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img April 26, 20186:06 pmimg 0 Comments

ooooooooh brain cells

Bwog Staff Writer and wannabe clinical psychologist Riya Mirchandaney nerded out over some dope women scientists at the event “Neuroscience in Action: A Conversation About Early Life Trauma and the Brain.”

On Tuesday April 24th, Trauma-Free NYC—an organization with the goal of understanding and promoting trauma-informed policies in the city of New York—provided a platform for three impressive speakers (Dr. Noble, Dr. Tottenham, and Dr. Bernard) to discuss their cutting-edge research on the subject of the psychology and neuroscience of early childhood adversity.

The first speaker was Dr. Kimberly Noble (MD and PhD!), Associate Professor of Neuroscience and Education at Teachers College and Principal Investigator of the NEED (Neurocognition, Early Experience, and Development) Lab. Her research focuses on the way that socioeconomic factors shape brain development, specifically studying the relationship between poverty, family stress, cognitive ability, cortisol levels, and (s/o to FroSci!) the hippocampus.

The force of socioeconomic status on cognitive development is quite clear, noted Dr. Noble, as children of high SES with low early test scores improve their scores over time, whereas children of low SES with high early test scores show the opposite trend—essentially, socioeconomic status trumps early cognitive ability in predictive power for later performance. And brain structure plays a key role: Dr. Noble found that higher income is associated with greater volume of the hippocampus—a part of the limbic system linked to learning and memory.

More brain stuff after the jump



img April 04, 20187:28 pmimg 0 Comments

a cute lil sleep-deprived mouse

On Monday, I (small and afraid) attended a Biology seminar in a building I’d never been in (Fairchild). I found a seat in the last row and got settled—but alas! Who was this daunting and impressive woman seated in front of me, peeling an orange with a special peeling instrument? Could it be? Could it really be none other than Deborah Mowshowitz, queen of Biochemistry and polarizing pedagogy? (It was.)

Unfortunately I did not show up to stargaze, so I had to temper my awe as the presentation began. Professor Darcy Kelly introduced the speaker, Dr. Wen-Biao Gan of the Skirball Institute at the NYU School of Medicine. His work centers on how learning experiences and sleep affect synaptic plasticity in the brain. Dr. Gan received his PhD from Columbia in 1995, and in her introduction, Dr. Kelly asked, flustered, “was I your thesis advisor?”

Dr. Gan’s research involved training mice with an accelerated rotarod (sort of like a treadmill, but for mice!), and analyzing both their skill level over time and their formation of dendritic spines in layer 5 pyramidal neurons in the motor cortex. That learning tasks induce dendritic spine formation is not entirely revolutionary, but Dr. Gan discovered that different types of learning tasks induce spine formation on different sets of branches (that is, spines are segregated by motor task), and that this spine formation was related to spikes of calcium activity in the dendrites. Some dendrites show calcium spikes in response to forward rotarod training, and some show spikes in response to backward rotarod training, but only a negligible amount show spikes in response to both forward and backward training.

It is important to note that there was no increase in dendritic spines until about 24 to 48 hours after the mice were trained, hinting at the possibility that sleep plays a central role in solidifying motor learning neurologically. But how exactly does that work?

To figure this out, Dr. Gan had to deprive mice of sleep (honestly, same), and compare the neurons in their motor cortices to those of healthy mice. Dr. Gan found a strong correlation between sleep and dendritic spine formation, and even noticed that allowing the sleep-deprived mice to compensate by sleeping afterwards didn’t help: it seems that sleep needs to occur soon after the learning takes place in order for it to stick. Not only did the sleep-deprived mice not exhibit the neuronal changes that are supposed to accompany learning, their performance on the same motor tasks was significantly worse than the non-deprived mice later on.

Then, Dr. Gan decided to look into the specific roles of different types of sleep, by depriving some mice of REM sleep and others of non-REM sleep. The mice deprived of REM sleep did not show decreased spine formation, but the mice deprived of non-REM sleep did. Is REM sleep just utterly pointless? Well, okay, it turns out that REM sleep is actually crucial when it comes to motor learning, just not when it comes to the formation of dendritic spines. REM sleep is responsible for pruning these newly-formed spines (which makes sense, since REM sleep usually comes after non-REM sleep). Pruning is essential because it helps facilitate the formation of new spines induced by different motor tasks later on. In addition, mice with REM sleep showed persistent strengthening of some new spines, whereas mice deprived of REM sleep did not.

