Near-Death Experiment

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If you own a tv, radio, or computer, you’ve probably heard about the recent neuroscience experiment that studied after-death brain activity in rats. Perhaps you’ve seen it under titles like: Near-death experiences are ‘electrical surge in dying brain’ or Near-death experiences exposed: Surge of brain activity after the heart stops may trigger paranormal visions. You may have heard some jargon about brainwaves and frequency coupling or some such. What does it mean? It is time to chuck your rosary, or at least your copy of Proof of Heaven? (The answer to the latter, in case you’re wondering, is yes.)

The article that caused such a stir was penned by researchers at the University of Michigan and published in the scientific journal PNAS. The experiment was simple and so obvious that I immediately wondered why no one had done it before. The scientists implanted six electrodes in the surface of the rat’s brain. They recorded from the electrodes while the rat was awake and then anesthetized. Finally, they injected a solution into the rat’s heart to make it stop beating and recorded in activity in the rat’s brain while it died. None of these steps are unique. Neuroscientists often place electrodes in the brains of living rats and certainly lab rats are anesthetized and sacrificed on a daily basis. The crucial change that these scientists made was recording after the animal’s death.

What happened once its heart stopped?  A lot, probably more than anyone would have expected. In the first 30 seconds, the researchers observed rapid and coordinated neural activity in the rat’s brain. Unlike under anesthesia, when the rat’s brain was quieter than its wakeful norm, the dying brain was as active and, by some measures, more active than it was when fully awake and alive. We’re not talking about zombie rats here – this activity faded and disappeared beyond the 30-second window after cardiac arrest. Still, something dramatic and consistent happened in those dying moments. The brain activity was essentially the same across all nine rats that died from cardiac arrest and eight other rats that the scientists sacrificed using carbon dioxide inhalation. The results were no fluke.

Of course, these findings (and the headlines touting them in the news) beg the question: is this activity the neural basis for near-death experiences? The answer, of course, is we don’t know. We obviously can’t ask the rats what they experienced, if they experienced anything at all. Still, the activity during the 30-second window wasn’t drastically different from the brain’s wakeful activity, at least according to some of their measures. It’s certainly possible, maybe even probable, that the rat experienced something during this time. That fact alone is intriguing. To say more, we’ll need more grants, more studies, and more dead rats.

For the time being, I’m sure people will spin these results according to their pre-existing beliefs. Some will probably say that the brain activity at death is the physiological echo of God coaxing the soul from the body. And who am I say it ain’t so? But there are certainly other explanations. Neural rhythms arise naturally from the wiring of the brain. Neurons form an incredible number of circuits, or wiring loops, that reverberate. Each neuron is a complex little creature in its own right: electrically charged, tiny, tentacled, and bustling with messenger molecules, neurotransmitters, and ions. When neurons are deprived of oxygen and energy, their electrical charges change drastically, which can cause them to fire errant signals at each other. Without input from the outside world, these errant signals may harmonize in ways that reflect the internal wiring of the system. It’s a little like playing a trumpet. When you blow into the trumpet, your breath is a chaotic rush of air, yet it emerges as a clear and orderly tone. An organized system can make order out of chaos. The same might be said of your brain. And if it turns out that this type of coordinated brain activity actually does cause a special experience when you die, consider it an accidental symphony that plays you one last song before you go.

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Photo credit: Paul Stocker on Flickr, used via Creative Commons license

ResearchBlogging.org

Borjigin J, Lee U, Liu T, Pal D, Huff S, Klarr D, Sloboda J, Hernandez J, Wang MM, & Mashour GA (2013). Surge of neurophysiological coherence and connectivity in the dying brain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PMID: 23940340

Flipping the Baby Switch

img_2348-1Rewind to last night. It was bedtime. My infant daughter was screaming and struggling in my lap while I tried to rock her to sleep. She pulled and twisted the skin on my face. She sunk her tiny teeth into my shoulder and chest. Exasperated, I rose from the rocker and started pacing around the nursery. Her tense little body instantly relaxed. Within ten seconds she was quiet and still. Within two minutes she was asleep.

