Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Another App for that....

I posted a little while ago about some science apps...  And now I have found another couple of neuroscience apps, and best of all, they're FREE!  They are both brain anatomy apps, so, they may not be your cup of tea (unless you are an uber neuro-nerd) but I was really impressed with the graphics (particularly in the 3D Brain app at right). So, if you are looking to get a little primer on neuroanatomy, or, if you want to know where to look whenever you read a story that mentions a particular region of the brain, say, the nucleus accumbens, now you can quickly look it up on your iPhone.
                                                                           3D Brain

Brain Tutor

Thursday, March 25, 2010

At least I'll have a 4 wisdom tooth story...

Sorry I haven't been posting everyday.  Life has been kind of hectic lately, which is good... it (usually) means I am getting data in the lab.  Anyway, just when things get going, I have to take a break to get my wisdom teeth out, which should put me out of commission for a few days, but, then, it could be interesting to see what I blog about while on painkillers....

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

What causes "bitch tits"?

I know, you've been wondering ever since you saw Fight Club... How is it that taking "anabolic" steroids (i.e. mostly testosterone) can lead to enlarged breasts?  The condition, which is actually called gynecomastia, from the Greek for "bitch tits" (j.k. gyno = woman or female, mastos = breast), can actually be caused by many different things, hormonal changes during puberty, different medications, etc., but the leading cause of gynecomastia is actually anabolic steroid use.  So, what is it about the supposedly male hormone, testosterone, that leads to a secondary sex characteristic that is usually specific to women?  Well, the idea that estrogens are purely "female hormones" and testosterone is a purely "male hormone" is an outdated notion and simply incorrect.  Men and women have both types of these hormones (estrogens and androgens) floating around in their circulation.  In fact, estradiol (the most prevalent estrogen) is actually derived from testosterone, so women must produce a substantial amount of testosterone if they are to produce the estrogens needed.  Conversely, with all of the testosterone that men's bodies make, some of it is bound to get converted into estradiol.  The element at work here is an enzyme called aromatase, which catalyzes the subtle change necessary to convert testosterone into estradiol.  Certain tissues contain more or less aromatase than others.  For example, in women, the ovaries make a lot of aromatase, so most of the testosterone is converted into estradiol.  In men, the testes contain very little aromatase, and so most of the testosterone made in the testes enters the circulation as is.  Breast tissue tends to be a place where there is more aromatase, so, if you are taking lots of testosterone (i.e. anabolic steroids) then it is likely that some of that testosterone will get converted to estrogen in the breast, and if there is too much testosterone, then there will be that much more estradiol.  That estradiol acts on the breast tissue in the same way it would in a young girl going through puberty, and the end result, if you're a dude, is "bitch tits".
As for your "nuts" becoming "raisins", you can think of that as simple atrophy (think: use it or lose it).  In addition to producing sperm, the testes are the primary source of testosterone, so, if you start injecting massive amounts of testosterone, the testes will "recognize" that there's already a ton of testosterone, and so they will shut down production and atrophy.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Sunday Comics: Monday Edition

Sorry, I have been remiss in posting lately, but here's the cartoon I meant to post yesterday...

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The KISS principle

In the 14th century, William of Occam popularized the notion that "entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity" (entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem) which has become known as Occam's razor.  Centuries later, Isaac Newton would recapitulate the idea: "We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances. Therefore, to the same natural effects we must, so far as possible, assign the same causes."  And of course, a couple centuries after that, Einstein famously quipped that we should strive to "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler."  Now, which one of those explanations/quotations do you prefer?  Well, if you are like most people, the Einsteinian explanation of Occam's razor stands out, which serves well to validate the idea that the simplest answer is usually the best.  Now, PsyBlog has a great little post summarizing some research on cognitive fluency, or, to simplify: simpler names and explanations are met with greater appreciation and less apprehension. Thus, further validation of Occam's appeal to Keep It Simple, Stupid (the aforementioned KISS principle).
Of course, all of this assumes that you want to be understood, or looked upon favorably, but, as every credit card company and government bureaucrat knows, "where there's confusion, there's money".  Thus, lengthy contracts and addenda let credit card companies get away with charging extra fees and exorbitant interest rates, and complicated legislation allows for lots of pork to be slipped in.  But, I guess the point of the research presented is, simplicity doesn't always equate with making money, rather, simplicity equates with being looked upon favorably... not something I would immediately think of when it comes to credit card companies and politicians.
(The figure is a schematic for all of the major biochemical pathways involved in metabolism.  It is a mainstay for many biochemistry textbooks, and, I imagine, for many students, myself included, it makes the brain want to immediately shut down)

Monday, March 15, 2010

Happy Brain Awareness Week!

