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  • NATURE PODCAST

Podcast: Thalamus functions, antibiotic resistance, and dangerous research

This week, the secret life of the thalamus, how to talk about antibiotic resistance, and dangerous research.

In this episode:

00:41 Dangerous science, part 1

Paleobotanist, Kseniia Ashastina, dug up more than she bargained for on a field trip. Careers: Science on camera; Kseniia Ashastina

05:58 Podcast survey

Help us improve the Nature Podcast by letting us know who you are. Podcast survey

06:22 Clever thalamus

The thalamus may do more in the brain than simply relay information from one place to another. Research paper: Schmitt et al.

12:47 Dangerous science, part 2

Researcher Michael Worobey explains how collecting chimp faeces became a life threatening endeavour.Michael Worobey; Research paper: Worobey et al.; Nature Podcast: HIV in the US

18:07 Research Highlights

Plastic-munching caterpillars; and air pollution in our bodies. Research Highlight: A caterpillar that can digest plastic; Research Highlight: Why pollution raises heart risk

20:04 Resisting bad wording

What is the role of language in combatting antibiotic resistance? Comment: Antibiotic resistance has a language problem

25:32 Dangerous science, part 3

Polar bears and rising seas threaten Arctic researcher George Divoky. Friends of Cooper Island; Nature Podcast: Climate change ruined my research

Never miss an episode: Subscribe to the Nature Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast app. Head here for the Nature Podcast RSS feed.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-019-03094-2

Transcript

This week, the secret life of the thalamus, how to talk about antibiotic resistance, and dangerous research.

[Jingle]

Interviewer: Adam Levy

This week: why it’s crucial to use the right language when talking about antibiotic resistance.

Interviewer: Marc Mendelson

There is a complete blank look on people’s faces often when you discuss these terms.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

And, a brain region thought to be a bit simple turns out to be quite clever.

Interviewee: Mike Halassa

What you’re witnessing now is a shift in our world view of the brain.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Plus, three tales of the perils of research. This is the Nature Podcastfor May the 4th2017. I’m Adam Levy.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

And I’m Kerri Smith.

[Jingle]

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

Most stories here on the podcasts are about work that’s done and dusted: neat results written in black and white in a scientific paper. But the process of getting there is much more colourful. Some scientists have to be pretty intrepid to gather the data they need. This week Nature’s Careers section is zeroing in on some of these experiences, running the results of a photo competition called ‘Scientists at work’.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

To accompany the competition the Nature Podcasthas three stories of extreme data gathering in the field. One is from the winner of the competition, palaeobotanist, Kseniia Ashastina. The others later on in the show are from previous guests of the Nature Podcast, one whose story we have partly told before – the other an all new tale.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

In their own ways they each show how scientists in the field should expect the unexpected. They also show that remote fieldwork cannot be a solitary pursuit. It only works if you rely on the support of others.

[Music]

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

We’re going to start with palaeobotanist Kseniia Ashastina. Her winning photograph shows her supervisor, Frank Kienast, standing at the bottom of a huge cliff made of frozen mud. His orange jacket glows against the background. Mature evergreen trees overlook the top of the precipice, tens of metres above him. They look like they’re made of Lego. For her PhD, Kseniia is working with plant remains – seeds, leaves, bark fragments – frozen into the permafrost in north eastern Siberia. She hopes to figure out what used to live in the area hundreds of thousands of years ago when woolly rhinos and mammoths roamed the tundra. So off she went in the middle of the polar summer to a remote outcrop of permafrost, near a town called Batagay.

Interviewee: Kseniia Ashastina

We stayed there for three weeks and from there it’s just ten kilometres from the outcrop so we drove a car to the outcrop then took a small walk – about 1 and a half, 2 kilometres – through northern Batagay to reach the outcrop.

[Music]

And then suddenly you see this huge, enormous outcrop. This looks like an almost perfect amphitheatre with an ice wall, really steep ice wall, of 70, 75 metres. And it’s so loud. Mosquitoes all around you… the cracking ice and creaking trees that head down to the bottom from all around. And you are standing in the mud that sucks you in. This is a great experience [Music].

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

These are the risks they expected: falling timber, sucking mud, and mozzy bites… risks posed by the environment. But what they didn’t plan for was interference from the locals. They knew that when the permafrost thawed, sometimes remains of mammoths and rhinos popped out of the mud, including their tusks, and they’d heard that locals can make a tidy profit collecting and selling them. But they didn’t expect to be considered competitors.

