Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Nobel Conference

Every year Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota holds the Nobel Conference. The Nobel name comes from the fact that most of the conferences have dealt with the kinds of science issues for which Nobel Prizes have been awarded. Past subjects have been "Making Food Good", "The Nature of Nurture", and "The Science of Aging". The 47th, and most recent conference was "The Brain and Being Human". The two lectures I watched had material (presented by the people who discovered it) that was extensively covered in a Behavioral Neuroscience course I took.

The first lecture by Larry Young covers the role of oxytocin (a hormone) in mammals. Oxytocin is responsible for sexual arousal, bonding, and maternal behavior. Inject it into the right part of a male rat's brain and he will instantaneously have an erection. Do the same to a female rat, and she will enter lordosis (present herself). Give a female rat a oxytocin antagonist (inhibitor) , and she won't display maternal behavior. The stimulation of the nipples also triggers the oxytocin production. Administering it to humans induces higher levels of trust and lower levels of fear. Young's research with prairie voles, and their monogamous mating behavior is really interesting: 

The second lecture I watched was by Vilayanur Ramachandran, who discovered mirror visual feedback. This treatment is primarily used for amputees. Those that have lost a limb sometimes report feeling a phantom limb, feeling as if their arm or leg is still there. Sometimes they can move it, sometimes it can be paralyzed. If a patient does  have a stuck limb, the experience can be very painful.

The example given in the video is a patient who's phantom hand was clutched so tight that he could feel his fingernails digging into his hand. Ramachandran's solution to this problem was the creation of the mirror box. In which a mirror is placed vertically in front of the patient has the patient look at the mirror reflection of the normal arm. In this way, the arm is optically superimposed on top of where the phantom limb is felt. Moving the intact limb creates the illusion that the phantom limb is moving. In the case of the example, the patient was able to open their clutched phantom hand. Over time, sometimes instantly, this illusion reduces the pain of the stuck limb. This treatment has been used as an alternative to painkillers such as morphine.

Ramachandran also touches upon synesthesia, which is another incredibly interesting phenomena. If you would like to know more about it, you can read a previous article about it here.


  1. I like the sheer range. The workings of the human brain! And uh...making food good. Though, it`s probably less silly than it sounds, I guess I have to check it out now!

  2. You are a nice guy and this is very interesting, but there is no way in hell i'll watch a hour and a half long video.

  3. The Phantom Limb cure is amazing, I've never seen that mentioned in any of my textbooks. I also have synethesia so I'm tempted to hear what he has to say on it.

    And no, my girlfriend doesn't know about my blog. Almost no one I know in real life knows it exists.