Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Remixing memories

I'm thinking that The Globe and Mail has been checking out my blog, seeing this article from earlier in the week talking about the things from my last post. Particularly how other countries are pumping money into research while Canada is cutting. Interestingly, they interviewed my PhD supervisor, who is apparently "one of Canada's top scientists".

I'm pleased how closely his opinions follow mine, and that they're publishing them in the Globe and Mail. I'm a bit disturbed about being so similar to my boss, though. I'm also disturbed that he apparently has fantasies of moving to Signapore...

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A genetic therapy approach to treating AIDS that I blogged about last summer is currently recruiting for its first clinical trial. This is pretty incredibly quick, but it seems very safe - take some of a patient's blood, take out the T-cells, culture them, insert the gene, grow a whole pile of the modified cells, and then return them to the patient. This follows on the footsteps of another successful trial of gene therapy for AIDS treatments.

The risks of these treatments seem minimal. The gene transfer isn't contagious to other cells, and the T-cells come from the patient's own body so there should be no risk of rejection. Assuming the cells aren't grown in an animal serum, which could induce a rejection response in patients. But I imagine these guys know what they're doing.

Of course, the guys injecting a Russian boy with stem cells also knew what they were doing, and they knew the risks. Turns out they lost this bet - the kid developed extensive tumours throughout his nervous system. While this was a predicted potential side effect, I don't think anyone was expecting this to go so spectacularly wrong.

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If there's one thing I've been wanting to blog about this week, it's this story about using a heart medication (propranalol, a beta-blocker) to "block bad memories." People are going buck-wild about this - I even saw it on Facebook (I have some geeky friends). But the study is not all it's cracked up to be.

The researchers conditioned people to be "afraid" of spiders by showing them pictures of spiders and then shocking them, a Pavlovian paradigm that couples a neutral stimulus (spider) to an averse stimulus (shock), and transfers the unpleasant feeling associated with the shock to the spider. The drug was able to reverse this conditioning, so people no longer had an adverse response to the spiders. And now it's being touted as a treatment for PTSD and anxiety disorders.

First of all, I would like someone to explain to me and a couple of war veterans exactly how shocking someone while looking at pictures of spiders is anything remotely like traumatic experiences like losing a limb in a firefight or having your friend's brains blown out all over you. Or even like being in a car crash.

Secondly, even something like a phobia against an object (say, spiders) isn't like a conditioned association. In fact, it's the opposite. The reason it's a phobia is precisely because it's an unconditioned and irrational fear of an object. Show me a trial with arachnophobics on propanalol viewing pictures of tarantulas and I don't think we'll see such stunning claims being made.

The idea is that when we remember things, we take the representation out of long-term storage in our brains and move it into "working memory," a sort of RAM buffer memory for your brain. When we're done with it, it gets re-programmed back into the long-term storage. If we can remove the bad associations from the memory before we code it back into long-term storage, then we can remove some of the anxiety and pathology that comes from remembering it.

I, for one, am not sure that this will work. I think that removing a simple conditioned association is a lot different from removing the particularly vivid memories that many PTSD patients have, and that the emotional component of these memories is much more intense than a simple shock to the finger. I think the biochemical underpinnings are significantly more complicated than simple noradrenaline release as well. That being said, we can condition men to respond sexually to an old boot, but again I would argue that this neither a complex behaviour nor particularly difficult to accomplish. Now if we could do it in women, then we'd be on to something.

I'm not sure what it will take to "erase" these memories, but I refer you back to an earlier post I made on memory manipulation and Joe Tsien's quote: "All memories, including the painful emotional memories, have their purposes. We learn great lessons from those memories or experiences so we can avoid making the same kinds of mistakes again, and help us to adapt down the road."

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My other blog, for those who are interested, is up. The first post is enititled "Douglas Zombies Need Brains." And if that doesn't pique your interest, then I don't want you reading it anyways.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Blowing Ourselves (another bubble)

I was amused a couple months ago by this comic from Jorge Cham at, which depicts a graph of changes in enrollment to grad studies over time superimposed over the unemployment figures. The correlation is incredible.

Being all in fun, you'd be excused for thinking the artist was just exploiting a quirk of statistics to get a laugh. But then you see Nature reporting exactly the same thing last week and realize that it's not funny, thousands of people think that getting a Ph.D. is worth money. Many people accept this as true, but I think you'd have a hard time convincing Bill Gates or Warren Buffet of that. Or me, for that matter.

