What They Had is a 2018 movie focusing on the family whose matriarch suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. Although seemingly similar, this movie is very different from the more popular Still Alice, and, in my opinion, shows the difficulties of navigating everyday life better. The movie, directed by Elizabeth Chomko, who drew inspiration directly from her personal life, stars brilliant Hilary Swank as a worried daughter Betty who comes back home in order to care for her mother Ruth, played by Blythe Danner. Michael Shannon, playing Swank’s brother Nicky, is masterful as ever, showing his impeccable acting skills, as he clashes with their father (Robert Forster) over the possibility that their mother should continue her life in an assisted living facility.
What I like about this movie, is that it isn’t solely focused on Alzheimer’s disease, but rather on family dynamics around it; it explores how members of the immediate family deal not only with their mother, wife, and grandmother as the illness progresses but also with each other. Without revealing more of the plot, as I truly believe everyone should watch this movie, I have to praise it for tastefully and realistically conveying many symptoms of AD, such as when Ruth wanders away in the middle of the night, experiences speech difficulties or flirts with her adult son, not recognizing him.
The last scene I described isn’t brought on as a dramatic one, but rather a humorous one, albeit dark. As a matter of fact, the whole movie deals with the severity of the situation in a similar manner, but it will still bring tears to your eyes. This movie is honest, truthful, and above all, touching; I honestly can’t believe it’s not more known and as I’m writing this review, I’m quite anxious that my review isn’t presenting it in the best possible light, which it absolutely deserves. I hope my clumsy writing won’t discourage you from watching What They Had, a movie that beautifully reminded me why I chose neurodegeneration as my field of study.
If you watched What They Had, let me know if you liked the movie as much as I did. I am also sharing the trailer here as well.
Hello everyone and welcome to another post in the series about biological topics in movies and TV series. You can find a link to the previous post right here. My intention with these is to clarify different claims made in various movies and TV shows I watched, and also to share perhaps some surprising facts mentioned in them. If you’d like for me to watch something specific, please let me know (I’m currently preparing another post focused on the German TV show “Biohackers”). So let’s start with some extremely popular offenders.
Friends – “Lobsters mate for life” In a classical Friends episode, Phoebe claims that lobsters mate for life. They don’t. There are some animals that remain monogamous for life, such as wolves, swans, penguins, and barn owls, but lobsters are not one of them; in fact, male lobsters actually change mates frequently during the mating season.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire During the famous scene in which professor Moody tortures the amblypygi (of species Damon diadema; Amblypygi belong to class Arachnida) with the Cruciatus curse, poor creature starts to squeal in pain, but can amblypyg actually make that sort of sounds? As it turns out, some species of spiders (which also belong to class Arachnida ) can tap on the surface or even vibrate (again, on certain surfaces) to make mating calls or communicate, but the type of screech depicted in the movie, under the spell or not, is physiologically impossible.
The Alienist – “Butterflies inflict pain during the coitus” While I’m still on the topic of invertebrates, let’s divulge into this one. Now, pain is the subject of many definitions, but assuming it’s just an unpleasant physical stimulus, the question is raised whether insects can actually feel it? Until recently, researchers agreed that insects can feel nociception, which is the response to life-threatening stimuli, but most agreed that they don’t feel the pain like we do. A recent study, however, showed that fruit-flies could experience a chronic pain-like state, but the science still has a long way to go to conclusively show if insects can or cannot feel pain. Do butterflies feel pain when mating? Possible, but it seems that, until more evidence comes to light, it’s highly unlikely.
Rouge – “Lions are not afraid of fire” This fun but quite forgettable B flick starring Megan Fox and a CGI lioness off-handedly mentioned that lions are, in fact, not afraid of fire. That didn’t sound right with me so I searched for it and it seems like it’s true. Apparently, not only they’re not afraid but like to check out what’s happening around the campfire. I would like to point out, however, that most of the web-sites are literally copying the same sentence about it, verbatim, and I didn’t find where it originated.
Did you notice similar misinformation or surprisingly correct information in popular movies and TV shows? Please let me know in the comments below, I love reading about movie mistakes!
Today’s book I would like to share with you is Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art by Carl Hoffman. For my Twitter followers, me writing about this book is surely not a surprise – I mentioned it couple of times already, praising it both on- and offline.