Essentially, Dr. Gan’s research showed that non-REM sleep is responsible for facilitating the formation of new dendritic spines after motor learning, while REM sleep is responsible for the pruning and strengthening of existing spines. Dr. Gan lost me when he started hypothesizing about the role of microglia in the last few minutes and in general, I was pretty confused amid all the spines and spikes and tdTomato (what is that and who named it and why?). However, Dr. Gan’s insight into the impact of sleep on learning was fascinating and even inspiring. After the seminar, I took a nap.

Image via Pixabay.



img April 02, 20185:38 pmimg 0 Comments


Dearest Bwog Readers,

For the past week I have been conducting an experiment on myself. Here, in published form, are my findings. (My friend Alex said that you have to be published to get into graduate school—is this true? Can anyone confirm? Anyway, @NorthwesternFeinbergSchool
PsychiatryandBehavioralSciences, hmu.)

I was inspired by something the kids call “stress culture.” We’ve all heard about it, we all know it, but do any of us really know it know it? Is it a toxic self-perpetuating culture of thought distortions? Is it a dearth of chicken strips? Is it something else entirely? I decided that the best way to get at the root of stress culture would be to actively avoid participating in it. Thus began my study.

My experimental design was as follows:

Independent variable: the amount I complain about stress and Columbia (which I manipulated by forbidding myself to complain for a whole week)
Dependent variables: the quality of interpersonal interactions and the state of my mental health
Number of participants: 1
Control groups: N/A
Hypotheses, in order of decreasing likelihood:

  • I would alienate my friends by refusing to indulge their complaints, and our conversations would quickly grow stale because what else is there to talk about really besides how much Butler sucks and how you hate everyone in your seminar and what is the point of calling it a midterm if you have three of them in one class?
  • I would feed my internal anxiety by denying myself the catharsis of complaining, leading to a mental breakdown somewhere between Thursday and Saturday, effectively terminating the study.
  • I would find myself more calm and composed: by pretending that I have my shit together, I would feel like I did, in fact, have my shit together.
  • My friends would appreciate my attempts at compassion and realize that making memes about wanting to die is by no means a healthy coping mechanism and perhaps together we would join forces to transform Columbia’s stress culture once and for all by promoting the notion that actively caring for each other is far more productive than simply complaining together or trying to one-up each other’s struggles.

Data and Results:

On Monday morning, I wake up with a pep in my step, ready to take on the challenge. I get to my first class, 10:10 Introductory Statistics. It becomes clear that I do not know shit about ANOVAs (what does ANOVA even stand for?), and I receive the lowest homework grade I’ve received all semester. I want to rant to my boyfriend about this (how am I supposed to get into grad school if I can’t figure out when to assume equal variances in a t-test?), but instead I hide the homework under a pile of papers and assure myself that I will be fine no matter what. It seems to work.

Next, I meet Alex for lunch in Ferris. All is well until he says something predictably self-deprecating, and instead of going “lol same,” I say, “I’m so sorry you feel that way.”
He looks at me strangely, like I just farted really loudly or something.
“I’m doing that thing for Bwog,” I remind him.
“So you can’t…? Are you kidding? I’m out of here,” he picks up his plate and stands dramatically. I convince him to sit back down, and we continue eating, but it doesn’t feel right.

I spend the rest of the day studying for my Gen Chem exam. I feel prepared and confident. Maybe this whole shindig is kind of genius. Then I actually take the test and it’s like being repeatedly punched in the stomach. In the last two minutes, I fill in random bubbles for five out of the twenty five multiple choice questions. In the moments directly after the exam, I forget about this experiment entirely, and cry to Angelica, “oh my god, that was so hard!” Then I remember, apologize to the integrity of the scientific method, and explain the situation. Angelica does not seem very amused.

Later that evening, as I walk into the Furnald bathrooms, Cameron says hi to me. I say hey back and I’m about to continue talking, but I remember that I’m not allowed to talk about the only damn thing I want to talk about. Instead, I go into a stall and pee.

On Tuesday, I get rejected from SURF. I consciously replace my initial pang of “screw you, Chanda, whoever you are” with “Chanda’s just doing her job, you didn’t even want this anyway because all of the research was with rodents, rejection is a necessary part of life, calm your tits.” Maybe I can be okay with this.

I let those thoughts simmer during Contemporary Civilizations. I want to talk to the girl I sit next to, but the conversation feels dishonest. I can’t shake off how lonely I’m beginning to feel. We are reading Freud and my teacher brings up the quote, “It is always possible to unite considerable numbers of men in love towards one another, so long as there are still some remaining as objects for aggressive manifestations.” I think about that for a while. In fact, I am still thinking about that quote as I write this post. I have never felt closer to my friends than when we are collectively bitching about PrezBo’s salary and what an architectural monstrosity Lerner Hall is. Why the heck did I think this would be a good idea? Did I really believe that inhibiting my self-expression would be a humorous yet enlightening method of gleaning insight into the nature of Columbia’s stress culture? I am so done. I have to finish this stupid post and write two more in the next two days, also I just spent so much time on that student doctor forum website and apparently my career prospects are pretty bleak, so I guess I’ll end up living in, like, a Woodbridge sink or something until I die.

