Why I hate neurons

20 November 2012 by Pete Etchells, posted in Uncategorized

Hey. You people over there, the ones who like sciencey sorts of things - I have a question for you all. Who inspired your original spark of interest in it in the first place? Did you hate it at school, only to throw yourself into it as an adult? Was your physics teacher the one who really made you think about life, the universe and everything? Maybe it was a book you read? It doesn't even have to be about science - how did you first get into whatever it is that you love doing? For me, the inspiration was my Dad. He's also the reason that I singularly, stupidly, unreasonably, hate teaching about neurons with a zealous vigour. Let me explain why.

Circa 1998, I was a fat, sickly 14-year-old living in a cold, damp, foggy town on the outskirts of Manchester. I was fat because I ate too many potato crisps, and I was sickly, well, probably because I ate too many potato crisps (I kid). Being sickly meant that I had a lot of time off ill from school, which was an odd state of affairs, because I actually really enjoyed it, and my grades were pretty good. Whatever the reason for the funk I was in, it was my Dad who snapped me out of it. Not by shouting at me or cajoling me, not by bribing me or by forcing me to do anything. He did it by doing what he'd always done; he asked questions, and listened to the answers. My answers, inevitably, were always lame excuses, but in a sense that wasn't really the point. He didn't judge, he just listened, and gave me the time to figure out an answer myself. When I got there, he'd be there with a smile on his face.

And that was one of the most useful things that my Dad ever taught me. It's all well and good asking questions about things, but if you don't listen to the answers, you don’t get anywhere at all. My Dad was one of those people who was immediately likeable and approachable, and always had time to listen to whatever it was that you had to say (within reason, of course). Whether you’re a scientist or not, I think that’s a hugely important trait to have, but I feel it’s something that’s all too easy to lose as a researcher. We like to ask questions, we don’t always give enough time to the bits that come after that.

So why did my Dad also inspire an irrational hatred of neurons? Because fourteen years ago today, on a freezing, dark, miserable day in November, my Dad died, two years after being diagnosed with a form of Motor Neuron Disease (MND) called Progressive Muscular Atrophy. MND is an odd sort of disease, because although it is (thankfully) relatively rare (with an incidence of about 2 in every 100,000 people), because of people like Professor Stephen Hawking, the American baseball player Lou Gehrig, or the book Tuesdays with Morrie, quite a large proportion of people have probably heard of it. Progressive Muscular Atrophy (PMA) is a very rare variant of the disease, accounting for about 4% of the total number of MND diagnoses. It’s important to get the diagnosis right with different sorts of MND, because the prognosis is better in some cases than in others - for example, the 5-year survival rate for PMA is 33%, compared with 20% for the more common form called Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, or more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). In a nutshell, MND affects the motor neurons, which are the cells that send out signals to the muscles and hormonal glands in your body, and control things like walking, speaking, breathing, swallowing, and basically anything that involves movement in your body. Different types of MND affect different groups of motor neurons in different ways; PMA selectively affects what are called ‘lower’ motor neurons, which are the ones that connect the muscles to your spinal cord (‘upper’ motor neurons basically form the link between the brain and spinal cord). We don’t really know all that much about what causes PMA, just that it causes motor neuron degradation, which in turn causes the muscles to waste away. And while the facts and numbers are interesting and all that, they cloud the fact that PMA is an utter twat of a disease.

Generally it starts with things like reduced dexterity in the hands, feet or mouth. In my Dad, it progressed to his legs, such that he couldn’t walk, or drive any more. Given that his job required that he drive all over the place (he was a surveyor, and went to assess people’s houses), that basically put an end to that. Nearer the end, he found it tremendously difficult to move his arms (he loved to paint, so there went that hobby), and had difficulty breathing and swallowing. Heartbreakingly, PMA doesn’t affect your cognitive functioning, so my Dad was just as bright, alert, interesting and interested on the last day as he was on day one. All the way through those two years, he remained incalculably strong. Of course, there were times when he was scared and upset, but I always thought that if it had been me in his position, there would have been a hell of a lot more of those moments. During it all, he still led by example in demonstrating a vigorous sense of curiosity about things - he devoured every piece of information about the disease that he could get his hands on, and in the end probably wound up knowing more about it than his consultant. As much as I miss him, I am very thankful for the time that I had with him, and I am thankful for our many chats about everything and nothing.

Please forgive me this personal indulgence today, because this anniversary of his death is a particularly poignant one. Tomorrow will mark the moment at which I will have spent the greater proportion of my life without my Dad than I did with him, and in all honesty, that completely, utterly sucks. But without my Dad, without his guidance and his interest, I would never have ended up on the path to eventually becoming a research scientist. That initial spark of curiosity, that sense of wonder and intrigue about the world around you, and why it works. To me, that is the mark of who a scientist is; not what sort of qualification they’ve got. And it’s a quality that you can’t teach people, you can only learn it from those who have around you, those who instill it in you. So I hate teaching about neurons, because it reminds me why I lost my Dad in the first place. And yet the very fact that I’m there, at the front of a lecture theatre, teaching students about it in the first place, is a testament to the gifts that he left behind, and hopefully, one day, I can return the favour by passing it on to someone else.


10 Responses to “Why I hate neurons”

  1. Khalil A. Cassimally | Permalink

    A poignant piece, Pete. Also shows that your dad's legacy carries on, 14 years onward...

  2. Laura Wheeler | Permalink

    Hi Pete - thanks for a really moving post!

  3. Patrick | Permalink

    Very moving, thank you for writing these wise, honest words.

  4. Dario Ringach | Permalink

    Moving and inspiring... Inspiration that will percolate to your students. Who knows, one day, one of them may come up with a cure.

  5. Jeri Bowers | Permalink

    Pete, there is so much I love about this post. I was never inspired to pursue an interest in science until after high school, but am so happy that I've now learned to love it. I lost my dad (the greatest teacher I've ever known) when I was 18, and recently passed a similar milestone of living longer without him than with him. I so wish I had known him as an adult.

    • Pete Etchells | Permalink

      I'm really sorry to hear about your Dad Jeri. I echo your feeling about wishing it was possible to know your dad in adulthood. But I'm glad he instilled a love of science in you too! In that sense, he's never really left you.

  6. Matt Wall | Permalink

    Great post Pete, thanks for sharing it. My Grandfather was a similar inspiration to me too.

  7. Nick | Permalink

    Thank you for that beautiful post. A family member was recently diagnosed with MND, right after I chose several modules relating to neuroscience—something that has already added an agonisingly mixed reminder to a rather dispassionate subject. It made it all the more moving to hear that perhaps it's not so dispassionate from an academic's perspective.

    • Pete Etchells | Permalink

      I'm really sorry to hear that Nick. My thoughts go out to you and your family. I always think that people pick subjects for personal reasons, neuroscience included. In that sense, it's never a dispassionate subject. Not much comfort, I know, but always a fact worth reminding yourself of. Always here if you need a chat.

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