Tuesday, November 30, 2010


I've been trying to meet my goals of making a post on SwM at least once a week, but this week and a bit of the next I'm absolutely swamped with finals and the end of the semester. So please forgive the lack of posts, but after the next week or so I'll have a lot more time to work on writing awesome little posts for everyone reading out there.

To hold you over until I return, here's a cool little article with a video of mechanical engineering students building their own guitars. I'll be thinking of that bit of craftiness while I'm slaving away over my books.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

That's the most festive image I could find of a brain and a turkey. I could have put a less awesome picture of the amino acid tryptophan up, but you guys all know that labeling that little guy as responsible for your post-feast drowsiness is a basically myth, right?

In any case, what do I know? I'm a pescatarian. Happy thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Rock Stars of Science!

The new Rock Stars of Science campaign is live! 

 DEBBIE HARRY of Blondie fame, posing with Sloan-Kettering cancer researchers Joan Massague, Craig B. Thompson, and Charles L. Sawyers.

 If you have an opportunity to pick up the December 2010 issue of GQ, you'll be able to see a glossy spread of famous musicians posing with famous scientists. The whole idea is to get the rock stars to shed a little of their light onto the scientists who have accomplished much in furthering our ability to treat diseases and discover more about the world around us. Since many people can name favorite musicians but would be hard pressed to name a favorite scientist, this is a fun and exciting project.

Ann and Nancy Williams of HEART flank two Nobel Laureates, Phillip A. Sharp and Elizabeth H. Blackburn.

Chris Mooney of the Intersection wrote a bit about the musicians and scientists featured last year here, but this year's list is even better! The list of scientists includes four women and two African Americans, which is a good showing that science isn't just for old white guys. In addition, five of the scientists listed also happen to play music! The scientist-musicians include two guitarists, a pianist, a keyboardist in a rock band, and a jazz musician.

One of my favorite pictures of the bunch is the one below of Keri Hilson and Timbaland posing with Bernard A. Harris Jr., the first African American astronaut to spacewalk, and cardiac surgeon Mehmet Oz (also a pianist!).

Everyone in this image just looks so dapper (gold sequins! bowtie!) and I can't help but think that Dr. Harris looks especially fetching holding a NASA helmet while standing next to Kerri Hilson. Maybe Neil deGrasse Tyson has planted a special love in my heart for black space scientists.

To see the full set of pictures and list of scientists and musicians, check out the Rock Stars of Science website or just pick up the December issue of GQ!

Friday, November 12, 2010

DOUBLE Brainbows (all the way)

The meaning of the word BRAINBOWS is dualistic and both sides of the coin are equally awesome.

Exhibit 1.
A BRAINBOW of neurons in the auditory cortex. These are the neurons that enable you listen to Exhibit 2.

Brainbows, the awesome imaging technique created back in 2007 by Jeff Lichtman's research group at Harvard, in which he was able to use old scientific tricks such as taking glowing fluorescent colors from jellyfish and coral, combining them in the neurons of mice, and using their color palette to make each individual neuron in the brain emit of different color of pretty glowing light. These images have won a few scientific photography prizes and seem to be a modern-day equivalent of the painstakingly hand-drawn pictures of neurons that Santiago Ramón y Cajal created during the dawn of the study of neuroscience.
Cajal's drawing of a Purkinje cell that lives in the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls movement, enabling Exhibit 2 to play their instruments. 

Exhibit 2.

BRAINBOWS, the band's first show.

Brainbows, the new band that rose from the ashes of the short lived local Chapel Hill/Durham band Just Friends to become a phoenix of frantic energy as illuminating and colorful as Exhibit 1. They are playing an early show (6 pm!) next Friday November 19 at the awesome and also new All Day Records in Carrboro. Now you know what you're doing a week from today.

This post was short and sweet, but I'll be back with more posts next week! Hope the weekend is illuminating.

Friday, November 5, 2010

AVPR1A: Music in your Genes?

I was totally going to save this Tegan & Sara Tiësto trance song for another post about "feeling the beat" because I thought that a dance song with a chorus about feeling things in your bones would go nicely with a paper about the neuroscience of rhythm and beat perception.

But then I thought that old familiar feeling of having something "in your bones" seemed to go better with a post about that seemingly innate quality that musicians seem to have that enables and even compels them to be creative in music. PLUS Tegan & Sara are identical twins who make music together so they fit even better into a post about families, genes, and musical ability. So now you guys get to listen to this song sooner rather than later.

