Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sunday Comics: Neuro-Development

A special edition of PhD comics recently won one of Science Magazine's vizualization awards.  Since it is about brain development, it seems only fitting as this week's sunday comic.
Click here for a larger copy.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Week in Review

There were a lot of neuroscience related stories on Science Daily (and elsewhere) this week.  Most likely a result of the recent meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where scientists from numerous scientific fields presented their research findings and hypotheses, though, here I've only highlighted the neuroscience stories, and at that, only the ones that caught my interest...

 Researchers at the Max Delbruck Center for Molecular Medicine have found a filament protein that appears to be necessary for the sensation of touch (which is still not completely understood at the cellular level).  The research suggests that the protein tethers ion channels on nerve endings to extracellular scaffolds and opens the ion channels in response to vibration or pressure, which results in an action potential in the cell.

An interesting hypothesis has been put forward at Tel Aviv University in Israel to explore the potential for compounds found in scorpion venom to work as pain killers.  Scorpion venom contains neurotoxins that can affect sodium channels on nerve cells.  A specific type of sodium channel is found on nerve cells that respond to painful stimuli.  Thus, if one of the compounds isolated from the venom can inhibit that channel specifically, it would be possible to use it, or compounds like it, as painkillers.

Dr. Douglas Smith at UPenn Medical School proposes that concussions (mild Traumatic Brain Injuries) can have widespread effects throughout the brain as well as long lasting effects.  Since little attention has been paid to concussions in the past, most of this research is new, and much more is needed before we gain a better understanding of how much of an effect concussions can have in the long term.  Given the increasing frequency of concussions seen in military professionals and professional (American) football players and other athletes, this is likely a field that will continue to garner attention in the future.

The steroid hormone Progesterone, which has been known, for over 3 decades, to help neurons survive after a brain injury, is finally about to be tested in phase III clinical trials as a treatment for stroke victims.  My own research is fairly close to this, our lab has looked at similar properties of another steroid hormone, estradiol (more commonly, though incorrectly, known as estrogen).  Both progesterone and estradiol are synthesized in the brains of women and men, and both have been shown to promote the survival of nerve cells after a brain injury.  This is of critical importance because after the initial damage from a stroke or brain trauma, cells around the injury continue to die off in response to signals released by the cells in the damaged area, thus, surrounding healthy tissue also dies.  Progesterone and estradiol have both been shown to lessen the extent of this secondary tissue death, which can mean saving quite a bit of functionality, and for some patients, it may even save their lives.

A new type of PET (positron emission tomography) scan may allow clinicians to diagnose Alzheimer's disease  early.  Alzheimer's is characterized by (amyloid) protein plaques that, as of now, could only be seen at autopsy after the patients had died.  This new imaging technique allows for doctors to see these protein plaques in the brains of living patients, which means it has the potential to be used as a diagnostic tool.

And if that doesn't work, researchers have identified a form of the tau protein (P-tau231) that appears to be elevated in healthy elderly individuals who suffered cognitive decline over a two year period.  Since tau tangles, the equally alliterative and equally nasty step-brother to (amyloid) protein plaques, are also found in the brains of Alzheimer's patients, this particular form may be an early indicator.  Obviously, more long term studies will need to be done to see if any (or how many) of the test subjects are diagnosed with Alzheimer's or continue their decline.

2 studies claim that napping increases humans' ability to learn, one in college students, the other in infants.  Sleep has been known to improve our ability to consolidate and later recall information we have learned (i.e. memory), but these studies claim that midday naps can actually improve our ability to learn, not just our ability to remember.

Neuroscientist Nina Kraus makes the claim that musical education for K-12 kids is something that we should consider keeping when budget cuts are needed, stating: "Music training is not only beneficial for processing music stimuli. We've found that years of music training may also improve how sounds are processed for language and emotion."  

Anti-depressant/Anti-anxiety meds Prozac and Celexa have anti-inflammatory properties, and may have potential as treatments for arthritis. Drugs of this class, known as selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs), were hailed as a miracle of modern medicine when they first hit the market decades ago, but lately, some have become disenchanted as more comprehensive data suggests that these drugs tend to have only a modest effect.  However, a lot of new research has begun to examine other effects of these drugs, many of them positive, from aiding the rehabilitation of stroke patients, to regenerating bone, and now, maybe, helping to treat inflammation related pain or disease (like arthritis).

This article talks about a finding in rodents showing that sound and smell are linked in a part of the brain that processes these stimuli: the olfactory tubercle.  An overlap of processing is not unheard of, particularly when it comes to the senses.  A great example of this is the McGurk effect, an illusion I posted about a while back where it is the processing of hearing and vision that overlap, and though they usually work together, allowing us to read someone's lips while listening to them, and thus catch what they are saying even if we are at a loud party, when the visual information doesn't match the auditory, we can get a little confused.

Stem cells have been used to restore sight in a mouse model of retinitis pigmentosa, which is a fairly common cause of blindness in humans.

