Posted by: wtfwjd? | May 14, 2008

Can this possibly be correct?

I decided to take a look at the Tom Wolfe essay that Bobo mentioned in the bit of drivel I linked to earlier. When I think of Tom Wolfe I think white suit, not white coat, but despite his reactionary tendencies, he seems reasonably intelligent. This bit gave me pause however:

Brain imaging refers to techniques for watching the human brain as it functions, in real time. The most advanced forms currently are three-dimensional electroencephalography using mathematical models; the more familiar PET scan (positron-emission tomography); the new fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), which shows brain blood-flow patterns, and MRS (magnetic resonance spectroscopy), which measures biochemical changes in the brain; and the even newer PET reporter gene/PET reporter probe, which is, in fact, so new that it still has that length of heavy lumber for a name. Used so far only in animals and a few desperately sick children, the PET reporter gene/PET reporter probe pinpoints and follows the activity of specific genes. On a scanner screen you can actually see the genes light up inside the brain.

Can that last bit possibly be correct? You can see genes light up inside the brain? I’m no scientist, but my dilettantish understanding is that genes are little areas of chromosomal DNA. They might cause certain cells in the brain to behave in certain ways, but is it possible to say that any diagnostic imaging tool could allow you to see genes “light up inside the brain”?

If anyone knows one way or the other, I’d be interested to hear from you in comments.




  1. It is probably a misunderstanding of the idea that the product of the gene i.e. the protein it encodes, can light up on the screen in areas where it is expressed in high concentration. It means you can see where in the brain the genes are turned on because that is where all the gene products are piling up. Hope this helps.

  2. Thanks, that makes more sense. As a non-scientist with a deep interest in trying to grasp current scientific understanding, I necessarily rely on pop science and oversimplified explanations. However, I demand that these oversimplifications at least be fairly accurate, especially when using phrases like “you can actually see …”

    Thanks again.

  3. It’s true, some gene products (proteins) are really visible because they bright! For instance the product of gene luciferase is an enzyme that emits light, thus it is used in research as a “reporter gene”. To get an overview of the broad applications of reporter genes, have a glance at my blog: Reportergene

  4. Thanks, but that’s gene products not genes themselves. Wolfe makes it sound like the genes themselves change their state and somehow become visible. So maybe I’m being too literal, but he does say, “you can actually see the genes light up.” A bit like saying you can actually see radio waves by turning on a television. You see a manifestation of the waves, sure, but a TV does not allow you to see the waves themselves.

    Thanks again, and I’ll take a look at your blog.

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