While many of us have been busy with the annual science writers' meeting, ScienceWriters 2009, in Austin, others have been prospecting in the rich vein known as the Society for Neuroscience meeting, with more research presentations than there are neurons in the human brain. Or at least it has seemed that way when I've covered it.
Here's a quick rundown on some of the news coming out of the meeting, which ends today (Oct. 20) in Chicago:
Science News isn't afraid to take a lighthearted approach to a serious science story. Researchers, writes Laura Sanders, have found the Halle Berry neuron! Caltech researchers found that certain neurons lit up when subjects were shown pictures of Halle Berry, Michael Jackson, or Marilyn Monroe, among others. Then they found that individuals could activate those neurons. Good story, nicely handled.
Mary Brophy Marcus of USA Today tilts away from the hard news for an entertaining piece on a magic show at the meeting. Magicians actually performed for the neuroscientists, who were then supposed to solve the tricks, more or less. She quotes Thomas Carew, the president of the neuroscience society, who tells her, "There is no better way to see how the mind works than to study how we can be deceived." Researchers told her that "they hope what they glean from magicians will help them better understand, diagnose and treat certain cognitive illnesses."
Monifa Thomas of the Chicago Sun-Times weighs in with a study that she says "is one of the first to show that paternal behavior, like maternal behavior, may be passed on from generation to generation through non-genetic means." The study compared California male mice whose fathers were castrated with those whose fathers weren't castrated. Ouch.
Karen Hopkin, in a podcast for Scientific American, reports on a UCLA study in which volunteers between the ages of 55 and 78 were given brain scans, sent home to surf the web an hour a day for a week, and then slipped into the scanner again. Their scans now showed "additional activity in regions associated with working memory and decision-making." This is in a 60-second podcast. Don't think of it as a really short story; think of it as a relatively long radio news item.
Reuters dilutes its franchise as a news organization by running a story on a new brain-cancer drug and also running a press release from the outfit that makes the drug. The company is called Angiochem. The story, by Julie Steenhuysen, says that the drug "appears to cross a protective barrier in the brain that screens out most chemicals, offering potentially better ways to treat brain tumors." The press release puts it this way: "ANG1005 is a novel, next-generation taxane derivative, targeting the LRP pathway to cross the blood-brain barrier..." Hey, if Reuters can make money running press releases and use it to hire more reporters, I'm all for it. But do we really trust a story to be an independent account if the publisher is also running the press release?
Neurobloggers: Are blog posts by members of the Society for Neuroscience journalism? I say they are, and you can find a collection of such posts at blogs established by the society especially for its members. Check the directory of them on the society's website. An interesting idea. Watch for more of this at scientific meetings.
And a shameless plug for the science writers' meeting: Emily Singer of Technology Review writes, under the headline "Decoding the Brain with Light," about a novel technology in which "molecular 'light switches' can reveal exactly which neurons are involved in creating a memory, allowing scientists to trigger that memory using only light." The technology was developed by Stanford's Karl Deisseroth. Singer covers it out of this year's neuroscience meeting. But Deisseroth presented it a year ago at New Horizons in Science, part of ScienceWriters 2008. (Disclosure: I invited him to speak.)