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MSURJ Volume 11 Launch!

CVE-7574 CVE-7608 CVE-7649 CVE-7668

(Photography credits: Carter van Eitreim)

On March 31, students, authors and guest presenters gathered in the Bellini atrium for the launch of MSURJ Volume 11. Armed with champagne, cheese and freshly printed copies of the journal, guests mingled, discussing the featured research (and drinks). Presentations by four guest speakers followed, covering topics from industrial success in the scientific field to advice for future researchers. With no pedestals or microphones, the presentations had an air of genial informality, as if the speakers were having an intimate conversation with all attending guests.


The Speakers

“One of the main thiScreen Shot 2016-04-15 at 8.57.12 pm.pngngs in my mind when I started my undergrad was that I really wanted to do research,” Kevin Chen, the CEO and co-founder of Hyasynth Bio, conveyed to the guests. With an audience composed mostly of undergraduate science students, he was speaking to people who could likely relate to this aspiration. However, after this, Kevin’s pre
sentation took a twist as he narrated his departure from the typical path of academia. Running with a chance, he opted to try research in a different form, and now, at 24 years old, he is the co-founder of Hyasynth Bio, a biotechnology company that engineers microbes to make natural molecules. Specifically, medical cannabis— in an attempt to replace the acres usually required to produce the plant with tanks of yeast. In closing, he reiterated to the students, “Ignore the idea of academia versus industry and science versus applied science. Science is science.” 

Screen Shot 2016-04-15 at 8.58.53 pm.pngThe next speaker, Dr. Shireen Hossein, related the story of her career in academia, from her PhD that focused on the cell biology of myelination and nerve development to her position with Dr. Gerhard Multhaup here at McGill. With Dr. Multhaup, she has been provided with many diverse opportunities, from learning new techniques like protein mass spectrometry, to supervising students, to designing projects for herself. These experiences have allowed her to grow not only as a scientist, but also as a person. To close, she reiterated the importance of “finding an area of research that fuels your passion.” She also highlighted that research areas can be changed throughout a scientific career, and that a chosen research line now will not necessarily be a lifetime contract.

Our third speakCVE-7610er was Dr. Jesper Sjӧstrӧm, a neuroscientist researching the mysteries of synaptic plasticity and the organization of neuronal connections. However,  rather than speaking about his research, he instead provided the audience with a failsafe, three-step “recipe for success”:

  1. Work hard.
  2. Have the flexibility to say “yes”.
  3. Learn one new thing at each stage of your education.

Through stories of his past experiences, he related to the audience the importance of these steps. He spoke of the times he would stay up until 2 or even 3 in the morning working on his projects, stating that these wee hours are the times “you bump into new discoveries”. He advised the audience to always say “yes” to new and cool experiments, not new and cool cities. Lastly, he highlighted the importance of learning one new technique, and learning it to perfection, at each stage in education. With this simple recipe, Dr. Sjӧstrӧm shared some valuable life lessons and honed in on what it takes to become a successful researcher.

CVE-7617The evening’s final speaker was Dr. David Harpp, an incredible scientist, professor, and mentor to all those interested in research. Much like the previous speaker, Dr. Harpp recounted his personal experiences with research and academia, all the while emphasizing several important lessons. Ranging from his post-doctorate days to his experiences as a professor at McGill University, Dr. Harpp was able to inspire the entire audience with his stories. One memorable moment was when he narrated how one of his potential graduate students saved Matt Damon’s father (Matt Damon’s!) through the inception of Velcade, a drug for bone marrow cancer. Quirky, inspiring, thoughtful, and anecdotal, Dr. Harpp’s words gave the audience a look into the exciting and serendipitous aspects of scientific research.

The Research 

Finally, here are a few brief descriptions of the papers included in this year’s MSURJ—Find Vol. 11 on stands, or click the cover (designed by Samer Richani) below to read the full articles!

(Page 11) Vanessa Caron et. al.

Coral reefs in the Caribbean Sea have been degrading at an alarming rate since the 1970s. In an effort to gain insight into coral reef protection, this research team investigated how algal cover on coral reefs is affected by the herbivore abundance. With research conducted in Western Barbados, the research team deduced a number of contributing factors, such as groundwater input levels.

