A Community View: Is it for the Birds?

By Lauren Hull, Twitter: @BiophilicBios

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Me, mid-hike! Photo credit Jeff Dubinsky

It’s a mid-September Saturday, 6:45am. I’m standing in the parking lot of BREC’s Greenwood Community Park. For me, it’s a break from the building-dominated, traffic-laden, people-spotted streets of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It’s an island of trees bordered by a manicured golf course and the sprawling houses and industry of Baker, LA.  Today I would discover that this little patch of trees, and those like it all over the parish, are filled with the city-like activities of bustling birds and a community of plants and wildlife.

Matthew Herron, Conservation Specialist for BREC (The Recreation and Park Commission for East Baton Rouge Parish) starts off the morning introductions. Our group consists of first time birders and outdoor enthusiasts. Jane Patterson, President of Baton Rouge Audubon Society, gives us a how-to on binoculars and field guides. She discusses birding apps, helping you identify birds by sight and by call. These are our tools for finding forest activity and identifying some of the high-flying members in the community. Using these tools, we can contribute to citizen science databases like eBird. Species lists, like this one from our Greenwood birding adventure, are important to both birders and researchers alike. Knowing what type, how many, and where birds around found over time can help scientists identify patterns or problems with bird populations. Identifying these things assists in bird (and forest) conservation and policy reform.

heron_blog1

An adult Great Blue Heron through the spotting scope. Photo credit Lauren Hull

We hit the trail, spotting a Great Blue Heron almost immediately. He wades through the shallow water near the edge of the lake, picking out small fish and other creatures with his beak. I get a great look at him through the birding scope!

We head further down the trail, into a dense patch of shrubs filled with different birds, including a Northern Cardinal and a White-eyed Vireo. Interestingly, the White-eyed Vireo’s call sounds something like “Quick bring me a beer, chick!” Sounds like a south Louisiana bird to me! But the shrubs these birds are enjoying aren’t from south Louisiana at all. The shrub is Chinese privet, a prolific and damaging invasive species.  Invasive organisms like Chinese privet come from another place or region and interrupt normal ecosystem functions. They can increase competition, choking out native plants that pollinators, wildlife, and soils depend on to remain healthy.

Matthew, our hike leader, breaks out the maps. He points out that the lake and plant life of Greenwood Community Park provide solace to more organisms than just urbanites escaping the city. From 5,000 feet up, Greenwood Community Park is an oasis for migratory birds amongst a desert of human development. There are many types of migratory birds, and this time of year we are lucky to see many of the neotropical migrants. These birds are making their way from North America to warm, winter homes of South and Central America. The Gulf coast (Louisiana included) is the last stop to refuel before they attempt the arduous journey across the Gulf of Mexico. When spring arrives, many birds will make their way back to North America.

Matthew Herron, BREC Conservation Specialist, reviews and aerial map of Greenwood Community Park. Photo credit Lauren Hull

Matthew Herron, BREC Conservation Specialist, reviews an aerial map of Greenwood Community Park. Photo credit Lauren Hull

We see many more migrants on our hike. The group’s interest and excitement is contagious. An uncommon sighting of a Baltimore Oriole results in binoculars being glued to each of our faces for at least 5 minutes, as we attempt to catch a glance between large sycamore leaves. Not to be limited by land, we take a quick paddle on the lake. This perspective provides unique insight into a local bird’s life. We witness an Anhinga, or “snake bird,” swimming and fishing in the lake as we observe from our kayaks. The Anhinga is a large bird that swims and dives for fish. Only its head and long slender neck may be visible above water, lending it its name, “snake bird.”

It’s only 10am, and we head back reluctantly. We load up the boats, return our binoculars and prepare for the return to our respective lives in the city. But our perspectives have changed. We created our own community of inexperienced but excited bird enthusiasts at a small park right outside Baton Rouge. It’s the diversity and structure of this place that brings the birds. The variety of foods (though threatened by encroaching invasives), cover, and habitat types contribute to a wide diversity of birds. The birds, plants, water and other wildlife create a community. Some community members fulfill certain roles, some members stay, some members go. They are not so different from human cities. Not so different from the communities we hold dear. Preserving forests, birds and wildlife, and providing space for them within and around our own cities, makes both communities more complete.

