The science behind our addiction to likes

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I’VE been spending a lot of time on social media lately. Yes, I’m one of those annoying millennials who seem to always have phone in hand.

Even more so since I created my own YouTube channel. Now I seem to be constantly checking for new ‘likes’, subscribers and comments.

It’s got me thinking that this whole social media thing might be just a little addictive…

And it turns out it is. In recent years, neuroscientists have spent quite a bit of time trying to understand what’s going on in our noggins while we’re posting pics of our lunch on Instagram, weighing in on political issues on Twitter, and sharing happy snaps of the family on Facebook. So what have they found?

It seems that positive interactions on social media (likes, follows, shares and the rest) trigger the same sorts of reactions in our brains as when we use recreational drugs or gamble.

This is because all of these things involves the reward and motivation pathways in our brains. When we experience something rewarding – like hitting a jackpot on the pokies, or lots of people liking that photo of our lunch on Instagram – our brain produces a hit of the neurotransmitter dopamine.

This dopamine acts on the areas of our brain that are involved in pleasure and reward seeking, and that feeling motivates us to repeat those behaviours. Social media platforms give us an almost endless supply of rewards in the form of attention from other people.

We learn from this positive reinforcement and are motivated to seek more – more likes, more retweets, more followers, more dopamine.

As anyone who’s on social media knows that not every interaction on these platforms is positive. But it doesn’t really matter.

As long as we get enough positive reinforcement, even if mixed in with negative experiences, then that’s enough of a reward to keep us hooked. Especially if we can’t quite predict when that reward is coming. Studies have shown that the best way to keep our brains constantly engaged is with variable rewards.

We don’t know when those rewards (our likes and follows) are coming, so we keep checking … which is why we find it hard to put those phones down.

So if you want to give me a hit of dopamine (and learn some more science) you can subscribe to my YouTube channel – it’s called Badly Drawn Science. My brain will thank you for it.

This article was first published in the Canberra Times, August 25, 2020

Did you hear the one about the biologist and the worm?

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If you’ve been on Twitter lately you might have come across some biologists having a bit of a feud about something called C. elegans. So what is C. elegans, and why is it suddenly a big deal?

Well, the first bit is easy to answer. C. elegans is a worm. The second bit … that’s trickier. Let’s just say it started with one scientist making a joke that a bunch of others didn’t appreciate. Anyway, back to the C. elegans (full name Caenorhabditis elegans). It’s a tiny soil-dwelling worm, about 1mm long. It’s also transparent, and mostly hermaphroditic. While all of that is interesting, C. elegans is most well known for its role as a model organism.

Model organisms have nothing to do with fashion, but a lot to do with helping us understand different biological phenomena. They’re species that are studied intensely, and the information gathered gives us insights into how other organisms operate. In medicine, model organisms help us to understand disease, and allow testing of drugs or other treatments. Very handy when experimentation on humans would be dangerous or unethical. Of course we have to be careful about drawing generalisations from one species to another (keep this in mind when reading that there is a cure for cancer, or Alzheimer’s – and the studies are in animals), but model organisms have increased our understanding of everything from neuroscience and behaviour, to reproduction and development.

C. elegans is just one model organism. Others include fruit flies (or Drosophila), widely used in experiments in genetics, and zebrafish (scientifically known as Danio rerio), often used to study early development. Some model organisms are much simpler – like the bacteria E. coli, or the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae (commonly known as bakers yeast). Others are more complex, like laboratory rats and mice. In the plant world it’s Arabidopsis thaliana (thale cress) that takes the crown as the most used model of plant biology and genetics.

Despite some obvious differences (on the surface a fruit fly and a zebrafish don’t have much in common), these model organisms all share a few things that make them useful in scientific research.

They’re generally small, have a short life cycle, and can be kept and grown easily in a laboratory. And, importantly, we have techniques for manipulating and analysing them. So thanks Twitter for giving a humble worm its five minutes of fame, and allowing me to introduce you to some of the non-human models of the world.