(Page 16) Zhubo Zhang et al.

This research team investigated the ambiguity inherent to sensory adaptation—the phenomenon where a neuron’s “coding rule” changes in response to a stimulus. However, ambiguity arises from the fact that different stimuli are able to produce the same neural response. Working with in vivo extracellular recordings, the team was able to conclude that less sensory adaptation leads to a stronger ability to disambiguate different stimuli.

(Page 22) Jesse Mendoza et al.

This research project was focused on determining if the knockout of a nicotinic cholinergic receptor would have similar effects on vestibular and auditory systems. The receptor, 𝛂-9, is important in the regulation of auditory and vestibular peripheral hair cells, and deficits also leads to abnormalities in cochlear hair cell development. Through a knockout study on mice, the team reported that the absence of the  𝛂-9 receptor does not lead to vestibular function deficits.

(Page 28) Moushumi Nath et al.

Noise correlation is defined as the correlation in non-stimulus evoked activity between neurons. This research team focused on investigating visual perception and whether changes in noise correlation could predict behavioural performance in a motion detection task. Their findings support this notion, and suggest that noise correlation may be an important parameter in understanding the mysteries of visual perception.

(Page 32) Mariya Stavnichuk et al.

Osteoclasts are cells responsible for bone degradation, and their malfunction is at the root of many bone-related diseases. This study investigated changes in Ca2+ concentration in osteoclast precursors upon application of RANKL, a key osteoclastogenic cytokine. The findings indicated that RANKL induces oscillations in Ca2+ concentration as well as modulations in cellular responses to ATP.

(Page 36) Liang Chen et al.

Gene expression can be controlled on multiple levels, and one of the key proteins involved in translational control is eIF4E. The researchers investigated the role of several testis-specific isoforms in Drosophila spermatogenesis, and found that the loss of function of individual proteins had no significant effects, but defects in spermatogenesis were observed when paired knockdowns were conducted. This indicates overlapping functions that can compensate for one another. From the results, the team were also able to conclude specific functions of each isoform.

(Page 40) Ling Lin et al.

Investigating cosmic strings, the research featured on the cover of the journal focused on globular clusters and their origins. Globular clusters are galactic structures that are poorly understood. The authors proposed that cosmic strings are at the root of globular cluster formation, and their results largely agree with this hypothesis. Their evidence suggests that globular clusters form around slowly moving cosmic string loops with a speed of less than 3% the speed of light.




What Is The Human Brain Project?

(image: Greg Dunn –

In 2013, the Human Brain Project (HBP) was granted €1-billion by the European Commission’s Future and Emerging Technologies program. Spearheaded by neuroscientist Henry Markram, this 10-year project aims to develop new technologies to simulate a computer model of the human brain to better understand it and to treat neurological diseases. In theory, this research initiative is ground-breaking as it tries to link together the disorganized research results in neuroscience into one consolidated model, which will provide new insight into the mysteries of the brain. However, over the last 3 years, the HBP has spiraled off track while receiving a multitude of severe criticisms regarding the project’s feasibility, practicality, and cost effectiveness.

Perhaps one of the largest controversies surrounding the HBP is in its justification for its €1-billion funding. Although it proposes a successful simulation of the human brain, many neuroscientists have spoken out about how this will do very little to enlighten undiscovered aspects of the brain. A digital brain reconstruction requires biological data, and this simulation will end up as just a project to organize results from already tested and discovered hypotheses. Furthermore, there is insufficient data right now to create a full reconstruction of the brain. The current state of this simulation initiative, named the Blue Brain Project, is detailed in one of Markram’s papers, and shows lacklustre results. Firstly, this research project focuses on the digital reconstruction of a singular neocortical column of the immature rat brain. In addition, it fails to recognize many important aspects of neuronal connectivity such as gap junctions, glial cells, plasticity, homeostasis, and more. Therefore, it becomes difficult to say that the simulations are nearing completion.