Today marks the official start of Brain Awareness Week, a wonderful effort initially organized by the Dana Foundation to promote public awareness and understanding of the brain and current research findings in the neurosciences.  The link above takes you to the main page at the Dana Foundation, which also has a calender of events that you can search by location on an interactive map.  Find out what's going on where you live, and spread the word.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sunday Comics

I usually try to post these in the mornings, but our cable (and thus internet) is currently out.  Anyway, no science today, just dorkiness, and since I am almost finished reading The Greatest Show on Earth, a cartoon with Richard Dawkins seems fitting somehow.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Celebrity Saturday: Hedy Lamarr

I can't help but think of Mel Brooks' film Blazing Saddles, and the main villain, Hedley Lamarr (that's Hedley!) whenever I hear about Hedy Lamarr, but, if you don't know, Hedy Lamarr was actually a big Hollywood star back in the day, and she was a bit of an engineer to boot. Here's her mini-bio as it appears on her IMDB page:
The woman many critics and fans alike regard as the most beautiful ever to appear in films was born Hedwig Eva Kiesler in Vienna, Austria, and was a student of theater director Max Reinhardt in Berlin. She began her career in 1930 in Czech and German films. It was the Czech production Ekstase (1933), in which she caused an international sensation by appearing nude and simulating orgasm, that brought her worldwide attention. The resulting notoriety got her called to Hollywood, and she was signed by MGM. The studio changed her name to the more elegant "Hedy Lamarr" and put her in a series of exotic adventure epics such as Algiers (1938) and White Cargo (1942). Her biggest success was in Cecil B. DeMille's spectacular Samson and Delilah (1949) as the title temptress, but her career declined from that point as her looks began to fade and a new crop of beauties supplanted her. She left the screen in 1957.
What's missing is the fact the Hedy, as an amateur engineer, came up with a pretty good idea for encrypted radio communications.  Having been married to a weapons manufacturer in Austria, Hedy had picked up a thing or two about weapons and radio communications, and was inspired when singing alongside composer George Antheil to use a piece from an automated pianola (a piano roll) to encrypt radio transmissions.  The resulting idea is now called spread spectrum transmission, and the basic idea is that, if you consider narrow radio frequencies to be like keys on a piano, then periodically jumping from one key to another in a certain sequence would make it seem to anyone listening like random "white" noise, unless that person knew the sequence being used.  So, according to Lamarr and Antheil's idea, 2 matching piano rolls, one by the sender, one by the receiver, could be used to regulate the jumping from channel to channel just like it regulates the jumping of keys on a pianola.  And while, Lamarr and Antheil were not the only ones thinking about this type of "divided" or "spread" spectrum technology, they hit upon the idea independently, gained a patent (see image), and the resulting implementation of these ideas (many years later) is responsible for most wireless technology, from cell phones to bluetooth to Wi-Fi technology.  So, if you are reading this on a phone or a computer that's using a wireless network, you can thank Hedy Lamarr (among others).

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Texas Textbook Update

There may be some good news when it comes to Texas and textbooks...  A while back, I posted about how Texas might be poised to determine what the rest of us in the U.S. get stuck with because California, the nation's largest textbook purchaser is in such financial trouble.  If California stopped buying textbooks, publishers would be more likely to kowtow to Texas as the next biggest purchaser.  If that happened, the rest of the union might get stuck with books based on Texas' poor science (and history and language arts) standards.
The good news, according to an article at is that Texas has been having economic troubles of its own, and, like California, will not be buying new textbooks any time soon.  Also, there seems to be some impatience on the part of publishers who don't want to wait around while state boards of education debate content, so they usually wind up publishing without paying much attention to these debates.
The other good news is that Texas, like most states I imagine, is moving away from "old school" textbooks and using online content from publishers to supplement older textbooks, and in the very near future, I imagine all student materials will be in one electronic format or another.  This is good because it will mean cheaper "books" for states and public schools, and it will allow for easier editing to make state specific editions (if necessary).  That being said, it is also bad because it means that Texas (or other states so inclined) could get books that don't mention evolution at all, or that talk about intelligent design creationism.  For now, though, there is reason for rejoicing, and not just because Texas won't be buying textbooks, but also because Don McLeroy, the ring leader for the textbook overhaul circus was recently voted out in the primary.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Don't worry, be happy.