And, of course, there is this study, which showed that people who identify as liberals have higher IQs than those who identify as conservatives.  Also, there was a less dramatic difference between atheists and those who considered themselves religious, with the atheists having slightly higher IQs.  Now, I know this will create quite a stir, but before either side goes crazy, this is one study.  Also, the differences were small (106 vs. 95 for liberals vs. conservatives, and 103 vs. 97 for atheists vs. religious), and, IQ can be debated as to whether or not it is an adequate measure for overall intelligence.  Also, this study was done in "young adults" (read: college kids) and may not be recapitulated in older adults.  All of that being said, it is certainly interesting, as is the hypothesis put forward by the researchers that higher IQ correlates to seeking more evolutionarily novel worldviews (which liberalism, atheism, and even being more nocturnal are all considered to be).  And I can't wait to see more research in this area, as it can tell us something very important about intelligence and perhaps even open-mindedness and creativity (as they relate to intelligence).

Thursday, February 25, 2010

What is Science?

I know this is making the rounds on the blogosphere, but some memes are worth repeating...
If you haven't seen any of these symphony of science videos, they not only show you what fun you can have with an auto-tuner, but also, I think, give you a little glimpse into the way scientists see the world universe.  That is, as something of poetic beauty, and, as this little musical points out, it is the unknown that is the most awe inspiring... otherwise, why would we spend all of our time finding answers that only seem to generate so many more questions?

And you thought it was just a bunch of boring facts and numbers...

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Apollo Yawn-O

An interesting bit of news making the rounds on the "internets" right now is this story about how Olympic short track skater Apollo Ohno likes to yawn before he competes.  When asked about this purportedly peculiar tradition, Ohno replied: "It makes me feel better... It gets the oxygen in and the nerves out."
I find this little story interesting for a couple of reasons.  First, yawning in anticipation of a competitive event is not that unusual.  According to Robert Provine, professor of psychology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, "at track and field events, sometimes you'll find participants in the race of their life will be standing around on the sidelines or in the starting block and they may be yawning. Or before a concert, a musician may yawn to prepare for an increasingly energized state".  And this trait is not only obvious in humans.  Ronald Baenninger from Temple University reports that "lions, mandrills, and fighting fish all yawn in anticipation of metabolically expensive events such as feeding or fighting."  So, Ohno's pre-skating tradition may not be so unusual.  
But since the subject has been broached, I'm curious... In seeing that picture or in reading this post on yawning, have you felt the urge to yawn?  Maybe let one or two slip by?  Sadly, I've already yawned several times just in writing this.  So, what causes Apollo Ohno, or more generally, the rest of us to yawn?  And why are yawns contagious?

The truth is no one really knows.  Several hypotheses have been put forward over the years, with the most popular going something like this: yawning is caused by either excessive carbon dioxide or a lack of oxygen either in the lungs or in the circulation.  This idea is so prevalent, it can still be found in some medical texts.  However, in a study conducted in the 1980s by the same Robert Provine quoted above, subjects were exposed to environments that were either high in carbon dioxide or high in oxygen with neither having an effect on yawning.  So, neither low oxygen, nor high carbon dioxide are to blame for our yawns, but how about heat, or, rather, overheating?  The latest hypothesis to be put forward is that yawning may act to cool our overheated brains, kind of like the radiator in your car.  The more the engine works, the hotter it gets, the radiator takes the ambient air, which is cooler and uses it to bring down the temperature of the engine.  In a similar way, our brains actually increase in temperature as a result of use and fatigue, and yawning takes in cooler, ambient air, and increases blood flow in the face and head, thus carrying cooler blood past the brain.  The evidence for this hypothesis comes mainly from a single study that showed that contagious yawning could be decreased by holding a cold pack up against one's head (or by making a conscious effort to breathe through the nose, which also cools the brain).  Of course, more study will be needed to say whether or not yawning is meant to cool our brains, but it is interesting that certain diseases, like multiple sclerosis, which have a component of thermodisregulation (inability to regulate temperature) are also characterized by excessive yawning.
Regardless of whether or not cooling the brain is the end goal, it appears that the overall purpose of yawning is to help us stay awake and alert, which is why being tired or bored are the most common triggers, and why athletes will yawn before a big event as they try to get focused.
But what of the contagiousness of yawns?  Aside from the fact that a person with a cool brain seems to be less susceptible to catching your yawn, what else do we know?
Much like the function of yawning, several attempts have been made to try and explain the contagiousness of yawning. When the oxygen and carbon dioxide hypothesis was still considered valid, it was proposed that the yawns of people around you expelled excess carbon dioxide into the air you breathe, causing you to take in excessive carbon dioxide, and thus you yawn.
Obviously, there are a couple problems with this... first, yawning is not caused by changes in carbon dioxide (or oxygen) as we saw above.  Second, even if carbon dioxide levels were to blame, it has been shown that just watching video of people yawning, or hearing someone yawn, or reading about yawning can all cause people to yawn more (and since the stimulus yawn isn't even happening in the same room or at the same time, there is no change in CO2 or oxygen levels).
Okay, so what else?  Well, another hypothesis that came into vogue after it was discovered that carbon dioxide was not to blame was that yawning somehow activated the mirror neuron system.  The mirror neuron system is made up of neurons that fire not only when we perform a certain action, but when we see the same action being performed by someone else.  Many neuroscientists speculate that these mirror neurons are important for our ability to imitate others (which is how we learn to do many things like talk, write, play sports, learn a trade or craft, etc.)  However, studies published in 2005, and in 2009 that used fMRI imaging to examine the brains of people who were "catching" a yawn suggests that the parts of the brain where the mirror neurons reside don't seem to be activated in this process.
So, the latest hypothesis gets back to the now more accepted idea that yawns are meant to stave off exhaustion and increase alertness.  Examples of contagious yawning in other social animals (like baboons) suggests that there may be an evolutionary benefit to catching a yawn.  While some suggest that the contagiousness of yawns in social animals reflects empathy and a means to strengthen social bonds by synchronizing behaviors (like when to go to sleep), others have suggested that the raised awareness brought on by a yawn provides enough of an evolutionary incentive for it to "catch" on.  For example, many species of birds feed in large groups because feeding is a dangerous activity for them, one that usually involves lowering their head and eyes to the ground to pick up food.  A single bird by itself could get caught unaware by a predator whenever its head is down, but in a large group of birds, it is much more likely that when one bird has its head down, several others have their heads up, and are looking around.  Thus, each bird can feel safe pecking at the ground, confident that one of his neighbors will sound the alarm if a predator approaches.  When you have animals that live together in groups, and are likely on synchronized sleep/wake cycles (like baboons and early humans), then yawning may act as another sort of alarm.  When one in the group yawns, he or she is signifying fatigue, or a need to stay alert.  Others that follow this lead will likely reap the same arousing effect and be more likely to have the alertness and focus needed to successfully elude an approaching predator, or to have a successful hunt.  Thus contagious yawning may have evolved in our primate ancestors as a means for increasing alertness when it was needed, and yawning athletes appear to be a manifestation of this held-over trait, giving them added alertness before they enter the "hunt" for gold.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Who wants to live forever?

