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Damn It, Basal Ganglia

Tuesday, August 09, 2011 - 07:50 PM

Shadow puppet Shadow puppet (Only Sequel/flickr)

The basal ganglia is a core part of the brain, deep inside your skull, that helps control movement. Unless something upsets the chain of command. In this short, Jad and Robert meet a young researcher who was studying what happens when the basal ganglia gets short-circuited in mice...until one fateful day, when things got really, really weird.

After graduating from college in 2009, Liza Shoenfeld got a job as a research associate in a lab at the University of California, San Francisco. She was just starting her career in neuroscience, and though she was kind of at the bottom of the totem pole, she got to be a part of some really cutting-edge research. As Liza explains, the lab was zeroing in on how the basal ganglia worked by experimenting on mice. And more specifically, her lab figured out a way to essentially switch different parts of the basal ganglia on and off, by shining a special laser into their little mouse brains.

You can watch a video of the mice here (it was posted to Nature, along with a paper on basal ganglia pathways).

So, armed with her lab skills and an interest in the basal ganglia, Liza started applying to grad schools where she could turn her experience with the mice into research questions of her own.

And this is where things get strange. When Liza got to her final round of interviews, everything got turned on its head. And Liza got much closer to her subject then she'd ever intended.



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Comments [44]

Cheryl Ackermann from Cincinnati Ohio

I heard part of this on NPR and wasn't able to hear the end nor can I seem to find end of the above article about basal ganglia.

Can someone please provide a link so I can read what happens? Thank you so much

Dec. 03 2017 12:26 PM

I also was horrified to hear the interviewer giggle as Liza recounted all the horrible symptoms that happened that day. Maybe Liza was making strange gestures or funny faces as she told the story and he got caught up in her dramatization.

Aug. 15 2015 11:14 PM
Katniss C. Kafkha from Milky Way Galaxy

This NPR was especially intriguing. That is so crazy how everything related, and it's weird to think that Liza is working in this lab and with this mouse, messing with it's brain and then basically her "payback" is to see how it has to suffer by living it. The brain is such an amazing part of us, how just one little nitch or blue light can completely turn us into a paraplegic or make us faster, stronger, better. This was very interesting and I think it will definitely change the way she looks at the human body, her graduate studies and especially the lab.

Nov. 03 2014 10:40 PM
Samson Lancaster from Huntington Beach, CA

This totally happened to me as a teenager! All this time I thought it was anaphylaxis. So crazy, I was listening to this episode on my way back to work from lunch, and was like Whoa! That is exactly what happened to me. As a kid My eyes rolled back my tongue stuck out and I couldn't stop looking up. I had been given Compazine the day before for a reaction to Erythromycin (uncontrollable vomiting). My parents called 911 and the paramedics administered Benadryl and it stopped almost immediately. I remember the Paramedic telling me that I had some "serious slippers". Needless to say I avoid drugs as much as I can. But it is very refreshing to know exactly what happened to me thank you Liza & Radiolab!

Jul. 22 2014 04:38 PM
Bethany from Ohio

In the spring of 1997, these exact symptoms showed up to torment me - while on stage, on opening night. I was cast as a disheveled prisoner - as well as the rear end of Don Quixote's dancing horse - in the ensemble cast of my high school's production of The Man of La Mancha. I was allowed to perform that night even though I had missed dress rehearsals due to a recent stomach bug. Thanks to Compazine (ha) I was feeling much better! Throughout that day I had tried to ignore the odd facial twitches; my eyes got stuck looking to the right; one knee kept locking up. We all assumed it was dehydration or stage fright. The show went on. After tolerating leg cramps through the first act, I limped backstage and wept while my face contorted into a maniacal smile. The director found a replacement and sent me to the girls' room to keep a warm cloth on my face. My ankles had turned in and I could not walk, so I stayed there. My family (then suffering the same bug) were not at the show but friends noticed I was missing from the second act and came to find me. They called my house and my dad drove me home. I tried to act normal but this quickly became impossible when both my arms became frozen in manner of Frankenstein's monster. I recall a perplexed stare from a driver in the next lane as my father and brother rushed me to the emergency room. Still in full makeup, I sported wild, dirty hair and a variety of nasty bruises. At the ER, I was placed in a wheelchair as my legs began a crazy dance all on their own. After the solo challenge of donning the hospital gown (even then I refused help from my dad and teenage brother) a nurse attempted to insert an IV. 'Please try to lie still' she pleaded. Seriously? Had I been able to speak, I would have replied 'If I could, I wouldn't be here!' A dose of Benadryl, however, helped me to comply with the order within 20 minutes, and it was over. Was it terrifying? Definitely! Is it funny? Sure, now it is. The only part I still resent is the prescribing doctor's response when we told him of the reaction. He explained that the percentage is so small that it's not worth warning the patient. I disagree. A side effect with the potential to rob a patient of speech and voluntary muscle control would, to my mind, be worth casually mentioning....

