by Audrey Lee '16 and ScM '17
At one point in our lives we were all just a 3-D ball of cells. How did we develop from a single cell to the diverse beings that we are today? Understanding the complexity of mammalian development requires maintenance of live embryos in a laboratory setting. And with research surrounding living embryos comes regulations. The rules outlining embryo research may be re-visited with recent advancements that allow scientists to maintain live embryos for at least two weeks.
Cell types of an early human embryo six days after fertilization that indicate cell boundaries (white), the inner cell mass (green) that will give rise to the fetus, and cells that supply the embryo with nutrients (purple and magenta). Source: The Rockefeller University Credit: Gist Croft, Alessia Deglincerti, and Ali H. Brivanlou
By Olivia Woodford-Berry, '19
In order to maintain homeostasis in the case of even small stresses, the body constantly maintains a balance between proinflammatory defense mechanisms and anti-inflammatory checks. For the millions of people who suffer from autoimmune disorders, this system has lost direction. Autoimmune diseases cover a range of conditions that involve immune cells recognizing normal cells as foreign . Finding effective solutions for these problems is often an uphill battle. Many such afflictions have no cure or lack reliable, long-term treatments. Historically, treatments for common conditions involve physical therapy, potent drugs, or even surgery . However, research in the emerging field of bioelectronics may suggest that such drugs are not the solution. The “cure” for inflammation may be hidden within the body’s electrical language.
Establishing an applicable connection between the immune system and the nervous system is a project a long time in the making. Studies have demonstrated key connections in rats. Researchers found that the vagus nerve, a nerve that runs down the neck and plays a role in passing electrical signals from the brain to organs throughout the body , can be manipulated to regulate immune responses. For example, rats in one study were given toxins to induce an immune response and then given immunosuppressants through direct brain injections. Rats with a disconnected vagus nerves still showed an immune response everywhere but the brain. Meanwhile, rats with healthy vagus nerves showed no immune response . Along the same lines, when researchers used electrical shocks to stimulate the vagus nerves of distressed rats, the rats experienced fewer symptoms of shock and produced less inflammatory signaling proteins such as tumor necrosis factor (TNF) and interleukin (IL) . Scientists, in short, have stumbled upon a way to intercept and interact with electrical commands as they travel from the brain to cells throughout the body.
This study signifies a pivot point for the drug industry, especially when one considers that traditional treatments for RA cost the U.S. billions of dollars and often prove ineffective for close to fifty percent of patients . While this particular case focuses on RA, this technology has the potential to revolutionize how doctors treat a wide range of autoimmune diseases. Along the same lines, bioelectronics draw attention from drug companies seeking new ways to cut costs. Since typical drugs flood the entire body, they are often extremely cost inefficient. Thus, as the cost of developing bioelectric hardware goes down, these treatments become more appealing to businesses. SetPoint, a leader in bioelectronics, has ongoing trials involving RA patients and vagus nerve stimulation . They hope to produce devices that may one day be updated wirelessly, allowing patients to go years or even decades before the implant would need to be removed. While mainstream use of these technologies may seem far away, a new outlook on technology in medicine is much closer than one may think.
 Bernik T, Friedman S, Ochani M, DiRaimo R, Susarla S, Czura C et al. Cholinergic antiinflammatory pathway inhibition of tumor necrosis factor during ischemia reperfusion. Journal of Vascular Surgery [Internet]. 2002 [cited 18 November 2016];36(6):1231-1236. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Christopher_Czura/publication/11002713_Bernik_TR_Friedman_SG_Ochani_M_et_al_Cholinergic_antiinflammatory_pathway_inhibition_of_tumor_necrosis_factor_during_ischemia_reperfusion/links/00463529cf5010d1ff000000.pdf
 Koopman F, Chavan S, Miljko S, Grazio S, Sokolovic S, Schuurman P et al. Vagus nerve stimulation inhibits cytokine production and attenuates disease severity in rheumatoid arthritis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [Internet]. 2016 [cited 19 November 2016];113(29):8284-8289. Available from: http://www.pnas.org/content/113/29/8284.full
With the abundance of research taking place at Brown, and countless journals offering glimpses into the often inaccessible realms of countless scientific fields, we are surrounded by information. Answers abound, but how much faith can we place in them?
