Mirror neurones, empathy and self-awareness.

Mirror neurones were discovered by Gallase when investigating the neuronal networks involved in movement. This neurone type is activated when an individual copies an observed movement or when a performed action is copied by someone else. Different mirror neurons also fire dependant on the context and the position of the movement in space.

Lacoboni theorises that these neurones are important in predicting and understanding behaviour, but these may also play a role in empathy. This was supported by the use of informative brain imaging techniques. The brain regions containing mirror neurones activate during feelings of disgust, happiness and pain as well as activating when viewing images of other people experiencing these emotions. Mirror neurones have also been implicated in Theory of Mind, in which one’s own mental state is represented and this is used to predict and understand the mental state of others.

Both of these theories are supported by mirror neurones in autism. Autistic patients show impairments in predicting and understanding the intentions, behaviour and emotions of others and also impaired theory of mind. Furthermore, the brain regions containing mirror neurones involved in these factors are smaller in autistic patients, depending on the level of functioning. Low functioning autistic patients tend to have the most issues in these areas and high functioning autistic patients often only have minor impairments in social abilities. Interestingly, this is reflected in the state of the mirror neuron areas. Low functioning autistic patients show the most loss of these neurones whereas the mirror neurones in high functioning autistic patients are almost intact.

These neurones clearly have a role in social and physical abilities, however how these neurones work is still not fully understood by neuroscientists. This seems to be a consistent issue across mirror neurone research, they are crucial in many processes but why and how is still unsure, thus mirror neurones remain an intriguing enigma in the workings of the brain.


The frozen drug addicts.

Currently, MPTP is the drug of choice for simulating and producing Parkinson’s disease in animals. The drug acts as a toxin to the cells in a part of the brain called the substantia nigra, which is the brain region that is damaged in human Parkinson’s patients. This produces good behavioural similarities between the animals and human patients, such as tremor. However, MPTP was discovered rather unconventionally.

In the 1980’s, a disease gripped a community, which caused patients to be completely frozen and unable to move, but, this wasn’t a virally or bacterially caused disease. This was caused by the accident production of MPTP when attempting to make a recreational drug similar to heroin, MPPP, this caused a population of drug addicts to develop late stage Parkinson’s three days after taking the drug. Dr William Langston investigated this phenomena and this can be read about in the book, The Case of the Frozen Drug Addicts.

However, this unfortunate incident did help develop a good toxin to model Parkinson’s, from which treatments can be tested. L-Dopa, one of the best treatments for the disease, was developed using MPTP models. Furthermore, the side effects of L-Dopa and other alternative treatments are being tested using MPTP models.

Science, we need to talk…

Currently, the scientific community remains separate from the general public. This is the result of many factors preventing science from being a relatable concept to the public domain, in terms of the portrayal of scientific researchers, failure to communicate with the public, the misrepresentation of women in science and encroaching on religious believes. Despite this, science has the potential to form the cement in communities, but it can only achieve this by addressing its innate problems and emphasising the importance of communication.

Science in society

The misrepresentation of scientific researchers is possibly the largest issue in preventing research and science from being accepted in to the general population. In many media formats, scientists are portrayed as “men in white coats” and “mad scientists” that are void of morals and rationality, experimenting in an unnatural way, just for the sake of experimenting. This perpetuates a fear in society of science and insinuates that scientists are corrupt and limitless in what they would attempt to create. For example, a “scientific experiment gone wrong” or biological weaponry is usually the epicentre for the plot for many sci-fi films, which is a massively successful market and is a genre watched by many. This consistent characterisation of science in many genres of films both attenuates and represents the fears of the capability of scientific research. However, Professor Jenny Kitzinger’s research highlights how this may merely be an alibi, and the representation of scientists in society originates from a failure to address and appreciate the fears of society concerning research like GM crops.

There is very little representation of science outside the scientific community itself. Mark Henderson discussed in his book, The Geek Manifesto: Why Science is important, how the number of politicians from a scientific background is almost negligible, and that many politicians lack even basic scientific knowledge. This idea is aided by Carl Sagan who believes that science isn’t just a form of experimental practice, “science is a way of thinking”. Thus, if polities were taught to address political issues by utilising a form of the classical scientific method, attempting to remove all bias and ensuring that policies were effective.