As a huge true crime buff, I was intrigued by the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller and stumbled upon the book recommendation on a subreddit. I have a habit of immediately searching for the book, which led me to the Amazon store, with a discount for Kindle edition. I clicked as fast as I could on that “one-click” buy button and then… Life got in the way, as it usually is with me and books. I think almost a year has passed before I started reading it, and couple of months before I finally finished it – not because I found it boring, but because my studying, and at times, health issues, were taking up the most of my time.
Still, a true crime book and slow reading tempo don’t really equal a book review on a science blog, right? Well, that would be true, if the book was only about that. Savage Harvest is actually a blend between a biography, travelling diary, and anthropological research. I went into the book expecting to gain insight into Rockefeller’s life and death, but I learned so much about the indigenous culture in New Guinea; Hoffman also gives an astonishing historical overview of the political and cultural situation, the discovery, and tribal relations of the New Guinea.
When I was a child, I used to watch many documentaries, and the word “cannibalism” was often mentioned in rather hush tones, and as the only descriptor of certain tribes. No rituals, no gods, no traditions mentioned, just… cannibalism. By the time I started reading Savage Harvest, I was aware of the complexities that followed a culture, any culture, and especially one as complicated as the culture of New Guinea seemed to me. But reading this book, I learned so much more; the people of New Guinea weren’t some distant islanders on a spot on a map far away anymore, they became actual people, with their intricate system of believes, complicated language, and centuries-old traditions. The book also touches on racism and culture clashes, and how, for centuries, indigenous cultures were merited through the western lenses, forced to adapt to our rules and religion; New Guinea was not an exception to this rule, as it was colonized by various European countries for years, mostly notably the Netherlands, which claimed the western part of the island.
As a non-native English speaker, I always rate a book by the flow and how easily I can understand it; this book is getting my highest praises. I also really liked how some chapters were written in the present (author’s) time, and some were purely in the past, but all of them worked perfectly in coherence. Furthermore, it’s obvious that Carl Hoffman tried to immerse himself as much as possible, in order to gain a relatively objective insight into the tribal culture he was investigating; he learned how to speak the Indonesian language and even lived with the tribe in the southwest of New Guinea, the same place which Rockefeller was visiting, collecting cultural artifacts, and ultimately disappeared from.
The whole book is, to me, a fascinating insight, and a fantastic mixture of genres that I didn’t expect to work that well together. I recommend this book to everyone who loves to read, even if they don’t have a big interest in topics this book deals with.
If you read this book, I would very much like to hear your thoughts and opinions; did you like it as much as I did? Will this book find its way to your reading list? Let me know in the comments!
I already wrote couple of posts on this topic, and today I’m focusing on several examples from movies and TV shows I’ve recently watched. The movies I’m going to write about are Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life, The Good Liar, Charlie’s Angels (2019 version), and Paranoid TV show. So, if you are planning to watch those, just a warning that there will probably be spoilers below!
Let’s start with the obvious and amusing misportrayal: in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life (2003 movie), Lara is riding sharks in the opening sequence. I think no one would believe this is actually possible, but shark petting videos recently became very popular. However, many researches are strongly discouraging this type of behaviour.
The Good Liar (2019 movie) is an interesting thriller with really good cast that I actually enjoyed. Without giving out too much of the plot, I’ll just mention one scene where Helen Mirren’s character gives the haircut to the character played by Ian McKellen. She uses cut hair for the DNA analysis, factually linking McKellen’s character for the past crimes. Of course, we all know that without the root, there is no DNA to analyze, right? Not quite. Most companies that do DNA analysis require hair with follicles in order to extract DNA for analysis; however, they mostly deal with paternities, so they need the nuclear DNA. Mitochondrial DNA, on the other hand, apparently can be extracted from the hair itself. For the movie’s purposes, I think nuclear DNA was needed, so this seems like a movie mistake. But, recently scientists did manage to successfully extract nuclear DNA from rootless hair, but that DNA is often fragmented and complicated to extract. I would also just like to mention that I believe this movie explains trauma and coping surprisingly well for a Hollywoood movie.