Neuroskeptic has a nice little post about a case study of a man who has a rare genetic condition that severely limits his ability to produce monoamines, most notably the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin.  Since the deficit of dopamine leads to symptoms very similar to Parkinson's disease, this man was treated, from a very early age, with L-dopa (the precursor to dopamine, and a common treatment for Parkinson's).  However, the deficit in serotonin was left unchecked and untreated.  The interesting thing about this is that the patient was never diagnosed with depression, which goes against the current idea that depression is all about a lack of serotonin.  Since most of the current antidepressants on the market work by preventing the absorption and breakdown of serotonin, the immediate effect is the same as increasing the overall level of serotonin in the synapses.  Now, does a single case study of a single individual overturn the successes of drugs like Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft?  No (a much larger sample size would be needed for that to happen).  However, when you add this story to what we already know about selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs like Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft), it lends further credence to the idea that serotonin may be involved in symptoms of depression , but it is certainly not the only, or perhaps not even the primary, factor.  As I said, SSRIs have been shown to be effective in relieving symptoms of depression, however, they are not a panacea.  Their effects can be best described as modest, and some studies suggest that they only really help in cases of severe depression.  Also, we know that it usually takes 2 to 3 weeks for patients to report feeling a benefit from the drugs, despite the fact that they increase serotonin levels almost immediately.  So, is serotonin important, or isn't it?  Unfortunately, there is no simple answer.  It seems that boosting serotonin activity in the brain can lessen symptoms of depression and anxiety, but it may not be the serotonin directly, or serotonin alone. For example, researchers have shown that SSRIs have other effects, like increasing neurogenesis, and that this increased neuronal proliferation may be necessary for the observed therapeutic effects.  Ultimately, it seems, depression is a bit more complicated than just a single neurotransmitter, but hopefully, as more information like this case study comes to light, scientists will get a better handle on the underlying physiology, and treatment options will only improve.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Sunday Comics: Survival of the Fastest

This week's comic comes courtesy of the Perry Bible Fellowship, but don't let the name fool you, these comic strips are more likely to be found in an issue of Maxim than in a church newsletter.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Creationist Trojan Horse

There was an interesting article in the New York Times this past week about how creationists are also attacking global warming in their attempts to weaken science education in our public schools.  Several states are currently evaluating (or have already passed) legislative proposals to amend education standards so that "both sides" of global warming and evolution (and in some cases cloning and stem cell use) are taught in science classes.  What's really scary about this is not just that these IDiots are trying to discourage curiosity and undermine proper science education, but that they might get their foot in the door and stay there:
"The linkage of evolution and global warming is partly a legal strategy: courts have found that singling out evolution for criticism in public schools is a violation of the separation of church and state. By insisting that global warming also be debated, deniers of evolution can argue that they are simply championing academic freedom in general." 

Thursday, March 4, 2010

From Dot Matrix to Kidneys...

What a long strange trip it's been.  I can remember as a kid getting a Commodore 64 computer, and along with it, we had an Okidata dot matrix printer... you remember them, they had those strips along both sides of the paper with all the holes punched into them, and after you printed something, you had to fold and tear off the strips?  That was maybe 25 years ago?  And now, we have high resolution color printers that print in 3-D, and not only that, we have 3D printers that can print, not in all the colors of the rainbow, but in the cells and tissues of the human body.  Already, there are printers out there that can print skin and blood vessels, with the hope that, in the future, we will be able to print out other tissues and even whole organs like livers and kidneys.  Commercially available 3D printers are already in use in hospitals, allowing surgeons to print out full scale models of the organs they will be operating on.  For example, a series of CAT scans can be converted into a 3D printed replica of the brain (or more specifically a map of the blood vessels in the brain) so that neurosurgeons can then practice on it before doing the actual surgery.  Of course, I don't think we'll be seeing printers spitting out whole brains anytime soon, but they might be able to print neurons (or networks of neurons) right into the tissues or organs they print.  Check it out...

