Science / Tech – Brains, Brains, & Turn Lanes

There was so much to love this past week in science and tech … and something to hate – the fact that the melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheath is past the point of no return =\.  Instead of focusing on just one awesome story, however, I’m going to give you three vignettes on brains, brains, and turn lanes.  Because, you know, rhyming.


You’d think that more brain cells would mean better memory.  And in some ways, it does – memory formation in adult mice can be increased by boosting the expansion of neurons.  But how do new brain cells affect the memories you’ve already made?  A recent study suggests that the formation of new neurons in mice can actually ‘erase’ old memories.

Neurons are made throughout life, but the rate at which they are made decreases as we age.  To figure out how the formation of new brain cells affects old memories, researchers at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada tested newborn and adult mice for their ability to retain a negative memory – fear from repeated electric shocks.  Newborn mice, who are rapidly making new neurons, were only able to remembered the negative experience for one day.  Adult mice, who are making new neurons at a far slower rate, remembered the negative experience for several weeks.

That’s great … but it’s really only a correlation.  You can find correlations between just about anything.  For example, did you know that the number of people who drown by falling into a swimming pool correlates with the number of films Nicolas Cage starred in?  (For other fun and ridiculous correlations, check out Spurious Correlations!)

What happens if you slow down the formation of new brain cells in newborn mice, or speed up the formation of neurons in adult mice?  Well, it turns out that slowing down the formation of new brain cells enhanced the persistence of this negative memory in newborn mice.  And speeding up the formation of neurons in adult mice reduced persistence of the learned fear of those nasty repeated electric shocks.  SCIENCE.

To use a (probably imperfect) metaphor, think of your brain as the hard drive of your computer, and the files on it as your brain cells, the neurons.  There’s only so much space on your hard drive.  And what do you do when you need extra space?  You have to get rid of some old files!


Why I decided to write this middle vignette last is a mystery to me … but read this article about how a specific variant of the longevity gene, KLOTHO, can not only make you live longer, but can also make you smarter.  I apparently do not have the super-human variant of this gene … or I do, but its effects are masked by the fact that I’m up way past my brain’s bedtime.

Fun fact:  The longevity gene was named after one of the Fates in Greek mythology, Clotho, who is responsible for “spinning the thread of human life”.

Turn Lanes 

Just a week and a half ago, I was driving up to J. Rickards, my favorite little winery, for a wine pick up day with some of my fellow wine club members.   We were leaving from San Francisco, the number one nemesis of my keen sense of direction.  My friend Ryan was guiding me out of the city, and, while he was doing a great job, he never gave me the piece of information I always want, but rarely ever get – what bleeping lane should I be in!?!?!  Apparently, I’m not the only one that loves this type of info – his lovely wife Johanna agreed with me.

This past Saturday, I was running errands and needed to go to a new store in a part of town that I’d never been to before.  I whipped out my iPhone and promptly opened Google Maps (sorry, Apple Maps, but you’ve steered me wrong enough times to give me some serious trust issues).   I typed in the address, chose my general route, and let the calming digital voice guide me to my new destination.  As I approached my first turn, that beautiful digital voice uttered those three six words every lady wants to hear – “Use the two right lanes to …” – before giving me her usual spiel of what direction and street to turn on.  It was MAGICAL.  So magical, in fact, that I used Google Maps to steer me home (even though I now knew the route) just to listen to the sweet, sweet music of lane guidance.

At first, I thought I was just one of the lucky ones – after all, I do live in Silicon Valley, where tech companies use their neighbors as their new tech guinea pigs.  However, it seems like we’re ALL the lucky ones – in addition to lane guidance, the newest version of Google Maps includes the ability to save directions to use offline, the addition of Uber (with the nearest car and time to pickup) as a transportation option, and more!