Interviewee: Kseniia Ashastina

We were already done with our sampling and were about to come back and on the way there suddenly popped up two drunken ivory hunters and they got really angry right away as they supposed that we were about to collects their mammoth tusks. They were quite aggressive so I pretended as if I had no idea about the ivory. They had guns. That’s why I had to be extremely friendly. So we showed them the bags with our mud, and the hunters became sober due to the shock that there were people collecting worthless mud instead of these expensive tusks.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

The hunters seemed happy enough that the mud collectors were doing what they said, but they stayed to keep watch over them and Kseniia kept in contact with them, taking them proof of a morning’s mud collection to make sure they stayed calm. When she and her supervisor spotted a tusk ready to thaw out of the permafrost, they decided not to go to the outcrop for a couple of days. The permafrost thaws so quickly in summer that the tusk was revealed in 2 days and quietly removed. The hunters never did admit what they were really doing there. They said they were on vacation. Kseniia did what had worked for her all along. She played the part of the gullible scientist.

Interviewee: Kseniia Ashastina

It’s not a dream destination for your vacation but okay. That’s what they said and that’s… I believed them… [laughs].

[Music]

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

That was Kseniia Ashastina who’s a PhD student at the Senckenberg Research Station of Quaternary Palaeontology in Weimar, Germany. Two more stories of dangerous data coming up later in the show. And you can check out the rest of the winning photographs at nature.com/nature.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Stay tuned for the Research Highlights for the biology of air pollution and plastic munching caterpillars but before we get to that, just a quick reminder to fill in our listener survey. The link is on our website as well as Twitter, @naturepodcast, and the survey shouldn’t take longer than about two minutes.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

Thanks to everyone who’s filled it in so far. It really does help us to understand who you are and reassures us that our audience isn’t exclusively our over enthusiastic parents. Okay, now let’s get back to the science.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

When it comes to the brain, not all areas are equal. The folded outer section of a mammal brain is an intellectual star in the brain world credited with key roles in memory, language and consciousness. But, other brain areas can get a bit overlooked. For example, the thalamus is a little egg-shaped section right in the middle of the brain. The traditional idea has been that the thalamus relays information to and from the far more important cortex. That idea could be changing though, as new research suggests the thalamus does a lot more than we realised. Here’s Shamini Bundell with more.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

This week, Mike Halassa, a neuroscientist at New York University has been telling me all about the thalamus, although as I found out, that’s not what his team set out to study.

Interviewee: Mike Halassa

I mean, honestly, when we started we weren’t looking for this.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

What Mike and his team were looking for was a way to study some quite complex behaviours in mice. I asked him about the experiments they set up.

Interviewee: Mike Halassa

We basically wanted to use the mouse as a cognitive model, as a model for cognitive neuroscience. So we set up to design behavioural tasks that would capture the essence of ‘attentional’ control.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

And what is ‘attentional’ control?

Interviewee: Mike Halassa

Imagine that you are in a crowded room and you want to eavesdrop at different conversation. You can do that by internally shifting you spotlight of attention to highlight one conversation, suppress another.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

So you couldn’t get mice eavesdropping on conversations. So how did you create a set up where they had to shift their attention from one thing to another?

Interviewee: Mike Halassa

So, we taught the mice to use simple cues to have them shift between paying attention to a light and a sound.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

So if I’m a mouse, in your experiment, what am I seeing and having to learn?

Interviewee: Mike Halassa

You’re going to be sticking your nose in a central hole in the arena and I’m going to present you with one of two rules: either pay attention to vision or pay attention to audition. And what those rules are, are either a high frequency sound or a low frequency sound. And we train the mice to understand the meaning of those rules as pay attention to vision of pay attention to audition. Then there’s a delay and after that delay there are these target flash of light or another sound which is just a frequency sweep. Those come on different sides and depending on what the rule was, you have to follow the appropriate stimulus to one of two reward holes in order to get the reward.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

So the reward will either be on the side where the light flashes or the side where the sound comes from and then I have to remember the rule from earlier that tells me which way to go. So that’s the attention shifting part – paying attention to either sound or light – and you were thinking this must be something to do with the cortex because the cortex is the important part of the brain involved in these sorts of complex things. So you measured the electrical activity in the prefrontal cortex neurons during the task.

