Paying Attention: Why You Want to Have a Filter

Neuroscience

By: Daniel Hass, 2nd year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Graduate Program

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Can you pay attention to the movie, or do you just hear people chomping on popcorn? Image credit: hashi photo (Wikimedia Commons)

At any given moment, we are constantly bombarded by signals from at least four of the five senses.

The visual system is constantly processing our surroundings. The auditory system is stimulated by all of the many miniscule sounds that compose our environment. We’re taking in all the smells around us at any given moment, and we’re constantly feeling the clothes on our skin. Even within one sensory system, there is an enormous amount of data that gets processed.

With this onslaught of input, how do we manage to not go completely insane? The key is that we pay attention to only a small proportion of that information and throw much of it away. This process is known as selective filtering or selective attention, and most people do it all the time.  Image watching a movie at a theater; if you’re quite focused on the film, you’re probably not noticing the sound of squeaking seats, crunchy popcorn, or even the air conditioning whirring through the vents.

Although there are several regions of the brain involved in each sensation, the part of the brain involved in selective filtering is where all of these senses intersect. 

War on Cancer: The Future of Cancer Treatment

Biomedical Sciences

By: Ross Keller, 4th year PhD candidate in the Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program

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Cancer cells. Image credit: National Cancer Institute (Wikimedia Commons)

In this fifth and final post of the War on Cancer series, I will discuss the future of cancer treatment. I will also tie in my previous posts of the series, which include:

  1. How Can We Win the War on Cancer?
  2. Targeted Therapy
  3. Tumor Relapse
  4. Tumors as Ecological Systems

As I mentioned in Part 1, cancer is not one disease, but thousands, and these thousands of different diseases evolve as time goes on. Current treatments have improved greatly over the years, meaning people with cancer are living longer than ever before. New ways of treating cancer, however, will be needed to ultimately cure it.

Current research suggests that there will likely be three stages to the future of treatment: (1) discovering more vulnerabilities to target, (2) quickly mapping the genetic profile of individual tumors, and (3) developing drugs that will not only combat a tumor, but keep it from relapsing.

The Scientific Conference Survival Guide

General

By: Amanda White, Research Technologist in the Department of Psychiatry

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Image credit: Marianne Weiss (Wikimedia Commons)

Scientific conferences are an important way to learn about the latest developments in your field and to meet people who can help you advance your career. They are annual meetings organized by professional societies that include poster presentations, oral presentations, and social events. Conferences often take place in major cities (like San Diego, Washington DC, or Chicago), though the location of each conference usually changes from year to year. Conference attendees include professors, medical doctors, industry representatives, graduate students, and occasionally undergraduate students.

Conferences  can be a lot of fun, but they can also be intimidating and overwhelming! I attended my first two conferences this year – Animal Behavior Society (ABS) in August and Society for Neuroscience (SfN) in November.

Here are a few tips and tricks that I hope can help you survive (and thrive) at a scientific conference:

How Fancy Labels Fool Us: The Neuroscience Behind Bias

Neuroscience

By: Caitlin Millett, 3rd year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Graduate Program

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Image credit: Neesa Rhajbhandari (Wikimedia Commons)

The holiday season is fast approaching, and that means it’s time for gift buying. With each passing season, finding the perfect gift for loved ones seems to become more and more difficulta phenomenon not unrelated to the seemingly exponential growth in buying options each year.

So how do we do it? Many of us would like to believe that our decision-making is based in logic and objectivity. Clearly you’ve chosen the coolest plaid neckerchief for your hipster cousin—you got the thing at an Urban Outfitters! Neuroscience reveals that deciding what we prefer based on a few options is not always based on inherent qualities, but rather is highly biased based on expectations.

Reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder: People who get SAD in the Summer

Neuroscience

By: Lina Jamis, 2nd year student in the Anatomy Graduate Program

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Summertime sadness. (Image credit: Pixabay)

Snow-lovers rejoice—winter is coming!

And no, this isn’t an allusion to Game of Thrones. With the end of Daylight Savings, the days are becoming darker earlier, which for some can mean the onset of the winter blues. The medical term for this is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a condition caused by a mélange of changes in our biological clocks, serotonin levels, and melatonin production, all of which affect our mood.

While many of us are familiar with SAD, there are, in fact, people that get SAD in reverse. For a small group of people, the dark days of winter don’t elicit depression, but renewed vigor and improved mood.

Why Does Hershey’s New Logo Look Like the Poo Emoji? Neuroscience Explains.

Neuroscience

By: Jordan Gaines Lewis, 4th year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Graduate Program

Penn State College of Medicine is located in Hershey, the “Sweetest Place on Earth.” We’re surrounded by references to chocolate everyday—from the smell of it in the air to Kiss-shaped streetlamps to chocolate-brown paved roads. It’s a pretty sweet life.