The scene was not unusual for our household. Even as a newborn, my daughter was easy to upset and hard to soothe. When nothing else worked and I was about to lose my mind I’d get up and walk with her. Often the results were nothing short of miraculous. Imagine going from 100 miles per hour to zero in a snap. For those who recall the child android Vicki on the ‘80s TV show Small Wonder, think of the times someone flipped the off-switch on her back. That’s what it’s like when I walk with my daughter. Our aimless walking flips a switch somewhere inside of her. But how does the switch work? And why does she have one in the first place? A study published in Current Biology last month helps to explain this curious facet of infant behavior.

The head scientist behind the study was Dr. Kumi Kuroda at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan. As she described in an interview with ScienceNOW, she became interested in the topic when she noticed that she could calm her own newborn son by carrying him. She later tested 12 other newborns with their mothers and found that they behaved like her son. Overall, the effect was rapid and dramatic. Some babies stopped crying as soon as their mothers began to walk with them. The rest cried less and were less shrill when they did cry. The babies also moved less and had lower heart rates while they were being carried.

To study the biological mechanisms behind this remarkable calming response, Dr. Kuroda and her colleagues turned to mice. They showed that mouse pups have a similar response when carried by their mothers. Mouse moms carry their pups by the scruff of their necks. When carried, mouse pups less than 20 days old stop wriggling. Their heart rate slows and they stop crying out. (Like most mouse vocalizations, baby mouse cries are ultrasonic). They also draw their legs in when carried, making their bodies more compact for toting around.

Kuroda and colleagues investigated several physiological aspects of the calming response in mice. Only a few of these experiments are probably relevant for infants, since human babies don’t assume a compact position like carried mouse pups do. One looked for the triggers that make carried pups stop squirming. The scientists anesthetized the neck skin of baby mice and found that these animals wriggled more than untreated mouse pups when carried. They got the same result when they overdosed pups with vitamin B6 before testing. (Vitamin B6 overdose causes animals and humans to lose the sense of their body position and movement.) The upshot? For a mouse pup to stop wriggling when carried it must 1) sense that it’s being lifted and 2) sense that something is pulling on its neck skin. Take either sense away and the calming response disappears. My daughter may draw on similar senses to trigger her miraculous stillness while carried. (Only if you replace neck pulling with the pressure of my arms around her, of course. I don’t carry her by her neck skin, I swear.)

The scientists also wondered why a baby’s heart rate drops when it’s picked up and carried. To test this in mice, they gave pups a drug that turns down the parasympathetic nervous system (the set of nerves that return the body to a calm state after arousal). Pups treated with the drug still stopped wriggling when lifted, but their heart rates didn’t drop as they do in untreated pups. So while the parasympathetic nervous system slows down the carried pup’s (and possibly infant’s) heartbeat, it can’t take credit for other features of the calming response.

Clearly this calming response is more complicated than it seems. Many of my daughter’s brain areas, neural pathways, and sensory mechanisms were working in concert to soothe her last night as I walked her in circles. But why does she have this complex reaction to carrying in the first place? Grateful parents might imagine that the calming response evolved to keep us from going crazy, but unless going crazy involves committing infanticide, this explanation doesn’t hold water. Evolution doesn’t care whether parents are happy or well rested or have time to watch Game of Thrones. It only cares whether our offspring survive.

Dr. Kuroda and her colleagues propose that the calming response helped parents escape dangerous situations while protecting their young. According to this logic, calmer carried babies meant faster escapes and higher rates of survival. Certainly if you were running from a wild beast or a member of a rival village, holding a struggling infant might slow you down. Of course holding any infant would slow you down and it’s not clear that sprinting with a struggling newborn is much harder than lugging one that’s asleep.  The paper’s authors present little evidence to support their proposal, particularly in the context of human evolution. They point to a minor result with their mice that doesn’t easily translate to human behavior. In effect, the jury’s still out.

There are other possible explanations for the calming response, ones that don’t involve predators outrunning parents. Shushing can calm crying babies too, probably because it simulates an aspect of their environment in the womb (in this case,  physiological noise). The same could be true of walking with infants. The mothers in the Kuroda study held their babies against their chest and abdomen, which is also how I hold my daughter when I walk to soothe her. The type of movement she feels in that position is probably similar to the rocking and jostling she felt as a fetus in utero whenever I walked. If so, the calming response might be a result of early learning and comfort by association – a nice thought when you consider the gory alternative.