Interviewee: Mike Halassa

That’s right and what we found is that there are different populations in the prefrontal cortex that signal the two task rules that I just mentioned. One set of neurons that get pretty excited when they hear the first rule and then a different set of neurons that get excited and signal the other rule.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

So that’s how the mouse knows what to do but then you started looking at when it was applying those rules and basically the cortex only had those reactions when the mouse was in the experimental set up arena, not when it was somewhere else. Why was that interesting?

Interviewee: Mike Halassa

We thought, okay, so there is something about the task context that was necessary for this local connectivity to take place and for the rule to gain meaning and for it to be maintained over time. And that thing wasn’t clear. Where is that task context information coming from? How does the mouse know?

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

And once you started thinking about context and how the mouse knows when to apply the rules, that’s when you were thinking about the thalamus. What did you find?

Interviewee: Mike Halassa

When we first of all compared activity of the thalamus inside and outside of the task context, we found that the thalamus was really sensitive to the context, much more so than the prefrontal cortex. And then when we would play the sounds outside of the task context, when we turned on the thalamus to mimic the task context – we could restore their cortical representations.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

The cortical representations being the two groups of neurons in the prefrontal cortex that respond to either one rule or the other. So, turning on the thalamus, even where the mouse is somewhere random, makes the cortex start thinking about applying those two rules. But why does the prefrontal cortex need the thalamus to tell it went to implement t different rules?

Interviewee: Mike Halassa

Right? Why can’t you just do this through different populations in the prefrontal cortex? And this is where the theoretical idea is. It’s because the prefrontal cortex – and other parts of the cortex – are encoding so many different associations and if you encode these different associations through very weak synaptic connections then the same neurons can be incorporated into very different experiences.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

So you don’t need separate neurons for everything you learn because the thalamus is there to select and amplify the relevant groups of neurons at the appropriate time. This gives the thalamus a pretty important role in the brain. Is your finding part of a general trend where the cortex is no longer the most important thing anymore.

Interviewee: Mike Halassa

Absolutely. I think what you’re witnessing now is a shift in our world view of the brain, from a world view in which everything is being done in the folded outer part of our brains called the cortex to a much richer description that involves many other brain regions.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

That was Mike Halassa of the Neuroscience Institute at New York University, talking to Shamini Bundell. That paper is out now on the Naturewebsite.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Up next it’s our second story of perilous research. A quick warning: there are some reasonably graphic descriptions of infection and treatment and a little bit of strong language. Listener discretion advised.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

I first heard just a glimmer of this next story from Michael Worobey, a virologist I interviewed about the history of the HIV pandemic. At the time he mentioned a field trip on which he’d become gravely ill, so for our field work series I got back in touch.

[Music]

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

In early 2000 Michael packed his bags for an ambitious trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Organising the trip was Bill Hamilton, the famous evolutionary biologist. Two junior colleagues including Worobey accompanied him. They wanted to study HIV biology, where the pandemic virus came from, and how chimps were involved in spreading it. They flew into a region of the DRC called the Kisangani

Interviewee: Mike Worobey

… Hoping to collect faecal and urine samples from wild chimps that lived in the forests near the Congo River. And it was during the Civil War in the Congo and we figured that that would make things dangerous and like any Victorian expeditions, it was the bugs that were more dangerous than the people and the guns.

[Music]

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

Kisangani was controlled by rebel groups at the time and not long before they arrived, there’d been fighting in the area. There were bullet holes in the walls of their hotel room. But their immediate problem was access to the forest. Through contacts at Médecins Sans Frontières, they met a local commander who would give them permission to go in.

Interviewee: Mike Worobey

… And finally saw us and sized us up and realised we were what we said we were: a bunch of scientists that were interested in collecting chimp shit to look for viruses.

[Music]

Interviewee: Mike Worobey

The very first day we started walking into the forest, I impaled my hand on a thorn and I thought I had just punctured my hand. It hurt. It wasn’t a huge deal. But it kept getting more and more sore each day and eventually I realised I was pretty sick. My hand turned black. I couldn’t move it. I had red streaking lines up my arm and I realised there was actually a chunk of this thing festering in my hand.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

His fever got worse. Finally, he had to walk out of the forest and travel back to Kisangani to seek treatment. Ever the committed scientist, he even brought some samples out with him.

Interviewee: Mike Worobey

A local nurse who worked for the Red Cross had dug out this thing from my hand. One guy held my hand down and he went at it with scissors and a needle, and then Médecins Sans Frontièrespeople actually took care of me for several days, put me on antibiotics, saved my life really. In fact when I told a friend of mine later, who’s an infectious disease doctor, what my hand looked like, he said if I had been in his clinic, his only question would have been whether to disarticulate at the wrist or at the elbow.

