Tag Archives: neuroendocrinology

When I’m Sixty Five

Special dedication to

Jacques Balthazart!

quail mating

birthday greetings

bottle of winejuliper

 

 

Pictured, a Valentine, a birthday greeting, a bottle of wine, and a Jupiler

Jacques Balthazart is a true leader in behavioral neuroendocrinology, the study of how hormones affect the brain and behavior. His retirement demanded a fitting tribute, but there was a problem. When it comes to international conference organizers, nobody does it better than Jacquesyoung jacques Balthazart. So, who would throw this party? No worries. The Belgian government’s policy requiring mandatory retirement at age 65 turned out to be the catalyst for a nonpareil scientific meeting (throughout this blog, all words underlined are links). It also turned out to be an outrageous birthday party and a creative plan to continue research on his own terms. Last week, the combination of foundational research, cutting-edge science, Belgian beer, and collegiality led to the conference’s new nom de plume: The International Conference Honoring Brilliant Balthazart (ICHBB).

Jacques is shown above and to the right just moments before the party, and below, just a few days into the party.

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Photo by GianCarlo Panzica of Jacques Balthazart, 65,  in a gift hat symbolizing his dual loyalty to Belgium and the U.S.
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ICHBB Conference photos by GianCarlos Panzika

After all, when you are the premier conference organizer, entertainer, and hub of your scientific community, it makes sense that you should plan, host, and orchestrate your own birthday retirement party!

team jacques

“Team Jacques” adapted from a funny photo by Julie Bakker

The first ICHBB was named the International Conference on Hormones Brain and Behavior and held in Bielfeld, Germany in 1982. It was conceived and developed from Jacques’ isolation as one of the few behavioral endocrinologists in Belgium. His uncontrollable desire for scientific interaction led him to invite about 40 premier behavioral endocrinologists from around the world to Bielfeld. To his surprise, they all showed up; it was an unqualified success; and everyone wanted to do it again and again. And again. In subsequent years, Jacques personally nursed the ICHBB in his home town of Liege (in 1984, 1989, and 2014) and affectionately nurtured the conference when it was hosted by others in France, Italy, and Spain.

liege buttfly bushes  2 I learned some things about Jacques’ life that I hope will be shared, remembered, and handed down to our academic offspring! First, necessity is the mother of invention in that some of Jacques’ biggest contributions to science come from his ability to embrace his authentic small-town lifestyle while uniting the world of behavioral neuroendocrinology. He was born, raised, educated, bred, and “retired” in Liege, Belgium, far less a tourist destination than a very pleasant place to grow up, and Jacques truly loves Liege. Many Americans have never even heard of Belgium, let alone, Liege, but one thing is very clear. Liege is “on the map” in the minds of behavioral endocrinologists. This just shows that there is no point in whining about where you work. I know behavioral endocrinologists at big U.S. medical schools, at Yale, or in big universities like UC-Berkeley who feel more isolated than Jacques.

liege night

liege dogs in bar

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Scenes from Liege

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This idea was confirmed by plenary speaker, Kathy Olsen, former deputy director of the National Science Foundation, chief scientist for NASA, and associate director and deputy director of science in the executive offices of the President of the United States of America. According to Kathy, there is no one else to blame for putting Liege on the map other than Jacques Balthazart.

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Kathy Olsen (right) shown with Vicki Luine and Yasuo Sakuma (left)

In terms of hormones and behavior, Jacques brought the world to Liege. I was surprised to learn that the man we know as the hub of our global science community is very much a local family man. Jacques’ father was a local architect, and his mother worked as a full-time homemaker and mother of two children. Jacques was educated from primary school on up through college in his home town of Liege. It was at the University of Liege that he fell in love with one of his biology professors, the beautiful and enviably fit, Claire (apparently she still runs 10K a day!). In addition to having a successful career in biology, Claire is a super friendly, social, community-oriented woman-about-town. Jacques, on the other hand, is not nearly as involved with his local friends and relatives. Though Claire chides Jacques for not remembering neighbors who have known Jacques his whole life, Jacques, ironically, is the social glue holding together a giant global network of scholars and friends, many of whom traveled far and wide to celebrate Jacques’ birthday. In one of Jacques’ presentations this week, he showed a world map dotted in every continent with markers showing where he has friends who will meet him at the airport.

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Lauren Riters and family (left) and Nicole Cameron with a lot of French stripes (right)

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Nicole, Lauren, Lauren’s son, Nancy Forger and Geert DeVries (left) and cannibals on the menu (below)

A Bad Bromance

Everyone in behavioral endocrinology knows that Jacques Balthazart has co-authored numerous landmark articles with Greg Ball, begging the question “How did this fertile collaboration begin?” During the various tributes at the conference, we learned that in 1983, Greg Ball was a graduate student at the Institute for Animal Behavior at Rutgers-Newark, where Jacques Balthazart was a distinguished visitor. Jacques, however, was not impressed with that Greg Ball character!

