Thursday, April 29, 2010

What the future holds for neuroscience...

Wired magazine asked a handful of neuroscientists:
"What will transform our understanding of the brain in the next decade?"

Among the answers:
-the death of mind/body dualism, that is, the idea that the mind is something completely separate from the body.  We already have a lot of convincing evidence that the brain is the physical substrate that provides us with all the aspects of what we call the "mind", but, of course, this idea is still widely debated, and given the fact that most people equate (certain aspects of) the mind with the soul, I don't think mind body dualism is going to be eradicated any time soon.  I mean, we're over 150 years in with evolution, and almost half of the (adult) population of the United States still rejects it.

-lots of techniques have been developed recently that will allow us to peer deeper and in more detail at the workings of the brain.  tools like: optogenetics, which allow us to activate small groups of cells (or even individual cells) and record their responses, and see them inside of a living brain all at the same time (using lasers! how cool is that?).  tools like: advanced neural imaging, whether it be multiphoton or MRIs, and magnetic stimulation and inhibition which allow us to turn on and off different parts of the brain in real live people and then see how they behave or how their abilities to think or solve problems may be affected.  The bottom line is, we have only had limited access to the brains of people who are alive, awake, and behaving (and able to talk about what they are thinking or feeling).  In the past there were really only a few ways for us to do this: fMRI (with limited resolution that is now getting much better), surgeries like those conducted by Wilder Penfield while trying to treat epileptics, and electrode arrays in epileptic patients that are really just the next evolution of Penfield's crude experiments.  Now, we have several new ways of looking a living human brains and this will undoubtedly push our understanding of the brain well beyond where it has been up until now.

Though, a decade is such a small amount of time in the world of science... I can't wait to see what the next 50 (or 100) years brings.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Dateline NBC: Social Psychology Edition

The other night, Chris Hansen, of "Dateline: To Catch a Predator" fame, recreated some social psychology experiments to expose how susceptible we are to manipulations such as being "taken in" by confidence scams, and obeying authority even when asked to do things against our morals.  I love that the show starts with Hansen in the American Museum of Natural History, that they put a lot of the findings in an evolutionary context, and that he interviewed Michael Shermer (who rocks!).  The downside: they made it sound like a lot of these behaviors are completely understood, and presented the prevailing hypotheses as fact.  Despite these failings, I still think it's good to get this information out to a broader public who may never take a psychology course and, therefore never otherwise hear about the Milgram experiments.  Hopefully, once you know how easy it is to be manipulated in the name of authority, you will be more likely to listen to that nagging "voice in your head" when it tells you you are being asked to do something that is reprehensible, and thus, you will be less likely to do it.
The video is now online, unfortunately it is broken up into 5 minute bits, but you should be able to click on each new video through the embedded video.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Friday, April 23, 2010

Do Clear Alcoholic Drinks Give You Less of a Hangover?

It appears to be true.  Research as far back as 1960 suggests that drinking whiskey is more likely to give you a worse hangover than if you were to drink vodka instead (1).  A more recent study replicated this finding (2), and both seem to suggest that it is the presence of congeners, impurities that result from the fermenting or aging process, that are to blame.  The latter study, which came out just last year, tested sleep quality, performance on cognitive tasks (the day after drinking), and self reported measures for hangover symptoms (headache, upset stomach, etc.).  What they found was that people who drank bourbon reported suffering from more severe hangovers than people who drank vodka (with both groups ingesting quantities that gave them equivalent scores on a breathalyzer).  While drinking either type of alcohol resulted in poorer sleep and poorer cognitive performance, there did not appear to be a difference in these measures when comparing the bourbon drinkers to the vodka drinkers.
Of course, to truly know if it is the congeners that are to blame for the hangover severity, rather than some other difference between vodka and bourbon (like the former is made from potatoes while the latter is made from corn), perhaps another study comparing silver to gold tequila, or "grain" ethanol (distilled to be 95-100% pure)  with varying levels of acetone, aldehydes, or other congeners added in.
However, if you want to know which drinks contain the most congeners, the generally accepted list goes something like this, Brandy and Red wine contain the highest levels of congeners, followed by brown and dark Rums, and Bourbon and other whiskeys (including Scotch).  White wine, clear Rum and Gin have pretty low levels of congeners, but Vodka has the lowest levels of any spirit (except for "grain").  That being said, you should avoid the cheap stuff and go for the "top shelf" selections, which are likely to have been distilled 3 or 4 times and thus contain less impurities.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Can YouTube Videos Contribute to Scientific Research?

