Electric Symphonies of Small Effects

It’s the little things–we’ve all heard it, and probably so much that its meaning has gotten lost in the deep canals of our jaded ears. But when it comes to science, little things can make a big difference. I’m talking the difference between life and death.

It all comes down to electricity. If you did not already know, we are a product of a prudent flow of electricity throughout our body. Our thoughts, our emotions, our heart beat: these are just a few of the results of the transfer of protons and electrons inside and outside of cells.

The other day, I found myself contemplating the small things with some work colleagues over lunch in Washington Square Park. After a brief musing over an imagined squirrel eagerly awaiting his mail and some banter about pregnant friends, we moved on to discussing the tough stuff, our emotions.  As neuroscientists, in addition to extreme excitement when an experiment works, it is not uncommon to experience a general sense of a malaise, a hopeless, yet volatile fog of depression in the wake of data analysis. For one of us, today was one of those days.

My friend, I’ll call her Charlie, had just wrapped up an experiment and was looking for protein changes in the brain after infusing a drug that was known to enhance associative learning in the rat. It worked by binding to certain receptors within the cell walls which in turn set off a cascade of events that contributed to this enhancement. Charlie was after one of these events, protein phosphylation. That is, a modification in protein structure that results when a a kinase (not to be confused with mayonnaise) slaps a phosphate group onto the protein. This change allows it to do new and different things within the cell.

After analyzing the results, Charlie’s heart sank a bit. She had found a significant effect , but the size of the effect was small.  She was concerned that a tiny difference between her experimental and control groups did not truly mean anything. Charlie was depressed, but she shouldn’t have been.

Cue my other friend, I’ll call her Griswald, for emotional relief. In graduate school, Griswald had been mesmerized by a paper where scientists examined the importance of ion channels in heart cell membranes. Electricity flowing ever-so-carefully through these channels in heart muscle cells is what keeps the normal heart in synchronized contraction, even with increased exercise. But in a very small group of people with a genetic mutation that changes the ability for some ion channels to open, even the tiniest change in electric flow can throw the whole heart out of whack. The result is death.

Imagine if we just had one switch to turn us on or off. We’d never have any chance for adaptation. The result? Always, sudden death. Life is an electric symphony where every note counts, and small differences open the gates for big problem solving. – by JoAnna Klein

 

 

 

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