Take psychological research as an example.
A September article in Psychological Science detailed a study led by Steven Sloman, a CLPS professor at Brown. The paper suggested that "despite the absence of any actual explanatory information, people rated their own understanding of novel natural phenomena as higher when they were told that scientists understood the phenomena than when they were told that scientists did not yet understand them." Giving evidence for the "community-of-knowledge" hypothesis, these experiments reinforced how our impressions of others influence our confidence about research.
If our beliefs are mediated by influences like our perceptions of scientists' understanding, our comprehension and acceptance of scientific information is not completely evidence-based. This is further exemplified in a 2007 study which revealed that people tend to rate the scientific reasoning of cognitive neuroscience research more highly when it is accompanied by images of the brain, as opposed to no image or a bar graph. The authors argue that these brain images appeal to "people's affinity for reductionistic explanations of cognitive phenomena," giving people a concrete visual to ground their understanding. (They did not include a brain image in their study, although apparently readers might have been more impressed if they did.)
Surely there are countless ways that internal influences affect our perceptions of scientific research—our human natures and complex mental processes constantly shape our knowledge acquisition. But there are factors inherent to the research itself that also question the faith we place in scientific studies.
Try as we might to edit all bias out of experiments and studies, it persists and crops up in every step of the process from design to publication. Bias that creates evidence of relationships where none might actually exist is especially concerning in its ability to spread false ideas. A 2015 project that replicated 100 psychological studies found that only "one-third to one-half of the original findings were also observed in the replication study."
Although this replication project was critiqued for its lack of sensitivity to context, among other issues, the shadow of doubt it cast on the reliability of psychological research remains. And it begs the question of how much trust should be placed in a study that suggests studies aren't to be trusted.
Though psychological research may attract more skepticism than other fields, especially considering the much-discussed results of this replication project, similar questions can be asked of research in other STEM fields. The reliability of researchers' conclusions and our perceptions of them is not a forgone conclusion.
The value of objectivity in scientific research still kept on a pedestal, and scientists retain their societal role as beacons of knowledge. But are we too easily persuaded by their findings?
by Camila Lupi '19
Have you ever asked yourself the question “what is a jellyfish?” Probably not. We don’t have time to be asking ourselves such rudimentary questions when we have orgo problem sets to finish and deadlines to meet. But is this actually as simple a question as it seems to be on the surface? To find out, I asked a handful of Brown students what they thought a jellyfish was, and these are the answers I got:
by Michelle Muzzio, 2nd Year Chemistry PhD Student
Don’t worry, it is all in your head.
Typically considered a trivial idiom, this phrase becomes a bit more alarming when “it” is magnetic nanoparticles and “it” is backed by experimental and theoretical data. A recent study published in PNAS by Maher et al. highlights the presence of exogenous (not of a biological origin) iron, cobalt, nickel, and even platinum nanoparticles in human brain samples. The work has been picked up by popular science outlets and major media alike such as Science Magazine, Newsweek, Chemical and Engineering News, and the Huffington Post. Crossing the publication-to-publicity barrier is a feat that most publications will never accomplish with their primary demographic being frazzled graduate students, uninspired postdocs, and curious-but-skeptical professors.
What then is the responsibility (if any) of the scientific papers that journey into the promised land of trending and retweeting? When science leaves the laboratory and then also leaves the carefully veiled community of publications and conference proceedings, the successful communication of science (or lack thereof) becomes a science in and of itself.
by Olivia Woodford-Berry '19
For most people, brain machine interfaces (BMI) seem like something out of a science fiction movie. For Nathan Copeland, these technologies are the breakthrough he has been waiting for. Copeland, who has been paralyzed from the upper-chest down since an accident in 2004, is one of the first people to be fitted with a direct brain interface, a system of electrodes surgically implanted into his brain and externally connected to a computer system. Through a new robotic prosthetic, Nathan has not only regained a functioning arm, but also his sense of touch.
