Wednesday, September 6, 2017

What's it like to be a dog-cognition scientist?

"I can't imagine not living with dogs. That would be really sad for me," says Emory neuroscientist Gregory Berns, with Callie (left) and Cato. His latest book is called "What It's Like to Be a Dog."

Five years ago, Emory neuroscientist Gregory Berns became the first to capture images of actual canine thought processes. To explore the minds of the oldest domesticated species, the Berns lab trained dogs to remain still and alert while undergoing functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) — the same tool that is unlocking secrets of the human brain. The project opened a new door into canine cognition and social cognition of other species.

Berns went on to conduct a series of experiments on dogs, gathering both behavioral and fMRI data on questions such as: How capable are dogs of self-restraint? Do dogs prefer praise from their owners or food? How do dogs process faces in their brains? What’s going on in a dog’s brain when it smells the scent of its owner?

In 2013, Berns wrote a New York Times bestseller called “How Dogs Love Us.” He described how the death of his beloved pug Newton planted the seeds for his eventual switch from the studying the human brain to focus on non-invasive studies of the cognition of dogs and other animals.

In the following Q&A, Berns talks about his new book, “What It’s Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience,” just published by Basic Books. The book focuses on his hopes that understanding how animals think will revolution how we treat them.

Question: Can you talk about all the dogs you’ve had as pets during your life? 

Gregory Berns: When I was a child growing up in Southern California we had two golden retrievers, Pretzel and Popcorn. It’s embarrassing, but my parents always named their dogs after food. I’m not sure why. Most of the children in the area had dogs and horses and we would go traipsing around the hills. Kids and dogs go together.

Berns and Callie
After I was done with medical school and stopped moving around, my wife and I had three pugs, Simon, Newton and Dexter, and then a golden retriever, Lyra.

We now live with our two daughters and have three dogs: Callie, a Feist, which is a Southern squirrel hunting dog; Cato, a Plott hound, which is the state dog of North Carolina; and Argo, a yellow dog of some kind of mix. We also have two bearded dragons and a chameleon.

I can’t imagine not living with dogs. That would be really sad for me.

Q: “What It’s Like to Be a Dog” describes all the experimental work you have done so far with canine cognition. What’s the biggest surprise to come out of your research? 

GB: If you take language out of the picture, what we’re finding is that we see a lot of similarities between dogs and humans. In one study, for instance, we used fMRI to measure the relative value of food versus praise to the dogs and found that almost all the dogs’ brains responded to praise as much, and sometimes more, than to food. We ourselves know how it feels when someone praises us, there’s a positive feeling associated with it. That’s perhaps similar to what dogs are feeling.

We also did a study on dogs and delayed gratification. We found that part of the prefrontal cortex is more active in dogs during self-control. And, just like experiments with humans have found, we showed that the dogs who are better at this task use more of their prefrontal lobes.

Now that we are gaining a basic understanding of canine cognition, we are starting to focus more on the individuality of dogs — what it’s like to be this dog, as opposed to that dog.

Q: You’re also using diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to study the brains of other mammals, mapping the neural pathways in brains from animals that are long deceased and stored in museum collections. How did this project come about? 

GB: It started in 2015 when we gained access to the brains of two dolphins that had died, and we showed that we could use DTI to map their sensory and motor systems. Dolphins are incredibly intelligent, social animals but they’ve remained relatively mysterious. We provided the first picture of the entire dolphin brain and all the white matter connections inside of it.

This year, we reconstructed the brain architecture and neural networks of the extinct Tasmanian tiger, also known as a thylacine, using two brain specimens from museums, both of which were about 100 years old.

Through a project I call the Brain Ark we’re collecting a digital archive of high-resolution, three-dimensional brain structures of megafauna. It’s publicly available to other researchers to contribute to and draw data from.

Q: What is the ultimate goal of your animal neuroscience research? 

