Monday, September 30, 2013

The latest in science news makes your head spin

The BBC online, ever guardian of shocking, dramatic, fundamental new science discoveries, reports that ballet dancers' brains adapt to their pirouettes, and they don't get dizzy!  They appear to suppress signals from their inner ear to their brain, normal signals that would make us non-spinners dizzy. This doesn't come naturally and must be learned since our ancestors' dancing was more related to stomping around a campfire muttering incantations (and, mainly, this was the men's preserve while the women watched, admiringly).  Of course, if the usual contemporary ideas of science are correct, there must be a gene for it (call it, say, Dizzy1).

Here's proof, sort of -- the dancer spins, and then keeps dancing:

Image from the BBC website
No, that photo's not really proof.  Fortunately, now real science has been brought to bear, the science some might call intra-phrenology (looking for virtual bumps inside the skull rather than on top of it).  To show that the balanced ballerina theory really is true, and not just spin, so to speak--that is, to show convincingly that ballet dancers really don't stumble around dizzily after every pirouette, scientists have brought in an fMRI analysis and show that the area of the brain responsible for dizziness shrinks in people who frequently pirouette.

These investigators assert reasons for doing this hi-tech approach, based on a promise that this may lead to therapy for people with dizziness problems.  But since such justifications often are rationales for applying exotic technology, we are not in a position to judge the cogency of that argument relative to our current culture's apparent need to view every question through the spin of new instruments.

Regardless of one's level of skepticism about that, or belief that technology-first is the best way ahead, it is reassuring to learn that the human brain can do what we knew very well it could do--and that now we can show it on a video monitor, which the media seem to feel turns it into real science, a story that leaves us dizzy, or at least relatively speechless.  So we end this short post!


David Evans said...

You may have known that the brain could do that, but did you know how it was doing it? Seems to me that there are several possible ways of suppressing dizziness. Shrinking the brain area is not the first one I would have thought of.

Ken Weiss said...

True enough. Perhaps I shouldn't have poked fun at this study on a slow news day. The finding is, in itself, interesting.

But there are the questions of research priorities in science, especially when funds are limited, and also what merits headlines in major news outlets. The future will tell whether this result constitutes that level of solid new knowledge, or whether it really will have any serious bearing on disease.

Being uncontrollably dizzy is no joke, as we know from our own family experience. If this study leads to therapy, it will have been a useful pas.

Anne Buchanan said...

Ken has, I think, touched on a number of points here, though perhaps hidden behind his attitude. Perhaps they are worth mentioning less snippily. One point is that incremental progress has become the way science is done these days. Few people are asking big questions -- this doesn't mean that there is no progress at all, certainly, but that small findings are big.

Another is that too often the technology drives the question. fMRI is a major example of this, but so are DNA sequencing machines. Once the human genome project was declared finished, all the big labs needed new questions that they could answer with their expensive technology. Understandable, but a rather skewed way to do science. Yes, it could be argued that once the money has been spent on the machines, or once the machines have caught people's imaginations, they should be used until every question they can answer has been answered. Think of the window into new worlds that the microscope was when first invented. That seems to be the approach in genetics -- bigger and bigger sequencing projects -- but too often the biology gets left behind. And, there is still a lot unknown about the brain and whether fMRIs are really telling us anything, too.

Indeed, if the purpose of this study of dizziness is to figure out how ballet dancers keep from getting dizzy so that the technique might be tried by people with pathological vertigo, it would have been a lot cheaper and easier to just ask dancers what they do. Is it clinically useful to know that the part of the brain that controls dizziness (which can't be all it does -- this sounds a lot like a 'gene for' argument) shrinks?

Robert Kopec said...

This discussion on the BBC piece in a skaters' forum is interesting.