Aug. 01 2013 10:11 AM
Monique HFA

I found the podcast to be interesting and humerous. Liza seemed to gave a good laugh about her situation. I bet it was embersssing, but I'm sure she was okay about it afterwards. I don't think there was anything wrong with the guys laughing about it, they were just trying to make light of the situation.

Nov. 26 2012 11:48 AM

Some interesting similarities with the opening scene in Infinite Jest if anyones read it.

Jul. 17 2012 01:40 PM
Colleen from San Diego

I was driving and half paying attention to the program when she started describing the first of her symptoms. I immediately thought that it sounded like she was describing a reaction to compazine, and then remembered she said she had gone to the Dr. for nausea, so I was pretty sure I knew the end of the story because the same thing happened to me. When I was 12 years old, I was visiting my sister in a small Montana town over Thanksgiving and got sick to my stomach so the only Dr. in town prescribed Compazine. A couple of days later I was in the dime store, chewing gum, when I started noticing that I wasn't chewing normally. The symptoms got worse and I lost voluntary muscle control of my neck and mouth. My mouth would clamp shut - if I pried it open, it would stay open. As a 12 year old, I was terrified. My mother called the Dr. (the same Dr. that prescribed the drug!) and described the symptoms and he told her that I was at the age where I was probably just trying to get attention! Unfortunately, I had to wait until the symptoms passed on their own, and didn't know what caused them. I had just moved from a very small Catholic school to public school and lived in fear that these symptoms would recur while I was in school with all those new people. Months later when my mom was seeing our family Dr. in my home town, she described the symptoms to him, and he immediately knew what caused them. Even knowing the cause, I wouldn't chew gum for a year! That was an absolutely horrifying experience. I agree with one of the other posters that I was disappointed that the interviewers were getting such a laugh out of it - I supposed that because she was doing okay now, they felt like the could laugh, but it is not a funny experience! I truly hope that all users of Compazine are alerted to its possible side effects.

Jun. 25 2012 11:42 PM
Jen from NH

I have to say I was pretty shocked by the lack of sensitivity as the interviewer was busting a gut about the symptoms that Liza was describing. Many people are not so lucky as to have a temporary dystonia and try to live lives as normally as possible despite such a horribly visible and embarrassing condition. I found the story very interesting but for the inappropriate laughter. It would be completely unacceptable for a radio host to laugh at mental retardation or cancer, why ok to laugh at the symptoms of a severe neurological disorder?

Jun. 24 2012 11:31 PM
randy from crestline ca.

Some people have so many complants . Really ! do u even know the anotomy of the basial gangla . If u did would u have spelled it basal. So i say thank u mister /miss know it all ?

May. 24 2012 06:23 PM
diaphan0us from California

Cruel animal experiments?
She sounds like an awful person.

Apr. 07 2012 04:35 PM
Leah from Boston

I don't normally comment on these things but I just cannot believe the people who are being so critical about Liza not knowing the definition of the word basal! When was the last time you critics had to define a word on a very popular nationally-broadcast radio program? I would only hope to sound as articulate as her.

Also, I have a friend in her program and apparently she got an NSF grant. That's one of the most competitive grants you can get early in grad school, and I would venture a guess that's a better measure of her acumen than her ability to define a word on a radio program.

Mar. 01 2012 01:31 AM
Vikram from TAMU

I cannot believe some of the comments here. My questions to these skeptical people is, 'You don't have the ability to look past minor mistakes to enjoy the bigger picture'. IMHO, this was one of the most intriguing podcasts from radiolab. Krulwich: Keep up the good work.

Jan. 06 2012 03:45 PM


I concur 100%. I actually stopped listening.
Is that being arrogant I wonder..?

Dec. 18 2011 04:29 AM

Ted and engleside,
How is this girl interviewing at the best universities in the country though doesn't know the meaning of basal? ESPECIALLY when it's in the name of the region she studies! You study the cerebellum? Ok. Maybe you don't know why the basal ganglia is called that.
Unfortunately I was mad the whole podcast as a result, and barely listened.

Dec. 16 2011 03:44 PM
Hazel from Cold Spring, NY

This same thing happened to my friend during a track meet!

