Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Dr. W. Franklin Dove spent years of his career creating unicorns. Unicorn goats, unicorn cows. Even tri-horned animals roamed Dove’s barns.

Dove created these strangely-horned animals by removing immature “horn buds” from the heads of young animals and implanting the horn buds to a different location on the skull. He wanted to prove that horns did not grow straight out of the skull; instead, horn tissue developed separately and fused to the skull as it grew.

Understand that Dove was no crackpot scientist. Dove was a biologist at the University of Maine who studied animal production in the early 20th century. He had all the right collaborators and the right publications. Dove was a serious scientist.

As Dove created his unicorns, he realized that he was right—horn tissue was different than skull tissue. His studies also revealed the importance of connective tissue and “primordial” cells (aka stem cells) in early development.

But that’s not the most interesting part, at least not for University of Iowa neuroscientist Dr. Mark Blumberg. Blumberg believes Dove’s unicorns reveal how anatomy influences behavior. In his book Freaks of Nature: What Anomalies Tell Us About Development and Evolution, Blumberg explains how one unicorn bull used its horn to gain dominance.

“Franklin Dove’s unicorn acquired, according to its creator, a ‘peculiar power.’ This bull used his single horn ‘as a prow to pass under fences and barriers in his path, or as a forward thrusting bayonet in his attacks,’” writes Blumberg.

This example of an animal using its unusual form—its freakiness—to its advantage inspired Blumberg to change the focus of his own research. Blumberg studies how neural pathways form between one’s brain and one’s limbs. Ever seen a dog twitching in its sleep? Blumberg thinks those twitches help the brain map out the body.

But thinking about anomalies made Blumberg consider how the brain reacts when the body is altered. Like with the unicorn bull, body form could change behavior.

“When we think about instincts, we think of them as programs in our brains that tell us what to do,” Blumberg said. But that concept of instinct is wrong. “What’s wonderful about the nervous system is that it’s incredibly plastic.”

When it comes to mapping the body during sleep, Blumberg said, “We map what we have.” Our brains can override instinct and we can develop new behaviors, like a bull using a unicorn horn as a bayonet, a quadriplegic person playing wheelchair rugby, or Irish artist Christy Brown painting with his left foot.

“We have to develop our nervous systems for ourselves, they’re not identical,” Blumberg said. “We are all freaks—it’s just that the details are a little different.”