This article was first published in the Canberra Times on 28/7/2020

Body comes with original built-in cleanser

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We’re a couple of weeks into January, which has me wondering, how is everyone going with those New Year resolutions?

Losing weight is one of the most common resolutions people make, and boy, don’t companies selling weight loss and diet products know it! I can hardly turn around these days without someone wanting to sell me some sort of cleanse, detox, or supplement that will magically make me thin.

Let’s talk about these cleanses and detox diets that are oh-so-popular in recent years. Generally, they involve some period of fasting, followed by a period of strict dieting – cutting out most of your normal diet. The “juice cleanse”, where you survive on only fruit and vegetable juices, is one example. On the more extreme end is the lemon detox, where solid food is replaced with a delicious mix of lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne pepper. Many of these programs also include expensive supplements or even colon cleanses or enemas (coffee enemas seem to be all the rage right now).

These treatments supposedly rid your digestive system and body of a host of undefined “toxins”, leaving you healthier, thinner, and bursting with vitality.

I mean, it sounds great, right?

A simple change in diet and you can flush out all those nasty toxins and contaminants. Like a good spring clean, but for your body.

The thing is our bodies don’t need lemon juice or herbal teas to cleanse. They come equipped with a liver and kidneys – organs whose job it is to filter or breakdown toxins, and remove waste.

As long as these are in working order you can forget about the cleanses and detoxes.

As well as being unnecessary, these extreme diets come with health risks. Because they’re often so restrictive they leave you at risk of nutritional deficiencies, and in some cases cause dehydration. And for many people, the restrictive diet combined with focus on weight loss, can affect mental health and well-being.

As someone who carries a little bit of extra “fluff” and struggles to lose it, I can understand the desire for a quick fix. But a detox or cleanse isn’t it. If you’re going to make a resolution to do anything this year then make it a resolution to try and eat more fresh and less processed foods, drink plenty of water and get active. It’ll do a lot more for you than any detox or cleanse.

What does a scientist look like?

I’ve been told on numerous occasions that I don’t look like a scientist.

I think this usually means that I don’t look old enough, I’m not male enough, and my hair is too blue (or too pink, or too purple…).

It’s a bit ridiculous. Scientists are, after all, just regular people. So really anyone and everyone “looks like a scientist”. But yet, the stereotypical image of what a scientist is persists.

Social scientists have been investigating this phenomenon for many years. The “Draw a Scientist” test (which asks school aged children to draw their own depictions of a scientist) has been used since the 1960’s, to help understand how children perceive scientists. There are some interesting, and somewhat depressing results. In original studies from the 1960’s and 1970’s, less than 1% of children drew their scientists as women. That’s improved somewhat since the 1980’s, with kids drawing women scientists about 28% of the time. But still not near the 50% that we might hope for. And across all these studies around 80% of kids drew their scientists as being white.

The drawings created by kids generally place scientists in laboratories, wearing white coats and goggles – despite the fact that scientific careers are much more diverse than that. Although I am one of the white-coat wearing lab scientists, many of my scientific colleagues spend their time out in the environment, or working with complex machinery, or using high-end technology and computers, with not a lab coat or beaker in sight.

There are a bunch of fantastic scientists on social media who are working to highlight the diversity of scientists and scientific careers, and show kids that, no matter what they look like or where they come from, they can be scientists too (if you’re on Twitter or Instagram check out #UniqueScientists). However, while this change is happening online, the mainstream depictions of scientists in the media are still, overwhelmingly, older white males in white lab coats.

Why does it matter? Well, stereotypes have a role in constraining people’s beliefs in what they can be and what they can do. They influence whether people can see a place for themselves in science.

There are scientists of all genders (or with no genders). Scientists of all colours. Scientists of all sexual orientations. Scientists with disabilities. Scientists with colourful hair, and piercings and tattoos. Scientists who don’t wear lab coats.

Scientists come in all shapes and sizes – so let’s show people that.