Nov. 25 2011 04:58 PM
Trin Calway

Wow! I took compazine when going through chemo and had this reaction. I think it is an "idiosyncratic" reaction. I took compazine for nausea for about a month before this happened. It started very gradually and it also seemed to affect my decision making. First day that it started, I had the unreasonable and bizarre urge to stare at the ceiling. Eventually it abated next day, spent entire day more and more determinately staring at the ceiling. My partner at the time came home from work and I could not keep my head down. I could move it down,but it would pop right back up. I was extremely anxious and unreasonable - it was so bizarre and hallucinatory. By the time I was convinced to get in the car to go to hospital, I had lost speech and my whole face was grimaced. I have had many, many surgeries but this is the only pain I can actually think of and somewhat feel. I did 1.5 years of infusion/chemo, double mastectomy, 4 reconstructions, an oopherectomy and many more surgeries and this was the single scariest thing I have ever experienced. When we got to the emergency room, the other people waiting actually told the nurse to take me first - they were begging the staff to help me. At the point I couldn't stand or sit. Just bouncing, flopping, drooling and making gasping, screaming noises. I could no longer speak at all and my partner at the time had no idea what medicines I took or even when I had last had chemo (2 days previous). Luckily the doctors recognized easy what was happening. The IV benedryl was the most amazing feeling I have ever felt. I think within a minute my body unseized. I was released shortly after, completely and totally fine. SO SCARY.
Those with compazine allergies,stay the hell away gtom that drug as well ad ...

Oct. 08 2011 11:00 PM

Really enjoyed the show! I love listening to these podcasts between classes.

Oct. 04 2011 01:28 PM


By what standard is it considered acceptable?

Writers encounter these situations regularly. One solution is to reach a bit deeper into the punctuation pouch and extract an em dash.

Sep. 17 2011 10:51 AM

I recently graduated from nursing school and recommended this short to my professors to use as a case study in pharmacology class! It's always good to have a compelling story to make adverse effects from drugs more memorable and real...

Sep. 16 2011 12:18 PM
Pete from Sydney, Australia

Well, there are some detractors on the comments, but I don't think they are being very balanced.

I have just listened to Plecebo and In-C and this one and I must say I am very impressed.

Nothing is perfect, but i am sure you all should be grateful these shows exist.

The Captn

Sep. 14 2011 11:48 AM
mmillington from Terre Haute, Ind.


You're right: "Unless something upsets the chain of command" is not a complete sentence. However, the rhetorical move is acceptable because the period provides the full break necessary to represent the passage of time and the jarring effects of the neurological interruption, which a comma doesn't adequately convey. It's a very common move, and it works. That's what really matters.

Sep. 13 2011 12:27 PM
Jotto999 from Ontario, Canada

The comment made that what she was experiencing was similar to what was being done to the mice was an unnecessary conflation and does not belong on a scientific podcast.

Other than that, interesting stuff, I love learning about the brain.

Sep. 12 2011 07:05 PM

"Unless something upsets the chain of command" as written in the show description is not a sentence.

Sep. 11 2011 10:08 PM
Colin S Goodyear from Corner Brook,NL,Canada

I would like to hear from anyone who has any type of dystonia and would be glad to share some of my experiences.

Sep. 05 2011 07:33 AM

While she was telling her story, most of the DJ interjections were redundant and became irritating.

Sep. 05 2011 01:06 AM

Hi Ted. Yes, I had exactly the same response when she was stumped when asked what the word "basal" means (did the hosts not know either, or did they just go along?).
I bet you're right that her teachers/professors just didn't expect to need to explain the meaning of such a common word. For some reason it makes me nervous that young scientists (or at least one of them) are able to speak well about the intricacies of human and mouse brain functions, but have never taken a few seconds to parse out what 'basal,' a word used frequently in and out of scientific discourse, actually means.

Aug. 27 2011 09:33 AM
cuzincuz from Miami

Does anybody know the song that is playing at the very end of this particular short?!?

Aug. 25 2011 09:32 AM
Joyce from Queens

My then 14 year old daughter was given Compozine for nausea during a hospital stay.
I had just switched shifts with my husband and gone home to rest, when he called in a panic that I had to return immediately. I found my daughter in the grotesque twisted manner described in this show. A nightmare! It took awhile for someone - a nurse, if I recall correctly, to figure out the cause and find the remedy - Benedryl. What a nasty drug that Compozine!

Aug. 20 2011 11:34 PM
Thad from Washington, VA

Good story. I knew the cause with the first symptom: I had the same problem with Compozine in '83.

Aug. 19 2011 05:58 PM
Stephanie from Texas

Thank you for covering this story. This exact same thing happened to me on my wedding day due to Compazine. Thank you so much for giving a voice to such an traumatizing and awkward experience.
I loved know the science behind the reaction.

Aug. 18 2011 04:27 PM

You should do a show about optogenetics (the laser thing). It's a truly amazing technique that's revolutionizing neuroscience.