Note: BREC, Baton Rouge Audubon Society, and other organizations are working independently and collaboratively to increase opportunities for wildlife communities to thrive and for human communities to assist and engage in that process. To help, you can stay informed about programs, volunteer opportunities and lifestyle adaptations that will enrich all communities of life.

Resources:

The North American bird guide By: Sibley, David.

Desiging a Science Blog: Tips for Making your Posts Even More Stellar

“It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.”

-Proverb

Victoria Barker

Blog posts and social media are the new methods by which scientists are capable of sharing their discoveries. As such, science blogs have gained in popularity and number in recent years. Some of these blogs do a truly admirable job of grabbing their readers’ attention and communicating science in an effective and entertaining way. However, there are a plethora of other blogs that fail to attract readers, either due to poor content selection or design flaws in the blog itself. Here I wanted to highlight some of the weaknesses that steal away a blog’s potential.

Upon commencing this project, I attempted to examine as many “types” of science blogs as possible. By this I mean that I selected math blogs, physics blogs, crazy biologist blogs, blogs about being a woman in science, blogs on invasive species, astronomy blogs, science policy blogs….you get the picture. They were selected from a list of top science blogs curated by Nature magazine. While each had its own distinct flair, there were definitely some that rose above others either in content or design (and a rare few that rose above the others in both). Here are a few tips for making your science blog easy to read and enjoyed by all.

The Quantum Pontiff has a blog banner that immediately draws in readers. From http://dabacon.org/pontiff/

The Quantum Pontiff has a blog banner that immediately draws in readers. From http://dabacon.org/pontiff/

Content:

  1. This isn’t content per se but if you want people to read your blog it helps to have an interesting blog name. Several of my favorites I discovered during this exercise are Mike the Mad Biologist, Science Sushi and The Quantum Pontiff.
  2. Science blogs are not personal blogs. Science blogs tell readers about new scientific discoveries or your opinions regarding science policy, communication, etc. They are not the place to tell everyone that your kid is an honors student, your dog is sick, or you got a new car – unless that’s relevant to the larger scientific context of your post. If your family had a conversation about Marine Protected Areas over Thanksgiving dinner, then by all means feel free to include some turkey and gravy in your post. Otherwise, keep science in the science blogs and personal details in personal blogs.
  3. Use humor when possible. After the Tim Hunt/”Women are Distracting” debacle (if you’re unfamiliar, read more here), lots of blog posts and articles came out slamming Sir Hunt for his antiquated view of male/female relationships in a scientific setting. I came across one particular gem of a response entitled, “I’m a female scientist, and I agree with Tim Hunt” by Allie Ruben, a geology PhD student. First off, the title was fantastic. I immediately had to know why a woman in science would support such misogynistic statements. As it turns out, Ms. Rubin’s satirical look at women in science made me laugh from start to finish. “Tim Hunt is correct in asserting that women are distracting to men in a lab setting, which greatly affects their productivity,” she asserts. “Last month, my labmates and I had to burn our female coworker at the stake for witchcraft because we saw her holding an unwrapped tampon. Between building the stake, lighting an adequate fire, and waiting for her to die, we lost an entire day that we could otherwise have spent working.” She handles a difficult subject matter with humorous finesse, reminding us that nothing is too sacred to be made funny.
  4. Make sure that what you’re saying is accurate! The purpose of a science blog is to share new and interesting science. Make sure that if you include your opinion, you make sure that people can tell it’s your opinion, not a scientific fact. Muddying the waters will only make it more difficult for people to understand science and trust what scientists are trying to tell them in the future.

“First of all, Sir Tim’s comments are based on his personal experiences, and are therefore incontrovertible. Three hundred and fifty years ago, Isaac Newton saw an apple fall and decided that gravity existed. Three weeks ago, Tim Hunt saw a woman cry and decided that all women are unfit to be scientists. Science is based on observations, which are the same thing as universal proof. Even I know that, and I’m just a woman whose brain is filled to capacity with yoga poses and recipes for gluten-free organic soap. Once, I was lured into a trap in the woods because I followed a trail of Sex and the City DVDs for three miles into a covered pit. Do you really think I could do something as complicated as thinking about science?”