Fans of either the Highlander movies (or tv show) or the rock band Queen may recognize this song, but as a serious response to the question, I think more and more people are seeing only the upside of increased longevity.  Certainly, a large amount of scientific research and unscientific profiteering attest to the quest for immortality (or at least a few more good years).  Whether it be engineering heart valves or using stem cells to regenerate failing organs, or attempting to maintain a calorie restricted diet, many people are working toward this lofty goal.  A little while back, Philadelphia's public radio station WHYY had an interesting conversation with journalist/author Greg Critser on his new book: Eternity Soup which chronicles much of the science and pseudoscience centered around increasing human life span.  You can listen here, and check it out for yourself.  I particularly liked the parts of the discussion on the use of steroid and growth hormones, and maybe I missed it because I was working while I had the radio on, but I would have liked to hear more about the rapidly emerging field of regenerative medicine.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Facilitated Communication Debunked

Finally!  And I say finally, not because it took some great feat, or long, arduous process to disprove this nonsense, but because the test was so ridiculously simple I can't believe it has taken this long.  If you don't know what facilitated communication is, or what I'm talking about, here's an old post where I talk about it, or you can watch this video to see why it has been in the news recently (and if you do watch the video, you'll see why I am amazed that anyone could believe that this was anything other than the "facilitator" doing all of the typing, and yet, people did, including doctors at the medical center, and Dr. Nancy Snyderman.)

As for the supposed brain scans mentioned in the video, apparently no such scans were done, and, of course, the facilitated communication has been shown not to work.  So, what was this test that has taken since November of last year to carry out?
"Objects and words were shown to the patients in the absence of the facilitator who was then called back into the room. The patient was then asked to say what they had seen or heard."
Yeah, that's it.  And guess what, Rom Houben, the Belgian man in the story couldn't correctly answer the questions posed when the "facilitator" came back into the room, suggesting that she had been controlling the typing all along.  Go figure. 

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Eerily similar to the creationist movement...

Resolutions have been passed by the state governments of Utah and South Dakota to try and deny climate change.  The resolution in South Dakota even calls for "a balanced teaching of global warming in public schools".
Read on...

Sunday Comics: Evolution

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Does more snow mean there's no global warming?

No.  Of course not.  In fact, more snow is EXACTLY WHAT YOU WOULD PREDICT in response to global warming.  If you haven't seen, some politicians have been claiming that the recent "Snowpacalypse" (mostly in the Northeastern United States) disproves global warming.  Now, I know that it seems counter-intuitive, "How can there be so much snow if the earth is supposedly warming?"  Well, here's how:  Hopefully, we all remember learning about the water cycle in grade school.  Your science textbook probably had a figure that looked something like this:

Now, if you look at the right side of the picture above, you see that water enters the atmosphere by evaporating from large bodies like oceans... WHEN THE WATER IS WARMER MORE OF IT EVAPORATES and enters the atmosphere.  As you follow the arrows at the top of the figure, moving to the left, you see that all of that moisture in the atmosphere condenses when it hits cold air.  So you see, as global warming continues, we should see more precipitation (including snow) because the oceans will continue to get warmer and more water will evaporate and fill the air with moisture that, when it condenses will fall to the ground as either snow, sleet, or rain.  In fact, it is exactly because surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean are warmer that we got so much snow (see figure to the right).  Of course, this warming is because of El Nino, not so much because of Global Warming, but it illustrates the point perfectly... WARMER WATER = MORE SNOW.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Does the internet rot your brain?

