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The dark arts of statistical genomics

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--> “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” - Wittgenstein
That’s a maxim to live by, or certainly to blog by, but I am about to break it. Most of the time I try to write about things I feel I have some understanding of (rightly or wrongly) or at least an informed opinion on. But I am writing this post from a position of ignorance and confusion.
I want to discuss a fairly esoteric and technical statistical method recently applied in human genetics, which has become quite influential. The results from recent studies using this approach have a direct bearing on an important question – the genetic architecture of complex diseases, such as schizophrenia and autism. And that, in turn, dramatically affects how we conceptualise these disorders. But this discussion will also touch on a much wider social issue in science, which is how highly specialised statistical claims are accepted (or not) by biologists or clinicians, the vast majority of whom are unable to evaluate…

Popping the hood on synaesthesia – what’s going on in there?

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-->Synaesthesia – a “mixing of the senses” – was a popular scientific topic in the late 19th century, but fell out of favour during the mid-20th century, mainly due to the influence of behaviorism, which held that subjective experience was not a suitable subject for serious science. The start of this century has seen resurgence in interest in the topic, partly fuelled by the hope that neuroimaging would provide objective measures of what is happening in the brains of people during synaesthetic experiences.
We (Erik O’Hanlon, Fiona Newell and myself) have recently published our own neuroimaging study of synaesthesia, combining structural and functional analyses. Some of what follows is pulled from that paper, which contains references to the many studies cited below. Many of the ideas below are also discussed in a chapter I wrote for the new Oxford Handbook of Synaesthesia: Synaesthesia and cortical connectivity – a neurodevelopmental perspective.
The term synaesthesia refers both …

Why optogenetics deserves the hype

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Optogenetics has come in for some stick lately, with a number of people criticising the hype that this technique generates in some quarters. That’s fair enough, I suppose – there have no doubt been some claims made about what can be accomplished with this technique that are, at the very least, premature. I’m all for bashing hype (see The Trouble with Epigenetics 1 and 2, for example), but criticising the technique for what it’s not good for seems to be missing the point to me.

To me, optogenetics will revolutionise neuroscience. It is the tool that will finally let us meaningfully integrate the cellular with the systems level. Not by itself, of course – we’ll still need all the electrophysiology and pharmacology and neuroimaging and lesion studies and model organisms and whatever you’re having yourself. And not without some teething problems and over-interpretation of early findings, which will no doubt earn more tongue-lashings from the hype-police. But it will let us ask questions w…