In Charlie’s Angels (2019 movie), which I hoped would be more enjoyable than it was, a very interesting premise was introduced; in order to effortlessly communicate, members of the team get a certain tattoo (at least I think it’s a tattoo, but don’t 100% quote me on that) and they can hear thanks to it. So, my first thought was, wow, they really went sci-fi on this one, but it sounded too out there. And then I remembered bone conduction. Simply, bone conduction allows you to hear the transmission, without blocking the outside sounds. And yes, only you can hear it. There are headphones already in use for this type of thing, and they can be also used to help with some kinds of hearing impairments. These headphones are placed on the skull, and I haven’t seen it implemented in a tattoo yet, but it’s actually a neat idea.
Paranoid (2016 TV show) is, in my opinion, really bad, despite only tangential connection to Biology. This show feel anti-medication and anti-psychiatrists, portrays them in a very bad light, and chooses not to mention how much medications and psychotherapy are actually helping people. The premise is also built on one of the cliche “anti-big pharma” representations. I was honestly insulted, despite not working in any of these fields. There is a also a subplot concerning a female character who had provocative photos of her taken 15 years ago, and she is not longer in possession of said photos; she is blackmailed with the possibility of leaking those. Her love interest immediately accuses her of things I won’t write here, but you get the main idea. I mean, am I the only one who sees this as highly problematic This TV show is doing some serious damage to the health care, it is insulting to physicians, it is insulting to patients, and I honestly can’t believe that no one during the whole production didn’t say anything.
I hope you like these kind of posts, because I already have enough material for another one (there are a lot of Biology & science mistakes on the big screen). What is your favourite movie mistake related to Biology?
I don’t know about you, but I just love doing online courses, especially when they deal in subjects I don’t get to explore in my college courses. Over the years, I tried many different platforms, such as YouTube, Google Digital Garage, Khan Academy, Udemy, and, my favourite, Coursera. As a matter of fact, I discovered Coursera back when they started in 2012; most of the courses I took were on topics of Neuroscience and Molecular Biology. At first, courses and certificates were completely free, but with time, they started offering paid vs. free, as well as many specializations and even some college degree courses. However, many of the courses are still available to watch and do quizzes, just without the certification.
Disclaimer: this post is not sponsored by Coursera.
This course, offered by Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is actually the very first course I took, and at the time was one of the rare Neuroscience courses. I have only good memories about this one – it is a good introductory course into the field and the professor explained the curriculum very well. Also, the course mentions real projects that deal with neural networks and brain reconstructions, such as Blue Brain Project. I didn’t mention this previously, but every course also comes with subtitles (in English at least) and transcripts, so you can follow along easier.
The Addicted Brain (by Emory University) is another course appropriate for beginners in this topic – I was initially interested not only because of the topic of addiction, but also because various mechanisms of how drugs interact with the brain were presented. The course also covers the topic of drugs in society, although this part mainly concerns United States of America. Also, I don’t know if this is something that’s important to you, but I followed professor’s narration easily – his voice is calming and he speaks very understandably.
Medical Neuroscience (by Duke University) is not only the most advanced course of the ones mentioned here, but the most advanced course I ever took. Actually, I started it once or twice before, but dropped out because it required a lot of time and dedication that, at times, I just didn’t have due to my University obligations. This course is really extensive and requires some before-knowledge, but is also very satisfactory when you finish it. The only problem I had with this one is that sometimes I felt that questions in quizzes were asking for details that to me seemed almost overlooked in the videos. However, I felt like this course was quite important for my studies, since I have a strong interest in Neuroscience, but lacked the medicinal perspective.
All quizzes are multiple choice answers, with usually one correct answer (sometimes more correct answers). I vaguely remember some questions where you had to connect some phrases (like 1-d, 2-c, etc) as well, but haven’t came across those recently. Also, the quizzes I did were never timed and you can take one quiz 3 times every eight hours (they keep your highest score).
Coursera also offers financial aid – you can fill out an application where you explain why is the course you’re applying for important to you and why you can’t afford it. So far, I’ve heard of many positive experiences where they gave grants.
There are also two Neuroscience related courses I am planning to take – Human Neuroanatomy (to revise a bit) and Computational Neuroscience, which deals with using Python in Neuroscience research. I would very happily review those for you, in a greater detail, if this is something you’d like to read about!