GB: The Brain Ark is an attempt to catalog and study brains of large mammal species before they are gone. Or, as in the case of the Tasmanian tiger, after they’re gone. Many megafauna are in danger of extinction because their habitats are being chopped up in ways that don’t allow them to sustain themselves or to migrate.

In the grand scheme of things, I’d also like to explore the commonalities that we have with other animals. That has important ethical implications for how we treat them and for their right to exist in the first place. Animal welfare laws cover things like abuse — pain and suffering. I think we should go beyond that and acknowledge that animals also have a right to lead a good life — whatever that means for that animal.

Related:
What is your dog thinking?
Do canine's prefer praise or food?
Neuro-imaging maps brain wiring of extinct Tasmanian tiger
First images of dolphin brain circuitry hint at how they sense sound

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Unveiling of Frankenstein portrait to set stage for year-long celebration of the classic novel


A public unveiling and discussion of a large-scale portrait of Dr. Frankenstein’s creation, described in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel “Frankenstein," will take place at 7 pm at Emory on Tuesday, September 19. The event will be held at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts and is open to all free of charge, but guests must register in advance at http://engage.emory.edu/Frankenstein or call Erin Mosley at 404-727-5048.

The portrait is by renowned artist Ross Rossin, who is on the Emory campus as the 2017-2018 Donna and Marvin Schwartz Artist-in-Residence. Rossin, whose art hangs in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and was exhibited at the United Nations Palace of Nations in Geneva and the Russian Duma in Moscow, is also known to Atlantans as the sculptor/creator of the nine-foot-tall bronze statue of Hank Aaron unveiled earlier this year at SunTrust Park.

Rossin's residency is part of the Ethics and the Arts Program at Emory's Center for Ethics. The program, the only one of its kind in the nation, encourages ethical discourse and debate through and about the arts, and partners with arts organizations to demonstrate the way art challenges ethical perspectives.

This year, the residency coincides with FACE (Frankenstein Anniversary Celebration and Emory), a year-long university-wide celebration of the 200th anniversary of the novel.

The exclusive corporate sponsor of FACE is Turner Classic Movies (TCM), and Emory is providing support through its Science and Society fund.

“One of the most acclaimed and influential works of science fiction ever written, ‘Frankenstein’ continues to shape debates surrounding science and its complications,” says Paul Root Wolpe, director of Emory’s Center for Ethics, which is spearheading FACE. “It’s a permanent part of the dialogue about the dilemmas we face in technological advancement, scientific experimentation and research, bioethics, artificial intelligence, stem cell research and innovation.”

Rossin’s new depiction of Frankenstein’s creation is expected to highlight the broad influence and implications of the landmark novel. Rossin envisioned not the standard movie portrayal, but a portrait based on his vision of Shelley’s intent.

“It’s precisely Mary Shelley’s youth [age 18 when she began the novel] that inspired me to approach my subject differently,” says Rossin. “Unlike all other portrayals before, I prefer to see the Creature as a young man.”

As Rossin points out, Dr. Frankenstein intended “to create something beautiful, young, powerful and promising, like Prometheus. The Creature was supposed to have a future, open a new chapter in human history.”

Those familiar with the story know that Dr. Frankenstein’s good intentions turned ugly and murderous. Rossin says that his portrait of “Adam Frankenstein reflects exactly this kind of tragic duality. In my work the viewer should be able to see both.”

Monday, August 28, 2017

Evolutionary ecology could benefit beekeepers battling diseases

An electron micrograph shows a Verroa destructor mite (right) on an adult honeybee host. The parasitic Varroa mite and the numerous viruses it carries are considered the primary causes of honeybee colony losses worldwide. (USDA photo) 

By Carol Clark

Some commercial beekeeping practices may harm honeybees more than help them, scientists warn in a paper published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

“Western honeybees — the most important pollinators for U.S. food crops — are facing unprecedented declines, and diseases are a key driver,” says Berry Brosi, an evolutionary biologist at Emory University and a lead author of the review paper. “The way commercial operations are managing honeybees might actually generate more damaging parasites and pathogens by creating selection pressure for higher virulence.”