Aug. 17 2011 06:20 PM
Jean from Orlando

I have Focal Dystonia and as soon as I read "basal ganglia" I had a feeling you were going to talk about Dystonia. I'm SO glad you did! Dystonia never gets enough publicity with Tremors and Parkinsons always stealin the spotlight! Liza was lucky enough to have temporary loss of movement. Let it be known, there are many others with Dystonia that never get their movement back. If you're interested in the disease or how you can help check out:

On behalf of Dystonia sufferers everywhere, thanks for broadcasting this episode!!

Aug. 15 2011 01:11 PM
vulkun from Mill Valley

My previous post noted I am emergency M.D., and these reactions are very common with this class of drugs. The Radiolab "pseudo-point" that this is in some way connected to the electrode in the experimental mouse brain is contrived, Perhaps for vague narrative reasons. A disappointment in a show devoted to amazing science. Besides being an ERMD, I also do neuroscience research at the same institution (UCSF), and that's also amazing.

Aug. 14 2011 08:41 PM

I too had the exact same thing happen to me, though not nearly as ready-wrapped in a great story: really horrible stomach flu => some anti-nausea meds(compazine, I guess?) => my jaw suddenly tightening like a vise (i.e. Frankenstein face) => head arching back => right leg curling/bending inward. And, of course, an injection of Benadryl calmed me right down (though it wore off and the oral Benadryl wasn't nearly as effective).

Aug. 14 2011 07:09 PM
vulkun from Mill Valley, CA

As an emergency M.D., I see these reactions all the time, from every few shifts, up to 3 in 1 shift (my record). Thoroughly unremarkable, like a sprained ankle, in contrast to your surprise & breathless presentation. They fall into a group of "extrapyramidal reactions"- typically from anti-nausea or anti-psychotic medications. In fact, I always warn any patient I give them to, as the reactions can be delayed, and scary or subtle but reversed in a few minutes. I love your show, but long noticed those involving medicine (which I know best) are USUSALLY missing some core context, issue, or information, making story less amazing, or missing the point or even up to sometimes wrong. So I've wondered about the science & stats in stories in which I didn't have as much experience. I suggest you run at least your medical stories by an M.D. first. Medical stories are plenty fascinating enough on their own, without adding tweaks.

Aug. 14 2011 07:07 PM
Ted Pavlic from Columbus, OH

Anyone else think it's funny that "basal" was the word she was confused about? She made it sound like "ganglia" was something we all should know, but she didn't have a clue about "basal" (which is actually a word used throughout physiology and English meaning "at the base" :) ).

I have a feeling instructors never pointed out to students that "basal" meant what it sounded like because they assumed students would figure that out on their own... which probably made the term even more mysterious than it needed to be.

Aug. 13 2011 03:10 PM

This story was great! I actually laughed so hard I was crying...glad it turned out to be something benign otherwise I would have felt really bad laughing so hard.

Aug. 13 2011 01:46 PM
Stephanie Pease from Boulder, CO

After listening to about two minutes into the girl describing her symptoms, I immediately knew what happened to her. It happened to me when I was only a little younger than she, while doing an internship with the chemical engineering department at Stanford. At the time, I was staying at the home of a friend of a friend whom I barely knew, and I was really embarrassed. We called the medical center where I'd been treated for nausea, and the doctor knew immediately that I was reacting to compazine. It has made for an amusing party story ever since, as well as complications whenever I wind up in the hospital - I have an irritatingly sensitive stomach sometimes. VERY funny that the neuroscientists had no idea what was happening!

Aug. 13 2011 01:14 PM
Ryan van der Kooy from Sarasota, FL

awesome show! as i was listening i was really hoping for an ending like "ya, so it turns out that the time i spilled chemical X on me and the mice and zapped it with the lazer, somehow the cells in my brain become coupled at the quantum level with the mice's cells. As the scientists in the other lab were continuing their research on the mice, i was also being controlled." i was starting to picture the mice and liza both having these weird spasms at the same time. maybe a good movie idea? the real ending was still good too though. :)

Aug. 12 2011 03:19 PM
ilham from abu dhabi

Great episode! loved it!!! :D

Aug. 12 2011 03:54 AM
Anu Kapilavai

Love the show in general and loved this episode. If there was a case of getting a taste of one's own medicine, it is this. Maybe the mice cursed Lisa ;(

Aug. 11 2011 12:05 PM
Mike from Austin

Great show! I love the mix, sounds wonderful. Can you provide any information about what kind of microphones, preamps, and mobile recording gear you use?

Aug. 10 2011 12:07 PM
Jolene from nyc metro

And chance of a transcript? Not everyone has working ears. Thanks!

Aug. 09 2011 09:32 PM

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