Fake Poster Trilogy: Cingular Theory of Unification

Along with Shelley, I am a graduate student in the Neuroscience Program at UM. The last three years my friends and I have made a trilogy of satirical neuroscience posters (see the first one here) poking mild fun at the mystical art of brain science. Also in any spare time remaining I have punished myself with some rather difficult neural engineering experiments.

Year 1, on the Stock Market and Rat Neurons, is already posted on Shelley's blog here.
Year 2, on "How many Neurons Must One Man Have, before You Call Him a Man" will be posted shortly, as the story is unfinished on that bit of business.
Year 3: The Pièce de résistance: the Attack on Brain Mapping

The Cingular Theory of Unification: The Cingulate Cortex does Everything

My first thesis project in graduate school investigated alternative neocortical implantation sites for neuroprosthetics. I surveyed all the rat literature I could find on rat parietal and frontal cortex function, and I converged on the cingulate cortex as a compelling implantation site due to the cingulate's role in reward-based motor planning

Well, I implanted the cingulate cortex in a number of animals, and true enough the experiment worked. After awhile, the work was published and all that normal stuff, true believers, we are all familiar with (ugh... I just described three years in four sentences). But, during this whole process of manuscript preparation, as more and more papers on the cingulate cortex came out during the 2000's, I felt more at odds with my work. The early literature suggesting the cingulate cortex was involved in reward-based motor planning and error detection was all good and fine, but with the newest fMRI and PET studies showing the cingulate cortex to be involved in optimism, religious experience, loneliness, pain perception, the placebo effect, political persuasion and so on, I wondered, "Gee, it really wasn't a high risk implanting the cingulate cortex to investigate neuroprosthetic signals; it seems to be involved in so many things. Maybe it just does everything."

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The cingulate cortex. "It does everything."

(Continue below the fold...)

And that was that! Therein was the idea for our third, and final, Society for Neuroscience gag presentation. We wanted to poke fun at the extreme view of functional localization that's common these days of contemporary neuroscience (i.e., neophrenology). My co-authors Greg Gage and Hirak Parikh submitted an accessory educational poster entitled the "Cingular Theory of Unification: the Cingulate Cortex Does Everything" to the Society for Neuroscience conference 2007 in San Diego. True to form, the poster was put together during the last few days leading up to the conference. I would meet Greg every day at 9 PM at the Brown Jug (an Ann Arbor bar) in the week leading up to SfN, and we would spend an hour or two decompressing over beers and tossing around ideas for the design of the poster.

We finally settled on a circular design for the poster, in which we depicted a clock cycle of pictorial representations showing the cingulate's role in behavior (like say, race horses to represent the cingulate's role in reward expectancy, slot machines to demonstrate the cingulate's role in reward-based motor planning, elephants/donkeys to represent its role in conservatism/liberalism, and so on). We also ripped all the cingulate cortex citations from PubMed, wrote a brief Matlab script to separate it into years and showed, true to our intuition, that cingulate cortex publications were skyrocketing. In 2007 the cingulate cortex finally overtook the mighty motor cortex in citation rate, and was only behind the visual cortex by ~15 publications. We then modeled the trend of the cingulate cortex citations and showed that by around 2050, the "Cingularity" will be reached and >99% of all neuroscience research will be on the cingulate cortex.

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Neuroterrorists with their poster of mass confusion

The reception at the conference was excellent. We would roll "renegade style" whereby around 4:15 in the afternoon, with 45 minutes left to go in the poster sessions, we would find a high foot traffic area, preferably in an imaging or neurophysiology section, and put our poster up. It became a circus act. Like hucksters, anybody walking by would get a solicitation from us, something along the lines of "If you see one poster this conference, see this one. It will change your research, change your life." Every day, by the time 5 PM rolled around, we were dozens deep with people who were laughing, making suggestions, etc. We would end up being kicked out every day by the security guards because the conference hall was closing.
And you, gentle reader, can now view our 9 minute presentation via youtube (it's definitely worth your time, it'll completely change your research direction and view of the brain---its at the top of the post).

In a few months full details of this study will be published in a couple humorous science journals, one in German and one in English. Updates to follow when ultimately released! You have been warned!

Finally: We wanted to give homage to Franz Gall, the German scientist from the 18th/19th century era who was unfortunately associated with phrenology. Nonetheless, he was one of the first scientists to propose that different parts of the brain do different things. It wasn't until 1861 when the respected Dr. Paul Broca examined his famous speech-impaired patient who subsequently promptly died, allowing Broca to observe post mortem the small stroke lesion in the famous "Broca's area" of the brain, that the neuroscience community finally accepted the functional localization hypothesis. Thus, to demonstrate that though technology changes rapidly, the evolution of ideas does not, we designed the poster as a circle. We are here in 2008 not much farther from 1808 in Gall's heyday.

contact info: tmarzull@umich.edu

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Wow, thats amazing! I think there should be more gag posters at these conferences, just so people don't take themselves so seriously. Science can be fun too.

Uh, so what does the cingulate actually do?

It does a lot of stuff! No one has really synthesized it into some understandable framework though; that's the point of the joke.