Microbial friends, not foes

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No matter where you are, or what you’re doing, you are never alone. Everywhere you go trillions of tiny friends accompany you.

Yep, I’m talking about microbes – brilliant bacteria, fascinating fungi and amazing archaea.

For many people the mention of bacteria sends a bit of a shiver down the spine. It’s understandable – from a young age we’re taught that “germs” are bad. That we need to be on constant high alert, and disinfect everything. You can walk down the aisles of the local supermarket and see row after row of anti-bacterial, anti-microbial products.

But microbes, or at least most of them, are not our enemy. In fact, they can be our good friends.

Your body is crawling with microbes. They outnumber your human cells by about 10 to 1. They are all over your skin. In your eyes. In your mouth. They even live in your digestive tract.

The microbes that live in our digestive tract, known as our gut microbiome, have been an increasingly hot topic for research over the last few years. For a while now we’ve understood that the gut microbiome plays a role in digestion. Certain types of bacteria help us to digest different sugars or fibre, helping us access nutrients. For example, in babies, the bacteria known as Bifidobacteria can help digest the sugars in breast milk. It also makes sense that our gut microbiome may play a role in intestinal diseases. The symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, for example, have been linked to the types of microbes living in the gut.

Now we are also starting to see evidence that the gut microbiome influences a range of other things – from our weight, to our immune system function, to our mental health. The link between microbes living in our guts and mental health is particularly interesting. Some of the bacteria that inhabit our digestive system can produce neurotransmitters, or the building blocks of neurotransmitters, including dopamine and serotonin. Imbalances in these “brain chemicals” have often been linked to mental health issues like depression. So the bacteria living in our guts might just influence our brain function.

Our gut microbiome is not set in stone. It can change over time. Things like medications will affect our microbial communities, as will our diet. Researchers are also looking in to the effect that stress and exercise can have on our microbiome. In general, gut microbiome studies suggest that the more diverse our microbiome is the better. That is, the greater variety of microbial species, the healthier we are.

So how can we help support this microbial diversity?

Eating a wide variety of foods, particularly fresh fruit and high-fibre vegetables is a good start. As is choosing foods that are rich in compounds called polyphenols – including nuts and whole grains, olive oil and berries (and red wine and dark chocolate – woohoo!). Fermented foods might also help, as will taking antibiotics only when necessary.

Take a few simple steps to look after your trillions of tiny friends, and they’ll help look after you!

Science is definitely a team sport

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As a scientist I’m proud of the research I do. I enjoy explaining to non-scientists what I’m investigating and, of course, why.

However, I’m often less excited about the inevitable follow up question: “so what have you found?”

It’s not because I’m ashamed of our results. Far from it. It’s just that non-scientists seem to expect more than I’m able to give them. I can tell them that we have found a moderate correlation between thing A and thing B, under a specific set of circumstances. Or that when thing X happens, the levels of thing Y seem to change a bit. But I can’t tell them that yes, I’ve found the gene that causes a certain disease, or developed the blood test to diagnose it.

People ask the question expecting to hear about eureka moments and major discoveries. The sorts of things that win Nobel prizes. But those major scientific discoveries aren’t made by one person, alone in a lab somewhere. They’re made through the work of many hands, over many, many years. Science isn’t a solo sport; it’s definitely a team effort.

The process of scientific research is a bit like solving an incredibly difficult jigsaw puzzle. One group of researchers somewhere in the world will find something interesting, and publish it. Other researchers will pick up those tiny puzzle pieces and add to them with their own experiments. They’ll publish their findings, and other researchers will read those, and follow up with more experiments. And the cycle goes on, with many people adding more and more pieces, until eventually the whole thing comes together to form a complete picture.

And then there’s all the work you don’t see. Failure is a huge part of scientific research. We are constantly coming up with new questions and trying new things. And a lot of the time those things don’t quite work, or don’t give any conclusive results. Scientific research is a bit like the proverbial iceberg – what the public see is the tip, the successes, while the rest is hidden under the water.