Apparently they can.  Mind Hacks has a great post about a study on the effects of Salvia divinorum, a hallucinogenic plant that is still legal to obtain in many countries.  Despite the fact that Salvia has been around for a long time, it has only recently gained popularity in the U.S. and elsewhere due to the fact that it can be gotten legally.  Because its rise in popularity is a relatively recent phenomenon, there is very little known about the drug from a scientific perspective.  The researchers in this study apparently decided to use YouTube videos of people smoking the plant to characterize the behavioral effects, which are apparently very rapid to appear (about 30 seconds from first "hit"), and pretty short lived (the high seemed to dissipate after about 8 minutes).  I think as a control group, though, they should have made the viewers also watch YouTube videos of people who were not high on Salvia, they probably would have recorded just as much crazy behavior.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Shameless Shilling

A friend of mine has published her very first novel: Earth to Kat Vespucci.  I haven't read this final version yet, but I had the honor and pleasure of reading one of the earlier drafts, and, assuming the book hasn't changed too much, or suffered too much on an editor's chopping block, I can say that it is a thoroughly entertaining read, as well as an interesting and thoughtful look at an American living abroad in Europe.  Regardless of whether you are an American or European, I have no doubt you will enjoy the story of Kat Vespucci as she navigates the social mores of a foreign culture and learns what it takes to become a sophisticated world traveler. Anders does an excellent job of bringing the reader along for this transformative journey, particularly because she is so adept at dotting the landscape with lost-in-translation-type moments that are sure to make readers on both sides of the pond laugh out loud.  But then, I might be biased, so, if you don't want to take my word for it, check out this independent review at and then check out the book... You can read the first two chapters at Ingrid's web page, or you can buy your very own copy of the book.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A Day in the Life... Or rather a year in the life... of a PhD student

PBS recently aired a film that followed 3 graduate students in a molecular biology lab at Columbia University.  All I can say is, "finally, reality television I can get behind."  If you have any interest at all in knowing what it is like going on this journey we call getting a PhD, or, better yet, if you know anyone considering going to grad school, check this out and get a better understanding of the trials and tribulations of fledgling academic scientists.

Some of my personal favorite moments from the film are when they finally get good data and talk about how they are the only people in the world to know the answer to the question they were asking.  To me, this is one of the coolest things about being a scientist, and definitely one of the things that helps to drive me in my own work.  Also, I liked how they showed that most of the time, doing science is actually more troubleshooting and dealing with failures than anything else.  To a large extent, getting a PhD in science requires looking at a set of problems from every possible angle, and then by trial and error, attacking those problems using several different approaches.  Most of them never pan out, but if you get a couple things to work out, you can consider that success.  It's kind of like the old saying: if you throw enough shit against the wall, eventually, some of it will stick.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Sports, Concussions, and Long Term Brain Damage

The other day, NPR had a great segment on NFL players, early onset dementia, and other neurodegenerative problems resulting from concussions and sub-concussive head injuries sustained while in the league.  There has been a lot more research lately into the long term effects of minor brain injuries, including concussions, and it turns out that the damage is rarely just short-term, particularly when the injuries are repeated.  It's a great segment, about 15 minutes long, and definitely worth listening to if you get the chance.

Listen to "Tell Me More", "Former NFL players battle dementia" at

Though, there was one part of the story that I had to check into.  At one point, the claim was made that more concussions are sustained in highschool girls' soccer than in boys' football.  So I looked into it, and it's a bit misleading... you can find the study here if you want to look for yourself.  It seems to me that, as a percentage of all the different types of injuries examined, concussions made up the greatest proportion within girls' soccer and girls' basketball (15.7% and 11.4% of reported injuries, respectively).  By contrast, concussions made up only 10.5% of all injuries reported in boys' football, but, the total number of reported concussions is still highest in the sport where helmets clearly don't offer enough protection (53,995 concussions for boys' football versus 29,195 for girls' soccer during the same 2005-2006 school year).  That being said, the point being made in the conversation is still valid. If you think girls don't run a serious risk of getting concussions playing "non-contact" sports, you're wrong, and if you're a parent, you should be worried about head to head contact regardless of whether your child plays football, soccer, or basketball.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Definition of the word "Myth"

A "concerned parent and Sunday school teacher" is upset that a passage in his kids' high school textbook refers to creationism as "the biblical myth that the universe was created by the Judeo-Christian God in 7 days."
The point of contention is not that the bible says god created the earth in 6 days, not 7, nor is it the fact that the Judeo-Christian creation story is being singled out, effectively ignoring the creation myths of other religions or cultures, but rather, this man is upset that the biblical creation story has been called a "myth".
It seems to me that a quick look-up in the dictionary could have saved him a lot of trouble...