What is your opinion on online courses – do you think they’re useful or a waste of time? Did you perhaps take some of the ones I mentioned? If yes, I would love to hear from your!
Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution by Holly Tucker is a book that I first read almost 10 years ago. I got it as a gift from a dear friend, for my birthday during the time I was a student at School of Medicine (as you can guess, I decided to start anew and switch to Biology). However, this book has always stayed with me, not only because it was the first book of this genre I’ve read – I loved it because I thought it was the perfect mix of history, medicine, and macabre.
Blood Work follows a fascinating tale of the history of human transfusion, something what in today’s world we almost take for granted. Back in high school, we learned all about Rh factor and blood types (and how there is a possibility of A and B parent having an O or AB child) and voluntary blood donations are common occurrence in my country. Despite all this, I never wondered when did the actual blood transfusion procedures start and how did physicians know whose blood to use.
In the book, we follow Jean-Baptiste Denis, a 17th century French physician who administrated first documented transfusion. Since this transfusion included using sheep’s blood, it was called a xenotransfusion, which is a term that describes blood transfusion from one species to another. This experiment was successful, probably due to small amount of transfused blood and, I dare say, luck, since at the time, blood groups and agglutination were not known facts. Denis’ last transfusion experiment is, however, the one we learn about in a detail – after trying to treat an illness of psychiatric nature, and transferring a large amount of calf blood, his patient dies, and he is accused of murder. Denis was ultimately acquitted (with a true crime worthy twist in the case), but all further transfusions were banned, first by French government, then by English and even the Pope.
Blood Work doesn’t focus solely on this event – the writer masterfully describes political events of the time, both in France (rivalry with another physician, Henri-Martin de la Martinière, tensions in French Academy of Sciences founded by Louis XIV) and abroad (a competition between French and English Academies), as well as the religious ones (“playing God”, fear that this kind of transfusion could produce some sort of half-human half-animal creature). Furthermore, as Neil Blumberg wrote in his review for Journal of Clinical Investigations, these kinds of experiments were primary conducted due to the belief that transfusion could treat, or even cure, mental illness, sometimes we now know is not possible.
Lastly, it doesn’t actually matter if you have health and/or science background to find this book interesting, as long as your’re interested in history and historical non-fiction. Blood Work offers a captivating look on the beginnings of one of the most important medical procedures in the world and does it so vividly you almost feel like you’re transported to Paris, in the middle of the scientific revolution.
I would very much liked to hear your opinion – did you read this book, and if yes, did you like it as much as I did? Do you have similar book recommendations? Please let me know in the comments 🙂
Couple of weeks ago, as I was driving to classes, I saw a big billboard that showed couple of people and a word “FORTITUDE”. At first, I thought it was some kind of fantasy drama, but after looking it up, it turned out to be crime related TV show starring actors I like. And as a true crime buff who enjoys all crime related content, I decided to watch it. After all, if it stars Christopher Eccleston (the best Doctor Who) and Stanley Tucci, it must be great, right?
Well, not quite – there are parts of the series that I loved, especially ones regarding biology, despite some of them being naively incorrect. Other parts were not so well executed, but today I want to focus mainly on biology (obviously). Fortitude, the name of the show, is also a name of the imaginary town on an island in polar circle. As it is in small towns, they have a doctor, police force, one hotel, some houses, and many secrets. Oh, and research centre, of course!
In the first episode, we see a scene where hungry polar bear eats a person. Also, we are introduced to an ambitious post-doc whose research focuses on apex predators; he has a theory that due to environmental changes, predators change their behaviour and develop cannibalistic urges (yes, there was some talk about bear eating another bear). Also, they make a point of making fun of him because he researched that in Britain, where badgers are only the predators. I don’t know why was that supposed to be funny, because I’d rather encounter a wolf than a badger, but I decided to let that one slide. Another story-line follows two children, a boy and a girl, who find a mammoth tooth; this boy later develops mumps-like symptoms and frostbite on his feet (he wandered off); there is also a murder of The Ninth Doctor, and we are led to believe that the murderer was father of the girl who found the mammoth tooth. Why, you may ask? Because he didn’t want to surrender the thawed carcass but sell it to The Ninth. And due to global warming, the carcass has already started to thaw.