So although I really don’t have an exciting answer to the “so what have you discovered?” question, I do know that the work I’m doing is valuable. I’m putting together my own tiny piece of a big jigsaw puzzle. Hopefully, one day, that small piece will contribute to a whole picture. And that would be pretty cool.

Just how risky is a risk?

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Taking a single pill reduces the risk of heart attack by 34%. Eating red meat increases the risk of breast cancer by 23%. Getting more exercise reduces the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by 30%.

These are the sorts of headlines we see pretty much on a daily basis – and they can be quite scary. If there’s something that is going to hugely increase our risk of developing cancer, or dementia, or any other kind of disease, we should all stop doing it immediately, right? And, on the other hand, if there is a pill, or a food, or a lifestyle change that can decrease our risk, we should all start doing it immediately, right?

But what do all these numbers and risks actually mean? Will making these changes really increase or decrease our risk of disease so dramatically?

When we see reports that something increases or decreases our risk of different diseases, it’s usually reporting on the relative risk. Relative risk, put more simply, means the likelihood of that event occurring in one group of people compared to another group of people who have different behaviours. For example, in smokers versus non-smokers, or in vegetarians versus meat-eaters.

This relative risk, however, doesn’t tell the whole story. To interpret these risks, we need to know something about the absolute risk of developing that disease in the first place. In simple terms, absolute risks tells us about the overall probability of an event occurring.

For example, the lifetime absolute risk of developing breast cancer is about 1 in 8 – or around 12%, or a risk of 0.12. Let’s take the example headline that eating red meat increases the relative risk of breast cancer by 23%. Sounds pretty scary, and might make you think twice about that steak dinner. But to work out the absolute risk increase, it’s 23% of the absolute risk of 0.12. Which is around 0.15 (or 15%). This is only a 3% increase in absolute risk – which sounds a lot less scary than a 23% increase in risk (and might make you feel ok about that steak after all)!

All these numbers and statistics can be really confusing – but understanding them can make you a savvier consumer. There are certainly many things we can do, or stop doing, to live longer and healthier lives. But please don’t be panicked – or tricked into spending your money on expensive lifestyle changes – by headlines reporting relative risks.

Just because we can, does it mean we should?

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There’s a saying that goes “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”. I think this applies to a lot of things in life: serving latte’s in avocados, making pizza bases out of cauliflower, creating GoFundMe campaigns to raise money for disgraced football players……I could go on.

This phrase also comes to mind when we’re talking about scientific research.

For example, a couple of weeks ago I was reading about experiments to create human-monkey chimeras. Chimeras are organisms that are made of cells from two or more individuals. They can occur naturally – for example, when cells from twins fuse together. They can also be created in a lab by injecting stem cells from one individual into a developing embryo. In the research I was reading about, the cells and embryo used were from different species. In other words, these chimeras are a human-monkey hybrid, made of some cells from each. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to create an animal that could grow organs for human transplantation.

It seems like a noble goal – after all, thousands of people die each year waiting for an organ transplant. So why is it controversial? The problem is we don’t have the ability to restrict the growth of the human cells to specific organs in the chimera. For now, these chimeras have only been allowed to grow for a few weeks. But what if they were allowed to fully develop, and we found that the human cells had formed parts of the brain, the nervous system? Could we have animals that start to show human-like thought? Human-like behaviour?

Similar research has been carried out to create human-pig and human-sheep chimeras. And with changes to Japanese research guidelines, researchers are looking at introducing human cells into mice, creating human-mice chimeras. The creation of these human-animal chimeras is just one example of scientific research throwing up a host of ethical issues. The births of the first gene-edited babies in China last year was another. The development of artificial intelligence with inbuilt racism or bias is yet another.

We’re living in a world where science and technology are advancing at a rapid pace. New discoveries and new technologies are going to continually challenge our existing values and legal and ethical frameworks. As scientists, we need to think really carefully about the implications of the work we do – and always ask ourselves, “Just because I can, does it mean I should?”

