28 August 2018

Headline hogwash: Rosehip neurons

I was listening to the radio this morning, and heard some very strange coverage about something called “rosehip neurons.” The coverage was pushing this notion that these newly described neurons were somehow extra special and extra unusual and might be one of the things that make us human. I almost felt like rosehip neurons were being described the way I imagined René Descartes described the pineal gland.

I looked at some headlines, because headlines disproportionately influence what people believe about a story.

NPR, The Independent, Iran Daily, and India Today link these neurons to human “uniqueness.” News Medical and Biocompare flat out state rosehip neurons are unique to humans.

Facebook juggernaut I Fucking Love Science, Science Alert, Interesting Engineering, and News.com.au are more cautious, saying “possibly,” “looks like” or “may be” that rosehip neurons are only in humans.

Science, Science Daily, Wired (*), Forbes, and LiveScience carefully specify these neurons are found in people or humans. Yet media will almost never say when research is done in mice or some other animal.

The cumulative effect  of looking through these news headlines is that you get the impression that rosehip neurons are the first thing we have ever found that is unique to humans. Walter (2008) has a whole book of uniquely human traits.

And people are falling for this narrative already. I say “falling” because the reasoning trying to link these neurons to the uniqueness of humans is spurious.

The paper by Boldog and colleagues does not show rosehip neurons are “human specific.” The paper shows rosehip neurons are “not seen in mouse cortex”. That’s a big difference. It’s like calling whiskers “mouse specific” because you look at a mouse and a human, and you see that the mouse has whiskers and humans don’t. It sounds good until you look at a cat.

For all we know, cats might have rosehip neurons. Bats might have them. Elephants might have them. Chimps, gorillas, and whales might have them. Lions, and tigers, and bears might have them.

Different species are different. This is not a surprise. The idea that human brains are just very large mouse brains might be a great strawman to get money from medical funding agencies, but it’s not a position that anyone who understands evolution and animal diversity should take.


Boldog et al. Transcriptomic and morphophysiological evidence for a specialized human cortical GABAergic cell type. Nature Neuroscience. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41593-018-0205-2 (Preprint available here.)

Walter C. Thumbs, Toes, and Tears (see also interview)

Related posts

New rule for medical research headlines

External links

What Makes A Human Brain Unique? A Newly Discovered Neuron May Be A Clue

Mysterious new brain cell found in people

Scientists identify a new kind of human brain cell

Meet the Rose Hip Cell, a New Kind of Neuron (* The Wired headline that appears in Google search results is, “Meet the Rosehip Cell, a New Kind of Human Neuron | WIRED”)

Scientists Discover A New Type Of Brain Cell In Humans

Neuroscientists identify new type of “rose hip” neurons unique to humans

Team Discovers New ‘Rosehip’ Neuronal Cells Found Only in Humans

Scientists Find a Strange New Cell in Human Brains: The 'Rosehip Neuron

International Team Discovers New Type Of Neuron That May Be Unique To Humans

New, and possibly unique, human brain cell discovered

Mysterious new type of cell could help reveal what makes human brain special

Scientists Discovered A New Type of Brain Cell That May Only Exist in Humans

1 comment:

Mike Taylor said...

"For all we know, cats might have rosehip neurons. Bats might have them. Elephants might have them. Chimps, gorillas, and whales might have them. Lions, and tigers, and bears might have them."

Woah! Mammal-centric much?