Certainly not if you use it to read sites like this one!  But seriously, when I was a kid, it was TV, then it was video games, now, it seems that the internet is the target of everyone's brain-deteriorating fears.  The truth is, people have been afraid of the intellect-destroying potential of new technologies for a long time...  for example, according to an article at
 A respected Swiss scientist, Conrad Gessner, might have been the first to raise the alarm about the effects of information overload. In a landmark book, he described how the modern world overwhelmed people with data and that this overabundance was both "confusing and harmful" to the mind. The media now echo his concerns with reports on the unprecedented risks of living in an "always on" digital environment. It's worth noting that Gessner, for his part, never once used e-mail and was completely ignorant about computers. That's not because he was a technophobe but because he died in 1565. His warnings referred to the seemingly unmanageable flood of information unleashed by the printing press.
 But the fear goes back even further than that:
Socrates famously warned against writing because it would "create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories." He also advised that children can't distinguish fantasy from reality, so parents should only allow them to hear wholesome allegories and not "improper" tales, lest their development go astray.
As time marched on, asking kids to leave their homes and actually go to school was seen as a threat to their developing minds, then it was the radio, and then, of course, television, and now, computers and them darned interwebs...
By the end of the 20th century, personal computers had entered our homes, the Internet was a global phenomenon, and almost identical worries were widely broadcast through chilling headlines: CNN reported that "Email 'hurts IQ more than pot'," the Telegraph that "Twitter and Facebook could harm moral values" and the "Facebook and MySpace generation 'cannot form relationships'," and the Daily Mail ran a piece on "How using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer." Not a single shred of evidence underlies these stories, but they make headlines across the world because they echo our recurrent fears about new technology.
But, not to worry, there is good news (and it is not just that cannabis use won't permanently lessen your IQ, unless, of course, you are a chronic chronic-user).  As far as the internet is concerned...
There is, in fact, a host of research that directly tackles these issues. To date, studies suggest there is no consistent evidence that the Internet causes mental problems. If anything, the data show that people who use social networking sites actually tend to have better offline social lives, while those who play computer games are better than nongamers at absorbing and reacting to information with no loss of accuracy or increased impulsiveness.
 To add to this, I posted about the social networking bit a little while ago, and I also seem to remember seeing an article out not too long ago that suggested surfing the web could actually improve cognition.  However, despite all of this seeming positivity, there is some bad news... it looks like TV doesn't seem to fair as well in the research...
In contrast, the accumulation of many years of evidence suggests that heavy television viewing does appear to have a negative effect on our health and our ability to concentrate. We almost never hear about these sorts of studies anymore because television is old hat, technology scares need to be novel, and evidence that something is safe just doesn't make the grade in the shock-horror media agenda. 
 Of course, I am half-inclined to chalk these results up to the ills of excess rather than tv itself (as there are mixed results on the supposed ill effects of tv viewing, even during critical periods of learning and development. TV is bad.  TV is not bad.)  As another example of this, the internet gets mostly positive reviews, but there is some evidence to suggest that overuse (aka internet addiction) may be linked to depression, or that the internet itself is more addictive than gambling.
So, the bottom line, appears to be that there is no definitive "bottom line". History seems to suggest that whatever new technologies come out, they will almost certainly be met with fear over their potential to mushify our brains (oh god! it's happening already), BUT, as with almost any new technologies or cultural influences, the picture is never just black and white.  Whether it's TV or the internet, there are bound to be things that will make us smarter (like PBS or the Discovery Channel, or dare I say, this blog?) and there are things that might make us dumber, or at least, definitely won't make us smarter (like TMZ, the Jersey Shore, or, dare I say, this blog?).  The real bottom line is that content has always been, and will always be, up to the discretion of the user, so, if you want to challenge your brain, you can use the internet or the tv (or radio or books) to do so, and if you want to turn your brain off for a while, you can use the internet or tv (or radio or books) to do that too.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Celebrity Saturday! Blossom

Oops!  I totally forgot about celebrity Saturday this past weekend.  This month's celebrity scientist is Mayim Bialik, whom you may remember best from the 1990s series "Blossom".  Bialik recently (in 2007) earned her PhD from UCLA studying, as her website points out:
"psychoneuroendocrinology, examining Hypothalamic Secretions and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder in adolescents with Prader-Willi syndrome"