Excerpt from “I’m a female scientist, and I agree with Tim Hunt” by Allie Ruben.


Design:

  1. Black words on white backgrounds may be old fashioned and boring but there’s a reason that presentations have been given in this color format for generations – it’s easy to read. If your color scheme makes it hard to read your blog, no one is going to bother. I noticed this as an immediate problem with On Being a Scientist and a Woman. The green background with white lettering was distracting and difficult to follow. Similarly, Invasive Species Weblog has a light green background with dark green text that was incredibly hard on the eyes. Stick with simplicity here.
  2. On the flip side, if you can incorporate color in a non-distracting way, DO IT! Put titles in a different color font or include lots of pictures. Discovering Biology in a Digital World does a great job of this. There are multiple 3D renderings of DNA, enzymes, toxins, etc. They even have a “Molecule of the Month” page with beautiful images of the microscopic
    Molecule of the Month: 3D rendering of Cas1 and Cas2 proteins that break down and store viral DNA. From http://scienceblogs.com/digitalbio/

    Molecule of the Month: 3D rendering of Cas1 and Cas2 proteins that break down and store viral DNA. From http://scienceblogs.com/digitalbio/

    compounds that allow life to flourish.

  3. The popular blog site ScienceBlogs has a set format where the home screen contains the header and a short teaser for each article, rather than posting the entire article. This allows the reader to see many posts at once, often going back weeks or months, all on one page. It is also less cumbersome than looking through the entire text of multiple posts to find the one you’re looking to read. I recommend this “abbreviated” home page approach for a sleek and easy to follow home page.
  4. If you’ve been blogging long enough to have a lot of posts, add an archives tab. It will save everyone a lot of time and trouble when it comes to finding that article down the road. You can also include a “categories” section in case people want to read specifically about certain topics. See Blog Around the Clock for good examples.

Looking for more? Take a look at Kjell Reigstad’s blog post: “The Principles of Design: Font Choices” for making smart decisions regarding typography.

Harry Potter Magic Comes to Life

Researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Design Microscopic Invisibility Cloak

Victoria Barker

“It’s an invisibility cloak,” said Ron, a look of awe on his face. “I’m sure it is – try it on.”

Harry threw the cloak around his shoulders and Ron gave a yell.

“It is! Look down!”

Harry looked down at his feet, but they were gone. He dashed to the mirror. Sure enough, his reflection looked back at him, just his head suspended in midair, his body completely invisible. He pulled the cloak over his head and his reflection vanished completely.

– J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, page 201

Photo Attained from bertiesbottsandpumpkinpasties.tumblr.com

Harry’s Cloak of Invisibility Photo Attained from bertiesbottsandpumpkinpasties.tumblr.com

Think of a time in your life when you found yourself in an embarrassing situation. Maybe you fell down the stairs in front of your crush in middle school or went on a blind date with a guy who owns a pet rock collection. Maybe your parents walked in on you making out with your boy/girlfriend or you hit “Reply All” instead of simply “Reply,” sharing a humiliating email with the entire office. In times like these, you simply wish you could disappear.

The good news is, now you can! Though invisibility cloaks come standard in every copy of Harry Potter or season of Star Trek, they have now entered the Muggle world as well. Researchers at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have designed a working invisibility cloak. In an article recently published in Science, the scientists explain how they were able to create an ultrathin “skin” that can conform to the shape of any object and conceal it from visible light.

The process is incredibly technical but I have broken it down for you here. When light hits an object, it is scattered outwards in all directions. Our eyes are able to detect this scattering and our brains use this information to fill in the size, shape, and color of the object. Therefore, in order to hide something, you must prevent any light from reaching that object. This is only possible by utilizing metamaterials – materials designed to have properties not found in nature. Their properties are derived not from their base components, but instead how those components have been designed to link together, such as size, shape and orientation.