Here's how Webster's defines myth:
1. a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon
2.  a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone; especially : one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society

To me, both of these definitions of the word myth suggest that it is the ideal word to describe the biblical account of creationism.  Myth, in this sense, does not mean "made-up story" but rather a story that is central to a belief system, or one that is popular within a certain tradition or segment of society and offers up some explanation of the origin of their beliefs.  I don't think one could come up with a more perfect word.

Of course, this man's ire is the result of the other definition of "myth" which Webster's lists as its 3rd definition:  a person or thing having only an imaginary or unverifiable existence.  However, even if this usage was intended, it still doesn't strike me as slanderous.  The biblical creation story is unverifiable, there is no other text to refer to in order to corroborate the story, no physical evidence, nothing else to verify the tale, which is why it is an article of faith. And, as the evidence from the fossil record shows, all of the plants and animals and other living things on this earth were NOT created in 6 (or 7) days, but rather, they evolved over millions of years.  Therefore, a story that claims everything was created in less than a week is clearly imagined, and is, at best, an allegory.  
All that being said, however, I would propose a solution that should make everyone happy.  Rather than singling out Judeo-Christian creationism, the book in question should be amended to define creationism as "any myth that suggests the earth, and/or all of the living creatures inhabiting the earth, were created by a supernatural being, or supernatural force, rather than by natural causes over long periods of time."  In this way, no one belief system is targeted, and all forms of creationism (from intelligent design to Greek and Norse mythology) are cast out of the science classroom.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sunday Comics

Another great one from SMBC....

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Celebrity Saturday: Kurt and Bernard Vonnegut

Many people are familiar with Kurt Vonnegut, lauded author of such classics as Slaughterhouse V and Breakfast of Champions (and the less well-known, but equally fantastic Galapagos).  If you're not much of a literary buff, you may remember Vonnegut from his cameo in Rodney Dangerfield's Back to School, where Dangerfield hires Vonnegut to write his term paper about Slaughterhouse V (and then the paper gets a poor grade).

What you may not know is that Kurt's brother, Bernard Vonnegut was a pretty successful scientist.  Having obtained his PhD in Physical Chemistry from M.I.T., Bernard spent many years working for General Electric where he came up with the idea for "seeding" clouds with silver iodide to get them to release rain droplets (or snow flakes, depending on the temp).  This technology has been used ever since the 1940s to help fight forest fires, and more recently, you may remember that it was used to help alleviate the air pollution in Beijing just prior to the Olympics.
At right, an image from Life Magazine, 1948 with the following caption: M.I.T. grad Dr. Bernard Vonnegut, 35, one of the young brains, working on Irving Langmuir's weather research team while making notes in G. E. research laboratory.

