The podcast reviewed here is the February 2010 edition of the Nature Neuropod. The episode is presented by Kerri Smith. The episode features interviews with researchers who have published Nature papers on prions. In the second interview there is some interesting speculation about a possible role of prions in memory formation and if this is the case then it would be interesting to see the effect of mutations on memory formation. There is some pending research which will involve knocking out the prion gene. There is another interview with a researcher who provides evidence that benzodiazepines stimulate the mesolimbic dopaminergic pathway. There is also a brief look at some of the proposed changes for DSM-V including grouping Asperger Syndrome with the other Autistic Spectrum Disorders as well as proposals for mild neurocognitive disorders and a note of the large social ramifications of even very small changes to the diagnostic criteria. In the final section, Smith interviews neuroscientists Tricomi who has undertaken an fMRI study on ‘fairness’. Having reviewed a number of fMRI papers, some in detail, I found this section quite interesting. Smith conveys the gist of the study really well in the interview particularly given the complexity of fMRI research. There were some limitations however which is inevitable. For instance, I wasn’t clear on the sample size, the validity and reliability of the psychometric tests or the more technical aspects of how brain activity was determined. Also on listening to Tricomi discuss the interpretation of the brain activity, I was intrigued by the use of labelling of the brain activity with meaning. Thus an increase in activity in the prefrontal cortex and striatum was triangulated with other research to suggest that an increase in this activity meant that the corresponding behavioural event was valued positively. Meaning can be a simple concept and I wonder if the attribution of meaning to an event itself can lead to a systematic error. In other words, can labelling an event with ‘meaning’ evoke a desired response in the researcher but at the risk of being an artificial construct which doesn’t relate to the underlying phenomenon. This argument can be applied across all areas of human endeavour. Returning to the earlier points – does it matter that there are some technical aspects of the study that are not reported? I would argue that there are two broad categories of science reporting (OK this is an arbitrary categorisation that is susceptible to the meaning error just described!). Firstly there can be reporting in which the gist of the study is communicated to a general audience so that they can take away a bite-sized chunk of information – a little chunk of ‘truth’ – that they may or may not be able to do something with. Secondly there can be reporting which provides enough information to the audience to enable them to participate in the critical process. We could call them bite-size and critical science reporting respectively. In a fast-paced world, where productivity is increased and a person has so many things to cram into their routine it’s not unreasonable to suppose that bite-size science reporting can play an increasing role particularly in view of the ever-increasing avalanche of new research findings that are coming out. However in a site such as NHS Choices, there is a critical element to the reporting which can often highlight the sense of uncertainty about a research question that remains after the research has taken place. I think there is a role for this approach as well particularly as this critical approach is often associated with the ‘spirit’ of science. This approach however takes a bit more time for the audience – a greater investment of resources – and so i’m not clear how the two approaches might fit into the overall scheme of things. I’m sure the question though has implications for many areas. Scientists in one speciality might need to depend on science reporting to get up to speed on even closely related but distinct areas of research that could have implications for their own future research directions. Additionally, healthcare professionals and patients rely on an ever increasing amount of science information for the management of illness. For instance there are frequent media reports on lifestyle ramifications which often provoke wider debate. So questions about the weighting of these different types of reporting are relevant to wider culture. However in summary, I thought this podcast was very professional as would be expected from Nature, and for me, highlighted a number of areas to keep an eye on particularly the benzodiazepines and the mesolimbic pathway and a possible role for prions in memory.
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