[Music]

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

Michael began to recover and a few days later his colleagues arrived back in town.

Interviewee: Mike Worobey

Everything seemed good for about one day and then Bill told us he’d had a terrible, terrible night with fever and sweats, and it turned out that he had malaria.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

Bill was treated and rallied for long enough for them to make the journey back to the UK. But the next day there was bad news.

Interviewee: Mike Worobey

He had haemorrhaged and was in the hospital and he never got out. It took several weeks and lots of operations and transfusions and hope, but he ended up dying.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

Bill Hamilton died in March of 2000. Michael Worobey did go into the field again. The allure was the same as it had been for the fated trip: the unknown and the data that lay there.

Interviewee: Mike Worobey

When I left for the first time, when the plane took off, I thought to myself, this is a place I probably should not come back to. When you look at As, Cs, Ts, and Gs for as long as we do in our line of work, almost any excuse to get out into the field is enough.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

That was Michael Worobey who’s at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Incidentally, as hard as I tried, I couldn’t find statistics on researchers who are injured or killed in the course of their work. If anyone knows of such a list, do flag it to us on email – podcast@nature.com– or Twitter: @natutrepodcast.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Still to come: using the right language to talk about antibiotic resistance, and the last of our stories of imperilled researchers. But now, Corie Lok is here with this week’s Research Highlights.

Interviewer: Corie Lok

Most caterpillars eat plants but one species likes to digest plastic. Researchers who were studying wax moth caterpillars were using plastic bags to carry creatures around, when they noticed that the bags were quickly sprouting holes, they took a closer look. They found that the caterpillars could quickly break down polyethylene, one of the most common and toughest plastics. The researchers concluded that the researchers are digesting the plastic and not just chewing it up. The findings make sense. Wax moth caterpillars live in beehives and eat beeswax which has compounds that are chemically similar to polyethylene. Lessons learned from these hungry caterpillars could inspire ways to break down plastic that’s clogging up our landfills. You can find out more from the journal, Current Biology.

[Jingle]

Interviewer: Corie Lok

Air pollution kills millions of people a year worldwide. But how exactly do tiny airborne particles affect the body? To figure this out, researchers got volunteers to breathe in gold nanoparticles which are easily detectable in the body and are good proxies for air pollutants. After 24 hours, almost all of the volunteers had traces of gold in their blood. When the researchers did a similar experiment on mice, they found that the chemical entered the blood stream and collected on fatty deposits in the arteries. These inflamed deposits a can grow, break off and trigger heart attacks and strokes. Some nanometre-sized pollutants are known to cause inflammation. So, if they are building up in fatty plaques in arteries as this study has found, this could be a way that air pollution increases the risk of heart attacks. Find out more from the journal, ACS Nano.

[Jingle]

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Imagine you are preparing a talk about climate change. How do you make sure you engage your audience with the issues. Well, for starters, it might be a bad idea to call it climate change. Research has shown that Americans are more likely to support efforts to combat global warming than climate change. Choosing your terms carefully, could give your talk more clout. Jarring jargon or loose language can scupper attempts to make progress in research too. Take antibiotic resistance: bacteria are wising up to our usual treatments and there’s no new class of drugs on the horizon. Overcoming this problem means using the drugs we have more carefully and intensive research to develop new treatments. But Marc Mendelson argues that it also means being more careful with the language we use when talking about this problem. He works on infectious diseases at the University of Cape Town, South Africa and has a Comment out this week. And Marc knows all too well what’s at stake from resistance to antibiotics.

Interviewer: Marc Mendelson

I have looked after patients that we have been unable to give an antibiotic because the bacteria causing that infection is resistant to all antibiotics. It’s extremely sad, frustrating and extremely worrying.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

In this Comment, though, you’re talking about quite a different frustration: a frustration that you think is making this problem worse.

Interviewer: Marc Mendelson

This issue, this problem – public health threat of antibiotic resistance – is a problem which is extremely complex and requires many different role players – not just specialists – not just scientists and clinicians. We’re seeing more and more role players coming in from governments, regulators, economists. The issue is that, with so many fields, most fields in fact, scientists and clinicians often have a language which isn’t easily understood by non-specialists – and critically as well, by the public.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

I mean, I’m very on board as a journalist with the idea that words have a proper meaning and we should use them as correctly as we can. But can loose language really have such serious consequences?