In this photo: Bernard Vonnegut

Photo: Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Oct 01, 1948

Friday, April 9, 2010

Wisdom Teeth and Un-intelligent Design

A little while ago, I had my "wisdom" teeth pulled.  It was my first time "going under" anesthesia, and, from what I can remember, I rather enjoyed that aspect of it... Except for the part when I woke up before the procedure was over, but then even that was a pretty good time...  Apparently, the doctor and his assistants were marveling over how large one of my wisdom teeth was.  So, when I awoke to hear shouts of "wow! that's a big one!" and "yeah, that is really huge", I replied "that's what she said."  Which, perhaps because of the drugs, I thought was hilarious, though it didn't seem to go over so well with everyone else in the room.  Probably because they weren't expecting me to take part in the conversation and were rushing around to put me back "under".  In my haze, I must have also asked if I could have the tooth as they were somewhat adamant about giving it to me on the way out (pictured at right).  Other than that, I also got to take home a nice bottle of vicodin and some antibiotics.  After spending most of the day asleep, and a week or so recovering, I spent a little time thinking about what sort of blog fodder this whole tale might make.  The first thing that comes to mind is how the whole practice of dentistry really is a testament to the validity of evolutionary theory and a prime example of UNintelligent design.  You see, if our jaws were designed to hold all of our teeth, then wisdom teeth wouldn't get impacted and wouldn't have to be removed.  Also, our teeth in general wouldn't be so crowded and likely to push each other crooked requiring so many people to get braces.  And iff we had less, but perhaps wider teeth, or maybe wider gaps between our teeth, they would be easier to clean and less likely to get food stuck between them resulting in cavities that need fillings, and thus Ambrose Bierce would never have opined that dentists are "prestidigitators who, putting metal into your mouth, simultaneously remove it from your pockets."  Of course, these sorts of flaws are exactly what evolution predicts, particularly in the case of wisdom teeth and the human lower jaw.  As our primate ancestors evolved, two important things happened, our diet changed and our brains got bigger.  Our early primate diet consisted of eating a lot of fibrous plant materials and gradually grew to include things like meat and fish and then ultimately to artificially selected and farmed (and eventually processed) foods that require less mashing.  This made third molars ("wisdom teeth") non-essential for survival (and reproduction), and therefore changes in jaw shape could evolve without being selected against.  The second change, our increasing brain size, caused our jaws to get smaller as a consequence of changes to the overall shape of the skull.  Since there was a selective advantage to having bigger brains, and no serious disadvantage to smaller jaws, our skulls evolved in this way, with the end result being lots of trips to the dentist, othodontist, and oral surgeon.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Climatology vs. Meteorology

The former is the study of climate, or long term trends in temperatures and other weather related conditions, the latter is, of course, the study of meteors... or rather it should be, but instead is the poorly named study of short term weather patterns and, usually, broadcast journalism.  Apparently, there is a debate between (some) meteorologists and climatologists about global warming.  To be clear, the vast majority of both groups agree that climate change is real and exacerbated by human activities, however, almost a third of meteorologists dissent (compared to less than ten percent of climatologists).  Of course, this is just another example of how the media plays up two sides to a story and gives them equal credence despite the fact that the two sides are most definitely not equal.  Most meteorologists have only a "4 year" degree that prepares them to be tv weather personalities (generally covering a broad range of topics including weather, climatology, communications and broadcasting).  By contrast, climatologists are, by and large, PhDs who, in addition to a comparable bachelor's ("4 yr.") degree. have several years of graduate and post-graduate experience studying and actively researching climate.  So to claim that meteorologists are qualified to debate climatologists on climate change would be like me claiming authority in a debate with an astronomer about whether or not Pluto is a planet simply because I had a couple semesters of Physics as part of my undergraduate biology degree.
Pluto is not a planet, and I am not an astronomer.
Climate change is real, and it is impacted by human activities...
And a meteorologist is not the same thing as a climatologist.  But then, I think this video demonstrates the point pretty clearly...
The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Science Catfight - Joe Bastardi vs. Brenda Ekwurzel
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorHealth Care Reform
And for those who are wondering, the reason is put "4 year degree" in quotes is because I know many people who have taken more than 4 years to get their Bachelor's degree (and I know some who have done it in 3).

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Rapamycin may delay ageing and help to prevent Alzheimer's disease

Recently there have been some investigations into the effects of Rapamycin, a drug that is already FDA approved to help prevent the rejection of organ transplants, on longevity and on Alzheimer's disease-like symptoms.  Rapamycin (a.k.a. Sirolimus) was originally developed as an antifungal after it was discovered in a soil bacteria that grows on Easter Island. (Easter island is also known as Rapa Nui, hence the name Rapamycin).  However, recent studies in mice have shown that long term treatment with the drug can extend the average lifespan.  Now there are two new studies showing that Rapamycin may also prevent or even help to treat symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.  The studies show that the drug is effective on both behavioral and physiological markers for Alzheimer's disease... that is, it prevented age related decline in memory and learning ability, and it decreased the accumulation of aberrant amyloid beta proteins.  Clearly, more research will need to be done, but, if these types of findings can be replicated in further preclinical and then clinical trials, it could mean a potential treatment for Alzheimer's, and perhaps other age related diseases.
Titles (links) to the articles are below...

Molecular interplay between mTOR, A{beta} and tau: Effects on cognitive impairments.

Inhibition of mTOR by Rapamycin Abolishes Cognitive Deficits and Reduces Amyloid-β Levels in a Mouse Model of Alzheimer's Disease

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Just Because....

Sunday Comics

(if only Allen knew that bigger doesn't always mean better... at least not when you're talking brains)