Pure Pedantry

There are a bagillion people here — a bagillion. No other word appropriately conveys how many neuroscientists are in this building.

That being the case and there being so many exhibits and lectures and craziness going on absolutely simultaneously, it has become an issue about how to break down the problem of seeing everything without becoming overwhelmed and starting to babble incoherently in the corner about NRG1 signaling.

There is to my mind two ways of dealing with this

1) You can run around like a head with your chicken cut off, and lose your mind.


2) You can just go with the flow and try and hit the highlights.

I think I am going to stick with number 2.

I will tell you from wandering the posters that the quality of neuroscience research presented at these things is a very mixed bag – which surprised me a bit. There are the researchers of breathtaking sophistication who hide tiny details in the fine print of their poster that are more interesting than my entire thesis. But for each one of them there are fifty “We removed left hemisphere of rat. Rat was sad.” and at least a hundred “While subject was in fMRI, we showed them a Marx brothers video as opposed to a documentary on the meadow vole. Activity was different. We don’t know why.”

I don’t mean to get off on a rant, but where is the well-tailored experiment with some of this stuff? Particularly with the fMRI work, it isn’t that the tool isn’t powerful – it is that the brains running the tool have not thought hard about what they are doing. The one notable exception to this is a researcher at Stanford MIT named John Gabrieli. A friend of mine and I were talking about him, and he has consistently done good work with fMRIs. If you ever have a chance go see him speak.

The most interesting poster was a stereological study showing that humans have a higher glia:neuron ratio in their prefrontal cortex than other primates. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for the doing the really cool things that humans do that most other animals don’t — like judgement and self-control. I may not have a functional one. Anyway, the authors speculate that evolutionarily the emerging complexity of the prefrontal cortex caused an increase in metabolic demand — necessitate more glia. I could also argue that glia are more and more being recognized regulators of brain activity — even to the point of having their own synapses, and the increase in their number could also reflect an increased complexity in this role. Something to think about. I am a big glial cheerleader.

Off again. Afternoon includes a symposium on resources for science education.

PS. There is perhaps the geekiest guy on Earth hitting on a girl across from me. He is like Napoleon Dynamite. The kid has no chance, but it warms my heart to see him try. He is trying to explain to her the wonderous complexity of his hippocampal cultures. That is what the ladies are into you know.


  1. #1 CP
    October 15, 2006

    just a small comment, in case this is relevant to anyone…Gabrieli’s at MIT now, not Stanford. and I agree–he does great work!

  2. #2 Abel Pharmboy
    October 15, 2006

    SfN and such are great for networking and catching up with old friends, but my money is on small Keystone, Gordon, and CSH conferences with 100-400 people where you can actually digest the science and get some quality networking in. Good luck fighting off neural overload!

  3. #3 PZ Myers
    October 28, 2006

    Yeah, I gave up on SfN years ago — too big, too overwhelming, too unfocused. A meeting with 20,000 people at it isn’t a meeting anymore.

    Also, what I found myself doing was completely ignoring the 95% of the meeting that was clinical anyway. It was really like a small meeting of some interesting basic developmental neuro imbedded in the noise and chaos of a convention of used car salesmen.

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