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I don’t profess to be any more sad than anyone else about the death of Senator Kennedy. Yet on Wednesday morning, when I first read the news about his death, it hurt me deeply. Kennedy and I had no tangible connection otherwise. He was the liberal lion of the senate, the last of the storied Kennedy brothers, the last prince of Camelot. I am a first generation American, daughter of Indian immigrant parents, only starting to find my way in life. I think it is because it was his last few months of life, and his moment of death, that forged a connection between me and the senator.
Ted Kennedy, as all of you probably know, was diagnosed with brain cancer in May of 2008. Specifically, he was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme (GBM)–which in the WHO system of cancer grading is stage IV–the most aggressive type of glioma. This summer, I started work in the city, on clinical trials devoted to GBM and other high-grade gliomas. As I started work, and found myself learning more about gliomas, Kennedy’s struggle came into greater focus. The treatments he went through, and the challenges he faced, became more real to me. He was not that different from the multitudes of patients I have come across through my work, his struggle was not any easier. This made his resilience and determination to see his goals through all the more admirable, and inspiring.
I am sitting here now, streaming the funeral coverage from the New York Times website, crying and laughing with everyone else who may be watching the services and the heartfelt eulogies. I am also sitting here, with my work before me, trying to understand how our research may shed new light on gliomas. Though this research is not my brainchild, it is still something about which I feel very strongly. I think I felt more pain about Kennedy’s death because brain cancer research has not reached a point where we could give more, quality years of life to those who suffer with brain cancer. I can only wish that we’ll get there in the near future.
In the meantime, I’m going to try to channel Kennedy as I push onward, with my colleagues, towards that distant goal.
For those of you who know me know that I am, simply put, neuro-obsessed. Here’s where I try to justify that.
Think about the human body and how incredibly complex it is. Think of all the chemicals that course through your bloodstream to regulate this organ or that, that allow you to grow and mature. Think of the electrical and structural precision that is needed to keep your heartbeat normal. Think of the myriad events that go on to maintain normal digestion even when you are unaware that it is going on.
Now think of the brain and think of the fact that it regulates all of it. A three-pound (give or take a few ounces), gelatinous and convoluted mass of neural tissue sitting comfortably in your cranium regulates all of it. I think that’s pretty cool, right?
Consider this a kind of (grossly simplified) neuroscience primer from someone who has neither an M.D. nor Ph.D (so take it for what it’s worth).
Humans are programmed to experience fear, because fear is a useful response to noxious stimuli. Yet, there are those fears that are more irrational that others.
I suffer from ligyrophobia. Ligyrophobia is defined as the irrational fear of loud noises. Balloons popping, fireworks, thunder, explosions, dogs barking, and (even at one time) vacuum cleaners used to scare me beyond words. Of course, now it’s greatly improved for the most part. It may seem silly, being scared of loud noises, and it is. I’ll be the first to admit it. My mother blames it on the fact that she went into labor when a car backfired right next to her. I’m not too sure about that, but there is something to be said for traumatic events setting one up for a lifetime of phobias.
The suffix “phobia” itself derives from the Greek, meaning “fear.” A host of prefixes can be attached that denote the specific fear. Agoraphobia is a fear of open spaces (or conversely, leaving one’s home), agora referring to the ancient Greek, open-air marketplace. Arachnophobia is a fear of spiders. The list goes on, with some of the fears being especially off-beat. Fear of hippos. Fear of wrists. My personal favorite is fear of peanut butter getting stuck to the roof of your mouth. Arachibutyrophobia. Try saying that ten times fast.
Emotional memories, especially fears, are generally encoded in the amygdala. The amygdala (from the Latin for “almond” because of its shape) sits in the middle of the brain, and is also encircled by the hippocampus, another important memory-related structure. Yet it is interesting because fear itself is not totally dependent on memory, per se. In an experiment conducted during the turn of the 20th century, it was observed that in a Korsakoff’s patient, pricking her hand would result in her being less likely to shake the researcher’s hand, but she couldn’t pinpoint why that was the case. In Joseph LeDoux’s lab at NYU, rats who were conditioned to associate a 30 second tone with a small shock to the foot. Eventually, rats would freeze and/or display other typical fear responses to the tone alone. Some rats were given amygdalar lesions and lost the conditioned response that they had to the tone, and reacted as though there was no association at all. The response to shock, though, was unchanged.
