Genes, stats and rats – with juggling, songs and raps

Words by Lucy Eland, Edited by Joe Crutwell

This month’s SciBar saw Dr Lynsey Hall explain her research on the genetic basis of depression, through the medium of comedy!

Lynsey, a statistical geneticist from Newcastle University’s Institute of Genetic Medicine, explained the types of genetic variation that can occur using juggling and references to Mickey Mouse’s uncontrollable broom production spell from Disney’s Fantasia (a stop gain mutation!).

During her PhD research, she hoped to detect the genes responsible for depression using a Genome Wide Association study, or GWAS. This technique takes the genetic data from people both with and without depression, and does a huge ‘spot the difference’ between the two. Though according to Lynsey, doing a GWAS for depression is more like a misprinted ‘Where’s Wally’ with no Wally! After a frustrating period she did a statistical power calculation and realised that the chances of finding genes for depression are extremely small. This is because depression is both very common and difficult to quantify, with symptoms varying widely between different people. Another difficulty is that for the current methods people are only divided into ‘depressed’ or ‘healthy’ groups, and depression is just not that black and white.

The difficulties with statistical power and the need for experiments that can test possible drugs on rats led Lynsey to look for other ways to measure depression. The test that Lynsey guided us through was a rat cognitive bias test. To put it simply, rats are put in a maze of sandpaper-lined tubes and sand-pits. The sand-pits contain either a cheerio and a tube of smooth sandpaper or chocolate and a tube of rough sandpaper. The rats were then trained up to make sure that they knew how to find their favourite treat (chocolate, obviously!). Researchers replaced some of the sandpaper with one of medium roughness, and used this as a measure of how optimistic the rats were. Do the rats go for the tubes with the medium roughness sandpaper in the hope that there is chocolate? It turns out that depressed rats assume that the medium roughness paper will just lead to another cheerio, and the happier rats dare to hope for more chocolate. Endless days of running rats through mazes during her PhD led Lynsey to write ‘Bowl digger’ to the tune of ‘Gold Digger’ about one of her rats, which she performed for us to much applause.

Discussion of the prevalence of depression and mental health problems amongst researchers in universities, a hot news topic at the moment, drew the talk to a close. The trials, tribulations and pains of carrying out scientific research to get a PhD were summed up perfectly in Lynsey’s final song for the evening ‘Friday I make graphs!’ (to the tune of The Cure’s, ‘Friday I’m in love’)

A lively discussion followed about the difficulties of categorising and measuring depression, how rates of depression vary between men and women, as well as whether all rats prefer chocolate to Cheerios.

You can keep your eyes peeled for the next Scibar event on the BSA facebook page. In the meantime you can give Lynsey’s past comedy sets from Bright Club on Youtube a watch, to get a flavour of what we were treated to this week.

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