Aside from the unrealistic goals of the project, the HBP also suffers from severe governance issues that stems from Markram’s autocratic management. An independent committee was established to investigate and mediate these disputes, and on March 2015, they published their results. The report details comments on Henry Markram: “[he] is not only a member of all decision-making, executive and management bodies within the HBP, but also chairs them and supervises the administrative processes supporting these bodies. Furthermore, he is a member of all the advisory boards and reports to them at the same time. In addition, he appoints the members of the management team and leads the operational project management.” It is clear that the HBP management system requires an overhaul. Right now, because of the huge amount of funding backing this project, the HBP continues to run despite its poor outcomes, while smaller and more promising projects are prevented from realization.

That being said, this research initiative is taking measures to get back on track such that it becomes more organized and cost-effective. One step that they are taking is to narrow down the focus of the project, as the current goals are far-fetching and unrealistic. Rather than trying to simulate the brain and encompass broad aspects of neuroscience, the project will focus on developing new data tools and software that can be used in all aspects of neurological research. This approach will help the project become more organized and directed towards realistic goals. Furthermore, every group in the HBP will now have to reapply for funding every two years, including Markram. By doing this, the project now allows for authority to be distributed amongst several bodies for independent oversight. It is not certain whether these changes are enough to put the HBP fully back on track, but hopefully now the project will be able to focus on producing important and significant results to unveil the mysteries of the brain.

The HBP is not the only currently undergoing neuroscience megaproject initiative. The US government launched a large research project, the BRAIN Initiative, in the same year. The BRAIN Initiative aims to develop and apply new technologies towards the production of better images of neural connections. Unlike the HBP, this program is progressing much more smoothly. There exists one main difference between this and HBP— although the BRAIN Initiative is also packaged and sold as a megaproject, it is in fact a model of distributed innovation under a central funding source, which also encourages collaboration. Thus, rather than depending on a single scientific vision, there are multiple research teams competing for grants while leading projects into new and different branches of neuroscience. The competition factor also prevents similar ideas from overlapping, thus allowing the initiative to be more cost-effective. Without debilitating and non-transparent governance issues, the BRAIN Initiative can place its focus solely on scientific endeavours.

The final outcomes of both the HBP and the BRAIN Initiative are not yet clear. It is not certain whether these very expensive projects will produce long-lasting, worthwhile discoveries such as the Human Genome Project. However, with the HBP starting to get back on track, results and tools from these initiatives can complement each other, producing meaningful outcomes both in neuroscience and medicine. There will be many expectations in the next several years in these fields.

Resources for further reading:;jsessionid=3915C94B7BAA70A47A69D5E9E2B25238?__blob=publicationFile




First Language Shapes Later Processing Patterns In The Brain


By Leanne Louie

Whether you still speak it or not, your first language dictates the way your brain processes languages learned later in life.

In a paper published in Nature Communications in early December, researchers at McGill and the Montreal Neurological Institute showed that children with different first languages had differing brain activation when performing a French language task. Of the three groups of children tested, one group had learned only French since birth. Another had known Chinese as their first language before adoption into French families, whereupon they learned only French and forgot their Chinese. The final group had Chinese as their first language, learning French as a second language around the same time as the adopted children, but retaining their Chinese. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers observed the brains of the children while they identified French pseudo-words, such as vapagne and chansette. Although all groups performed the task equally well, they had differing patterns of brain activation throughout it. The French speakers with no exposure to Chinese had activation in the brain areas normally associated with the processing of language-associated sounds (most prominently, the left inferior frontal gyrus and anterior insula). However, in the brains of the children who had learned Chinese as their first language, additional areas of the brain were activated (particularly the right middle frontal gyrus, left medial frontal cortex, and bilateral superior temporal gyrus), regardless of whether the first language was still spoken.

“These results suggest that exposure to a language early in life affects how the brain processes other languages that you learn later on, even if you stop using that early language,” explained Lara Pierce, a doctoral student at McGill and the first author on the paper. Scientists have long known that early childhood experiences such as being read to and hearing languages can shape long-term brain architecture. However, although early events can dictate neural development, the brain remains an adaptable and plastic organ, able to adjust to what it needs to learn later in life despite its underlying circuitry. Such is made obvious from the high proficiency of all of the children in French, each of the three groups performing the language task with great accuracy despite their different linguistic backgrounds. Thus, it’s clear that having a different first language doesn’t impede the ability to learn a second language— but early language experiences do influence the way the brain might learn and process future languages.