Interviewer: Marc Mendelson

The studies a couple of years ago from both the World Health Organisation and the Wellcome Trust, highlighted the fact that the main term, for example, that is used often to describe that, which is antimicrobial resistance, which is actually a term for resistance of all different microbes… Antimicrobial resistance… Less than 50% of people have actually ever heard of the term. Its abbreviation which is commonly used is AMR: less than 20% had heard of this term and there is a complete blank look on people’s faces often when you discuss these terms. So, without understanding of the problem, use of loose terminology and unfocussed terminology, which people don’t understand, can have serious impact on your ability to try and take discussions – and more importantly, the actions – further.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

So, are there examples of times when using the incorrect language is actively misleading for the purpose at hand?

Interviewer: Marc Mendelson

There are. One example would be in food production. So there are lots of calls for the banning of antimicrobials from food production. What we actually mean there – what we’re really calling for – is a ban of antibiotics, particularly for animal growth promotion. If one was to ban all antimicrobials then that would include some medicines that are actually really important in food production and could threaten food security so a call and a ban on all antimicrobials for food production actually misses the point, and potentially could harm food security.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

So what do you propose we do to fix this problem of loose language when talking about antibiotic resistance?

Interviewer: Marc Mendelson

I think there are a number of things that we are suggesting. The first is that we use terminology that is focused wherever we can. This term antimicrobial resistance is really not understood. We feel that the term ‘drug resistant infection’ gives far more meaning to this. The second thing is that there really needs to be a body of research done on this to try and identify terms that are used globally. Are those terms in English translatable? We would suggest exploration of how terms and phrases are interpreted by different people in different geographical and societal locations. And if we can reach a consensus on the terminology we believe that that will allow more focus and positive challenge.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

When you actually encounter clumsy language in this context, is it a frustrating thing?

Interviewer: Marc Mendelson

It’s understandable that these terms are used. I think the important thing is to turn frustration into education and action and really try and outline and help people understand how a more focused terminology could impact more positively on our activities to try and combat this complex issue.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

That was Marc Mendelson. Find his Comment piece at nature.com/nature. Finally this week, it’s our third story of the dangers of data collection and we’re heading to Alaska.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

Every summer for the last 42 years, Arctic biologist, George Divoky, has packed his bags and set off for Cooper Island, a remote spit just off the north coast of Alaska. He spends 3 months tracking the behaviour of the guillemots that come to breed there, putting bands on their legs and monitoring them.

Interviewer: George Divoky

I started a sea bird study in 1975 when oil development was being planned for Arctic Alaska and kept the study going when that programme ended because I had so many banded birds I wanted to follow.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

Divoky used to take a couple of tents and a slim food supply. He would melt pack ice for fresh water. But a few years ago, some unexpected visitors arrived and they required Divoky to have a lot more kit.

Interviewer: George Divoky

The first thing I had to do after I realised that polar bears would be visiting the island is get a cabin because polar bears had torn up my tent in 2002 and I had to be rescued by search and rescue. I bought a small eight by twelve foot cabin and hauled it out to the island and I’ve been living in it ever since. It is polar bear proof, to the point where if they are trying to scrape the sides I can hear them and scare them away.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

He also installed a solar powered electric fence to keep the bears from his door.

Interviewer: George Divoky

I now carry a shotgun around with me constantly because the fact that a bear could come up to me any time on the island.

[Music]

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

Polar bears are no longer the only challenge that George and the guillemots face. It turns out they were just a harbinger of some of the larger scale effects of climate change.

Interviewer: George Divoky

The island went half under water last year because of the ice being so far off shore that there were major swells breaking on the island which has never happened before and if that’s the way things are going to be going, I can’t really deal with that issue. Once the island starts going under water during the breeding season, basically the study will have to be over, but again I really want to be there when that happens because having followed something now for 41 years, I have to see how this is going to end.

[Music]

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

George Divoky talking about his four decades studying Cooper Island.

[Music]

Interviewer: Adam Levy

That’s all for this week. No News Chat this time round, but listen out for the second of our mini-series: Grand Challenges. It’s an in-depth look at the global problem of ageing and can be found in all the same places you find the regular Nature Podcastshow.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

And if you still haven’t got your NaturePodcast fill then give April’s Futures a listen. It’s a heart-breaking story of loss set in a science fiction world.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Tune in next week when we’re giving our show a little make over. I’m Adam Levy.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

And I’m Kerri Smith.

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