Welcome to the Neuroscience for Kids Newsletter.
Here is what you will find in this issue:
1. What's new on the Neuroscience for Kids Web Pages
2. The Neuroscience for Kids Page of the Month
3. A Typical Day for a Neuroscientist
4. Now THAT'S A Science Fair Project!
5. What's coming up in future issues
6. How to stop your subscription
A. More outside games. With warm weather coming up, get outside and play
"Synaptic Tag", "Neuron Chain" or "All-or-None"
B. Brain Blood Flow
C. Language and the Brain
D. Brain Metaphors
E. Short Term Memory Picture Game
F. Internet Research on the Brain Worksheet
G. April Neuroscience for Kids Newsletter was archived
In April, 35 new figures were added and 91 pages were modified.
The HHMI has created a fantastic web resource about the senses. The page combines vivid photographs, colorful animations, and easy-to-read text to describe the fascinating world of sight, smell, and hearing. There is also a section on illusions and brain imaging. If you want to learn about how we receive information from the outside world, this web site is a great place to visit.
However, to give you an idea of what I do as a neuroscientist, I will tell you some of the things I do in a "typical" week.
A. Perform Experiments: I set aside at least one day per week for an all-day physiology experiment. On this day I record the electrical activity from neurons and collect data for a research project. The preparation and actual experiment take all day to do. There are also other things I must do to prepare for these experiments (like make electrodes and mix chemicals) and other shorter procedures to do on other days.
B. Analyze Data: On some days I must analyze the data from the physiology experiment. I play back the data that I recorded previously and check to see how the experiment worked. I also "crunch numbers"...I have to add up various numbers, plot them out on graphs and decide how to proceed in the next experiment.
C. Write: Eventually, data from experiments needs to be published. Right now, I am working on 3 different papers. Each one of these papers is in a different stage: two papers are almost ready to send to a scientific journal and I just started to write the other one. Each paper also requires artwork and photography so I must spend some time plotting graphs and making illustrations. Papers require pictures so I must take photographs, develop the negatives and print photographs in the darkroom.
This month I wrote two abstracts, which are short summaries of the work that has been done, for the Society for Neuroscience meeting that will be held next November. Other writing I must do includes filling out paperwork such as order forms and preparing grant applications, progress reports and paper reviews. Of course, I also spend time working on the Neuroscience for Kids web pages and writing this Newsletter.
D. Meet: I work with several people on various projects. We meet at certain times during the month to discuss the projects and determine the next steps in the experiments. Sometimes there are special scientific seminars, talks or meetings that I attend - some meetings are local, some are out of state. I travel out of state a few times per year.
E. Read: To keep up on what's happening in my field of research, I have to read current scientific papers. I take a short walk to the University of Washington Medical School Library and scan the new journals. If I find an interesting paper, I copy it to read later. If I hear about a paper that I cannot find in the library, I will email or send a postcard to the author and ask if he or she can send me a copy. Most scientists send copies of their papers free of charge as a professional courtesy.
There are also many other small jobs around the lab that must be done including washing dishes and mopping the floor. Sounds a lot like home!
4. NOW THAT'S A SCIENCE FAIR PROJECT!
Perhaps you have read or heard about 11 yr. old Emily Rosa. When Emily
was 9 yrs. old and in fourth grade, she did a science fair project on
whether "therapeutic touch" really works. Therapeutic touch (TT) is the
method where people use their hands to heal or cure other people. People
who use TT do not actually touch the other person...they just pass their
hands near (5 to 10 cm) the other person. These people believe that they
can can feel a patient's "energy field" and that they can change this
field to cure illness. If this was true, then we must add another sense
(the ability to detect human energy?) to the usual list of senses (sight,
hearing, taste, touch, smell). Emily was not sure if TT really worked so
she designed an experiment to test it.
Emily's experiment and results were published recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA, vol. 279, pages 1005-1010, 1998). Emily's Mom is the first author of the paper and Emily is the second author.
Here is what Emily did for her experiment. She found 21 people who use TT to "treat" other people. She put these people behind a screen so they could not see her. During the test, these people put their hands through the screen with their palms up. Emily, who was on the other side of the screen, put her right hand (palm down) about 8-10 cm over the other person's right or left hand. The person was then asked if Emily's hand was over their right or left hand. If the person could really detect Emily's "energy field", the person would know if Emily's hand was over their own right or left hand. Quite a simple experiment really.
Unfortunately for the believers of TT, the people who said they could detect "energy fields" located Emily's hand correctly only 44% of the time. This is even WORSE than chance (50%).
Because of these results, Emily and the authors concluded that "...TT claims are groundless and that further use of TT by health professionals is unjustified."
Great going Emily! Fantastic experiment!
Let's look a bit closer at TT. Apparently, about 100,000 people have been trained to use TT. Also, some people say that they DO feel better after TT treatment. Why do so many people use TT and why do some people think it works? What's going on here? It is clear from Emily's experiment that TT does NOT work through the detection of a person's "energy field" (whatever an "energy" field may be). What might be a work here is the "Placebo Effect".
The placebo effect occurs when a person thinks you are giving them an effective treatment, but the treatment really isn't anything at all. For example, you might tell someone that you have a new drug to treat pain. However, what you really give the person is a little candy that looks like a drug. When you ask the person if the drug worked on their pain, they say "Yes", it did." The placebo (the candy) reduced their pain!
The placebo effect is real. There are many excellent scientific papers that have described the placebo effect. A placebo sometimes works for some people for some conditions. The way the brain uses a placebo and how a placebo works is not understood. It is possible that people receiving TT think that TT will work for their problem and so it does work. The reason why TT works for some people has NOTHING to do with the detection and changing of their "energy fields".
You can read the Emily's paper at the American Medical Association site
Also, read more about Emily and the experiment in Time Magazine at: http://www.pathfinder.com/time/magazine/1998/dom/980413/science.emilys_little_ex8.html - (this is a long URL, so make sure the whole address is on one line)
Read an interview with Emily in Scientific American Frontiers at: http://www.pbs.org/saf/3_ask/archive/qna/3282_erosa.html
Read more about the Therapeutic Touch controversy at: http://www.quackwatch.com/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/tt.html
Read more about the placebo effect at http://www.quackwatch.com/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/altbelief.html
Your comments and suggestions about this newsletter and the "Neuroscience for Kids" web site are always welcome. If there are any special topics that you would like to see on the web site, just let me know.
Eric H. Chudler, Ph.D.
"Neuroscience for Kids" is supported by a Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) from the National Center of Research Resources.