A 3D illustration of light reflecting off of the ultra thin “nano-skin” of nanoantennas Photo: Xiang Zhang/Berkeley Lab/UC Berkeley

In this case, researchers fashioned gold nanoantennas, a newly designed metamaterial, into a “skin” merely 80 nanometers thick. For comparison, a human hair is approximately 80,000 – 100,000 nanometers wide! This “nano-skin” was engineered to guide the rays of light around the object like a rock in a stream, thus making it invisible. Depending upon which way the nanoantennas are aligned, the “nano-skin” can be turned on or off.

The Berkeley team has designed invisibility cloaks before, but they were bulky and nearly impossible to scale up to a practical size. The current model is thin and lightweight; it can easily be scaled from its current microscopic state to a macroscopic invisibility cloak. Though still in the early stages, the researchers are optimistic that their find could be used in creating ultra-fast super computers or to enhance cloaking technology on military aircraft. Maybe we’ll even get our very own Harry Potter-inspired fashion line of invisible clothing!

A video showing the cloak in action can be found here.

Original Journal Article: Xingjie Ni, Zi Jing Wong, Michael Mrejen, Yuan Wang, Xiang Zhang. An ultrathin invisibility skin cloak for visible lightScience, 2015 DOI:10.1126/science.aac9411

“It’s a bird…It’s a plane…No wait, it’s a salmon?”

When one imagines cannons, images of human cannonballs at circuses or military warfare come to mind. Not a fish being ejected into the air!

Recently, I attended the American Fisheries Society (AFS) Conference in Portland Oregon, where I learned about this incredible new invention known as the “salmon cannon” that helps migratory fish overcome human-made boundaries such as dams.

Chinook Salmon> NWFSC.NOAA.GOV

Pacific Chinook Salmon Photo Credit: NOAA NWFSC

 For centuries, we have dammed rivers for the purpose of water supply, irrigation, flood control, navigation and energy, with over 80,000 dams in North America alone. Despite many of these societal benefits provided by dams, we’ve destroyed the migratory patterns of many fish and prevented adults from reaching critical, spawning habitat.

One of the most critical species hit hard by damming projects is salmon. Pacific salmon spend most of their early life in freshwater before migrating to the ocean as adults. However, once reaching sexual maturity, salmon make the arduous journey back to their freshwater stream of origin to spawn (to release eggs). The migration itself is dangerous, but human-made hazards such as dams hinder these migration patterns, severely reducing stocks to the point that many species of salmon are now deemed endangered.

For decades, researchers and engineers have worked to create alternative ways to help the fish return to their natural spawning grounds (i.e. even flying salmon upstream by helicopter!) However, most of these methods are inefficient and not economically feasible.

Except for the “salmon cannon.”

Salmon Exit

A “flying” salmon safely exits the end of the “salmon cannon” Photo Credit: Whoosh Innovations

The “salmon cannon,” more formally known as the WhooshTM Fish Transport System, is a device that uses pressure differentials to pull a fish into the tube, transport it through the tube at speeds up to 22 mph, and then “shoot” it above obstacles such as dams and out on the other side. Even though the fish might look like they are being shot out of a cannon, the fish land safely and easily in water without danger of actually hitting the bottom.

This unique device provides a fish-friendly, safe alternative to transport migratory fish over artificial barriers, rather than what had been previously used: fish ladders. In the past, fish ladders have been used to aid migratory fish in reaching their critical habitat, but fish ladders require large quantities of water to move the fish. Alternatively, the “salmon cannon” is a more efficient and affordable option, providing effective water resource management.

Whooshh Salmon Cannon

Salmon Cannon Photo Credit: Whoosh Innovations

So you might be thinking, how in the world is it even safe or healthy for a fish to be shot out of the cannon? Well, physiological studies on the Whoosh transport system reveal fish being transported in the cannon do not undergo elevated stress levels. Additional external and internal studies on migratory species from trout to salmon show no evidence that fish health has been compromised during cannon transportation. Overall, the “salmon cannon” provides a safe, rapid movement alternative to be used at hatcheries and fish handling facilities, and for overcoming passage obstacles.