Good Science, yeah, there's an app for that

As I mentioned in a previous post, I'm more of a PC guy (even my smartphone runs Windows mobile), but I can't deny that there's a little pang of longing whenever I see a new cool iphone app that I will have to wait around for and hope gets made into a PC friendly version.  Like this one which you can use to quickly rebut any climate denialists you may run into.  Or, there's also this one, an index of common creationist claims (and rebuttals) that you can get for your Blackberry or your iphone.  And finally, there's this one: Netters's neuroscience flash cards.  While I don't think I want to switch over my current phone or plan, I may have to get an itouch.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

5 myths about psychotropic drugs and children

Brain Blogger has a list of 5 common myths concerning the prescribing of psychotropic drugs for children and adolescents... here's the quick countdown...
1. children are little adults (clearly there are differences in physiology as well as psychology)
2. children have no reason to develop depression or anxiety (tell that to the bullied as well as the bully)
3. psychiatric disorders are the same in children as they are in adults (there may be some overlap, but these are largely different)
4. children can be prescribed the same drugs as adults just in smaller doses (again there may be some, but in most cases there simply isn't enough research to know whether or not this is ok for most drugs)
5. drugs are successful at treating psychiatric disorders (while there are many drugs that show some efficacy, they should not be considered a cure-all, and in some cases, drugs can do more harm than good)

Friday, February 12, 2010

Happy Darwin Day!

Today is the anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth (Feb 12th, 1809).  Last year was the bicentennial celebration, but that doesn't mean there isn't anything cool going on this year... like this petition to get today officially recognized as a holiday.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

I Can Haz a College Education?

Apparently, in Britain, cat owners are more likely to have a college degree than dog owners.  Why might this be?  Well, it is hypothesized that people who have college educations have jobs or lifestyles that leave them less time for more needy pets... like dogs.  (I wonder what having a bird or a fish says about your education?)  Anyway, apparently there is a cultural element to this as well, seeing as how, in the United States, there does not appear to be a similar trend, as reported by Justin Wolfers at the Freakonomics Blog:
"unlike Britain, there’s no educational gradient here. In the U.S., 31.5 percent of cat owners have college degrees, which is statistically, insignificantly larger (i.e. no different) than the 30.1 percent of dog owners who hold diplomas. (These numbers are lower than the British numbers, partly because I’m referring to the qualifications of the respondent, not the maximum qualification in the household.) There are no real income differences to speak of, as both cat and dog owners are each as likely as the other to be in either the top or bottom income quartile."
And then, there's also this fun link to a press release for an article claiming that people "who define themselves as "dog people" are more extraverted, more agreeable and more conscientious than self-described "cat people."  

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Before you say "Duh"

A new study out suggests that (medical) marijuana may not help to prevent cognitive decline or to lessen the accumulation of amyloid protein deposits in a mouse model for Alzheimer's disease.  Now, before you go crazy laughing and wondering why scientists do studies to find answers that anyone with a little common sense could give you, there is actually a precedent.  Marijuana acts in the brain on cells that express receptors usually attuned to molecules that the brain makes, called endocannabinoids (endogenous cannabis-like molecules).  Now, endocannabinoids have been shown to help keep brain cells alive under "stress" (stress being a catchall term for conditions known to kill nerve cells), and a compound called HU210, which activates cannabinoid receptors much more potently than marijuana had been shown in previous studies using rats to have some efficacy in keeping neurons alive under the types of "stress" the brains of Alzheimer's patients experience.  What I like best about this study is that it shows how science gives you answers even when they're not what you want to hear:
"As scientists, we begin every study hoping to be able to confirm beneficial effects of potential therapies, and we hoped to confirm this for the use of medical marijuana in treating Alzheimer's disease," says Song, a member of the Brain Research Centre at UBC and VCH Research Institute and Director of Townsend Family Laboratories at UBC.
"But we didn't see any benefit at all. Instead, our study pointed to some detrimental effects." 
So, if previous studies showed some benefit, but this one showed no benefit, which ones should we believe?  Well, obviously, more studies should be conducted, preferably on humans... I might just know some people who would volunteer to be studied.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Domino's Pizza and Puffery...

So, Domino's has this new commercial out, where they define "puffery: (n) exaggerated statement based on opinion. Not fact."  I like this word.  You could say that the main point of this blog is to undermine puffery.  Which is why I find it interesting that Domino's would use it in their commercials.

You see, Domino's was founded by Thomas Monaghan, who also founded several religious/political organizations, including the Thomas More Law Center, which is the law firm that so adamantly took up the cause for so-called "intelligent design" (a.k.a. creationism) in the 2005 Dover Trial (Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District).  In case  you aren't familiar with creationism, or its latest iteration, "intelligent design", it is pretty much the epitome of puffery, in that it flatly denies facts in favor of deeply held beliefs that are not based on any factual evidence (so, opinion).  Anyway, Monaghan sold his majority share in the pizza chain in 1998, so I guess I shouldn't be too hard on the pizza slinging franchise, but then he probably still owns a small portion of the company (he held on to 7 per cent back in '98), so as a general rule, I still don't order pizza from Domino's (though this is mostly because our local pizza shops have way better pizza than any chain).  