Such research contributes to a growing understanding of both neural development and neuroplasticity, demonstrating the influence that experience and environment have upon the brain. In the future, the scientists are interested in looking more in depth at the influence of early experiences on later language learning. One question of interest is how the results would differ if a first language more similar to French than Chinese, such as English, were to be tested. This would help to clarify how different elements of first languages might influence the learning of second languages. While it provides answers, this study also raises many new questions, paving new paths for future research on the brain.

To read the full article in Nature Communications:

Photo Credit: Quinn Dombrowski –

Meet MSURJ: Sebastian


Hello MSURJ enthusiasts! My name is Sebastian Andric and I am a Junior Editor on

the MSURJ team. I am currently a first year undergraduate student hoping to get

involved with the research community here at McGill. Although I’m only starting out

my post-secondary academic career, I am interested in pursuing research in either

neuroscience or genetic engineering. Aside from reading and editing research papers,

my interests include traveling, playing piano, listening to music, especially jazz and

hip-hop, and gaming.  I’m looking forward to working with MSURJ and I hope you

all pick up a copy!



(image: wikimedia commons)

What a new form of hockey can contribute to skill development for our national sport

Joshua Shapiro

Understanding how talent is developed can help us improve in everything that we do, and enable us to do so faster as well. As Canadians, we are always looking for ways to better our skills in our national sport, hockey. To answer this enduring question, we should not only consider playing more hockey itself, but also investigate playing a different sport entirely. This article suggests that the sport floorball[1] can act as deep practice for hockey, and can help our country produce more elite hockey players.

Floorball, a relatively new sport, was developed in Sweden in the 1970s and has become popular in Scandinavia, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic, among other European countries. It is a specific variation of floor hockey, played in a gym, with lightweight plastic balls and relatively short sticks. The fact that it is played indoors allows the sport to be played year-round, similar to futsal, the adapted version of soccer discussed by Daniel Coyle in The Talent Code. Due to their various similarities, I suggest that floorball, like futsal, “places players inside the deep practice zone, making and correcting errors, constantly generating solutions to vivid problems”.

Floorball, again like futsal, is played in a small gym. This smaller playing surface results in more opportunities to touch the ball. Futsal allows players to touch the ball 600 percent more often than in soccer, and it would not be unreasonable to postulate that there would be a similar increase in the amount of puck-handling by ice hockey players. This gives each player the ability to repeat actions, as is necessary for deep practice. The smaller area also means that there is less space for a player to move, which has two main effects: Firstly, when handling the ball, if a player is not absolutely in control, the ball can easily be taken away. Thus, the little space you have requires the refinement of stick-handling skills, which improves control. Secondly, it becomes particularly necessary to find space on the court to ‘get open’, and necessitates sharper passing.

The equipment differences also allow for deeper practice. The lighter stick, which weighs less than 350 grams, allows for quicker hand motions, improving reaction time. Shorter sticks also mean that the player is closer to the ground, allowing them greater control of the ball[2]. More importantly, perhaps, is the reduced weight of the ball itself, allowing for enhanced responsiveness to touch. Interestingly, the futsal ball was made heavier for this purpose, but in this case, a lighter ball is more sensitive to the player’s touch. The ball also has dimples like a golf ball, and even holes, to make it more aerodynamic; the ball flies faster than a puck can in ice hockey. Once again, increased speed increases the coordination required on the parts of players defending, goalies attempting to catch shots, and forwards redirecting shots at the net. Moves (dekes) can be easily created in floorball, like futsal; greater control of the ball allows for more manoeuvrability and creativity, which can then be transferred to the hockey rink. One of the recommendations in The Talent Code, while discussing his three rules of deep practice, was to “Slow it Down”. There are dekes that need to be practiced in slow motion in order to be mastered, which is sometimes more easily achieved on a floorball court, due to the fast pace at which you glide on ice. Most importantly, as a forward, every touch put on the ball needs to be more fine-tuned, hence similar to futsal, floorball “demands and rewards more precise handling”.