Fish enter the “salmon cannon” through either direct handling or voluntary entry, where the fish are attracted to the cannon entry through water flow and various barriers. The fish are only out of the water for a maximum of 5 to 10 seconds depending on the length of the tube, and the tube is kept “misted” so the fish are kept moist during transport.

So how in the world did this invention come about? In a NPR interview, CEO of Whoosh Innovations Vince Brian explained that the “salmon cannon” started with fruit. The Whoosh tube was initially designed to transport fresh fruit, which is very susceptible to bruising and damage at processing facilities. Fruit pickers would drop the apples and pears into a vacuum tube attached to their waist, which would suck up the fruit and safely transport it to the end of the line with no damage to the fruit. With hindered migratory fish passage becoming a larger issue, the inventors decided to try applying their fruit tube to safely transporting fish. The rest is history.

 

Today, Whoosh works alongside several government groups including the U.S. Geological Survey’s Western Research Center as well as Tribal entities such as the Yakama nations, for research and development of the most effective and safe fish transport systems. Most recently, the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife purchased a “salmon cannon” to be used on a tributary of the Columbia River, where wild Chinook salmon will be separated from hatchery-raised salmon. This separation will preserve the DNA of wild salmon and prevent crossbreeding in these unique spawning habitats.

With today’s modern, innovative technology, it’s refreshing to see researchers and developers creating inventions to help reverse anthropogenic effects on wildlife. What will they think of next?

By: Kristin Foss

Citations:

Mesa, Matthew G., et al. “Physiological responses of adult rainbow trout experimentally released through a unique fish conveyance device.” North American Journal of Fisheries Management 33.6 (2013): 1179-1183.

http://whooshh.com/files/Whooshh%20Salmon%20Cannon%20Q%26A.pdf

http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/08/29/344360634/the-salmon-cannon-easier-than-shooting-fish-out-of-a-barrel

http://www.livescience.com/48752-salmon-cannon-fish-spawning.html

http://www.fws.gov/species/species_accounts/bio_salm.html

http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/fish-ladder.html

Lesson Learned

One part of science communication is interviewing scientists. We had the opportunity to interview Dr. Juliet Brophy, a biological anthropologist specializing in paleoanthropology. She is a co-author of a ground breaking discovery, and a new member of the LSU Department of Geography and Anthropology.

We trekked out to the quad with Dr. Brophy to find a quiet scenic area for the interview. Colleen set-up the camera, framing the interview and getting the right lighting. Meanwhile, Lauren engaged Dr. Brophy in a pre-interview conversation to figured out what questions to ask, setting-up the story of Dr. Brophy’s research. After a few minutes of discussion and camera magic, we were ready to go. Colleen pressed record and filming began.

We started off the interview with asking Dr. Brophy about what captured her interest in paleoanthropology, a field dedicated to researching the fossils of human ancestors. She said it all started with one particular interest in a fossil she calls Mrs. Ples. But she wasn’t just interested, she “fell in love with a fossil”. Mrs. Ples, South Africa, and influential professors sent her into the world of paleoanthropology. A field which can tell us much about our own evolutionary history and the environments of prehistoric Earth.

Dr. Brophy studies teeth. They are common fossils of our early ancestors, easily preserved by the hard enamel coating. The shape of teeth can tell researchers what types of food organisms may have eaten. Knowing those foods can help identify what might be in the local environment. It was Dr. Brophy’s expertise in teeth that put her on the team of a new discovery, Homo naledi, a previously undescribed member of the human family tree.

We were excited, it was a great interview. Not long after, Lauren took to social media.

However, when Colleen plugged the video camera into her computer she discovered that video had not saved properly. The entire interview was gone. The practical and disappointing lesson: always have a back-up recording when you are interviewing someone.

