Collecting Historical Neuro-Gems

It’s official: the best thing to do at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience is to attend the History of Neuroscience lecture. This is a “must do” event for, well, everyone. If you’ve never attended one before, you are missing out. It doesn’t matter if it’s a relevant topic to your research questions or interests, you should go every single year. No exceptions. Everyone benefits from hearing a leader in a field talk about the origins of that field, the evolution of ideas in it, the variety of other scientists and their contributions along the way, and the current and future directions of it. Everyone.

This year’s lecture was given by Dr. Roy Wise and the topic was reward circuitry. Even if I wasn’t an amateur history of neuroscience buff, I probably would have attended this talk. I am becoming increasingly engrossed in this topic in my own work and this comes as something of a shock to me because in graduate school the topic of dopamine and reward was pretty unrelenting and unappealing to me. I may have even made some snarky remarks about dopamine on occasion out of my frustration with its overwhelming presence in my program. As it happens, I completed my graduate work at Concordia University in Montreal, and overlapped with Dr. Wise by one year; he left for NIDA a year after I entered the program. I’m pretty sure Dr. Wise was one of the founding members of the Center for Studies in Behavioral Neurobiology at Concordia University and thus the programmatic interest in motivated behaviors was one of its central features. What goes around comes around: the more I think about reward these days, the more drawn into its vast implications I get. I guess they were on to something after all.

In any case, the lecture was very interesting and there were a few gems in there, to be sure. And those gems are the reason to go. Every year. Everyone should go every year. Every time I attend this lecture there is a pearl of wisdom so awesome that it becomes ingrained into my scientific psyche. I still vividly remember Brenda Milner schooling the whole crowd on the origins of neuroscience research in psychology departments and by psychologists. I also remember her firmly informing all present that the lack of a zero retention delay in working memory trials was an egregious practice. Another great gem was Richard Morris of Morris water maze fame going on a tiny tangent about the use of mice in the paradigm. To be fair, I’m pretty sure that was a Presidential lecture, but those have a historical flair as well.

There were two wonderful gems in Dr. Wise’s lecture. At one point as he was discussing the contributions  and hypotheses of James Olds when he paused and said, as something of an aside, that Olds didn’t have a hypothesis for long because he believed in having hypotheses and discarding them. That, my friends, is a great lesson for all of us. Follow the data!

The other gem was a bit more implicit and I may have drawn it out more because I have related thoughts in recent years. At another point in the lecture, Dr. Wise is describing a study by Peter Shizgal, I believe, that was published in 1986 and mentions that time constraints prevent him from describing the study in too much detail but recommended that anyone with an interest in this area read the paper. Seriously, folks. There is more to the literature than the first 2 pages on pubmed. I am blue in the face on this one. There is lots of valuable, and probably even essential reading from well before the dear old noughts and nineties too and it would behoove us all to occasionally dip into the past a little for the breadth and insight that comes from having a more complete understanding of the origins of our current ideas.

Some of the most enlightening moments I’ve had was reading the original papers on the behavioral assays I employ most in my work; papers from the 50s, 60s, and 70s. I used to assign Scoville & Milner, 1957 to my 200-level Biological Basis of Behavior class and did so because I always assumed that students of behavioral neuroscience would be utterly engrossed by the original descriptions of patient H.M. and other similar cases. Turns out they had a hell of a time getting past that date. Eventually, with some sadness and heartbreak, I stopped assigning it. I had the nutty idea of getting students in my upper level seminar on Psychology & Neuroscience to read Hebb’s Organization of Behavior. I think it would be very unpopular but the more I think about it the more I wonder if it would in fact be an incredibly useful and important dose of medicine. Stay tuned. And next year don’t miss the History of Neuroscience lecture.


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