The paper draws on scientific studies to recommend ways to reduce disease impacts, such as limiting the mixing of bees between colonies and supporting natural bee behaviors that provide disease resistance. The paper also highlights honeybee management practices in need of more research. 

During the past 15 years, ecological and evolutionary approaches have changed how scientists tackle problems of infectious diseases among humans, wildlife and livestock. “This change in thinking hasn’t sunk in with the beekeeping field yet,” says Emory evolutionary biologist Jaap de Roode, co-lead author of the paper. “We wanted to outline scientific approaches to help understand some of the current problems facing beekeepers, along with potential control measures.”

Co-authors of the paper include Keith Delaplane, an entomologist at the University of Georgia, and Michael Boots, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Berkeley.

Managed honeybees are important to the production of 39 of the 57 leading crops used for human consumption, including fruits, nuts, seeds and vegetables. In recent years, however, managed honeybee colonies have declined at the rate of more than one million per year, representing annual losses between 30 and 40 percent.

Two drone pupae of the Western honeybee infected with Varroa mites. (Photo by Waugsberg via Wikipedia Commons.)

While pesticides and land-use changes are factors involved in these losses, parasites are a primary driver — especially the aptly named Varroa destructor. The parasitic Varroa mite and the numerous viruses it carries are considered the primary causes of honeybee colony losses worldwide.

Varroa mites are native to Asia, where the Eastern honeybee species co-evolved with them before humans began managing bee colonies on commercial scales. As a result of this co-evolution, the Eastern honeybee developed behaviors — such as intensive mutual grooming — that reduce the mites’ negative impacts.

The Western honeybee species of the United States and Europe, however, has remained relatively defenseless against the mites, which spread to the United States during the late 1970s and 1980s. The mites suck the blood of the bees and reduce their immunity. Even more potentially destructive, however, are the multiple viruses the mites transmit through their saliva. Deformed-wing virus, for instance, can cripple a honeybee’s flying ability and is associated with high bee larval mortality.

Following are some of the potential solutions, in need of further study, outlined in the Nature Ecology & Evolution paper.

Reduce mixing of colonies: A common practice at beekeeping apiaries is to move combs containing brood — eggs and developing worker bees — between colonies. While the practice is meant to equalize colony strength, it can also spread parasites and pathogens.

Colonies are also mixed at regional and national scales. For instance, more than half of all honeybees in the country are involved in almond pollination in California. “For a lot of beekeeping operations, trucking their bees to California for almond pollination is how they make ends meet,” Brosi says. “It’s like the Christmas season for retailers.”

Pollination brokers set up contracts for individual beekeepers on particular almond farms. “If the brokers separated individual beekeeping operations beyond the distance that the average honeybee forages, that could potentially help reduce the mixing of bees and the rate of pathogen transmission between the operations,” Brosi says.
Varroa destructor (USDA)

Improve parasite clearance: Most means of dealing with Varroa mites focus on reducing their numbers in a colony rather than wiping them out, as the mites are developing increased resistance to some of the chemicals used to kill them. Such incomplete treatments increase natural selection for stronger, more virulent parasites. Further compounding the problem is that large commercial beekeeping operations may have tens of thousands of colonies, kept in close quarters.

“In a natural setting of an isolated bee colony living in a tree, a parasite that kills off the colony has nowhere to go,” de Roode explains. “But in an apiary with many other colonies nearby, the cost of parasite virulence goes way down.”

Allow sickened colonies to die out: Keeping bees infected with parasites and viruses alive through multiple interventions dilutes natural selection for disease resistance among the bees. In contrast, letting infections take their course in a colony and using the surviving bees for stock could lead to more resistant bees with fewer disease problems.

Support behavioral resistance: Beekeepers tend to select for bees that are more convenient to manage, but may have behavioral deficiencies that make them less fit. Some honeybees mix their saliva and beeswax with tree resin to form what is known as propolis, or bee glue, to seal holes and cracks in their hives. Studies have also shown that propolis helps keep diseases and parasites from entering the hive and inhibits the growth of fungi, bacteria and mites.

