Relax. Your Brain is not “Eating Itself.”


By now, you almost certainly have run across an article like this one in the New York Post. A breathless headline about zombie brains eating themselves announces a slightly-less apocalyptic article about brain cells that are indeed eating each other. Some even mention Alzheimer’s, just for the hell of it. Your brain has gone rogue, late night television watcher! Now, brush your teeth and go to sleep, like your mom told you.


What they’re describing is body’s process of returning the building blocks of life back to a useable state. Cells die all the time. They need to be disposed of, but nature in it’s wisdom leaves no opportunity wasted. Any bit of a dead cell that can be recovered will be recovered and the rest will be washed away.

Because it appeared to early scientists that some cells are “devouring” others, the process was called “phagocytosis” (literally: devouring cells). That’s a very dramatic name for a thing. Something straight out of George Romero’s nightmares. But phagocytosis is far more banal than all that. It is routine. It is a nightly routine.

And therein lies the problem, it seems. Because this research suggests that brains that haven’t been given enough time to perform their nightly routines go a little ape-shit. Microglia, which are the neural cells that are responsible for phagocytosis in the brain, start attacking cells that aren’t either sick or dying.

Since chronic lack of sleep early in life seems to be associated with Alzheimer’s disease, the researchers posit that perhaps this is the exact nexus. Sleepless people’s waste disposal system is on the blink and BOOM they’re getting Alzheimer’s. Well, maybe.

“But,” he intoned solemnly, “correlation is not causation.”

This is great research. There’s no doubt that there is a correlation that needs to be explored. Sleep deprivation may lead to Alzheimer’s, or they may both exist as symptoms of some more fundamental problem. It is even still possible that the two symptoms have nothing to do with one another.

And it’s worth noting that “chronic lack of sleep” is not the same thing as “watching too much late night television.” Sleep deprivation is a condition all it’s own that you’d know if you had. “Normal” late-night activities probably just do a bit of extra pruning, sort of like how a little alcohol is also good for the brain.

Either way, there is nothing zombie-like about what is happening. There is no monster living in your cranium. And getting half an hour’s extra sleep tonight will not cure your impending Alzheimer’s.

And maybe most importantly: the world didn’t change because we’ve discovered a new correlation between two unpleasant conditions. Relax. Have a beer. Watch television. You’re fine.

Biology Science Zoology

Of sex, food and worms: good science, badly reported

It is true: there is a newly-discovered set of neurons found in a type of worm that, when activated, causes the male of the species to forego food in search of sex. That this set of neurons was just discovered actually does matter to the lives of humans. Or at least, it could. But not because it confirms the cliche of men starving for sex:

Researchers may have figured out why men can prioritize sex over food. Well, some men.

It’s a matter of two “mystery” neurons, suggest researchers at University College London.

They found that these extra neurons — which are unique to males — allow them to remember and seek sex even at the expense of food and are also behind some sex-based differences in learning.

So, what happened?

C. elegans is a species of worm about which we know a surprising amount. In biology research, there are some species of plants and animals that, for one reason or another, get more attention than others. Elodia and Drosophila (fruit flies) are very common study species.

C. elegans is popular because it is a simple organism that happens to share a lot of common traits with more advanced forms of life like humans. By studying C. elegans, we can often make intelligent extrapolations about how things work in other species.

In particular, C. elegans has the distinction of being the only species of life for which we have a complete neuronal map. Every neuron, every synapse (connections between neurons), every feature of the neural network of the C. elegans has been long-since mapped and analyzed… at least, so we thought.

Two researchers at the University College of London, wife and husband team Dr. Arantza Barrios and Dr. Richard Poole, research the sexual dimorphism of C. elegans. Sexual dimorphism means that different sexes have different traits (think boobs. I know I do).

In the past, the dimorphism of C. elegans has always been studied in a different portion of the worm, where differences are more obvious: the tail. These researchers discovered one set of sexually-dimorphous neurons in the head of the animals, which they named the Mystery Neurons of the Male (MNM).

What they do turns out not to be much of a mystery at all: they learn to recognize the opposite sex as a priority stimulus. Don’t we all? When the opposite sex is near – which turn out to be hermophrodites, in the C. elegens’ case – the worm with active MNM will ignore other homeostatic functions – like eating – in favour of pursuing sexual reproduction.

So. There you have it: males of the C. elegens species will forego eating in favour of sex. Or at least, they will favour sexual reproduction over other things. Not quite the whiz-bang you were hoping for? Of course not, because non-science – and even some science – news sources want to focus on sex, sex, sex. Yet the reality of what the boffins in London discovered is way more important and honestly cooler.

Why it matters

Worms getting it on don’t seem terribly relevant to humans. And indeed, they are not. What really matters is, again, the fact that simple organisms like the C. elegens can give us clues to our own biology. In this case, science has been looking for the keys to understanding sexual dimorphism in human cognition. We know that some decision making in humans is consistently different from one sex to the other. While much of the scientific community has been certain that such a difference also existed in the brain’s wiring, science has thus far not been able to pin that difference down.

That a simple creature so far removed from us in the evolutionary tree should have such a simple device for continuing the species may indicate that a similar development across species. Or, it may not. It’s just way too early to tell.

The other, perhaps even more significant, discovery that this new development represents is the appearance of glial cells in such a simple organism. Here in Rochester, we know all about glial cells, because that’s what our neuroscientists specialize in.