Each year at the end of May we find ourselves as far as possible from Thanksgiving Day. It can be something of a thankfulness drought. This May I am thankful for women in science and maternity leaves, computer-generated dragons and ’80s sitcom androids. And like Vicki’s parents, I am profoundly thankful that my daughter came furnished with an off-switch. Whatever the reason why.

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Photo credit: Sabin Dang

Esposito G, Yoshida S, Ohnishi R, Tsuneoka Y, Rostagno Mdel C, Yokota S, Okabe S, Kamiya K, Hoshino M, Shimizu M, Venuti P, Kikusui T, Kato T, & Kuroda KO (2013). Infant Calming Responses during Maternal Carrying in Humans and Mice. Current biology : CB, 23 (9), 739-45 PMID: 23602481

Feeling Invisible Light

7401773382_19963f6a8b_cIn my last post, I wrote about whether we can imagine experiencing a sense that we don’t possess (such as a trout’s sense of magnetic fields). Since then a study has come out that adds a new twist to our little thought experiment. And for that we can thank six trailblazing rats in North Carolina.

Like us, rats see only a sliver of the full electromagnetic spectrum. They can perceive red light with wavelengths as long as about 650 nanometers, but radiation with longer wavelengths (known as infrared, or IR, radiation) is invisible to them. Or it was before a group of researchers at Duke began their experiment. They first trained the rats to indicate with a nose poke where they saw a visible light turned on. Then the researchers mounted an IR detector to each rat’s head and surgically implanted tiny electrodes into the part of its brain that processes tactile sensations from its whiskers.

After these sci-fi surgeries, each rat was trained to do the same light detection task again – only this time it had to detect infrared instead of visible light. Whenever the IR detectors on the animal’s head picked up IR radiation, the electrodes stimulated the tactile whisker-responsive area of its brain. So while the rat’s eyes could not detect the IR lights, a part of its brain was still receiving information about them.

Could they do the new task? Not very well at first. But within a month, these adult rats learned to do the IR detection task quite well. They even developed new strategies to accomplish their new task; as these videos show, they learned to sweep their heads back and forth to detect and localize the infrared sources.

Overall, this study shows us that the adult brain is capable of acquiring a new or expanded sense. But it doesn’t tell us how the rats experienced this new sense. Two details from the study suggest that the rats experienced IR radiation as a tactile sensation. First, the post-surgical rats scratched at their faces when first exposed to IR radiation, just as they might if they initially interpreted the IR-related brain activity as something brushing against their whiskers. Second, when the scientists studied the activity of the touch neurons receiving IR-linked stimulation after extensive IR training, they found that the majority responded to both touch and infrared light. At least to some degree, the senses of touch and of infrared vision were integrated within the individual neurons themselves.

In my last post, I found that I was only able to imagine magnetosensation by analogy to my sense of touch. Using some fancy technology, the scientists at Duke were able to turn this exercise in imagination into a reality. The rats were truly able to experience a new sense by piggybacking on an existing sense. The findings demonstrate the remarkable plasticity of the adult brain – a comforting thought as we all barrel toward our later years – but they also provide us with a glimpse of future possibilities. Someday we might be able to follow up on our thought experiment with an actual experiment. With a little brain surgery, we may someday be able to ‘see’ infrared or ultraviolet light. Or we might just hook ourselves up to a magnificent compass and have a taste (or feel or smell or sight or sound) of magnetosensation after all.

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Photo credit: Novartis AG

ResearchBlogging.org

Thomson EE, Carra R, & Nicolelis MA (2013). Perceiving invisible light through a somatosensory cortical prosthesis. Nature communications, 4 PMID: 23403583

Scientists, Activists, and Trust

Signs at UCLA Pro-Test

Hey, y’all. The rally went well. Several hundred people showed up at UCLA to condemn domestic terrorism and support medical research. As you can imagine, there’s been a ton of commentary on blogs recently about this issue. One of my favorites comes from the blog of a science ethicist. She pointed out that one of the major roadblocks to open dialogue between those for and against animal research is mistrust. From what I’ve seen and read and who I’ve talked to, this is fundamentally and inescapably true.