Now, that immediately rang a bell; old preserved animal, suspicious disease… Despite some lazy writing, I continued to watch the series, despite not being really satisfied with the direction of it; some of the characters were very well characterized, especially Richard Dormer’s Sheriff, but I generally dislike series where everyone is cheating on everyone with anyone – it feels as if writers think that’s the only way to induce tension and drama. Also, Sheriff’s obsession with one female character was a bit too much – this amount of stalking and re-reading her files is not normal and has no place in adult behaviour. And he’s kind off supposed to be a good guy in the end. I digress, because this post is about biology.
The aforementioned boy ends up first in the hospital, and then in the research centre where they are developing a method to treat frostbite. Not a lot has been said about this, so I can’t actually comment on it, apart from the fact that he’s being held sedated, in a tank, where it’s not exactly clear how they feed him (I haven’t noticed any openings for infusion pipes). Also, who’s caring for him in the research centre? Someone has to wash him and change him every day, but they made it a point that he’s not supposed to be woken up, due to frostbite pain. So, not exactly biology, but big mistake anyway.
Also, at one point, their only doctor is almost murdered (by her own daughter who developed symptoms similar to the boy and then died due to heart failure) and they have to preform a lumbar puncture on the boy. Again, why you may ask? Well, during the autopsy of murderous daughter, the post-doc and his veterinary boss discovered some molecules; some anti-bodies and IgE. And immediately they developed the theory that this was some different kind of disease that turns people into murderers. Which wouldn’t been such problems, apart that IgE’s are the common antibodies that could indicated allergy of some sort? And in their research lab, they don’t have electronic microscopes, which are used to see viruses? A mess. That’s the only word I can use to describe this plot jumps, a big headache-inducing mess. However, let’s go back to the lumbar puncture. Doctor, I presume general practitioner, is incapable of helping, since she’s basically on her death-bed. So a post-doc and his boss decide to do the lumbar puncture, because why not? (Hint: NO.) They do it perfectly, but before it, they ask the boy’s mother for permission, because lumbar puncture is painful. (Hint: It’s not! Headache that comes after is painful, but the puncture itself doesn’t actually hurt. Source: been there, done that.) Anyway, boy’s spinal fluid doesn’t show presence of whatever thing they were looking for, which de facto labels him a murderer of The Ninth Doctor (excuse me?), despite having positive anti-bodies in his blood, which indicated that he might have had that mysterious disease. My only comment is, no, it doesn’t work like that, and please everyone stop thinking that you understand immunology, especially when we have specialized doctors who spend their lives learning about our immune system.
Anyway, back to the mammoth carcass, and the rest of mammoths that are thawing on this island. I would just like to say that there are also some Russians involved in the whole story (they work in a mine), the Governor wants to make an ice hotel on a glacier (I’m not kidding – on. a. glacier.), and literally everyone has a secret and/or secret agenda.
Well, before mammoths, let’s talk about one thing they got right, and that’s IgE – it gives us immunity to various parasites. And as it turns out, the mammoths were infected, just not with a virus, but parasitic wasp. Basically, larvae survived in mammoths, and were now making humans their hosts – since they were as old as mammoths, the humans didn’t actually have some real defenses against them. This is also definitely confirmed after post-doc finds some live wasps in the doctor (he then sets the whole room on fire, in order not to get infected or allow the wasps to find new hosts – yes, he survives).
Ichneumonidae, also known as Darwin wasps, are indeed parasitic wasps with 25 000 described species. Honestly, I think they were a very good choice for the main bad guys in the series, and were quite well described. Basically, these wasps reproduce in a bit gruesome way – they lay their eggs into a living host, which is then eaten by newly-formed larvae. Apart from this family, there also exists another similar wasp, called Emerald cockroach wasp (Ampulex compressa). This wasp, of the family Ampulicidae, injects cockroaches with it’s eggs; the peculiarity is that the wasp also injects the cockroach with the toxin directly in thoracic and cerebral ganglia, which prevents cockroach to move, effectively turning it into a zombie. It was explained that this is what happened in the Fortitude as well, the wasp larvae have taken control of human bodies, and they turned on people closest to them, when they felt threatened.
