The 'Sixth Sense' of Mice, Bird Song & Fighting Crime

Six Duke researchers presented their latest work at the 2013 AAAS meeting

Three Duke brain scientists, an economist, an engineer and a fisheries researcher were among hundreds of researchers from nearly all fields who presented their latest findings at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Boston last weekend. 

Duke neurobiologist Erich Jarvis, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, presented his latest findings on parallels between bird song and human speech at a Thursday press conference and a Friday panel. In addition to similar brain anatomy driving both forms of vocalization, Jarvis is finding similarities in the patterns of gene activation between both species. 

"It's surprising that it's not just one common gene. It's about 80 of them," Jarvis said. The discovery offers more evidence that bird and human brains share analogous structures because of convergent evolution, he added.

Also speaking on the brain, neuroengineer Miguel Nicolelis presented his latest work on developing neuroelectrical implants to give rats the ability to "touch" infrared light. "This was the first time we were able to add a sensory ability to an animal, not just correct a brain defect," Nicolelis said. He spoke at a Saturday press conference and a Sunday morning panel on brain prostheses and published his latest work on Feb. 12 in Nature Communications.

Neurologist Nicole Calakos, an assistant professor in the Center for Translational Neuroscience and the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, was also part of a Saturday panel that discussed how the brain adapts for learning and memory. She studies a mouse model of obsessive-compulsive disorder to understand how the connections between brain cells work at the molecular level and how they might be altered with medications. Her lab is now focused on the role of mGluRs -- a class of chemical receptors -- in compulsive disorder. Early, unpublished data suggests that putting the brakes on this receptor reduces over-grooming in the mice, Calakos said.

Also on Saturday, David Brady, the Michael J. Fitzpatrick professor of electrical and computer engineering, presented his research on compressing the data from images to extract more information, while economist Philip Cook, the Terry Sanford professor of public policy at the Sanford School of Public Policy, spoke at a morning symposium and press conference on the costs of crime. 

Cook and others have studied violent and property crime in the last two decades and how it has declined nearly 75 percent. His research focuses on the effectiveness of private security expenditures in some business districts of Los Angeles. That type of spending, coupled with increased public spending on the criminal justice system, may account for some of the decline, he said.

On Sunday, Andre Boustany a research scientist and Senior Nereus Fellow in the Marine Geospatial Ecology Lab at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment, presented his work on how climate change may affect the distribution of fish species that humans harvest for food. 

In some areas of the ocean, the topography of the bottom creates a home that keeps species rooted in the area, though climate change might either increase or decrease productivity in those areas. But in the open ocean, patterns of species distribution may change dramatically as temperatures and currents shift.

The talks spurred new collaborations for the scientists and widened the audience for their research as they had the opportunity to share it with the journalists and the general public.