circadian pacemakers display nonsynchronous Ca2+ rhythms in vivo. Science. 351, 976-981 (2016). DOI: 10.1126/science.aad3997