Glial cells are, effectively, stem cells for the brain. They are part of the glimphatic system, and their job is to grow more neuronal  cells when old ones wear out or are damaged. Remember Nancy Reagan in the 80’s? Insisting that you could not grow brain cells back, so don’t do drugs? Well, the old bat was wrong. Do drugs: your glial cells will make more neurons, no sweat.

It’s is significant that glia create entirely new neuronal cells at different age stages, at least in the case of C. elegans. Rather than simply creating the same type of cell over and over again, it seems like glia (individual glial cells) can alter their behavior throughout the lifetime of an individual. It means glia are a lot more flexible than we knew, which may point the way towards therapies for neurodegenerative disease like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.

So, maybe not the sexy news you were hoping for. If you’d been planning on filling out your 6pm news cast or your morning radio talk show? Sorry. But understanding the fundaments of human cognition and finding cures for wasting brain disease seems kind of important. But these messages got lost, because pee-pees and hoo-hahs. Maybe, if the media industry at large could stop giggling and take this more seriously, we could appreciate this amazing discovery for what it is.

But for now, dear reader, it’s just you and us.


Sigh. It’s a plane, D&C. You’re looking at a plane.

Who doesn’t love space? All those planets and stars and shit. And when we get to see a little space magic from right here on Earth, most of us react with the commensurate joy and wonder. Once in a while, we do so a little rashly and without thinking.

So it was that today, the D&C – the paper of record in the Rochester, NY area – decided to publish a reader photo with the title, “The view from Greece: Meteor? Flare? UFO?” The objects in question are two deep orange conical shapes that appear to dart towards the Earth from the heavens. They sorta look like orange jellyfish on their way to visit our planet, presumably with either conquest or destruction in mind. Are they not one, but two UFOs, bent on malice that only the dulcet strains of Tom Jones can defeat?

Never minding, of course, that we have no less than the Strasenburgh Planetarium as a resource on which to rely for clarification. As well as the Astrophysics Department of the University of Rochester; the Astronomy Department at Rochester Institute of Technology (featuring umpteen telescopes and a working observatory, no less) and even the Rochester Astronomy Club. All could have verified the object in question.

A bit of common sense could have helped, as well. Let’s take a fast look at the image in question (you’ll have to link to it. Copyright and soforth) to see what we can parse out of it.

The photographer in question says he was out shooting long-exposure shots of the Lake Ontario shoreline. That means the photographer kept the shutter of the camera open longer than normal, to capture more light. When he reviewed his photos, he saw those orange smears, which were not visible when he took the photos.

We can see the water is definitely glassy and blurred, which means that the waves have been moving while the camera was open. So that sorta checks out, though he can’t have had the shutter open too long.  Otherwise, the lake would be one flat smear of color. It’s hard to imagine that the three or four seconds the camera was open allowed the orange smears to streak so far across the image.

So, let’s look at the orange blurs. They’re very, very big. And they’re flat in the front. And well,.. they’re orange.

Only two things could account for the orange color. Either they’re burning or they’ve caught an angle of the setting sun’s rays, which prism around the Earth. That prismatic effect, by the way, is what gives you a sunset of orange. Whatever it is, if indeed it comes from space, is not burning. That’s because most everything that is shooting past our Earth is made up almost exclusively of ice: meteorids don’t burn so much they melt and steam.

And in the case of the recently-reported meteorid visit to the Rochester area, you can clearly see that they’re typically very, very white and very, very visible. They’re also pin-straight until their eventual expiration, in this case, in a blast of white light. No jellyfish-ness. One line and maybe a boom.

In fact, it’s worth noting that the objects in the photo bear a much more striking resemblance to a comet than an asteroid. A comet gets it’s tail from the solar wind whipping off it and shredding ice particles off as it passes. But – and this is key – the direction of a comet’s tail has nothing whatsoever to to with it’s position relative to the Earth. Therefore, we can also rule out two simultaneous – and unknown to science – comets that both point seemingly towards the Earth.

Wait. They both seem to point towards Earth, don’t they? Look at the photo again. You can clearly see that the photographer must be using some sort of star filter on his camera to get those radial bursts around the sodium lights on the shore. If you take a scrap of paper with a straight edge and hold it up to the photo on your screen, you can see that the “meteors” in question both point directly at the center light. In other words, the most likely explanation is that the “meteor’s tail” can be purchased at Rowe Photo for about $7.

Here are a few much more plausible – though admittedly less click-worthy – explanations for what we’re seeing. One is that the flare lens caught a bit of stray light from the shoreline lights higher up on the image and reflected it back on the picture. That might even be the most plausible. But secondly, many satellites are visible from Earth and we barely register them. They pass overhead in a matter of minutes, and being metal objects that are reflecting sunlight, very often take on the reds, oranges, and other tones of the prismatic sunlight as they cross in and out of Earth shadow.

Most embarrassingly of all for the D&C, it’s entirely possible that, just because the photog didn’t see a plane in the area, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t one. I note a very heavy collection of clouds to the left of the image. Perfect for obscuring a plane high in the sky.

Headlines that end in question marks are pure link bait. Click whoring. I know this because I do it too. Glass houses and all that jazz, right? And everybody loves to have fun with a mystery, especially of the extraterrestrial variety. But science is more than fun and mysterious enough without the need to add easily-debunked confusion into the mix.