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Book Review: SuperFreakonomics

So, I recently finished reading Levitt and Dubner's second installment of Freakonomics, titled SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance.  The book is definitely an entertaining and thought-provoking read, if, like all sequels, a little lighter on substance than the original.  Still, I always have to applaud these efforts to involve the non-researching public in a more analytical (methods based) approach to looking at things.  This book, like the last one, trots out many of the ideas that scientists (and economists) value when trying to figure things out, like "correlation is not cause" and "the data are the data" (i.e. your subjective assumptions or intuitions can be, and often are wrong, but, the data are the data), and since I am always for promoting a more analytical (and scientific) way of thinking about things, I have to say that, like the first Freakonomics volume, I would highly recommend this book.  And since any regular readers here are likely to be curious (since I write an awful lot about Global Warming for a neurobiologist) the book does not make any claims that global warming is false, they simply bring up the fact that there was a little bit of a stir back in the 1970s that we were heading for another ice age (despite the fact that we were, and are, still in one) since global temperatures cooled a bit between the 1940s and 1970s.  They use this example to suggest that we should be cautious in our interpretations of the current data that shows continued warming over the past hundred years or so (despite the decline in the 50s and 60s).  Caution in interpreting data is a fabulous idea, and one I couldn't live without as a scientist, and if you look back at all of my posts, you will never see me suggest that the Eastern seaboard will be under water in the next 30 years, or that global temperature will definitely increase by 6 degrees in the next hundred years, or that the world is going to end if we don't stop producing so much carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases).  I only claim that we need to acknowledge the FACTS that (1) the earth has warmed over the past 100 years or so, and (2) a reasonable amount of this warming is attributable to human activity.  What extent of an effect he have had or can have (in terms of further warming, or perhaps cooling in the sense of geo-engineering) are more open to debate, and trying to completely cut carbon and other emissions could severely damage growing economies and kill many more people in the immediate future than we are trying to save by "saving the planet".  These are all good reasons as to why we should be cautious in our interpretations and in our decisions about what to do in the present and in the future, BUT, to ignore the cold hard facts of the case (the globe is warming, human emissions contribute to that warming) would simply be irresponsible, and would not allow us to make informed decisions about the future of this planet and its inhabitants.
See, I told you it was a thought provoking book.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Neuroscience and the Law

The University of Akron Law School recently held a symposium on Neuroscience and the Law with a keynote speech by Stanford Law Professor Henry Greely.  A video of one of his talks has been posted online, and it is, in a word: EXCELLENT.  Lots of good popular neuroscience stuff explained pretty clearly and succinctly, and then of course, it is very interesting to think about how all of these popular neuroscience findings are going to impact our legal system and our society.  For example, a man who had never exhibited sexually deviant behavior (and reported never having such desires), suddenly found himself unable to control his urges and was ultimately arrested for making advances toward his stepdaughter.  It was later found that he had a brain tumor, which, when removed, rid him of any illicit desires.  How then are we to interpret his guilt or innocence?  Already there exists a precedent for non compos mentis, a.k.a. "the insanity defense". From the Latin, non compos mentis is perhaps better translated as "not of sound mind", which a brain tumor that seems to be at the root of bad behavior could be considered, but is that how a judge or jury would see it?  Numerous other examples abound, like the use of functional MRI or other scans to determine the propensity of individuals to commit violent acts or to tell whether or not they are biased or lying.  While this technology is clearly in its infancy and nowhere near accurate enough to make any such claims, it is interesting to think about what the future might bring, and how we might approach these problems. (P.S. I tried embedding the video here, but it has an autoplay function that I, with my limited HTML knowledge, am unable to override.)

Also, if you are interested, there is another useful and interesting site by the Law and Neuroscience Project that has lots of articles and blog posts and whatnot on a lot of these topics, and then, of course, an older post here on lie detection (polygraphs and MRIs).

The internets don't make us dumb... uh, more dumb... dumber....

And maybe that is because we learn through repetition.  While I posted a little bit ago about some of the recent surveys and studies to come out showing that, if anything, the interwebs make us smarter (or at least put the information we need closer at hand, allowing us to solve problems faster and/or appear smarter), there is now a similar post over at Discover Blogs taking on the issue, and linking to a different Pew survey than the one I linked to, and an article on the subject by Carl Zimmer from last year.  The Pew survey here is interesting because it polls experts on whether or not they agree with the statement: "Does Google make people more stupid?"  Not surprisingly, the majority of experts think that Google and other internet search engines have the potential to make us smarter, and doubt that it will make us less intelligent or lazy.