Despite the technical difficulties we learned a lot about the interview process for scientists (and had a great interview with a distinguished professional). During the interview it is important to communicate research in a way that is understandable to the non-science community without “dumming it down”, even if it means asking questions to clarify points during the interview. Reporters will often use similes or metaphors to try to understand what is the focus of the research. Its those discussions between reporter and scientist that help the public understand research. Science interviews are not just about the most recent discovery, its about the people involved. It’s about fossil love-stories and scientists wanting to learn more about the world.

-Lauren Hull and Colleen Murphy

It’s Not Just for Humans Anymore

By Colleen Murphy

Her favorite animal is the polar bear, but one polar bear in particular – Knut. This little girl lives in Berlin, and her favorite place in the whole entire world is the Berlin Zoological Garden because that is where Knut lives. She remembers the first time she saw Knut at the zoo: his area was crowded with reporters, and at first she did not understand why so many people with cameras were focusing on this one animal. She worked her way to the front where all the cameras were to see this new animal at the zoo. When she looked into the habitat, she saw a bundle of white fur that was exploring like crazy. After that day, she was hooked on Knut the polar bear. Every time she went with her family to the zoo they always had to say hello to Knut first, and before they left they had to say goodbye to him. She had her own plushy Knut bear along with several books on polar bears. She even learned Knut’s scientific name – Ursus maritimus.

But something about Knut was starting to change. She began to notice that Knut was making funny movements just before a zoo worker would ask onlookers to leave the exhibit for a different part of the zoo, but other times Knut seemed just fine. Then on March 19, 2011 she cried for a whole day because her beloved polar bear Knut had died.

Video Citation: Uzoo, YouTube

This is what I imagine children all over Berlin, maybe even from farther places, felt like after the death of Knut. The cause of Knut’s death was drowning because while suffering from an epileptic seizure he fell into a pool in his habitat. However, the story of Knut did not end with his death. After a pathological analyses, scientists determined that Knut’s seizures were caused by encephalitis. Following the encephalitis diagnosis, an in-depth analysis comprised of multiple tests concluded that the cause of infection was an unknown pathogen. The proper name of the diagnosis was “encephalitis unknown etiology,” which is a fancy way of saying, “we have no idea what caused this inflammation in your brain.”

While Knut’s case seemed to be an anomaly, there was one neurologist who saw a connection. Dr. Harold Pruess is a specialist in neurology who researches human brain diseases at the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE) in Berlin. After reading the autopsy report on Knut, Pruess noticed characteristics that he had found in his own research from humans. In order for Pruess to draw any concrete conclusion he needed a way to analyze samples of Knut’s brain. So Pruess partnered with the leader of the Department of Wildlife Diseases at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW), Professor Alex Greenwood.  Greenwood and Pruess were able to procure the brain tissues needed for the study from the IZW, and the analysis revealed Knut the polar bear had suffered from anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis.

Anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis is an autoimmune disease where the body malfunctions and creates antibodies programmed to damage nerve cells rather than to fight against pathogens. The disease was only identified in humans in 2010, but since its identification it has become treatable. Knut is the first reported non-human case of anti-receptor encephalitis in wild or domestic animals. Before Knut, this disease was only recognized in humans, but by using the diagnostic criteria for humans it was determined that Knut suffered from anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. In the study published in Science Reports, the criteria for diagnosis were described as the following:

  1. clinical signs of encephalitis such as epileptic seizures, lack of consciousness, and cognitive or mood changes
  2. indication of brain inflammation from MRI abnormalities or positive biopsy/autopsy
  3. no possibility of viral or bacterial causes
  4. the presence of NMDAR antibodies

Knut had a history of seizures, observed inflammation in the brain, no detectable of viral or bacterial sources of infection, and very elevated levels of NMDAR antibodies. All of these results confirmed the post-death diagnosis of anti-NMDAR encephalitis in Knut. The diagnosis of this disease in Knut means two important conclusions for the world of zoological medicine. First, if anti-NMDAR encephalitis was present in Knut then the disease could be common in many mammals. Second, there could be other forms of autoimmune encephalitis that have been identified in humans but that have yet to be discovered in wild mammals as well.

Even though Knut was only able to enjoy his polar bear popularity for a short time, he has become part of a major study in neurology. His case and diagnosis may help wild mammals everywhere.