For their sakes, I hope that a good portion of these thousands are working on M.B.A.s rather than Ph.D.s, particularly in science. Nature also had a feature last week about two very successful US scientists closing their labs because their funding has simply dried up. An editorial in the same issue points out that "The career crisis is especially stark in the biomedical fields, where the number of tenure-track and tenured positions has not increased in the past two decades even as universities have nearly doubled their production of biomedical doctorates. Those who do land jobs in academic research are struggling to keep them..."

All that to say professors doing academic research in their ivory towers are being as hard hit by the budget cuts, loss of endowment funds and general financial crisis as anyone else. And they don't get severance packages in the millions of dollars. Even still, I guess starting a doctorate is a bit like signing a 4-6 year contract at a meagre (but fairly secure) salary, and maybe some kind of health coverage, which is better than a lot of American citizens can say.

Maybe it is the smart move. Presumably, you set yourself up for a better job by working on an advanced degree during the recession, which will be a couple years long anyways. Good jobs should become available as we begin blowing ourselves another economic bubble to drive unsustainable expenditure - I predict some kind of -tech bubble, be it bio-, nano- or green-. Plus, it won't be long before some genius figures out a new way to create money out of nothing now that subprime mortgages are bust.

But bubbles always burst. That's why they're bubbles. When the economy crashes, it does so like a plane. It doesn't care if you're Richie Valens, the Big Bopper and Buddy Holly; or how many fancy-pants letters there are after your name. There will be blood.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

In these troubled times...

I've been committing adultery on this blog, by which I mean I will soon be writing a blog for the research institute where I work. However, being a public institution, they made me promise I wouldn't talk about politics on that blog and stick to science. So as long as there are still politics, I will still feel the need to rip on policy in this space.

Take the new federal budget, for example. Now, I'm not going to talk about Harper's bold-faced lie last fall that there would be no deficit for Canada this fiscal year. Nor will I rail on the other parties for not pushing the Government hard enough to create a great budget. No, here I'm going to stick with the science part of the budget, particularly the health research part. Because I hate it.

Shocking, I know.

The CBC generously refers to the budget as a "mixed bag" for science. The best news is the $2 billion to repair and expand existing facilities. Working in labs that don't have a) water dripping on experiments from pipes above, b) ceilings falling on machines worth a quarter-million dollars, and c) luxuries like proper ventilation and working temperature controls will be highly beneficial for Canadian science. This infrastructure spending will also help create jobs through construction projects, many of which will also be funded through the $1 billion the government is giving for green energy and the $750 million for the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, which offer key grant competitions for institutions needing to upgrade equipment and research infrastructure.

Other perks in the budget include some $87.5 million for new scholarships for students - although Science magazine reports that "an unspecified chunk" will go to business-related degrees. There's $351 million for Atomic Energy of Canada, which is probably overdue seeing as how Harper fired the head of the Nuclear Safety commission last year when she deemed the Chalk River reactor was unsafe, and another $110 million or so for the Canadian Space Agency - Marc Garneau's presence in Parliament makes it hard to keep cutting that program.

What most of the budget wonks don't say is that the feds are only providing about half of the promised $2 billion in infrastructure spending here - universities will be expected to raise the other half through municipal and provincial governments and potentially even private or corporate investors. Which means that some of that cash may never show up, particularly for small universities in "have-not" provinces that are struggling as it is.

The bad news doesn't end there. The budget also shaves about $150 million from the main Canadian funding agencies - CIHR, NSERC, and SSHRC. This is close to a 10% hammering, and will only serve to shave down the already outrageous odds of winning a grant. They are also gutting the funding for Genome Canada, which is a brilliant project that brings the cutting edge of genetics research techniques to universities across Canada. They are a major supporter of the provincial genome projects, some of which - such as Génome Québec - are extremely successful in their own right. While they had already been promised about $240 million over 4 years, the current budget allots them absolutely nothing. Not a sausage.

Now, in these troubled economic times, yadda yadda yadda. In these troubled times, the US is injecting some US$3.5 billion to their National Institutes of Health alone; and tens of billions more for other science organizations. Note this not a reduction in spending or in grant money, which is what Canada seems to think was the right thing to do. A mere 5% of the $3.75 billion set aside for infrastructure and such would provide for all of the money being cut from the granting agencies.

It's nice to have renovated labs, but if there's no grant money with which to fill those labs, these billions in infrastructure expenditures are little better than federal make-work projects. Frankly - particularly here in Quebec - the money might be better spent on the roads.