Rose hip neurons specific to humans…

Putative inhibitory neurons located in layer I of cortex. They make up between 10 and 15% inhibitory cells in that most superficial layer. Story here, courtesy of SCIENCE.

What is interesting is that these cells are not found in mouse brain as determined by single nucleus RNAseq. Which raises the question about whether these cells are important to human-level higher cognition.

Link to the original paper in Nature Neuroscience here.


The question of continuing human evolution….

It’s an interesting conundrum that I remember discussing with Nicholas Carr in the run up to his Google Making Us Stupid pieces. That is: has selection pressure (as operationally defined by sexual fitness) relaxed or at least qualitatively changed since our con-specifics were hunting and gathering? Seems to me that there are several questions embedded here:

First, modern humans emerged perhaps 50,000 years ago. Is that enough time for evolution to really make a difference? Further, the human technological advances that really start this discussion are at most only two centuries old. Is 200 years enough time?

Second, how exactly has selection pressure changed? From a selfish gene point of view, the rules haven’t changed even as we do live longer. Human traits are still selected for on the basis of the reproductive success of the trait holders. Neither the Internet nor our smart phones make any difference to that piece of the equation.

But might selection pressure change in the near future? Might we someday acquire attractive genes to acquire attractive traits? And how would those acquired genes play into reproductive success as opposed to some other kind of success (say economic)?

Finally, what about the role of epigenetics in selection? That is, might epigenetic modifications to genetic material have evolutionary consequences?

In any case, here’s a piece by Michael White on the question. Money quote:

Does this mean that we’ve transcended the messy process of evolution and made ourselves largely immune to natural selection? Not quite—just because our children aren’t eaten by predators or don’t succumb to childhood diseases does not mean that evolution has lost its power over our species. 

Those genes haven’t lost their selfish personalities….

Participation in the intellectual life of the Institute

One of the constant challenges of an institute director, particularly one who runs an institute for advanced study, is the struggle to persuade PI’s to invest in the collective intellectual life of Krasnow, as well as their own scientific program. Given the very real limitations of our time, this can seem like a zero-sum game.

It can seem very tempting indeed to decide that attending the Monday seminar is less important than finishing that grant or paper with a deadline looming. It can seem that a better allocation of labor is working on that very last replication needed to write something up, even as that decision may remove the trainee from the scientific give-and-take that only the collective can offer.

Let me make the counter-case: the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study is the intellectual home of those who work here. The PI’s and trainees who make up our faculty can decide to make that home an enriched, highly stimulating environment….or….we can all decide to be latch-key kids where we come into this beautiful environment to do our thinking and science, mostly alone, and then head home to our personal lives.

If we want to make that environment the enriched version that I mentioned above, then it takes an individual commitment from each of us in order to make it happen. If we rely on others to attend seminars, to engage our fellow faculty on issues that may not be central to our research, to telecommute at the cost of scientific argument, then what results is a true tragedy of the commons. Not only that, but we send the message to our trainees that such an impoverished environment is the way things should be.

This past Monday, Gerry Rubin, Director of the Janelia Farm Campus of HHMI, gave an exciting talk about his work at revealing the true complexity of the Drosophila neural network. But he also talked about his ideals for the “experiment” taking place at Janelia. One of the key points that struck me, was how critical collaborative intellectual exchange is to that project.

I agree with him on that.

Accordingly, I’ll be working on new ways to persuade and argue for a greater scientific “civic engagement” among our faculty.