The intersection of brain machine interfaces and prosthetics has come to fruition through research funded by the U.S. Department of Defense. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a department branch focused on developing technologies, originally began research in BMI with the hopes of finding applications in aerospace or defense . In 2006, DARPA shifted their focus and launched their Revolutionizing Prosthetics Program. This program has created a huge push to redefine the parameters of prosthetics and the use to robotics in medical treatments .
With funding from this program, researchers developed robotic limbs with motor capabilities through the linking of neural mapping technologies and robotics. Neurologists map which areas of the brain are active in initiating and controlling specific functions. Working in parallel with computer scientists, they can apply this information to create BMI prosthetics. In initial trials, voluntary participants underwent surgery to implant microelectrode arrays into their primary motor cortex, the part of the brain that controls movement. These electrodes pick up biological cues from the brain relay them through wires to an attached computer system. This computer system translates chemical signals into mechanical commands, which are than relayed to and executed by a robotic arm .
Although these technologies are still in the research phase, DARPA scientists hope to improve these designs and to eventually make them accessible to millions. Researchers plan to continue mapping sensory neural pathways and to eventually extend the sensory capacities of robotic limbs beyond pressure sensing. Along the same lines, DARPA is launching the Hand Proprioception and Touch Interfaces (HAPTIX) Program with the goal of creating an alternative structure that incorporates the peripheral nervous system into the passage of information between the brain and the prosthetic . This has the potential to broaden the market from those with spinal cord injuries looking for mobility to amputees drawn to the sensory functions. Furthermore, utilizing the nervous system may cut out bulky computer systems, allowing for a more marketable product. DARPA hopes to create an FDA approved design for this system by 2019 .
 Flesher SF, Collinger JL, Foldes ST, Weiss JM, Downey JE, Tyler-Kabara EC, Bensmaia SJ, Schwartz AB, Boninger ML, Guant RA. Intracortical Microstimulation of Human Somatosensory Cortex. Sci. Transl. Med. 2016 Oct. 19;8(361):361-341.141-51.
by Navya Baranwal '20
November is the prime time for election season and in addition to the compelling presidential election this year, nine states have added marijuana legislation to their ballots. The debate on legalizing marijuana for recreational or medical use has been raging for years. Even though the United States characterizes cannabis as a dangerous schedule 1 drug, 25 states approve of the use of medical marijuana.
by Stella Canessa '19
NASA plays a very important role for America’s prestige, economic prosperity and scientific development. Now that space on earth has become cozy, with 10 billion people living here by 2050, the interest in research on space colonization has grown considerably.
While this novel research is a hot topic in public discussion, for various reasons the presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have taken astonishingly little stand on the issue. What effect does the election of either candidate have on the development of the US space program and what would life in space look like?
by Rahul Jayaraman
Given the exciting news about our very own Prof J. Michael Kosterliz winning the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics for “theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter,” it seems useful to discuss why exactly his research is relevant. At first read , the description of his research can seem awfully esoteric; however, upon closer inspection, Prof. Kosterlitz’s research proves to have graspable implications for the world around us.
Prof. Kosterlitz’s research focused on phase transitions of these exotic materials, which can be illustrated with a simple analogy – for instance, graphite turning to diamond is a “phase transition,” and graphite and diamond are “phases.” While previous work focused on simply studying analogues to graphite and diamond, Prof. Kosterlitz studied the analogous transition between exotic states of matter.
Story kept in the voice of Chris Kelly, as told to Patrick Orenstein. Pictures by Chris Kelly.
Brown Graduate Student Chris Kelly spent the summer of 2015 on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi as part of an international team of researchers using lake sediment cores to study the region's climate history. Led by Brown Professor James Russell, the Lake Towuti Drilling Project sampled ancient sediments from the lakebed, the analysis of which will give researchers new information on the long-term climate dynamics of the tropical western Pacific.