A Thanksgiving ode to tryptophan

My favorite holiday is on Thursday. And while I can’t be at home in the States to celebrate, being an ex-pat at Thanksgiving does have its perks, as I get to attend multiple alternate feasts over the weekend. That means twice the stuffing, twice the cranberries, twice the turkey, twice the tryptophan.

Yes, tryptophan. That infamous amino acid we use to justify dozing off during our aunt’s vacation slideshow after the big meal. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, a protein precursor that the body uses to build various chemical structures. This includes serotonin, one of the primary neurotransmitters in the brain that is involved in everything from decision-making to depression. Serotonin is also a precursor to melatonin, which is important in sleep and wakefulness and is where the tryptophan-tiredness link comes in. However, despite the popular neuro-myth, turkey is actually no higher in tryptophan concentration than other types of poultry. Numerous different plant and animal proteins provide us with our daily doses of tryptophan, with sunflower seeds, egg whites and soy beans having some of the highest concentrations of the amino acid. In fact, turkey comes in at a measly 10th on the list of tryptophan sources.

Weed be better off smoking our parents' pot

We’ve all heard our parents say it*: “Back in my day, dope was much better than it is now. It wasn’t nearly as strong as what you kids smoke today.”

Like much of the advice our parents give us (like always take out your contacts before you go to bed), this one is also true. The THC (tetrahydrocannabinol – the primary psychoactive compound in cannabis) concentration in marijuana has increased by as much as 12% over the last 30 years. This rise in THC levels is related to increases in the subjective ‘high’ feelings associated with smoking cannabis, like changes in perceptual sensations, contentedness, and increased appetite. However, THC is also linked to many of the negative consequences of cannabis use, including risk for dependence, attentional bias or distraction, impaired memory and cognition, and the potential emergence of psychotic symptoms.

More sexism in science

Following on my post the other week on Gender bias on both sides of scientific research, I want to draw attention to an incident that occurred at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting last week in New Orleans. SFN is by far the largest neuroscience event every year, drawing over 30,000 attendees to come and revel in nerdy neuro madness for a week (think of it as a music festival for science geeks). With so many talks, poster sessions and symposiums, not to mention the sheer number of people, the conference can be overwhelming. But it is also overwhelmingly positive and exciting, allowing you the opportunity to check out new research, get new ideas, forge new relationships and collaborations, and, if you’re lucky, even meet your academic super-star crush (I’m looking at you David Eagleman).

However, one conference-goer decided that the quality of the researchers wasn’t quite up to his standards. Dr. Dario Maestripieri of the University of Chicago complained on Facebook that the cosmetic caliber of the female attendees was lacking this year, stating “there are…an unusually high concentration of unattractive women [at the conference]. The super model types are completely absent.” The comment, originally discovered and posted by Drug Monkey on his blog, went on to ask, “Are unattractive women particularly attracted to neuroscience? Are beautiful women particularly uninterested in the brain?”, and considerately topped it off with, “No offense to anyone…”

SFN' 12: Vulnerabilities for drug addiction

For anybody who’s in New Orleans for SFN this week, come by room 273 at 1pm today to learn about vulnerabilities for drug addiction. It’s an excellent nanosymposium set up by the fantastic Dr. Jenn Murray covering both human and preclincial studies into risk factors for addiction. The talks will include investigations into the classic predictive traits of impulsivity, anxiety and novelty-seeking, and they’ll also delve into environmental risk factors for addiction, such as maternal care and environmental stimulation.

Thought-controlled robot arms: Welcome to the future!

It’s the year 2012, and while we don’t all have jet packs or flying cars, there have been some pretty incredible scientific discoveries as of late. Two amazing studies in particular have come out involving advances in spinal cord injury rehabilitation. The first helped paralyzed rats to walk again, and in the second a tetraplegic woman used a thought-controlled robotic arm to take her first self-directed sip of coffee in 15 years.

The first study, published in Science by a Swiss research group, used rats to study physical rehabilitation in paraplegic animals. The researchers partially severed the spinal cords of a group of rats, paralyzing their hind-legs but crucially sparing some of the nerve tracts up to the brain. They then stimulated the spinal cords of these animals in the affected region with an electro-chemical current, hoping to excite the remaining nerve cells. The idea behind this is that if you can activate somatosensory signals (the sensations of touch and position of the body) in the affected limbs, you can help rewire the brain to potentially encourage firing of motor neurons as well.