The amygdala is hardwired to pair variables together, usually sights, smells, sounds, and certain touches to events, positive and negative. Perhaps in phobias, there is a a tendency to overextend and associate seemingly innocuous objects with a negative response. fMRI studies have confirmed the link between amygdalar activation and phobic responses in humans (in this case, with arachnophobes).
So is there a way to really cure phobias? Not really anything much more than strength of will and perhaps therapy. Some fears are easier to overcome than others. It has taken me years to get over some of mine, but will probably take many more to get over it completely. For me, ligyrophobia is something I have had for as long as I can remember. Getting rid of something so rooted in your psyche is a challenge, a challenge which I don’t mind taking. It helps a little, to know the biological underpinnings for why we fear, it makes fear less nebulous and more conquerable. It also helps to have a strong support system, friends, family, and loved ones usually make any task a lot easier.
“There is nothing to fear but fear itself,” Franklin D. Roosevelt once said. Certainly misplaced fears should be avoided, but I don’t think there we should ever attempt to fear nothing, because fear is after all a much-needed survival response. Some spiders, sharks, lightning (at least, close-range), and other things are obviously dangerous, and should be feared and avoided to a degree. I think Ellen DeGeneres summarized this and other points in one of her monologues the best, and I’ll leave you with that.
Tara Parker Pope always has great articles in her Health blog on the New York Times website. One of her more recent ones pertains to the fate of embryos created to help infertile couples who end up not using all of them.
Here is my problem with the naysayers who cry foul because embryos are being used for embryonic stem cell research. While they are embryos, by definition, they are not remotely multi-systemic entities. The embryos in question are, in fact, cell masses of mostly totipotent stem cells (this is also a correction to the comment I made on TPP’s blog where I said they are not embryos when in fact, they are still classified as such). I feel like it is made out by some camps like babies are being slaughtered to save lives. Maybe that’s a little extreme, but you get the picture. Perhaps more realistically, it is not as if 3-4 week old embryos are being killed to harvest stem cells. They look a bit more like this. In fact, at that stage, they would have few stem cells if any at all. Whatever they would have would have limited differentiating potential.
Why should hundreds, if not thousands to tens of thousands, of these cell masses go to waste. Understandably, some should be saved, if a couple wishes to have another child, but it is not as if each couple will need or be able to use all the embryos that are created. Meanwhile, there are several neurological disorders (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, stroke, neurological trauma) and cancers, among other disorders, that could benefit directly from stem cell research and certain stem cell therapies. Those victims are being neglected. I hope this next Presidential administration brings a repeal of the legislation that has been preventing new stem cell lines from being used for research, and allows stem cell research to march forward instead of stagnating.
What’s your take?
I interviewed with a doctor yesterday for a research position, and found myself saying the following words:
“I have been working in labs for the past 7 years…”
Good Jesus…and I don’t have a Ph.D yet?
Nonetheless, getting into a medical school involves an unwritten rule: that you will sell your soul for a certain period of time to a research lab of your choosing. There you will be the willing and able slave of your PI, and do whatever he/she orders. That’s not really the reason I do research though.
I’m fortunate to have had a research program in my high school, which introduced students to the various techniques and concepts that one normally encountered in labs. While it was, in essence, a breeding ground for new Intel entrants, it was also where I realized I loved research.
My first project looked at the possible xenoestrogenic effects of polystyrene leechate. While I didn’t get statistical significance with my work, it was enough to make me extra wary of getting my coffee in a styrofoam cup. There was something thrilling about having my own project, tweaking the parameters, working with the specimen, seeing the results. Oh seeing the results is the best part. For better or worse, I think ego drives a better part of the scientific community to do what it does, but sometimes people can make the leap from getting thrilled at seeing their name in a journal article to getting thrilled at seeing their discovery in a journal article.
Needless to say, since then, I’ve been around the block. I’ve worked in many labs, and I’ve loved all the experiences I’ve had. Some were obviously better than others. In terms of the projects that were covered, I think all were fantastic. In terms of how I gelled with both the lab setting and the people? Sometimes there was something left to be desired. Here is how I categorize all the labs I have worked in, names and locations have been left out to preserve anonymity (but if you know me you will probably be able to guess which one is which):
1) The lab with the lone, hermit grad student, and the PI. The grad student is like a mother hen around her work and is reluctant to bond with new students. The PI kind of does his own thing. The equipment is so-so. The work is mostly benchwork, molecular biology stuff.
