Tumour necrosis factor makes you sleepy…

How we fall asleep isn’t widely understood. Of the fifty or so peer-reviewed papers I have sitting on my desk, about 45 conclude that sleep is complicated. The other five conclude that it’s really complicated. That’s because we can only look at the activity of the human brain through snapshots of its metabolism or its electrical charge at the surface.

Genetics, too, is what we non-geneticists like to call ‘fucking loopy.’ For example, among those papers I mentioned, there are several that look at a gene that helps to determine whether or not it’s time to go to sleep. That gene – and the protein that it makes – is called TNFα. So far so acronym-y. But TNFα is short for tumor necrosis factor alpha. That’s what it was first spotted doing somewhere else in the body so the name stuck. But now we know that it also suppresses appetite, increases insulin resistance, and regulates how bitter things taste. But we’re stuck with the name; because history.  

Model of TNF-alpha, produced by common mouse. Baeyens, KJ et al. (1999).
Model of TNF-alpha, produced by common mouse. Baeyens, KJ et al. (1999).

But because I care for you, dear reader, more than I care for my sanity, I’ve autopsied this mangled body of research, and here’s what I’ve found. 

We now know that TNFα expresses a protein inside star-shaped cells in the brain called astrocytes. These cells support neurons both physically and metabolically – they’re a scaffold and a glycogen supply mechanism. But it was recently discovered that glial cells don’t just support neurons, they have signalling duties of their own. Astrocytes accumulate TNFα throughout the day, and then release it into the adjacent neurons, where it binds with receptors, which then contributes to the drive to go to sleep. (Vanderheyden et al. 2018)

But again, neither messing around with human genes, or surveying the entire population to find some very rare mutants, is going to get the science done. Results of previous research had shown that both sleep deprivation and high levels of neuronal activity makes humans and other animals produce more of the TNFα protein. It also showed that injecting TNFα into rabbits makes them go to sleep. So rather than tinkering with humans or searching for mutants, Professor William Vanderheyden and his team at Washington State University bred a population of fruit flies that lacked a very similar gene. 

‘Fruit flies happen to have a molecule that is very similar to TNFα  that is called Eiger, and the receptor to which it binds is called Wengen,’ says Professor Vanderheyden. ‘What we tried to identify through this research were mechanisms by which Eiger and Wengen could be regulating sleep in the fruit fly.’

When the team knocked out the flies’ ability to produce Eiger in their astrocytes, the flies became insomniac, sleeping less and sleeping irregularly. But when they injected the flies with the human TNFα protein, the flies went back to typical levels and patterns of sleep. So far so good:  TNFα sends a ‘sleep’ message. 

Next, they bred flies that lacked the Wengen receptor in their neurons. This time, injecting the flies with TNFα did nothing to fix their sleep. What’s more, the flies with no Wenger receptor proteins were incapable of recovering from sleep deprivation. You may be wondering how you deprive flies of sleep. In the old days you did it by depriving researchers of sleep. They would stay up all night tapping the flies’ jars, or gently moving them around. But this is one of the jobs that has fallen prey to automation: the Sleep Nullifying Apparatus (or SNAP) was invented at the machine shop at Washington University in Saint Louis. It tilts back and forth, moving the flies ten times a minute and preventing them from catching any shut eye for twelve hours or so.

So the next time you’re feeling sleepy, blame your astrocytes. But don;t be too quick to sign up for gene modification… In a future post I’ll explain why lack of sleep is super bad for you!

Feeling Festiv(al)

I have some exciting news to come about personal appearances for autumn and winter 2019. The first event in the programme is now live.

Canterbury Festival Programme, 19th Oct – 2nd Nov 2019

I’ll be speaking at Canterbury Festival on the evening of Monday 21st October. I’ll be talking about

  • The science of swearing,
  • What we’ve learned since the book came out,
  • Why I know own a stuffed llama,
  • And some of the funniest interview questions I’ve dealt with.

There may also be some digressions on the neuroscience of the parental brain (especially my parental brain) and whether that makes you more or less likely to swear.

If you’re hungry for some playfully astute science in a room of similarly nerdy people, come along and be part of the fun. Tickets are available now.