Tegan & Sara & even Tiësto might be feeling AVPR1A in their genes.

The prize gene finding that came back from the results of Ozzy Osbourne's genome is called AVPR1A. Since scientists love to use nifty acronyms, I'll spell this one out for you. The AVP part stands for arginine vassopressin (or just vassopressin for short). Vassopressin is a hormone that does lots of things in the body, from blood pressure regulation to memory formation to pair bonding. The R1A part of the acronym stands for receptor type 1A, which just tells us the specific type of vassopressin receptor we're talking about, since there are a few different types of vassopressin receptors in the body.

So now that we know what AVPR1A stands for, how does it relate to Ozzyome and the ability to make music? Well, a group of researchers at the University of Helsinki recruited a group of 19 families that had musical relatives studying at a local music school. They gave the individuals in the families different objective tests that measured their ability to recognize musical pitch, timing, and their overall musical ability. The individuals also took a separate questionnaire on their strengths in musical composition, arrangement, and improvising. For the genetic analysis, the scientist took vials of blood from the study subjects to test for certain genes that they thought might be related to cognitive processing, emotional behavior, and creativity. AVPR1A was one of genes of interest.

What were the results? People who answered that they were creative in music (indicating that they arranged, composed, or improvised music) got higher scores on the objective tests of musical ability. So we knew then that these people weren't just saying these things to inflate their egos; they actually had some measurable objective musical ability. The cool part is that the people who did well on these tests of musical ability seemed to be in the same families! The researchers found that there were some families that did well on the tests, and others that didn't do so well.

But the REALLY COOL part is that after all the genetic analysis was done, a strong correlation was found between certain types of the AVPR1A gene and high scores on the objective tests of musical ability. So it wasn't just that some families were more musical than others. Some families were more musical than others AND they found a gene in some members that might be responsible for that increased musical ability!

So that's what Ozzy Osbourne has in common with these high musical aptitude-scoring, musical AVPR1A-variant possessing people. Since he has the same variation of AVPR1A in his genes, he is likely to score as well or better than the individuals in the study on the musical aptitude tests. It almost makes me want to get tested for this gene.

As a side note, if you want to bask in the presence of more people who are likely to have the same version of the AVPR1A gene as Ozzy Osbourne and you're in the Triangle region this weekend, check out the Troika Music Festival to see lots of very talented musicians feeling it in their genes (teehee). This is a shameless plug since my band, Pink Flag, is playing on the last night of the festival. BUT you should go regardless since Troika is always the highlight of Durham (and the Triangle at large)'s music scene. If you come up to me Saturday night and mention AVPR1A I'll probably hug you out of joy that someone actually read my ramblings on here.

Ukkola LT, Onkamo P, Raijas P, Karma K, & Järvelä I (2009). Musical aptitude is associated with AVPR1A-haplotypes. PloS one, 4 (5) PMID: 19461995

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Genes of a Rocker

It's been interesting news to hear that Ozzy Osbourne has had his full genome sequenced. The Scientific American article featuring it was the most viewed story on the website last week! My favorite headline that covered the story was one that simply stated, "Genetics to solve why Ozzy Osbourne is still alive." Obviously many people are wondering how in the world someone like Ozzy could keep going after subjecting himself to decades of drug abuse and an extreme rock and roll lifestyle.

Last Friday, October 29th, Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne sat down with geneticist Nathaniel Pearson from Knome to publicly discuss about the results of Ozzy's sequenced genome at the TEDMED conference in San Diego. Knome is the genetics company who sequenced all of Ozzy's DNA, and Pearson gave a great SwM-worthy quote. "The genome in many ways is like a great musical score. The score varies from person to person. It's a beautiful metaphor."

Ozzy's personal musical score revealed a few interesting things. He is a distant relative of Stephen Colbert, sharing a common ancestor with him from about 1000 years ago.

Osbourne performing with John Stewart and Stephen Colbert at the Rally to Restore Sanity this past weekend. Genetics has let us know that him and Colbert go WAAAAAY back.

The most interesting finding of Ozzy's genome sequencing to SwM was that he has a variation of a gene called Arginine vasopressin receptor 1A or AVPR1A that was linked to musical aptitude in a study of 19 Finnish family genomes from last year. Does that mean that there some sort of genetic basis for musical ability that they've found in Ozzy's DNA? Is this why he makes music? I'd like to go into what this really means in more depth, so I'll be detailing the AVPR1A gene variation study and how it relates to Ozzy in a post later this week. Stay tuned!