A Modest Proposal to the IgNobel Committee

September 26, 2012 – 3:27 pm | By Anette Breindl | No comments yet

I always love reading about the IgNobel Prizes. The stated goal of the prize is to reward research that “first makes people laugh, and then makes them think.” And this year’s crop of winners once again succeeds at those tasks.

Take the 2012 Neuroscience IgNobel. It went to a team of scientists “for demonstrating that brain researchers, by using complicated instruments and simple statistics, can see meaningful brain activity anywhere.”

The winning study illustrated that using modern measurement methods, which can collect massive amounts of data, without updating statistical methods accordingly will almost inevitably lead to false positives. In their study, the winning team demonstrated statistically significant brain activity in fMRI measurements of an Atlantic salmon that was asked to judge people’s emotional state from a series of photographs. A dead Atlantic Salmon.

The work has deep implications for how to do statistical analyses of brain imaging studies. But it is hysterically funny on its surface. Personally, it also reminded me of an episode during graduate school when I walked into my institute’s neural prosthesis research lab to find some of my fellow graduate students busily inserting a cochlear implant into a watermelon.

They did then put said watermelon (which was standing in for a patient head due to its similar size and water content) into our fMRI scanner, but only to see how the scanner and implant affected each other. In retrospect, of course, they should have played the watermelon some tones while they were at it to see whether it could categorize them. Who knew?

Looking at this year’s prizes, though, I think another group of neuroscientists was robbed. The recent paper demonstrating that decision-making in drugged monkeys can be improved through a cortical prosthesis , titled “Facilitation and restoration of cognitive function in primate prefrontal cortex by a neuroprosthesis that utilizes minicolumn-specific neural firing” is surely worth some sort of prize.

Engineering, Biology and Neuroscience are all possibilities for which category of IgNobel this work merits. But I would personally favor the IgNobel Peace Prize.

There are certainly plenty of drug users that could do with some improved decision-making, for the benefit of all of society. But why stop there? The possibilities if this were to be routinely implanted in political officeholders boggle the mind.

And just imagine if the prosthetics team started collaborating with this year’s Neuroscience winners! Or with my erstwhile colleagues at the Leibniz Institute! “Facilitation and restoration of cognitive function in the post-mortem Atlantic Salmon / in the common watermelon Citrullus lanatis by a neuroprosthesis that uses minicolumn-specific neural firing” ‑ I would write a story about that for sure.

Unless, of course, the statistics were fishy.

Editor’s note: What’s your favorite IgNobel? Cast your vote here: www.bioworld.com (See the poll at the bottom right corner).


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