“Propolis is sticky. That annoys beekeepers trying to open hives and separate the components so they try to breed out this behavior,” de Roode says.

The paper concedes that commercial beekeeping operations face major challenges to shift to health management practices rooted in fundamental principles of evolution and ecology.

“Beekeeping is a tough way to make a living, because it operates on really thin margins,” Brosi says. “Even if there are no simple solutions, it’s important to make beekeepers aware of how their practices may affect bees in the long term. And we want researchers to contribute scientific understanding that translates into profitable and sustainable practices for beekeeping.”

Related:
Monarch butterflies use drugs to protect their offspring from parasites
Bees betray their flowers when pollinator species decline
The top 10 policies needed now to protect pollinators

Monday, August 7, 2017

Solar eclipse adds cosmic spin to Emory orientation

“It’s a strange coincidence that the moon at its distance and size almost perfectly covers the sun at its distance and size,” says Emory physicist Sidney Perkowitz. “It makes you stop and wonder — is it just a coincidence? Some people call an eclipse a religious experience. I call it cosmic.” (NASA photo)

By Carol Clark

The Emory University class of 2021 already has a unique distinction: The campus orientation day for the first-year students will occur beneath a nearly total solar eclipse. From about 2:38 to 2:41 pm on Monday, August 21, the moon will cover 97.7 percent of the sun over Atlanta.

A couple of solar telescopes will be set up on the roof of the Mathematics and Science Building between 1 and 4 pm for staff, faculty, students and their family members who want to observe the sun through them — weather permitting. But a pair of certified solar eclipse glasses, a simple pinhole camera — or even the leaves of a tree — will also make it possible to safely view the eclipse anywhere on campus where the sun is visible.

Emory first-year students plan to gather on the Quad between 2:15 and 3 pm for eclipse watching. At the Oxford campus, first-year students will gather in front of the Oxford Science Building starting at 2 pm where there will be music, a solar telescope and sun-themed snacks and drinks. The Emory Police Department will also host group eclipse viewing on the field of the Student Activity and Academic Center at the Clairmont Campus. All students, faculty and staff are welcome to attend these events.

Atlanta Science Tavern has also compiled this list of solar eclipse events in and around Atlanta. 

A total solar eclipse will sweep across a 70-mile-wide area of the United States, starting on the Pacific coast of Oregon and continuing all the way to South Carolina and the Atlantic Ocean. Even though Atlanta lies just beyond the path of totality, if the weather is clear the near-total eclipse will be worth pausing from work or school to go outside and experience.

To begin with, it’s rare. The last time the sun over Atlanta was nearly obscured by the moon was on May 31, 1984, when it was 99.7 percent covered. The New York Times described what happened as the skies began to darken about 20 minutes after noon: “The temperature dropped six degrees, flowers closed their petals, dogs howled, pigeons tucked their heads under their wings as if to sleep and the whole city was bathed in a kind of diffused light, not unlike that accompanying the approach of a severe storm.”

Emory senior  Raveena Chhibber tests out a pair of solar eclipse glasses. The neuroscience and behavioral biology major is on campus this summer working in a psychology lab and plans to take a break to witness the celestial event.

Sidney Perkowitz, Emory emeritus professor of physics, was on campus that day in 1984. He stood outside near the old physics building, now Callaway Hall, beneath a large white oak on the Quad.

“I remember a lot of people came out on the Quad, particularly around this tree,” he says. “It was a joint social experience.”

The darkening effect as the moon began to cover the sun was “eerie,” he says. “It didn’t feel exactly like twilight, it felt like something weirder was going on. It just seemed abnormal.”

