Investigating neural patterns in the younger siblings of autistic children – Recap of talk by Dr. Charles Nelson

The Talk: A Cognitive Neuroscience Approach to the Early Identification of Autism In Plain English: A scientist investigates the patterns of neural wiring in infants whose older siblings have autism The Speaker: Charles Nelson of Boston Children’s Hospital The Sponsor: Simons Center for the Social Brain at MIT What it covered: Dr. Charles “Chuck” Nelson …

How to find a planet that could hold life – Recap of talk by Dr. Sara Seager

The Talk: Exoplanets and the Real Search for Alien Life In Plain English: Astrophysicist on the Search for Planets that Could Harbor Earth-like Life The Speaker: Sara Seager of the MIT Physics Department The Sponsor: MIT Presidential Fellows/Sidney-Pacific Distinguished Lecture Series What it covered: Dr. Sara Seager is an astrophysicist and MacArthur Foundation Fellow who …

Asleep by Molly Caldwell Crosby: A great epidemic history story, up until the last chapter

The book: Asleep: The Forgotten Epidemic that Remains One of Medicine’s Greatest Mysteries by Molly Caldwell Crosby (2010) What it’s about: Asleep is the story of the encephalitis lethargica epidemic that followed in the wake of the 1918 flu. Encephalitis lethargica is mainly known by the nickname “Sleeping Sickness”, but shouldn’t be confused with African …

Neurodiversity & Disability Rights in the Autistic Civil Rights Movement- Recap of talk by Ari Ne’eman

The Talk: “Autism, Neurodiversity, and Disability Rights: Then and Now” In Plain English: Disability advocates are in the middle of an ongoing struggle to ensure civil rights for autistic individuals, and hardly anyone has seemed to notice. The Speaker: Ari Ne’eman, president of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network The Location: Harvard Law School Project on Disability …

Space of autonomy: between Twittersphere and urban spaces – Recap of a talk by Dr. Manuel Castells

The Talk: The Space of Autonomy: Cyberspace and Urban Space in Networked Movements In Plain English: One of the world’s most honored sociologists discusses the relationship between online social activism and grassroots protests in urban centers The Speaker: Manuel Castells of University of Catalonia (UOC)’s Internet Interdisciplinary Institute The Location: Harvard Graduate School of Design …

Americans spend 3 times as much on Valentine’s Day gifts as they do on the entire NSF budget

I’m not the first science blogger to point this out, but it bears repeating: The billions we spend on funding federal scientific may sound extreme on paper, but once you realize we spend $17 billion a year on Valentine’s Day, suddenly a 5 billion dollar NASA budget doesn’t sound so crazy. Case in point: Estimates …

Viruses can shut down our anti-viral proteins – Recap of talk by Dr. Ileana Cristea

The Talk: Host Defense and Viral Immune Evasion: A Proteomics Perspective In Plain English: Human cells and viruses are locked in a protein-based arms race for global domination: Will the cell’s defensive proteins successfully recognize viral DNA and alert the immune system? Or will the virus counter with proteins that stop the defensive proteins in …

Bioelectric signals tell organisms when to grow limbs (among other things) – Recap of talk by Dr. Michael Levin

[This post is part of a series called “Brown Bag Lunch Reports” where I recap some of the academic talks given at college campuses in and around the city of Boston. Let me know what you think of the post format and what kinds of talks you think I should recap next!] The Talk’s Title: …

Epidemic of Absence: A book that made me think too much

What it’s about:

Epidemic of Absence tackles one of the trickiest and trendiest topics in 21st-century biomedical research: the complex relationship between autoimmune disease and the bacteria that live in our guts.

A growing body of evidence suggests that by decimating the number of pathogenic microbes people are exposed to, modern medicine has inadvertently shifted the ecological balance between the human immune system and the human microbiome, leaving millions of people vulnerable to allergies and autoimmune disease.

The basic evolutionary argument is that our immune system evolved to cope with a constant onslaught of opportunistic microbes by developing a complex system of checks-and-balances with our bodies’ microbial populations. With those microbes gone, many of the immune system’s coping strategies are having disastrous side effects. In this book, Velasquez-Manoff implicates the depletion of bacterial biodiversity as a driving agent in the pretty much every non-infectious disease you can think of (cancer, depression, Crohn’s, Celiac’s, allergies, and autism are all covered in this book).

The Upsides:

It’s a rare snapshot of a scientific revolution in progress. And it’s easily the most thought-provoking book I’ve read all year.

Basic Research: How asking weird questions about science builds the economy

“Scientists, they’re isolated. They’re out of touch with real world concerns, and that’s why they can’t get funding. What can we do get them interested in relevant projects so that they can get their funding?” This was an audience question at a Nova-sponsored Science Cafe in Cambridge, MA. The speaker was Ari Daniel, an oceanographer-turned-radio-producer, …