PICTFOR Summer Reception

I was lucky enough to be asked to compère the Parliamentary Internet, Communications, and Technology Forum summer reception. PICTFOR is an all-party group that helps to shape policy by ensuring that MPs and Lords are well informed.

selfie on the riverside terrace at the UK parliament building
Houses of Parliament Terrace – a very nice place for tea

I was particularly honoured to be able to introduce Carly Kind, the new director of the Ada Lovelace Institute. A human rights lawyer specialising in privacy and digital rights, she is an all round kick ass person!

I also got to play with some amazing VR surgery training tools. I remember seeing some talks about the very earliest stages of combining haptics and VR back in my PhD days (the early 2000s.) It was a humbling experience. Feeling every vibration, every change in elasticity and plasticity, I found it hard to hold on to the idea that I was standing at a drinks reception, rather than wrist deep in someone’s body.  It made me want to reread The Butchering Art, just thinking of how far we’ve come.

And somewhat delightfully, I got to be part of the fancy hair colour squad with Lady Neville-Rolfe!

Damn fun day all around!

Meeting the Pink Alpaca

The mystery unravelled after a little online sleuthing yesterday…

List of Wikipedia pages I visited

My search history took me to some new places

Internet users in China have a long and illustrious history of getting around censorship with memes. I’d heard a bit about this when Chinese censors refused to pass the Winnie the Pooh film because of a meme. But I’d never met the Grass Mud Horse until yesterday.

This strange alpaca (not llama) first appeared in the late 2000s on Baidu; a heretofore undiscovered but resilient creature. Its name in Mandarin is cǎo ní mǎ (草泥马) which sounds close enough to cào nǐ mā (肏你妈), or “fuck your mother.”

An anonymous zoologist on Baidu reported that the cǎo ní mǎ lives in the 马勒戈壁 (Mahler Gobi) desert [1], and is in constant danger from aggressive 河蟹, héxiè (river crabs.) [2]

Print of an alpaca being threatened by a crab. The alpaca is large and calm, the crab is small but aggressive

The grass-mud horse and the river crab from the National Gallery of Australia. Artist Jessi Wong

Ai WeiWei posed naked with nothing but a 草泥马 to cover his modesty. 草泥马 dolls and plushies are sold, and 草泥马 pins can be bought. 草泥马 has stories, memes, comics, and songs.

I couldn’t be more proud of the cheeky, rebellious, subversive 草泥马 and I’m thrilled that it is the mascot for SIGFY in China.

[1] 妈了个屄, māle ge bī, translates to “your mother’s cunt”

[2] 和谐, héxié meaning harmonious society. Posts that have been removed by censors are said to have been 和谐 or “harmonised.”

Is it a naked llama?

I love getting copies of the translated editions of Swearing is Good for You. Like babies, they’re all unique and it’s not done to have favourites. From the subtle not to Never Mind the Bollocks… of the UK edition, to the cute kid flipping the bird on the US edition, to the beautiful F*ck Yeah pill on the US one.

But also like babies, some are…stranger than others? One edition turned up yesterday – thank you to CITIC Press and Felicity Bryan Associates – which has me a bit perplexed:

Picture of Emma holding the chinese edition of Swearing is Good for You
What the actual llama? Is this rude in China?

I’m astounded that anyone would take on the job of translating SIGFY because strong language is so culturally specific. But nothing has made me more aware of this fact than the cover of the Chinese edition.

Help me out, please, experts in Chinese culture. Is this rude? Does the word for llama sound like a swearword? Are Llamas somehow taboo? Is it even a llama? I will send this copy to the first person who can clear up the mystery! Answers on a tweet to @sciwriby please!


Strong Women, Strong Language

One of the absolute best things about writing Swearing is Good for You is how many brilliant, inspiring, supportive women I’ve had the chance to work with. I’ll talk more about my agent and publisher in another post, but in this one, I want to give a shout-out to three women I’ve had the enormous privilege to take part in discussions with.

First, meet Jessica Fostekew, comedian by trade and kick arse smart arse by inclination! She and I will be appearing together on November 12th 2017 at Stylist Live on the Thrive stage, helping 175 women get in touch with their unapologetic bad arse selves.

Earlier this week I also got to take part in one of the most fun episodes of Radio Three’s Free Thinking that I think there’s ever been! Poet Bridget Minamore and Comedian and Trump heckler Janey Godley and me all joined historian John Gallagher and host Matthew Sweet for a discussion of the pros and cons of swearing.  

I don’t normally get to work with anywhere near this many women (something I’m always actively trying to fix in my role working in AI) and it’s an absolute joy spending time with smart (and sweary) sisters!