Before I discuss trust on a larger scale, I’m going to try to convince you that you can trust me. Look at my blog picture – don’t I have a trustworthy face? Okay, maybe not, but I have personally seen this issue from both sides. I’ve always felt a special bond with animals. I was a strict vegetarian for 10 years before anemia forced me to start occasionally eating meat. I only used products like toothpaste and face wash that were made by companies that didn’t test on animals. I wore an animal rights t-shirt to high school and once saved a half-frozen mouse I found at school, taking it home, warming it up, and releasing it in the woods in warmer weather. So I hope that those of you who support animal rights will trust that I am neither sadistic nor indifferent to animal rights.

However, I’ve also seen how mental illness could destroy people’s lives. In college, I decided to dedicate myself to neuroscience so we could improve prevention and treatments. I started graduate school working with rat and mouse models of mental illnesses. My discomfort with the work didn’t fade with time, and after a year I switched to a lab working entirely with human subjects. Still, I’ve met hundreds of people doing animal research, some on mice and rats, some on small primates, none on great apes (which are very rarely experimented upon).

It seems as though animal rights activists mistrust scientists in part because they assume that anyone with such a job must be sadistic and enjoy hurting animals. I can tell you from personal experience that this is absolutely not true. Many of the warmest, most loving people I know conduct animal research. This is not a coincidence, but I’ll get to that later in the post. Just believe me when I say that no one chooses animal research because it’s fun. It entails much more grueling work than science conducted on computers or with humans. These scientists aren’t eager to harm living things; many have pets they love and cherish.

Some animal rights proponents also distrust scientists’ claims that animal research can’t be replaced with other methods. They claim that everything can be tested now in humans or in Petri dishes or with computer modeling, without the need for animals. Here’s another point where trust would come in handy. Animal rights activists may be smart people, but most of them haven’t had years of training in biology and experimentation. Because they are passionate about animal rights, they don’t trust the claims of scientists that research with living animals can’t be replaced with these methods. They probably won’t trust me either, but I want to emphatically state it here anyway. The other methods are nowhere near replacing animal research for the development of medical treatments and procedures (both for humans and for other animals). Since my research is on humans, I can tell you from experience: we would be lost without the information gained through animal research.

Animal rights proponents cite examples of failed oversight and animal abuse, but they don’t trust scientists and vets and regulators who say that these instances are far from the norm. If you investigated daycare facilities, there’s no doubt you’d find places where child abuse is taking place. This doesn’t necessarily mean that most daycare providers are abusive, or that all daycare facilities should be abolished. Instead, it means that regulations should be more carefully enforced. This is common ground that scientists and activists alike could agree on, if there were enough mutual trust for everyone to sit down and listen to each other.

Scientists harbor misconceptions too. Some feel like animal rights protesters are themselves sadistic or that they’re terrorists. Of course most animal rights supporters don’t threaten scientists and don’t intend to. They serve an important purpose: to be advocates for creatures that can’t advocate for themselves. Advocates, be they for animals or children or prisoners, can push for the best possible enforcement of strict standards of care.

Before we part, I want to return to the question I left unanswered. Why do many of the kindest people I know do animal research? To answer that, let me first ask you a question. Imagine a scenario in which you’re forced to choose between the life of your pet and the life of a loved one (child, parent, spouse, sibling . . .) No way around it; you can only save one. Which would you choose? I imagine that most of you will save your loved one, even if losing your pet would be a terrible loss.

Now consider that on a larger scale. Scientists bear the responsibility of developing life-saving medications, immunizations, and surgeries. If all of them chose not to do animal research, our society would suffer terrible setbacks in medical advancement. Consider the rapidly mutating strains of bacteria that will eventually make our current antibiotics useless. Do we really want to halt the march of medical progress? Despite the intimidation and unpleasantness of conducting animal research, scientists choose to do it because they want to continue medical improvements. They face the choice between animals and loved ones everyday. They choose the loved ones, not just theirs, but yours and mine and everyone’s everywhere. Imagine the kindness it takes to do that.

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