As one would expect, countries where floorball is played have become “talent hotbeds” (similar to Brazil for soccer). Sweden, where floorball is most popular (and who have won the last two World Floorball Championships), has produced many National Hockey League (NHL) stars. The number of young players drafted to the NHL from Sweden has been steadily increasing, and floorball’s training effects on goalies is especially evident. Starting at the turn of the century, the number of Swedish and Finnish goalies has markedly increased[3], and many NHL goalies, among the best in the world, credit floorball in improving agility and reaction time[4]. In fact, many of floorball’s greatest (and certainly most prominent) advocates are former professional hockey players, such as ex-superstar NHLer Peter Forsberg. Famous Toronto Maple Leaf of the 1970s and 1980s, Borje Salming, has actually created a line of equipment. All of the above evidence suggests that floorball should be incorporated into off-ice training in Canada.

Pavel Barber, a hockey skill-developer and strong advocate of floorball, recently interviewed Daniel Coyle about his book on skill development in sports. Barber asked whether there would be merit to floorball in the development of ice hockey players (noting its similarities to futsal). Coyle replied: “Absolutely, makes perfect sense, because think about what your brain is doing in those positions, it’s having to read and react, it’s trying to create that fine edge, to be able to feel in your fingers what’s going on with the puck, and be able to control it”. He noted that in every sport, the pattern should hold: “shrink the space, force the reaction”.

In his book, Coyle describes futsal as “played inside a phone booth and dosed with amphetamines”, and I believe floorball could be described the exact same way. It also produces “an intricate series of quick, controlled passes, and nonstop end-to-end action”. Coyle points out that the smaller space requires that players look for angles, work “quick combinations with other players”, and constantly look for free space. Players are forced to recognize and make plays much quicker, and execute many more touches under constant pressure. All of the above can be said for floorball as well. Floorball puts players on the edge of their ability, (failing and correcting) in order to learn and build skills. Perhaps importantly, floorball is primarily practice in Canada, not nearly as competitive as other professional sports. This makes players feel comfortable taking risks and experimenting, an essential stage of training. Coyle concludes his interview with Pavel Barber by stating “it makes absolutely perfect sense to me that that would be a wonderful way to spend time in the deep practice zone”.

In conclusion, we should seek to develop floorball in Canada, to enable Canadians to reach their highest potential at our nation’s favourite pastime. Before the last Olympics, due to insurance risks, the Canadian men’s Olympic ice hockey team was forced to run a ball hockey practice (not on the ice). While the players largely treated the activity as a joke, the idea had merit, and was perhaps a step in the right direction. I recommend instituting floorball as a dry-land training for junior and professional hockey teams, and promoting the sport among Canadian youth, further developing leagues, camps, and other programs. This sport has the potential to help further the growth of Canadian hockey.

[1] Also commonly known as unihockey, salibandy, and innebandy
[2] This tactic is used in hockey as well; the shorter the stick, the more controlled stick handling
[4] Accomplished Swedish goalie Henrik Lundqvist played floorball in his development
(image: ullaj)

Meet MSURJ: Meng

Hello, hello! I’m Meng, one of the co-Editors-in-Chief for the 2015-2016 school year. I am a graduating pharmacology student minoring in economics.

In my free time, I love anything that involves being active, eating and taking Instagram pictures of food. A year ago, I started working at a research lab that focuses on the molecular basis of Alzheimer’s Disease and since then, it’s been quite a wild ride. I’ve learned through a summer submerged in research that there is no end to scientific learning, and that the amount of knowledge gained is directly proportional to self motivation, hard work and a lot of introspection—asking yourself why you are doing something, for instance.

Therefore, this school year, I’ve challenged myself to work as much as a graduate student and to produce as much, if not more data than the graduate students in my laboratory. So far, it has not been an easy journey, but I am anxious to see what a year of hard work will lead to. Ariana, the rest of the MSURJ team, and I have worked extremely hard over the whole summer to completely revamp ourselves, and we cannot wait to see what the future holds!