Do you know how to wiggle your toe?

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I try not to ask people for favours too often, but, if you could, I’d like you to do something really simple for me. Wiggle the big toe on your left foot.

Pretty simple, right? Well…..maybe not quite as simple as you think. 

Behind that tiny little movement of your toe was a surprisingly complex chain of events. First of all, before you could even get to moving, you had to read, and understand, the words on this page. First the light reflected from this page travelled to your eyes, entering through the cornea at the front of your eye. The light passed through your lens, and was focused onto the retina at the back of your eye. Special photoreceptor cells in your retina then converted this light into an electrical signal, which then travelled down your optic nerve, from the back of your eye, and into your brain.

Your brain then had the job of interpreting and making sense of these signals. Different areas of your brain played a part in this, all working together. One area recognised the symbols that you know as letters. Other areas put those together into words, then put those words together to form a mental image. Yet another area planned how you would respond to my request.

Once your brain had figured out that I was asking you to “wiggle the big toe on your left foot”, and decided to do it, it needed to get that information to your foot. The signal to move your toe was generated in an area of the brain called the primary motor cortex – it’s the bit that’s responsible for voluntary movements. This signal, which took the form of an electrical pulse, had to move all the way from your head to your toe. It did this by moving along a specialised type of cell called a neuron – in this case a type of neuron called a motor neuron. The motor neuron carried the signal from your brain down into your spinal cord. In your spinal cord that motor neuron met, or synapsed with, a second motor neuron, which carried the electrical signal on to the muscle of your toe. Once it reached that muscle, it caused the muscle to contract. The result? Your toe moved.

When you wiggled your toe you would have felt it move against the floor, or against the inside of your sock or shoe. Sensory receptors in your toe felt this pressure, and, in much the same way your brain sent the “move” signal to your toe, your toe sent a signal back to your brain. This signal raced along neurons, back into your spinal column, and all the way up to your brain. And that’s how you knew you had successfully moved that big toe.

All of that is taking place, in just a few fractions of a second, just so you can wiggle your big toe. Now imagine if I’d asked you to make me a cup of tea….

First published online in the Armidale Express, August 12th, 2019

National Science Week is about connecting the community with science

This week is National Science Week – a nation-wide, week-long festival of all things science. It’s a week where we open our labs (and our hearts), where we take science into schools, into the streets, into libraries, into pubs.

This week, for National Science week, I’ll be heading to a climate-change fundraiser movie night, talking about women in science at a local Rotary Club, going to a night of science in the pub, and hosting a science-themed morning tea. And of course, I’m not the only one. Scientists in all States and Territories across the country are heading out into their communities, running activities or attending events for science week. There are literally thousands of events running across the country, staffed mostly by volunteers.

So why do we do it?

National Science week is about connecting everyone, of all ages and backgrounds, with scientific discovery. I can’t speak for all scientists, but I get involved because I want to help people better understand not just scientific facts or concepts, but what science IS. How it’s about curiosity and a desire to understand the world around us. How it’s about systematically working to find solutions. How it’s about using creativity to solve problems. How it’s about discovering things that can change lives or improve the way we do things.

I think now, more than ever, science week is important. In recent years we’ve seen participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects at school drop to an all-time low. Yet these STEM skills are in high demand, and look set to remain so in the future job market. We’re living in a world where many influential people, including some politicians, seem to have little regard for scientific discovery and evidence-based research. In many ways, there seems to be a disconnect between the science and technology that people use day-to-day, and the science that they know or understand.

This science week I hope that everyone around the country can get involved in science in some way – maybe it’s an activity at a local library, or a school science fair. Maybe it’s engaging with science through a documentary on TV, or heading out to museum or science centre, or going to that local science talk.

Whichever way you choose to get involved, I hope that you can experience some wonder, some excitement, and a sense of discovery. Because science really is all around us.

This story was first published online through the Australian Community Media network on the 13/8/19