2) The lab with no grad students, just a sweet…albeit absentminded PI. The work is interesting, animal-related, but the lab space is dreary, old, and has no windows. Most of the equipment and office furniture is decades older than I am.
3) The lab teeming with students, but the PI is kind of abrasive at times. When he is not talking about science, though, he can be borderline personable. No one really bonds terribly well despite efforts at achieving that end. The lab is well-lit, and the equipment is mostly new. The work is bench work.
4) The lab with students from all walks of life. The PI mostly remains in the shadows, but the older students take you under their wing. Bonding happens readily, and bonds remain well past the research stint. The lab is cutting-edge, and scenic. The work is animal-related, but it is a marriage of a lot of disciplines and a lot of cool techniques.
Most labs probably fall into these categories, or some variant of it. Needless to say, I liked lab 4 the best. Science is important, but sometimes the best labs are the ones that both produce the great discoveries and foster the best bonds. Contrary to popular belief, social connections are important to scientific progress. Being a hermit isn’t what being a scientist is about.
Science has unfortunately taken a back seat in this country. We have let science and math education falter and wither, and are sitting back passively as the world passes us by. This needs to change…maybe by fostering research among students more aggressively. It’s a way to generate interest at the trench level, so to speak, instead of speaking solely in theory.
So obviously I want to be a doctor, and this will help me to better understand medicine, in some senses. Yet I genuinely enjoy the research process in of itself. You can call me a nerd if you want to, but come on, there’s something cool about being in a lab with other people who are all striving to learn something new and interesting, and taking matters into their own hands by designing ways to reach that goal.
And to think Sarah Palin derided fruit fly research as something inconsequential? Seriously, she’s missing out. :p
This made me very happy. The theory, to date, has always been that neurons are differentiated to the point that they cannot replicate in the event of any sort of damage. Hence, if you lose a neuron, you can’t replace it. This has been the problem in dealing with diseases and conditions that are characterized by targeted or widespread loss of certain neural pathways: Parkinson’s and dopaminergic neurons in the substantia nigra, Alzheimer’s and acetylcholinergic neurons, heck ecstasy use and 5-HT (serotonin) pathways, etc. etc.
The results of this study are promising: they were able to generate functioning tissues (not just cells) from stem cells. Besides serving as another way to study neurological conditions, perhaps without so much of a need for rat or other models, the fact that functioning neural tissue can be generated means that several diseases characterized by a loss of neural tissue may be able to be cured.
Now to deal with the matter of funding stem cell research more strongly…
Christopher Hitchens basically took what I wanted to say and put it in a wonderfully biting and eloquent article that really hits the nail on the head. Bravo!
The McCain-Palin campaign has prided itself in recent weeks on calling out the various earmarks and pork barrel projects. Sure, many border on ridiculous, but Sarah Palin clearly has no idea what is ridiculous and what isn’t.
FYI fruit fly research is absolutely a legitimate cause. For those of you who may not be associated with biology or medicine, maybe it doesn’t seem terribly useful. I mean, fruit flies are more a menace than anything else…right? Consider that fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) are among the most prized model organisms used in research. They are a mainstay in genetics research, given how few chromosomes they have (8) and how, at the L3 larval stage, their salivary gland chromosomes can be easily visualized under a light microscope (so-called “giant chromosomes”), making them very easy to work with. They are also used in various behavioral studies, many involving the use of noxious stimuli, since flies (surprisingly) can be trained in a manner similar to operant conditioning that has been more widely seen in rats or mice. I personally have worked with these organisms, and while I’m not a huge fan of fruit flies (they still kind of gross me out) they’re ideal to work with. I used them for research on polystyrene leechate as a potential xenobiotic (xenoestrogenic?) agent, since at the time, I was a high school student and there were enough restrictions in place to prevent me from working with higher vertebrates. They’re important to neuroscience research and have even been used in autism-related studies. Guess what Sarah Palin? They’ve been used in research dealing with Down Syndrome…something that has affected her family directly.
Not legitimate, Sarah Palin? Really? You don’t want to fund research that could potentially help your family, as well as the rest of the nation? Really? I can even understand issues with stem cell research and animal research, even those in themselves are ridiculous reasons, but fruit flies are invertebrate organisms…they do not have as many IRB restrictions as a host of other research organisms. Yet they can provide invaluable insight into the workings of the body, even on a human level, which is amazing.
Sarah Palin, rethink your position on this issue. It could affect more lives than you may know.