Sunday, July 13, 2014

Science Sundays: Hypnic Jerks

A few nights back, just as I was falling asleep my legs decided to give a sudden, spastic kick. Much like Elaine doing the little kicks dance.

It's like a full body dry heave set to music!

This sudden kicks on the edge of sleeping are fairly common for me, and for people in general, especially children. However, I sometimes startle not only myself out of sleep but Kevin as well. Having woken both of us up one night, I told him that I thought I read somewhere that you have a twitch like that because sometimes falling asleep tricks your brain into believe you're dying, so it gives a big kick to make sure you're still alive.

Kevin laughed at me.

So the next morning I thought I'd read up on what exactly is happening when I give a little kick in my sleep.

It turns out the name for this phenomena is the Hypnic Jerk or Myoclunus. Potentially anxiety, caffeine before bed, stress or extreme tiredness can cause these pre-sleep kicks, but they can also happen in people experiencing none of these things. There's no harm done by a kick or two, but if your jerks and spasms are keeping you up through the night then you should probably consult your physician.

But the real question is why do they happen? What is going on in my brain right on the edge of sleep to make me suddenly spasm?

Unlike the rapid eye movements we experience in REM sleep, which may be linked to the intensity of dreaming, the hypnic jerk is believed to be independent of your dreams. However, I do notice that mine sometimes are accompanied by a sudden sensation of falling. This seems to fit with one popular hypothesis of the origin of the hypnic jerk.

It is a common believe that the hypnic jerk is a left over response developed by our tree dwelling ancestors. As our furrier relatives settled in for the night in a cozy tree nook, their muscles would relax as they fall asleep. Relax too far however and you're falling out of the tree. Perhaps the hypnic jerk monitors the loss of tension in your muscles, if you become too slack and in danger of falling, then a sudden wakeful spasm might just keep you in the tree.

So while I am not in any danger of falling out of a queen sized bed, part of my ancestral instincts still worry it might happen. It's good to know that my subconscious brain is looking out for me.

Are you among the 70% of people who experience hypnic jerks?

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Books for Young Health Scientists: The Double Helix

From the opening line:

"We wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D.N.A.). This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest."

to the closing remark:

"It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggest a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material."

Watson and Crick's 1953 Nature paper presenting the DNA double helix to the world, while only a single page in length, may have been "perhaps the most famous event in biology since Darwin's book." And those are Watson's words, not mine. But what lead up to this pivotal moment in science's recent history?

About a year and a half ago I read Francis H. C. Crick's What Mad Pursuit and wrote about his "Gossip Test." While Crick's book details the discovery of the double helix, it spans a much broader history of biochemistry and molecular biology. And to be honest, wasn't as exciting a read as Watson's Double Helix.

I picked up a copy at my neighbourhood used book store and read it this weekend. In print since 1968, the book details the story of Watson coming to the Cavendish Laboratory in 1951, up until the publication of their model of DNA. Oh and by the way, he was only 25 at the time of publication. While the book was strongly protested before publication, by the likes of Maurice Wilkins (who shared the 1962 Nobel Price with W&C) and Crick himself, and has received heavy criticism since; it remains an important perspective on such an important period in science and the scientific process itself. The book has been credited with bringing DNA to the public and was listed #7 on the 1998 Modern Library 100 Best Non Fiction Novels.

Note I said non fiction, the book has been heavily criticized for Watson's approach, however I would note the author takes care to note, in the preface, that:
"I have attempted to re-create my first impressions of the relevant events and personalities rather than present an assessment which takes into account the many facts I have learned since the structure was found."
 And goes on to point out that many of the ways he might recall these events may differ from the recollections of the other people involved "and so this book must be regarded as my view of the matter." The book, which has also come under fire for his treatment of Rosalind E. Franklin (who's X-ray crystallography data lead to W&Cs discoveries), also contains an epilogue in which Watson comments on how his relationship with Franklin improved overtime, he notes her successes as a scientist and acknowledges the obstacles she faced as a woman.

With all that said and done, take the book in hand with an awareness of its criticisms, and then dive in to read the story which plays out as fast paced and exciting as any Hollywood film, and get to know science, and some of the most renown scientists of all time from the perspective of Honest Jim (an early title dropped in favour of the Double Helix).

I personally enjoyed the book immensely and cannot wait to get my hands on Watson's follow-up autobiography Genes, Girls and Gamow. Thee book was made all the more enjoyable having just read: The Writing Life of James D. Watson, by Errol C. Friedberg, and so I was on the look out for all of the Watsonisms throughout. Apart from being a superb scientists, James Watson has a skill with the written word that is enviable.

What have you been reading lately? In between published research articles of course.
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