Photo Credit: Marmontel, Flickr

Photo Credit: Marmontel, Flickr

Sources:

Prüss, H. et al. Anti-NMDA Receptor Encephalitis in the Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) Knut. Sci. Rep. 5, 12805; doi: 10.1038/srep12805 (2015).

DZNE – German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases. “Mystery of polar bear Knut’s disease finally solved: The animal suffered from an autoimmune disease previously known only in humans.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 27 August 2015. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/08/150827100902.htm>.

 

Update 9/16/2015: Edited by Paige Jarreau

It’s All in Your Head

By Patricia Kane

It’s a phrase you’ve likely told yourself, and if you were ever a teenage girl, a phrase you have definitely heard. While usually intended to dismiss something (a problem, an emotion, a situation), there are times where it is exactly the case. And more so than that, something you don’t necessarily have control over.

Julia’s* parents were concerned about her. She was 15 and clearly underweight; she had lost over 15 pounds in seven weeks and had a BMI of 15.7. Julia had been exhibiting extremely selective eating habits, lowered food intake and a marked increase in exercise.

*Name created for the purposes of this narrative, which recounts the case of an anonymous patient.

Sounds like a pretty cut and dry instance of anorexia, right?

So, like any good parents they took her to see the doctor, and that was the diagnosis. At her two week follow-up, everything seemed to be improving. She had gained back almost nine pounds, and her parents happily noted that her eating habits had returned to normal.

Julia’s situation took a turn for the worse, however, when four days later she was rushed to the emergency room. She’d had a seizure. Her cranial MRI and angiography, which looks at the inside of blood vessels, however, showed no abnormalities. There was also no indication that it was epileptic. Julia was placed in the adolescent psychiatric inpatient unit for supervision and further testing.

A few days later, she began experiencing auditory hallucinations, she couldn’t sleep, and her spatial, temporal and personal orientation was diminished. Doctors tried to treat her with antipsychotics, but Julia showed little improvement. She then began having difficulty controlling the muscles in her face. They tested her for a whole host of diseases, and it wasn’t until Julia had been there for 17 days that doctors were able to provide a definitive diagnosis of anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis.

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Photo Credit: Daisuke Murase, Flickr

 

It’s All in Your Head

No, really. It is. The interchange of electrical and chemical impulses managing the system that is “you” is all up there. Or begins up there.

So what happens, then, when management begins dispersing incorrect directions?

It’s like the game “Telephone,” except mistakes don’t elicit giggles. They can, and a lot of the time do, have catastrophic consequences.

The brain is an intricately designed communication device. There is a specific distribution of agents which send and receive very specific messages. Brain cells have receptors, which are on the lookout to receive these specific messages. But what happens when these receptors are damaged and can’t function properly?

Well, simply put, your brain can’t function properly.

Anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, along with being a foreboding phrase in and of itself, is a rare and recently specified disease in which, for one reason or another, the immune system produces antibodies that target and attack these NMDA receptors. These receptors play a crucial role in not only memory and perception, but also the rhythms of breathing and locomotion.

In Julia’s case, the presence of anorectic symptoms in conjunction with anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis was a first. Identifying indicators like this are vital in improving diagnosis time and accuracy.

Furthermore, Julia’s experience illustrates the importance of multi-disciplinary teams in patient care. Because patients suffering from anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis are typically referred to psychiatric care, it is important that physicians in these departments are aware of and educated on diseases such as this.

 

Sources:

Blanke ML, VanDongen AMJ. Activation Mechanisms of the NMDA Receptor. In: Van Dongen AM, editor. Biology of the NMDA Receptor. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press; 2009. Chapter 13. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK5274/

Mechelhoff, D., van Noort, B. M., Weschke, B., Bachmann, C. J., Wagner, C., Pfeiffer, E., & Winter, S. (2015). Anti-nmda receptor encephalitis presenting as atypical anorexia nervosa: An adolescent case report. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, doi:10.1007/s00787-015-0682-8

 

Update 9/18/2015 – Edited by Paige Jarreau