What day am I even on? Ugh, who cares. I’m so fucking stressed!

 Image Via Bwog Staff.



img March 07, 20188:07 pmimg 0 Comments

Talk about amazing faculty work.

Barnard film professor Sandra Luckow recently released a new documentary, That Way Madness Lies…, which was seven years in the making. Staff writer Riya Mirchandaney went to check it out. 

“It is essentially the destruction of my family,” remarked Professor Sandra Luckow, by way of introducing her documentary “That Way Madness Lies…” Luckow’s comment was striking in its accuracy, for while the documentary was disguised as a story about her brother Duanne’s struggle with paranoid schizophrenia and the myriad of ways in which the systems in power failed him, the systems—that is, law and medicine—were only a backdrop for the story at the film’s core, a story of a resilient, desperate family drowning within itself, trying to cope with the series of traumas that hit them, without the luxury of being able to ask why any of this was happening.

Find out more about the film



img February 18, 20188:05 pmimg 0 Comments

Look at this lil pupper!

Think it’s easy to distinguish between what people say about animals and what people say about other people? Think again.

Take the quiz here!



img February 06, 20187:30 pmimg 1 Comments

where i imagine poe’s story taking place

Cholera, fungus, and goths? In today’s installment of Bwog Science, staff writer Riya Mirchandaney writes about last night’s lecture, “The Medical Imagination in the Early United States,” part of the Explorations in the Medical Humanities Series hosted by the Heyman Center for the Humanities.

“Science does not know its debt to imagination.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1872

What I thought would be a broad and heartwarming discussion on the importance of the imagination in medicine ended up being a long and stressfully intimate—but fascinating—talk about the enigmatic nature of fungi. Yes, you read that right—to quote Cosmo Kramer, fungi.

Sari Altschuler, assistant professor of English at Northeastern and scholar of American literature and culture before 1865, used this talk (sponsored by the Heyman Center for the Humanities) to preview her upcoming book, The Medical Imagination: Literature and Health in the Early United States, a multidisciplinary work tracing the intersections of medical history and literary history.

She began by talking about cholera. Believed to be endemic to India, cholera eventually made its way to North America in the 1820s. Cholera didn’t seem contagious, yet spread rapidly, confounding all public health officials. Medical cartography, which mapped the instances and spread of the choleric miasma, proved ineffective for understanding the disease’s nature. Mysterious and deadly, cholera presented the perfect conundrum for the medically imaginative.

Introducing: gothic medicine. The gothiest of goths, Edgar Allan Poe, along with his physician-poet friend John Kearsley Mitchell, both of whom were thoroughly affected by the cholera outbreak (Mitchell himself nearly died from it), took to writing to interpret and convey the situation.

Read how Poe and Mitchell used literature to change modern perceptions of cholera



img January 30, 20186:33 pmimg 0 Comments

Directed by a Columbia alum!

The Heyman Center for the Humanities is hosting “Explorations in the Medical Humanities,” a series of talks, films, and events that strive to bridge medicine and the humanities. Yesterday, Bwog sent writer Riya Mirchandaney to “Swim Team,” a film about an award-winning swim team consisting of boys on the autism spectrum. Here’s her review of the film.

As someone who loves the humanities, it’s obvious that the science event I’d chose to attend would be a film screening. If I learned anything from watching “The Great Sperm Race” in junior year biology, it’s that movies are a fantastic vessel for disseminating (ha, ha) scientific information in a thoughtful and accessible way. Who wants to listen to a dreary lecture when they could learn just as much from sleekly-edited video montages and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s sultry voice?

But “Swim Team,” the award-winning first feature-length documentary by Columbia alum Lara Stolman, strangely lacking in lab coats and medical terminology, was a science documentary of a completely different breed. It was shown as part of the Medical Humanities series sponsored by the Heyman Center for the Humanities.

The film begins with an extended underwater shot. A boy swimming. The swim captain encouraging his teammates. The coaches—the mother and father of one of the swimmers—introduce the scene: this is a special olympics team, and all of the boys are on the autism spectrum. They are the New Jersey Hammerheads.

As defined by the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, autism spectrum disorder is characterized by deficits in social communication and interaction, as well as by restrictive and repetitive patterns of behavior, often accompanied by intellectual and language impairment. In New Jersey, with the highest rate in the country, 1 out of every 26 boys is diagnosed with autism.

Click here to learn more about the film and about the medical humanities

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