Perkowitz watched the light as it passed through the leaves of the tree. “As the ambient light gets reduced, you begin to see multiple images of the crescent sun on the ground below,” Perkowitz says, explaining that each tiny space between the leaves acted as a pinhole-like opening, similar to a camera. “It’s spectacular because you see dozens and dozens of the images, filtered through the leaves.”

Aristotle observed this same phenomenon beneath a tree during a solar eclipse in the fourth century BC. The Greeks were debating at the time whether light moves in straight lines. The projection of the image of the sun through the leaves was evidence that it does, although the principles behind it would remained unresolved for nearly 2,000 years.

The white oak that Perkowitz stood beneath 33 years ago was struck by lightning in 2016 and is no longer there. There are plenty of other trees on campus, however, where eclipse watchers can stand to experience the event.

"An eclipse is a chance to stop and perceive and reflect," says Emory astronomer Erin Bonning. "It proceeds slowly and deliberately, which is not exactly the pace of modern society." (NASA graphic)

Or you can make your own pinhole projector by poking a hole in a piece of cardboard. NASA provides directions and some templates. During the eclipse, you stand with your back to the sun and hold up the cardboard so that light passes through it and hits a wall, the ground or a piece of paper that you hold up to capture a projection of the image of the sun.

Sunglasses do not provide enough protection to look directly at the sun at any time during a partial eclipse. You need special solar viewing glasses, which are available free at Fulton County libraries or can be purchased online. Beware of fakes — the American Astronomical Society provides guidance to help ensure that solar glasses are certified and safe to wear.

Horace Dale, director of the Emory Observatory, will have a limited number of solar-viewing glasses available and will set up two solar telescopes between 1 and 4 pm on the roof of the Mathematics and Science Center — if the weather holds. Take the elevator to the fifth floor of the building and follow the signs to get to the rooftop.

“If it’s just partly cloudy, we should be able to see through the breaks in the clouds,” Dale says. But even the threat of a storm, he adds, will mean having to pack up the expensive equipment to avoid it getting damaged by rain.

The special filters on the solar telescopes will make it possible to directly view the sun safely. “You’ll be able to see the filamentary structure of the sun and any flare activity on the edge of the sun,” Dale says. “There might even be a few planets that pop out.”

An Atlanta native, Dale experienced a partial eclipse here in 1970 when he was six. “I remember my dad telling me not to look at the sun,” he says. “It was a really interesting experience for me.”

Which is why Dale has already explained to the teachers of his son Joey, six, and his daughter Emma, five, that his children will not attend school on August 21. Instead they will be getting an eclipse lesson from their father. Their mother, Jessica, will also be present. A dental hygienist, she has the day off since the dentist is heading for the path of totality and will close the office.

Psychology graduate student Katy Renfroe will pause from working on her thesis to observe the partial eclipse on campus.

Astronomer Erin Bonning, director of the Emory Planetarium, will be in Clayton, Georgia — in the path of totality — during the eclipse. She will be giving a presentation for Goizueta Business School’s orientation of incoming Emory juniors at a retreat center in north Georgia. The BBA class of 2019 not only holds the distinction of being Goizueta Business School’s 100th-anniversary class — it enjoys the bonus of entering orientation with great timing in a great location.

“This will be my first total solar eclipse and I’m excited,” Bonning says. She quickly adds: “I’m cautiously excited because all astronomers know that when something really big is about to happen you don’t want the clouds to hear you talking about it. Clouds are the great enemies of astronomers.”

When Bonning was in fifth grade, in Maryland, she had fervently anticipated a near total-eclipse event. When the big moment finally arrived, it was cloudy and rainy.

She did get to witness a lunar eclipse in Atlanta around 5 am on October 8, 2014. “I got up early and walked around downtown to find a good view,” she says. “It’s breathtaking to see the Earth cast a shadow in space and the moon pass through it. It’s one thing to write down an equation for curving space time, but when you see a visual illustration of these facts it’s so much more moving. It made me feel connected to the universe.”

A woman standing near her during the lunar eclipse had a different reaction. “She said, ‘Huh. I thought it would be more impressive than that,’” Bonning recalls. “I took a deep breath and held my tongue.”