Jacques recalls Greg as a “lazy, long-haired hippie hanging around drinking coffee and pontificating in the break room all day long in a booming voice that could be heard all over the department.” As they say, first impressions are the best. Well, except the lazy part, because Greg’s and Jacques’ publications together number at least 400, and somewhere between 110-115 of those articles are co-authored by Ball and Balthazart or Balthazart and Ball.

The Ball and Balthazart Bromance was finally consummated (scientifically) a few years later in Germany. Greg Ball, then a postdoc with John Wingfield, was invited to speak at the conference. Greg was put up in a small dormatory-like room with a single bathroom shared by the adjacent room. Greg was brushing his teeth when his new next door neighbor, Jacques Balthazart, burst into the bathroom. “Well, well, well, we meet again!” Only this time, the Greg-Jacques Belgian beer bromance began in earnest (Wait? Who’s Ernest?) From the time of that meeting, Jacques Balthazart and Greg Ball became fast friends and insanely productive collaborators.

Incidentally, you can trace the academic family trees of these characters and that of your own mentor at Neurotree.org. Greg Ball’s tree is probably the most interesting, reaching straight back to Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz.

Peg McCarthy, Greg Ball’s beloved spousal unit, in her plenary lecture, explained that Jacques was a daunting obstacle blocking Greg’s affections for Peg in the initial stages of their courtship. At first, it was clear to Peg that Jacques would always be Greg’s “first wife.” It seemed she could never compete with Jacques. Luckily, Jacques came to adore Peg, and now warmly accepts Peg as a sisterwife. Suffice to say, that if all sisterwives were like Jacques and Peg, we would all be Mormons.

peg and greg

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Greg Ball and Peg McCarthy (left) and a nicer pic of Peg with me and Colin Saldanha

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   Celebrating Belgium Moving Up In the World Cup 2014

To Sir Jacques With Love

The entire meeting was infused with enormous gratitude and affection from Jacques’ present and former students, postdocs, collaborators, family, and friends. Greg Ball gave a “What I learned from Jacques” speech that I wish all graduate students could hear. The highlights included

1) PUBLISH all of your data immediately. You never know when or how your results will be useful to other scientists, and none of it will matter if it is not published.

2) Time is precious, so, collect data, and write without fail, regardless of how late you stayed up the night before. No excuses. As Jacques would say, you have one 33 cl (Jupiler) at lunch and then bike back to work!

3) Be brave about methods. If it’s been done, you can do it.

4) Good ideas come from many sources, so, go to meetings and host your own.

5) Good colleagues can be good friends.

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Jacques and Jeff Blaustein are not at all faking interest in my poster presentation. Photo taken by Vicki Luine.

In any case, there were so many excellent talks and posters at the meeting, demonstrating that Jacques will live on through his scholarship and mentoring as long as human civilization survives. Happily we learned that Jacques will continue working at the University of Liege, without the unpleasant duties of his old position, but instead intensifying focus on the research that he loves. This is one of the benefits of launching the careers of young, outstanding scientists and scholars. Shown below are ICHBB attendees who came to honor Jacques: Dave Grattan, Colin Saldanha, Kiran Soma, Jim Pfaus (with son, Josh), Thierry Charlier, Chuck Roselli and many others in the group photos.

jacques with dave gratten jacques w:colin and kiren

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Enjoy the next phase, Jacques! Your work is alive and well in all of our research programs. See you soon.

jacques juliper

The above photo of Jacques and the preceding six were taken by GianCarlo Panzica.

There will be more pictures available through the website for the ICHBB. Meanwhile, you will find some links to seminal Balthazart discoveries here and here.

And finally, here’s a funky version of what I’m sure Jacques’ mentees are thinking…

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Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Crawling C. elegans hermaphrodite worm

Crawling C. elegans hermaphrodite worm (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

             Should I stay or should I go? Well, how much food do you have? In some organisms, sexual desire is expressed by leaving, that is, by bidding adieu to a delicious pile of food and wandering off in search of a mate. But not just any mate, a mate with food! Lipton et al., at  Albert Einstein College of Medicine, use the “leaving assay” to measure male sexual desire. Their subject is the elegant, rod-like worm, Caenorhabditis elegans.*  They start by placing males on their preferred food source; then they measure how often males exit in search of mating partners. You can see the trails they leave in the substrate in this video of C. elegans appropriating Harlem art and culture.