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Sunday Comics: Top Ten Science Comic Book Covers

Yes, if nothing else on this blog screams to the world that I am a HUGE NERD, trying to marry my love of science with my love of comics should pretty much seal the deal.  Anyway, this list is pretty random.  I have no idea if I have found even the bulk of science related comics (though something tells me I got pretty close), and of course, these are mostly rated on my own personal opinion of what looks cool on a cover.  (Which means the rankings have nothing to do with content, particularly since I have only read a couple of the comics on the list.).  Anyway, there are obviously some good ones that didn't make the list (like this one at Nature), but here's the list...

10. Science Comics #1 (Feb 1940). Okay, so the "Science" in Science Comics is likely referring to science fiction rather than real science, but since this is a list of the top "science comic book" covers, it seems like I would be a little remiss not to include any covers from a series called "Science comics".  Plus, with "Electro" breaking through a steel wall to save the damsel in Bond-villainesque distress, this cover seemed to be much more exciting than some of the others that were up for consideration.

9. Captain Science #1 (Nov. 1950).  Again, this is an old school science fiction (rather than science fact) title, but again, he's Captain Science!  Plus, how can you not love the quasi-futuristic clothing (or lack thereof).  Clearly, in the future, all scientific research will be carried out with ray guns and in see-through clothing (thus ensuring your eyes remain focused on your work).  Also, I have to wonder, how does one go about obtaining the moniker "Captain Science"?  Do you think, if I just started referring to myself as Captain (or perhaps Admiral) Science, my friends and family (and co-workers)would all play along?

8. Two Fisted Science #1 (1997).  For the first real science comic book to make the list, we have Two Fisted Science, the comic from GT labs that would eventually be fleshed out into a graphic novel chronicling such heavy hitters as Galileo, Einstein, and Richard Feynman.  I love the title: "Two fisted science".  It makes it seem so action packed... I can't help but feel like the professor (I'm assuming it's Einstein) is reaching out of the page to give you the knowledge smackdown.  No, sir, I don't have any questions.  Please don't box my ears again with your two fisted fury of science.

7. The Sandwalk Adventures #3 (2001).  Charlie Darwin expounds upon his adventures on the Beagle and the finer points of evolution by natural selection... and, as follows logically, gets attacked by a giant space bug... Actually, this set of books, compiled into a graphic novel by "creator" Jay Hosler, is really a great primer on evolution (and as the cover shows, obviously entertaining too).

6. Optical Allusions (2008).  Another great book from Jay Hosler.  How could you not like this one?  You can see all of the crazy characters from the adventures of Wrinkles the Wonder Brain (yes, the hero of the book is a walking, talking brain).  And toward the bottom of the page, Charlie Darwin is punching a bad guy right in the jaw!  The only thing that would make this cover better would be a 1960's batman-esque "Wham!" or "Ka-Pow!" balloon over Darwin's mean left hook.

5. A Journey Through the Digestive System with Max Axiom, Super Scientist.  Okay, first of all, this guy's name is Max Axiom: Super Scientist?  God I hope he has business cards.  Second, he is surfing down the esophagus and out of a hemi-sected stomach (over what looks like the large intestine)!  And, his surfboard has lights on the bottom of it! Enough said.

4. Dignifying Science (2003).  Another graphic novel from GT Labs, and this one is obviously one that is well needed and well deserved.  I would probably put it up at number 1, except the one thing I don't like is how the cover model looks like just that (a model).  Why does she have to be all dressed up, in front of the dressing room mirror to do science?  And while her test tubes and other equipment suggest heavy duty science, I can't help but notice that the set she is holding makes it look like she is spritzing herself with perfume.  It's like the artist is saying, "sure, women can be scientists, but their first priority is looking pretty."  Which, to me seems to be a tad defeating. Other than that, a great book, profiling the likes of Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin, and I believe it was even nominated for an Eisner Award.  You can check out some of the contents here.
(I know, that was pretty deep for a guy who just went crazy over Max Axiom surfing through the GI tract.)

3. Clan Apis #3 (Feb 1999).  Another great one from Jay Hosler.  All you ever wanted to know about the secret lives of honeybees.  Also, I like that the publisher is "Active Synapse", though I obviously take issue with the burst of light filling the synapse in the logo.  What really puts this one on the list, however, is that I can't help but admire such great artwork when the subject matter is a couple of insects and a dung ball. Seriously, look at the shading on that dung ball.  I've eaten meatballs that looked worse.

2. The Unexpected World of Nature #3 (2006).  Part of a series of books put out to accompany the PBS show "Nature".  This one doesn't really need much of an explanation, I mean come on, a treasure hoarding giant lizard?  Unless. like me, it reminds you of an ex-girlfriend, you have to admit, that is a pretty cool cover, and on top of that when it was available, it was free.  you can't beat that.

1. Fallout (2001).  Another book from GT labs, this one about Robert Oppenheimer and the development of the atomic bomb.  Clearly pretty heavy stuff for a comic book, but great art, and a great story as it follows Oppenheimer before and after the Manhattan project and examines his conflicting feelings on developing such a weapon.  The book also (obviously) delves into the relationship between politics and science (and political science).