The August 21 solar eclipse is particularly special since the path of totality will stretch from sea to shining sea, across the United States. “It’s unusual because it’s taking place over such a large inhabited stretch of land,” Bonning says. “The last time we had such a grand solar eclipse across America was a century ago.”

Following are Bonning’s tips for observing the solar eclipse, whether you stay in Atlanta or travel to totality.

Plan your activity. “Don’t just hop in the car on August 21 and spontaneously head for the path of totality, or you’re going to see a partial eclipse in a traffic jam,” Bonning says. You can read more about traffic predictions here.

Don’t worry about height. “You don’t need to go to the top of a mountain or the top of a building,” Bonning says. “If you can see the sun, you can see the eclipse. It’s not like getting closer to it will give you a better view.”

Manage your expectations. “While it will be extremely cool to see the eclipse, it’s not going to look like a dragon came out of the sky and devoured the sun. That’s a myth,” Bonning says. “An eclipse is a chance to stop and perceive and reflect. It proceeds slowly and deliberately, which is not exactly the pace of modern society.”

Be in the moment. If you’re not an expert at photographing eclipses, forget trying to get the perfect selfie for social media. “You’ll be better off being open to the experience,” Bonning says. “Observe shifts in the light. Feel the temperature drop. You may notice animals behaving differently.”

Make it a fun, educational experience for kids. While you need to emphasize to young children the importance of not staring directly at the sun with the naked eye during the eclipse, you can do so in a fun way that helps them understand why. Bonning recommends parents visit this Planetary Society site, which includes directions for how to make pinhole projectors, including ones in fancy, pinhole-punched shapes.

“We’re very lucky on Earth,” Perkowitz says. “We have the largest moon of all the planets and it has all kinds of connections to love and romance and poetry. And on top of that, it has this amazing alignment with the sun that provides this incredible sight every so often.”

The moon is only a quarter of a million miles away and much smaller than Earth, he notes, while the sun is 93 million miles distant and is huge — far bigger than all of the planets in the solar system put together.

“It’s a strange coincidence that the moon at its distance and size almost perfectly covers the sun at its distance and size,” Perkowitz says. “It makes you stop and wonder — is it just a coincidence? Some people call an eclipse a religious experience. I call it cosmic.”

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Why plants represent untapped potential for innovative drug discovery

Northeastern chemistry graduate student John de la Parra poses with an aloe plant. He is collaborating with Emory ethnobotanist Cassandra Quave to explore the medicinal properties of plants. Photo by Matthew Mondoono/Northeastern University.

By Allie Nicodemo,
Northeastern University

The field of medicine has come a long way from using heroin as a cough remedy or magnet therapy to improve blood flow. These outdated methods were put to bed decades ago. But there are plenty of ancient medicinal practices that have stood the test of time. In fact, many of the life-saving pharmaceuticals we rely on today are derived from plants first discovered by indigenous communities.

Ethnobotany is the scientific study of traditional plant knowledge. It’s what gave us morphine, aspirin, and ephedrine, to name a few. And there is still untapped potential.

In a new paper published by Trends in Biotechnology, Northeastern University doctoral candidate John de la Parra and Emory University medical botanist Cassandra Quave described a new field called ethnophytotechnology. It’s the use of plant biotechnology to improve the plant-based drug discovery pipeline.

“New production, engineering, and analysis methods have made it easier to meet scientific challenges that have confronted traditionally used plant-derived medicines,” says de la Parra, who is earning his doctorate in chemistry. “It is our hope that as the field expands, rich troves of indigenous knowledge can find prominence within innovative drug discovery and production platforms.”

Quave and de la Parra are examining the vast opportunities for ethnobotany and ethnophytotechnology to promote new drug discovery and solve health challenges.

Read the full story about their recent paper on the Northeastern news site.

Related:
Brazilian peppertree packs power to knock out antibiotic-resistant bacteria