              How do the researchers know “leaving” is a sex behavior? Context. Leaving a food source occurs only in a sexual context, and the leaving assay is being used to tease apart the threads that control the appetites for food and sex.

            First, a quick lesson in the fascinating sexuality of C. elegans. Males are not interested in other males, but they search intensely for a mating partner of the other sex. Note that I said “other sex” not “opposite sex.” There are no female C. elegans.  Males of this species mate enthusiastically with hermaphrodites. Hermaphrodites can, of course, self-fertilize, but sexual unions between males and hermaphrodites are far more fruitful than selfing. For hermaphrodites, mating with a male will produce more offspring, and for males, hermaphrodites are the only crying game in town.

            In the leaving assay, C. elegans males are placed on a preferred food source with or without hermaphrodites. Sexually mature males tend to linger when dining with hermaphrodites but leave readily when no hermaphrodites are present at the food source. They wander off searching for mates. The predilection is specific to sexually mature C. elegans, not to juveniles or males that have had their gonads removed.  It’s the gonads that put the lust in wanderlust. As sexy males’ bodies move through the substrate, they leave their snakey imprint, a permanent record of their search for the ideal dining experience. What is the ideal? A cozy little bistro with not only delicious cuisine but hermaphrodite companionship. What’s more, the hermaphrodites alone are not enough. Males prefer to stay and mate with hermaphrodites, but only hermaphrodites positioned at an abundant food source.

            The leaving assay in C. elegans is being used to tease apart the intricate threads that control the appetites for food and sex. Like our own appetites, those of C. elegans are sensitive to prior experience. Males that have been previously food-deprived have a longer latency to leave a food source. Hungry males will stay longer on a lonely, hermaphrodite-free food source before finally wandering off in search of a companion. The longer the food deprivation, the longer the males delay their wanderlust. These changes in the hunger for food and desire for sex may be mediated by some of the same hormones at work in our own species. Other researchers have shown that when members of C. elegans eat food, there is an increase in the secretion of serotonin. You’ve heard of it. Drugs prescribed for human depression target serotonin action. Prozac, for example, increases serotonin levels by blocking the reuptake of serotonin by the cells that secreted it in the first place. We have long known that depletion of serotonin is associated with anxiety and depression, and more recently it has been suggested that overeating foods that promote serotonin synthesis is a form of self-medication. Getting back to C. elegans, Lipton et al., found that mutations in the genes that encode serotonin receptors render the males insensitive to serotonin action. Mutant males that are insensitive to serotonin act like food-deprived males in that they fail to leave a food source in search of mating partners. There’s more. Mutations or other manipulations that inhibit gonadal function also act like food deprivation, i.e., they prevent wanderlust. Mutation of the fog-1 gene transformed males to females, that is, fog-1 mutants produced oocytes instead of sperm. Those males so transformed did not show the leaving behavior, but instead remained on food! This suggest that the chemical pathways that determine whether a young nematode develops into an adult male or a hermaphrodite also determine the leaving response to a food source.

            As I have noted in recent a review article (Schneider et al., 2012), most of the chemical messengers that increase the hunger for food inhibit sexual desire and ability. The reverse is also true. Chemical messengers that inhibit eating tend to increase sexual desire and ability.  The sheer number of these chemical messengers is mind boggling. The thought of unraveling the complexity of motivated behavior in vertebrates is overwhelming. On the other hand, the nervous system of C. elegans, a nematode worm, is comprised of only a few hundred neurons. The fact that they show quantifiable, goal-oriented decisions regarding food and sex is remarkable.

            Most investigators study food intake in animals (usually rats or mice) that are singly-housed and have little or no opportunity to move, let alone interact with potential mating partners. Most investigators that study reproduction do not observe their experimental subjects in the presence of food. The entire pharmaceutical-industrial complex is driven by theories derived from studying animals in these artificial environments. The knee-jerk assumption in obesity research is that chemical messengers like serotonin, leptin, and others function to keep body weight within some fashionable and “healthy” limit, and that this system has failed in over 60% of the population.  The work of Lipton is more in line with the idea that these chemical messengers function to orchestrate the appetites for food and sex in environments where energy availability fluctuates. For testing this idea, what system could be more elegant than that of C. elegans?

*its name is actually Greek and Latin for “recent, rod-like, elegant”

This is my favorite

C. elegans parody of that awful Harlem Shake video.

Lipton, J. Kleemann, G., Ghosh, R. Lints, R., Emmons, S. W. Journal of Neuroscience, 24 (34) pp. 7427, 2004.

Schneider J. E., Klingerman C. M. and Abdulhay A. (2012) Sense and nonsense in metabolic control of reproduction. Front. Endocrin. 3:26. doi: 10.3389/fendo.2012.00026.

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