But arguably, science should have limits and society shouldn’t treat science as a religion (Scientism) as even if science were to be more approachable and accepted in general society, it is not possible that everyone would agree with it. For science to engage society, it is a question of communication. In the past, it appears that scientists are poor communicators, in terms of neglecting to share information, the research being inaccessible or being perceived in a patronising manner by society. For example, Professor Kitzinger discusses the “hierarchy of knowledge” issues of medical professionals and researchers ignoring the input of family members in persistent vegetative state and minimally conscious state patients. 40% of consciousness disorders are misdiagnosed, and recent research has suggested that fMRI could be used to determine the difference between these two states. However, Kitzinger observed how family members of these patients already had an idea of the diagnosis, due to reports of intermittent consciousness, but were ignored. 

This then became bitter sweet when they were confirmed by the later fMRI. Thus it is important for scientists to not appear patronising or self-important when talking to the general public, to ensure that the portrayal of scientists is positive.

Professor Sir David King developed principles of building a community in science and in society. By ensuring honest portrayal of results, preventing corrupt practice, respecting other scientists work, decreasing the impact of science on the environment and discussing issues with research with the public, this allows the general public to feel involved in scientific research and less threatened by it.

However, there are large parts of society that science is either isolating or isn’t being targeted to towards, polarizing communities.

Women in Science

Often, the discussion of the representation of women in any industry triggers uncomfortable feelings, but it is a topic that requires attention. In all industries women are paid less, but in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields, women make up a very small proportion of employees. Not only this, but the achievements of women are not being recognised in the same proportion as the achievements of male scientists. For example, only 2.9% of Nobel prizes are awarded to women. This in a community that prides itself on researching and improving the future is a fairly scary statistic.

It is possible that science is targeted towards men and this prevents women from making science their career of choice, this would certainly explain the lower number of women in the field. This idea is supported by schools favouring scientific studies towards male pupils, and by scientific magazines being categorized into the men’s section.

In an attempt to attract young girls into science as a career, the European Union released a public service announcement entitled “Science: it’s a girl thing”. It featured women in high heels and provocative clothing attracting the attention of an attractive male scientist. The advert also featured the women writing out scientific formulae in lipstick, interspersed with images of makeup and the fashionable models of the commercial. This, to be blunt, was the most sexist portrayal of women in science that I have ever seen; worsened by the fact that it was attempting to attract women into science and trying to defy the stereotype of science as being a male orientated industry. This did not assist in increasing the number of women in the STEM fields.

However, the male dominated aspect of science doesn’t explain the attitudes towards women that are present in the industry. Almost every industry will contain forms of institutional sexism, but there are many examples of sexism in science that isolate women in the career.

There are many examples where women were not supported (and in some cases were even fired) after reports of sexual harassment in scientific research facilities. This in no way encourages women to enter into a scientific career. Furthermore, cases like the one of Professor Jocelyn Bell supports the idea that male scientists view the work of female scientists as inferior. Professor Jocelyn Bell discovered the Pulsar, despite this, her thesis advisor had his name put first on the publication of the research, gave talks about the research and was awarded the Nobel Prize for the work.

Ben Barres is a case that proves the presence of institutional sexism in science which prevents and impairs women in the industry. Ben Barres is a transgender male, who had gender reassignment surgery at the age of 42. After he became physically male, the attitudes towards his scientific research changed dramatically. He reports that before his sex change, he would use his initials rather than his full name to gain more respect from male peers. He also reported being told that “[his] work was much better than his sisters”. This unique case confirms the issues of sexism in science which ultimately divides the community and discourages women from entering the career.

Take home messages

Science is a wonderful and interesting, but it is far from perfect. As a community, science fails to address the concerns society has with research and often appears patronizing to the public. Furthermore, it is soggy with institutional sexism and science cannot progress or hold the moral and intellectual high-ground when it doesn’t
 improve these factors.