The Cognitive Neuroscience of Deception

Truth about lies, the highest governing process

Ji Yun Shin

We have probably encountered many troubling scenarios in life where we have felt the urge to lie. Afterwards, we might be so afraid to disclose our lies that we experience enormous guilt. On the other hand, however, intentional lying can sometimes be beneficial in allowing us to attain our goals with less effort. In these particular cases, we are able to justify lying, and thus free ourselves from any discomfort that accompanies mistruth.

Generally, people exhibit great interest in learning various tricks to detect lies in social settings, as evidenced by the countless articles and books available that discuss the relationship between social cues and deception.. However, these resources do not fully describe the brain mechanisms that are involved in the fabrication of lies. In fact, studies have shown that the brain requires higher cognitive function when involved in deception than in truth.

In the U.S. and Indian markets, the commercial lie detector is being widely advertised without much scientific basis. While often cited in some legal cases, lie detector evidence is outright refused in others because it can be unreliable. It is hard to overcome the limitations of lie detection technology. While the efficacy of the lie detector is an often heated, controversial debate in the field of neuroscience, recent studies have been reporting very amusing results in which patterns of brain activity have been correlated with deception.

In the presence of new imaging technology, scientists have come to reconstruct the definition of deception. DePaulo et al. described deception as a deliberate attempt to mislead others through literal truths. A review done by Spence et al. also introduced perspectives borne from fMRI techniques that are being used to measure deception in the brain, demonstrating the importance of mistruth to human social interactions. According to this study, the delivery of untruthful information is considered to be harmless in many social circumstances, acting as a foundation for humans to achieve various purposes. The study also showed that participating in deception is ideal for a child at the age of 3 or 4, so that they may better learn self-control. In more detail, learning self-control at an early age is a prosperous endeavor; Spence et al. claim romantic relationships can be facilitated by deception. As a result, some social interaction disorders may be associated with a lack of this essential skill. Although Spence et al. addresses the danger of habitual lying, they emphasize that when used in moderation, deception is key to human interaction in a social context.

It has also been reported that the theory of mind is absolutely necessary for deliberate deception. In other words, one must have an understanding of the intentions of another in order to deceive others effectively. Consequently, it is assumed that if a person lies despite lacking a thorough theory of mind, it can be attributed to a cognitive impairment. The formulation of lies is viewed as an additional cognitive process that requires prefrontal executive systems. Deception, which involves withholding information, requires ‘inhibition’. According to Ford’s study in 1995, the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) is involved in the process. Patients with orbitofrontal lesions showed a tendency to refrain from lying, in that they could not successfully refrain from revealing truthful responses at inappropriate times. Also, in non-human primates with lesions in this brain area, deficits in conditional responses were observed. Another area that is also known to be involved in response inhibition (Spence et al.) is the ventral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC). Furthermore, increased activity in the PFC and anterior cingulate gyrus areas, which are mostly known to be responsible for executive functions such as decision making, was observed when participants were made to lie, suggesting that deception was incorporated in the executive process. Although in no way singularly conclusive, and having its own flaws in experimental design (For instance, only having, ‘yes’ or ‘no’, as possible responses), overall, this study revealed important information about the physiology of deception through modern imaging techniques.

Finally, recent improvements in the quality of fMRI studies have allowed us to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the nature of deception in human cognition. We suppress truthful information when we choose to deceive others for social benefit or otherwise, suggesting higher response inhibition. When constructing any social contextual responses, we must consider our intentions through the lens of our human cognition.

DePaulo, B. M., Lindsay, J. J., Malone, B. E., Muhlenbruck, L., Charlton, K., & Cooper, H.(2003). Cues to deception. Psychological bulletin, 129(1), 74.
Spence, S. A., Hunter, M. D., Farrow, T. F., Green, R. D., Leung, D. H., Hughes, C. J., &Ganesan, V. (2004). A cognitive neurobiological account of deception: evidence fromfunctional neuroimaging. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci, 359(1451), 1755-1762.
Ford, C. V., & Price, J. S. (1996). Lies!, lies!!, lies!!!: The psychology of deceit (p. 118).Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.