Saturday, February 6, 2010


The actor Roger Moore (my third favorite Bond) stated: “There are even surveys suggesting that eating foie gras can lead to Alzheimer’s, diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. In short, eating foie gras is a tasty way of getting terminally ill.”
I applaud his desire to get people to stop eating foie gras, which, if you are unfamiliar with it, is liver from either a duck or a goose that has been fattened ("foie gras" is French for "fat liver", foie = liver, gras = fat, think Mardi Gras = Fat Tuesday).  The thing is, the fattening is done by force feeding the animal, which is kinda cruel, and thus, I agree in spirit that getting people to stop buying and eating foie gras is a good idea.

However, the question here is whether or not there is any truth to what James Bond is saying?  Or, is he another celebrity quack like Jim Carey and Jennifer McCarthy?  I am sure his heart is in the right place, but he demonstrates how it is all too easy for marginal, preliminary results to be blown out of proportion once they hit the mainstream media.  Even ScienceDaily (a site I often link to from this blog) used a little bit of sensationalism by mentioning Alzheimer's in the title of their article on the subject (of course they did make sure to mention at the end of the article that there really was no demonstrated link to Alzheimer's, but then some people only read the headlines.)

The study cited in the ScienceDaily article showed two things: 1. some brands of commercially available foie gras contained an aberrant type of amyloid protein and 2. when these proteins were force fed to mice (Oh, the irony!), the mice got amyloidosis (amyloidosis is mostly a catchall term for when there are abnormal amyloid proteins aggregating in tissue, it can have many causes, from autoimmune to infectious, which is probably why you hear it mentioned on pretty much every episode of House).  Anyway, the study makes no mention of seeing any amyloid fibrils in the brains of these animals (which is where you typically see the protein in people with Alzheimer's), nor does it make any claims of the mice developing symptoms akin to Alzheimer's, diabetes, or rheumatoid arthritis.  No tests were performed, nor were claims made, about memory or learning deficits in the animals.  In fact, the only mention of Alzheimer's in the whole article is in the last sentence, where the authors recommend that people should take caution in deciding whether or not to consume foie gras, especially if they have any diseases that involve amyloid proteins (like rheumatoid arthritis, typeII diabetes or Alzheimer's).  Which is to say that the authors of the study make absolutely NO CLAIM that foie gras causes Alzheimer's.  They merely suggest that someone with Alzheimer's (or a family history of it) would be better safe than sorry to avoid foie gras until more research can be done.

As if that weren't enough, however, we don't even really know if amyloid proteins contribute to Alzheimer's disease in any meaningful way.  Abnormal amyloid proteins form tangled masses that are the defining characteristic of the brains of Alzheimer's patients.  However, the presence of these proteins may just as easily be a symptom as a cause.  For years, it has been hypothesized that the production of easily tangled amyloid proteins is a major cause of Alzheimer's disease.   However, after decades of research and attempts to treat the disease by targeting these proteins, little to no progress has been made, suggesting that in the case of Alzheimer's disease, the amyloid proteins may be more symptomatic than causative. (This isn't to say that no progress has been made, and many neuroscientists still ascribe to the amyloid hypothesis, but amyloid as a cause of Alzheimer's is still just a hypothesis and far from conclusive).

So what is the take home message?  Well, it may be possible that eating foie gras can cause organs in your body to accumulate amyloid fibrils, and it may even be that it could contribute to diseases like Alzheimer's.  However, at this point there is no evidence for that assumption.  That being said, I would still recommend not eating foie gras until it is determined one way or another how transmissable these amyloid proteins are in humans, and because I still think it is kinda cruel to stick a tube down ducks' throats and pour in food.  But then you're all adults, so decide for yourself what you want to do.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Extraordinary Measures Movie Review

I haven't yet seen this new movie out with Harrison Ford and Brendan Frazier, so I can't give my opinion of how good it is, or how well (or poorly) the scientific process is represented, though, since it's only a 2 hour movie, my guess is that it likely won't (nor can it) do justice to the long drawn out process that is drug discovery.  All that aside, they did review the film over at the Scientist, so if you have any interest, you can check it out.

Bad Science leads to Bad Medicine

So, I've posted before about how there is absolutely no substantive evidence to back the claim that vaccines cause autism.  The one and only study to make such a claim was published in 1998 by Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who has been all over the news this week in the wake of investigations into unethical research practices.  Now, even before the revelations of the past week, many people had reason to doubt the study that kicked off the anti-vaccination movement.  For example, Wakefield had a financial (and huge conflict of) interest in developing an alternative to traditional vaccines at the time he published the study.  Also, the original study only included 12 children, which is too small of a sample to infer anything meaningful about the population at large.  And that would be if the data could be trusted, but since it seems that much of the data was faked, I guess the point is moot.  It's no wonder that the rest of Wakefield's co-authors on the study demurred from the conclusions he had drawn, and most of them withdrew their names from the paper.  In addition to all of this, however, the past week has been even more enlightening... an investigation into Wakefield's practices by Britain's General Medical Council (GMC) revealed unethical practices by the good doctor, including giving painful spinal taps to children in the study "without clinical reason".  Additionally, in the past week, the medical journal, the Lancet completely removed the paper from its publication record.  I wish that all of this would finally convince people that there is no truth to Wakefield's ridiculous claims, but sadly, as this article in the London Times points out, many of the antivaxers will only see this as "a setup" or a witch hunt, and the "persecution" of Andrew Wakefield will only strengthen their belief that he is right.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Pretty Solid Neuroscience Reporting