All in all, I wouldn’t call Fortitude’s first season exceptionally bad, but I wouldn’t exactly call it good. They had some excellent moments, and the mammoth-wasp story-line was, in my opinion, on point, but was often overshadowed by multiple story-lines that don’t necessary bring anything to the overall plot. If you want to watch something that doesn’t require a lot of thinking, and can overlook some of the obvious biological mistakes, I would recommend it. However, I think it’s time that filmmakers educate themselves, or ask for help, when tackling topics they don’t quite understand. (I read on Wikipedia that the writer did consult a parasitologist, which is probably why that part of the story functioned well; I don’t know why they didn’t do it for the other aspects of biology in the show.)
So, what do you think? Should we focus more on biology being correctly represented in popular media? Did you watch Fortitude – if yes, what did you think about it? Let me know in the comments below! 🙂
Hello everyone, and welcome to my new post! Yes, I’ve decided to try and write more often, and this time I will do a bit of self-promotion. As you may, or may not, know, I love watching movies – I think they are great past-time and I find them relaxing. Lately, I have had some troubles concentrating for more than an hour, but for now I would like to think that’s because I wasn’t choosing good movies to begin with. What does that have anything to do with neuroscience?
Well, apart from writing this blog, I also write and edit for Gyrus Journal. Gyrus is student journal of neuroscience, where we write review articles about different topics: basic neuroscience, neurology, neurosurgery, and psychiatry. I have written some articles, and if you stumble across them, don’t judge me too hard – they are meant to teach us how to search databases, cite, and write in English, since our mother-tongue is Croatian. I feel very fortunate to be a part of this journal, since it helped me a lot in understanding of many scientific terms in English language, primary language of science; it also helped me to learn how to communicate with my authors, as well as how to dissect a topic I’m supposed to write/edit about. Of course, we also have reviewers, wonderful professors and scientists from University of Zagreb, who do the last editing before publication. (I would just like to say that we didn’t have reviewers from the very beginning, hence why some of the earlier articles perhaps lack in quality.) Lately, we have been struggling a bit with latest editions, but started to publish articles online – you can access them all on the link above. You can also follow us on Facebook page as well as Twitter!
In Gyrus Journal, you will also find shorter articles and movie&book reviews, where title of this post finally comes in play! So far, I have written five movie reviews, with three still waiting to be published. For my first one, I picked the obvious choice: Memento (2000) by Christopher Nolan. Apart from being one of my favourite movies in general, I think it truthfully portrays anterograde amnesia.
In addition to portraying Leonard’s fragile mental state that makes us question not only his current objectives, but also whether his recollections of past are reliable, or simply figments of his imagination and almost fatalistic wishes, Memento is different in comparison with other films of similar genre, simply because it truthfully portrays the slow agony of losing the principal neurobiological process – a human memory.
The second review I did was about movie that might not seem so obvious, but was quite intriguing: Side Effects (2013) starring Rooney Mara and Catherine Zeta-Jones. This movie also has a crime aspects but it deals with the psychiatric illness, for which we don’t know, until the very end, if it’s real or faked.
Although dealing with semi-real thesis, the question still remains how the movie influenced real world cases. Did it help with recognizing the ones feigning the illness, or just put extra strain on the patients dealing with the illness that is already under deep historical stigma? Regardless of being the rather entertaining thriller, we are left wondering whether the movie deepened the negative view of the various psychiatric illnesses in the general public.
Three, still unpublished, reviews are:
100 Minutes of Glory (in Croatian) – a biopic about famous Croatian painter Slava Raškaj, who was born deaf, suffered from depression, and lived her last days in Psychiatric hospital “Vrapče”. In Croatian, title of the movie is also a wordplay on Croatian word “slava”, her name; it’s literal translation to English is “glory”
A Different Brain – famed documentary by Loius Theroux; it follows four patients who suffered through some sort of traumatic brain injury and consequences it brings
Still Alice – movie that earned Julianne Moore an Academy Award for Best Actress, Still Alice is a touching but often times difficult story about a woman with early onset Alzheimer’s Disease
What about you? Do you like watching movies – which ones are your favourite? If you watched any of these, please tell me what you think! I would love to discuss movies with you & I’m really interested what you watch in your free time 🙂