So when The Hershey Company unveiled their new logo last month, I didn’t find anything unusual about it.

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Credit: The Hershey Co.

That is, of course, until the Internet began comparing it to the poo emoji, popularized by Apple.  Even after seeing the comparison, I still didn’t know what the big stink was about, so to speak.

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Poo Emoji (WonderHowTo)

Why did some people immediately see a big, steaming turd when, obviously, it’s supposed to be a drop of chocolate topped with the iconic Kiss flag? Actually, understanding the cognitive processes behind visual recognition can explain everything from Hershey Kiss poop emojis to why we perceive animals in clouds and Mother Mary’s face in a piece of toast.

Why You Should Care about Auditory Myosin

Neuroscience

By: Lina Jamis, 2nd year student in the Anatomy Graduate Program

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Wikimedia Commons

As much as we may enjoy denying it, our hearing is slowly, but surely, leaving us. In fact, considering how we often may follow the adage  “louder is better,” we’re probably headed for hearing aids sooner than we think. (That goes doubly for you, Skillrex fans).

…which is why we must thank our stereocilia and the proteins that are tasked with maintaining them.

I’d like to introduce you to myosin: the protein responsible for muscle contraction, force generation, maintenance of posture, the beating of our hearts, and oh hey, busting a move on the dance floor. Myosin proteins were originally thought to be restricted to muscle cells (hence, myo, meaning “originating in muscle”), but research has revealed that not all myosins are created equal. In fact, there is a large superfamily of myosins that, while sharing the same basic properties, are distributed in other tissue.

Smells Ring Bells: How Smells Can Trigger Emotions and Memories

Neuroscience

By: Amanda White, Research Technologist in the Department of Psychiatry

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A day in the life.

Autumn has arrived, bringing with it some of my favorite scents:  bonfire smoke, pumpkin spice (DON’T JUDGE!), and, most of all, crisp autumn air. Stepping outside on an October morning and breathing instantly transports me back in time.

I’m at Penn State. It’s a cool, crisp morning and there’s not a cloud in the sky as I walk up Shortlidge Road. I’m a freshman on my way to class and I’m a little nervous, but overall I’m excited to be in a new place on my own and for the future.

That complex emotion and memory can be triggered by a simple sensory cue:  the smell of autumn air. How do smells trigger such strong emotions and memories?

War on Cancer: Tumors as Ecological Systems

Biomedical Sciences

By: Ross Keller, 4th year PhD candidate in the Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program

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Cancerous cells. (Creative Commons)

The War on Cancer series has so far covered: How Can We Win?, Targeted Therapy, and Tumor Relapse.

In this fourth part of the War on Cancer, I will discuss a phenomenon that has only recently been pushed to the forefront of cancer biology, and it both complicates and opens new doors to treatment strategies. That concept is “tumor heterogeneity”—a tumor that is comprised of multiple types of transformed cells.

The traditional view of tumor formation is simple: DNA within a single cell is damaged, causing it to escape biological constraints and proliferate unchecked. Many tumors do behave like this. However, it has recently come to light that tumors can also be much more complicated. They can be populated by not just a single cell population, but a multitude of cell populations, causing some tumors to behave more like complex ecological systems rather than simple out of control cell divisions.  In fact, some very basic ecology concepts you’ve learned in high school biology may be surprisingly similar to how researchers are beginning to view tumors today.

Why Graduate Students Should Meditate

Neuroscience

By: Caitlin Millett, 3rd year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Graduate Program

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”
― Aristotle

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Moyan Brenn (Flickr)

Meditation is an ancient practice dating back at least three millennia. It’s a fundamental component of many Eastern religious traditions and belief systems including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Daoism, to name just a few.

The term meditation refers to a broad variety of practices meant to clear the mind and build compassion and kindness. It may also ease some health issues, such as high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, and stress. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), a component of the National Institutes of Health, notes that:

“Meditation may be practiced for many reasons, such as to increase calmness and physical relaxation, to improve psychological balance, to cope with illness, or to enhance overall health and well-being.”

Due to its purported benefits, recent decades have seen increased interest and additional funding for research on meditation and mindfulness. Moreover, mindfulness has reached an almost fad-like status in the Western world due to its potential positive effects on health.

In December, Penn State Hershey Medical Center offered a free seven-week class to learn meditation. Similarly, the Penn State Hershey University Fitness Center recently held their first ever meditation sessions. But for most of us, especially those of us in the sciences, the question still lingers- is there data supporting the benefits of meditation?