And of all places, these two stories happened to be on NBC's the Today show.  They did a pretty good job with them.  This first story looks at a surgery to remove an essential tremor from an 80 year old man.  They do a good job of reporting and educating, except, where Dr. Nancy Snyderman says the "brain has no nerve fibers", I believe what she meant was no pain sensing nerve fibers, which is true, and that is how they were able to do the surgery while the patient was still awake.

In this second story, they talk about some new research that links low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin with Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).  I felt that the doctor they interviewed did a good job of being cautious about what the results of the study really mean, and readily admitted that all we know at this point is that there is a correlation between low serotonin levels and SIDS, but we don't yet know if low serotonin levels play a causative role in infant mortality.

I'm a PC

The other week, they had a bit on "The Big Bang Theory" where they got new computers with the new Windows 7, and then commented "It's more user friendly.  I don't think I like that."
Oh, it's so funny because it's true!
However, despite my dislike for the all too user friendly Mac, my support for all things Windows has jumped a few notches in the past couple of weeks since Bill Gates decided to donate 5 and a half billion dollars to fund research aimed at combating global warming (so-called geoengineering), and on top of that, another 10 billion to help get vaccines to kids in developing countries.  What this means is that, unlike a large portion of the rest of the population, the Gateses (Bill and Melinda) clearly recognize that global warming is real and poses a real threat, and vaccines do not cause autism, but rather save lives.  It makes me so happy to see people doing good work based on good science!

Ginko supplements further debunked

Recently, I posted about how Ginko Biloba, a very popular herbal supplement, does not live up to its many and varied claims to boost your health and brain power.  Now, it seems like a review of the available research suggests that, not only does Ginko not have any significant benefits, but it may also be toxic as well, particularly if you have epilepsy or are taking anti-seizure medication.  Some of the reports in the review claim ginkotoxin may be linked to ailments as varied as Alzheimer's and liver disease.  Of course, just like I am skeptical whenever someone claims a supplement is a miracle treatment for numerous ailments,  I am also skeptical when one supplement is claimed as the cause to numerous ailments.  However, this research does add to a growing body of evidence that suggests that Ginko supplements (and teas and foods) are definitely not doing you any good (even if we remain skeptical about how much bad they are doing), so I wouldn't recommend wasting your money on this overrated plant.  If you want to boost your brain power, you are going to have to work out (both physically and mentally), or, if you need a quick fix, drink regular tea or coffee (as caffeine has been shown to enhance attention, focus, and memory).

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Sciencey Diet

Not to be confused with the dog food "Science Diet", though, I would question how much actual science is behind that product as well, the post I'm linking here is actually about a recent Weight Watchers (WW) v. Jenny Craig (JC) lawsuit, where WW has taken issue with JC's commercials claiming that their diet is twice as effective as the other leading diets, supposedly based on clinical evidence.  Turns out, the science really isn't there to back it up.  It just goes to show how easy it is to claim something as science and with enough money, how easy it is to get that message out.  Normally, and without enough money on the other side, the message tends to stay out, and get seen or heard enough that it can become mainstream and then accepted as true.  Sure, the supposed effectiveness of Jennny Craig isn't nearly as important as global warming, vaccinations, or science education (where bad science messages get too much attention and by proxy, an undeserved air of credibility), but I think it still illustrates the point.  Whether you're voting on new schoolboard standards or just choosing which diet plan to go on, dig up the data for yourself, and make an informed decision... that's all I'm sayin'

Monday, February 1, 2010

Liar Liar Pants on Fire

So, this is a bit overdue... my brother-in-law who happens to be "in law" sent me a link to this lecture at Harvard Law School (of course the lecture was a few weeks ago, which is why this is overdue).  Anyway, the lecture was about how there will likely never be an MRI based lie detector test that will be readily admissible in court because lying is a complex process that involves many different areas of the brain... mostly because there are many different types of lying (e.g. a well rehearsed lie vs. a lie you make up on the spot, or a lie you feel guilty about vs. one that you don't).  Anyway, I was holding off on posting about this because I wanted to write up a post about how polygraph machines (aka "lie detectors") aren't reliable at detecting deceit (which is why their results are currently inadmissible in many US courts).  However, since it will likely be a while before I get to write up that post, I will simply link you (through the Harvard link) to an article about what functional brain scans are revealing about how we lie (namely that we use many different parts of the brain to do it).  If you want to see how unreliable polygraphs are, for the time being, I suggest you check out the episode of Penn and Teller's "Bullshit" where they covered the topic pretty well.  And, in the meanwhile, here's another article about fMRI scans being used in legal cases.