We Jam Econo

In 1985, punk band The Minutemen released an album entitled Project: Mersh, which was a self-conscious, tongue-in-cheek attempt to make a record that was marketable without necessarily bothering to make it any good.

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The Minutemen were to say the least peculiarly idiosyncratic characters and their lyrics and interviews were peppered with their own insider lingo. For example, “jamming econo” referred to their preference to operate cheaply as a band, and their landmark record “Double Nickels on the Dime” was so titled in mockery of Sammy Hagar’s cheesy declaration “I Can’t Drive 55.” As I understand it, they felt Hagar sadly needed to prove he was wild somehow since he was too cowardly and/or lacking in imagination to be wild musically. Having no such hangups, The Minutemen proudly drove “Double Nickels on the Dime.”

“Mersh” was their term for “commercialism” in music: formulaic in approach, superficially alluring and ultimately hollow. In his wonderful book Our Band Could Be Your Life, author Michael Azerrad explains it this way:

“By mimicking the ‘mersh’ form and yet destined to sell few records, they were making a point about music  biz chicanery: Any band could sound like this if they had enough money, but that wouldn’t mean they were any good.”

I’m sure you’re wondering what the point of all this is.

I am inspired to tell this story about The Minutemen because of my increasing impression that there is a convergent formula for a segment of Glam neuroscience that fits well with my understanding of what it means to be mersh. I’m not going to single out examples, but feel free to do so in the comments! To me it is typified by the kind of study that has many authors from multiple labs, with each one contributing one or two panels. Such papers often do this apparently to create the illusion of a “comprehensive” and “mechanistic” “story.” Unfortunately, they also more than occasionally rely on a logical framework wherein putting two observations next to one another means they are related. Yet these papers have appeal and get lots of attention.

In my ongoing mission to port the logic and language of punk rock to science, I propose that these papers henceforth be derided as “mersh.” Neuroscience needs more Minutemen and less Sammy Hagar.

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Shea Lab Journal Club: A distributed network for social cognition enriched for oxytocin receptors

A Distributed Network for Social Cognition Enriched for Oxytocin Receptors. Mitre et al. (2016) J Neurosci 26(8):2517

This is the first installment of what will be an ongoing series of capsule summaries of the Shea Lab journal club meetings. We are doing this to actively provoke open discussion of papers we read that are either published in a traditional journal or BioRxiv.

This meeting was attended by members of the Shea and Tollkuhn labs. Names have been changed to protect the opinionated 🙂

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Dang, this is one big, hairy beast of a paper! It starts out with a pretty straightforward and very important goal: to develop a sensitive and selective antibody to the mouse receptor for the neuromodulator oxytocin and identify the pattern of expression at the regional circuit and sub cellular levels. The paper does that rather nicely and then goes on to incorporate EM, RNAseq, and in vitro and in vivo electrophysiology over the course of 13 figures.

Like I said, the first half of the paper is a tight and thorough execution of the goal as formulated above. The authors identify for the first time the network of brain regions that express this receptor, and they observe a provocative pattern of presynaptic expression that was (to me anyway) unexpected. They achieve this by bearing down on the formidable task of developing and validating an OXTR antibody

The second half of the paper runs through an series of exciting but somewhat preliminary observations primarily using in vitro and in vivo electrophysiology. Most of this stuff is super interesting, examining oxytocin’s acute neuromodulatory effects and its effects on synaptic plasticity. The down side is that many of these effects are not deeply explored, so I hope that they get followed up on. A little bird told me that a lot of these things were responses to reviewer comments, which is weird to me. It seems to me that the physiology would be better served in its own venue. Greedy reviewers!

Strengths/Praise: All present agreed that the paper’s greatest contribution was the development of a high quality antibody for oxytocin and the visualization of the brain-wide expression pattern. The apparent rigor with which this was done is a major strength. These resources provide an important substrate for future work.

Secondary, but also important, is the fact that this paper avoids the media glam image of oxytocin as a “love molecule” and takes it seriously as a modulator of neuronal activity and plasticity.

There were other nuggets of interest. The motif of presynaptic expression suggests some interesting unexpected functions for oxytocin. Also, the fact that OXT+ fibers overlapped the OXTR+ cells in certain hypothalamic regions but not elsewhere suggested to me distinct, circuit-specific modes of point-to-point and volume transmission. But that’s probably speculative of me.

Weaknesses/Criticism: Our major criticism was that the paper could have ended after 7 or 8 figures and started a new paper. But like I said, I subsequently learned that these were things the reviewers asked about, so maybe we shouldn’t fault the authors.

One other minor critique that came up was that the authors may have been a bit chauvinistic in choosing the regions they focused on. The auditory cortex is not one of the top expressing regions based on raw cell count, The counter argument I suppose is that with this kind of staining, sparse does not always imply weak. Also, looking at the  auditory cortex is well motivated by a recent high profile study by this group.