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'Language Gene' Has a Partner

Few genes have made the headlines as much as FOXP2. The first gene associated with language disorders , it was later implicated in the evolution of human speech. Girls make more of the FOXP2 protein, which may help explain their precociousness in learning to talk. Now, neuroscientists have figured out how one of its molecular partners helps Foxp2 exert its effects.

The findings may eventually lead to new therapies for inherited speech disorders, says Richard Huganir, the neurobiologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, who led the work. Foxp2 controls the activity of a gene called Srpx2, he notes, which helps some of the brain's nerve cells beef up their connections to other nerve cells. By establishing what SRPX2 does, researchers can look for defective copies of it in people suffering from problems talking or learning to talk.

Until 2001, scientists were not sure how genes influenced language. Then Simon Fisher, a neurogeneticist now at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, and his colleagues fingered FOXP2 as the culprit in a family with several members who had trouble with pronunciation, putting words together, and understanding speech. These people cannot move their tongue and lips precisely enough to talk clearly, so even family members often can?t figure out what they are saying. It “opened a molecular window on the neural basis of speech and language,” Fisher says.

Photo credit: Yoichi Araki, Ph.D.


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By KEN BELSON The National Football League, which for years disputed evidence that its players had a high rate of severe brain damage, has stated in federal court documents that it expects nearly a third of retired players to develop long-term cognitive problems and that the conditions are likely to emerge at “notably younger ages” than in the general population. The findings are a result of data prepared by actuaries hired by the league and provided to the United States District Court judge presiding over the settlement between the N.F.L. and 5,000 former players who sued the league, alleging that it had hidden the dangers of concussions from them. “Thus, our assumptions result in prevalence rates by age group that are materially higher than those expected in the general population,” said the report, prepared by the Segal Group for the N.F.L. “Furthermore, the model forecasts that players will develop these diagnoses at notably younger ages than the generation population.” The statements are the league’s most unvarnished admission yet that the sport’s professional participants sustain severe brain injuries at far higher rates than the general population. They also appear to confirm what scientists have said for years: that playing football increases the risk of developing neurological conditions like chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease that can be identified only in an autopsy. “This statement clears up all the confusion and doubt manufactured over the years questioning the link between brain trauma and long-term neurological impairment,” said Chris Nowinski, the executive director of the Sports Legacy Institute, who has for many years pressured the league to acknowledge the connection between football and brain diseases. © 2014 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Brain Injury/Concussion
Link ID: 20073 - Posted: 09.13.2014

by Bethany Brookshire Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, has many different symptoms. Patients may suffer from anxiety, flashbacks, memory problems and a host of other reactions to a traumatic event. But one symptom is especially common: 70 percent of civilian patients and 90 percent of combat veterans with PTSD just can’t get a decent night’s sleep. Problems with sleep, including rapid-eye movement — or REM — sleep, have long been associated with PTSD. “We know that sleep difficulties in the weeks following trauma predict the development of PTSD, and we know that bad sleep makes PTSD symptoms worse,” says Sean Drummond, a clinical psychologist who studies sleep at the University of California at San Diego. Studies in rats show that exposing the animals to traumatic, fearful experiences such as foot shocks disrupts their REM sleep. Drummond and his research assistant Anisa Marshall wanted to connect those findings to humans. But he soon found out that in humans, it’s not fear that predicts REM sleep. Instead, it’s safety. The scientists tested this in 42 people without PTSD using a measure called fear-potentiated startle. Subjects sit in a comfortable chair with an electrode on their wrists. A screen shows blue squares or yellow squares. If participants see blue squares, they run a high risk of receiving an annoying shock to the wrist. If they see yellow squares, they can relax; no shocks are headed their way. During this time, they will also hear random, loud bursts of white noise. The scientists measure how much the subjects startle in response to the noise by measuring the strength of their eyeblinks in response to the noise. In the presence of the blue squares, the blinks become much stronger, an effect called fear-potentiated startle. With yellow squares, the blinks weaken. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2014.

Keyword: Stress; Aggression
Link ID: 20072 - Posted: 09.13.2014

by Michael Slezak "Cannabis catastrophic for young brains" screamed the headline on an Australian medical news website this week. The article, and others like it, were reporting on a study linking teenage cannabis use with school dropouts, addiction and suicide, published in the The Lancet Psychiatry. Echoing the research findings, the articles declared that if teenagers smoke cannabis daily, it makes them seven times more likely to commit suicide compared with non-users. Indeed, "there is no safe level of use", most reported. They also urged caution to legislators around the world that are gingerly taking steps towards weakening prohibition of cannabis, lest young people get easier access to it. So does smoking pot cause suicide? The Lancet authors say it probably does. Their study combined data from three previous longitudinal studies which together tracked cannabis use in more than 3000 people in Australia and New Zealand over many years. The authors looked for associations between the frequency of cannabis use before the age of 17 and outcomes, such as high school completion, until the people reached the age of 30. They found that those who smoked cannabis daily before they were 17 had lower odds of finishing high school and getting a degree than people who had never used cannabis. Larger increased odds were associated with cannabis dependence later in life, trying other illicit drugs and suicide attempts. But longitudinal studies only show correlation, not causation. The difficulty is that people take drugs for a reason, and that reason could be what's causing the outcome. In the case of school dropout, suicide and daily pot smoking, it is not hard to imagine what else could be going on in someone's life to engender these behaviours. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd

Keyword: Drug Abuse; Aggression
Link ID: 20071 - Posted: 09.13.2014

By Smitha Mundasad Health reporter, BBC News Giving young people Botox treatment may restrict their emotional growth, experts warn. Writing in the Journal of Aesthetic Nursing, clinicians say there is a growing trend for under-25s to seek the wrinkle-smoothing injections. But the research suggests "frozen faces" could stop young people from learning how to express emotions fully. A leading body of UK plastic surgeons says injecting teenagers for cosmetic reasons is "morally wrong". Botox and other versions of the toxin work by temporarily paralysing muscles in the upper face to reduce wrinkling when people frown. Nurse practitioner Helen Collier, who carried out the research, says reality TV shows and celebrity culture are driving young people to idealise the "inexpressive frozen face." But she points to a well-known psychological theory, the facial feedback hypothesis, that suggests adolescents learn how best to relate to people by mimicking their facial expressions. She says: "As a human being our ability to demonstrate a wide range of emotions is very dependent on facial expressions. "Emotions such as empathy and sympathy help us to survive and grow into confident and communicative adults." But she warns that a "growing generation of blank-faced" young people could be harming their ability to correctly convey their feelings. "If you wipe those expressions out, this might stunt their emotional and social development," she says. The research calls for practitioners to use assessment tools to decide whether there are clear clinical reasons for Botox treatment. BBC © 2014

Keyword: Emotions
Link ID: 20070 - Posted: 09.13.2014

By Jennifer Balmer Each summer, leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) migrate thousands of kilometers from their tropical breeding grounds to feed in cooler waters. Yet how the animals know when to begin their long journey back south at the end of the season has mostly remained a mystery. New findings, to be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, suggest that leatherback sea turtles may be able to sense seasonal changes in sunlight by means of an unpigmented spot on the crown of their head—known as the pink spot (pictured). Researchers conducted an examination of the anatomical structures beneath the pink spot and found that the layers of bone and cartilage were remarkably thinner than in other areas of the skull. This thin region of the skull allows the passage of light through to an area of the brain, called the pineal gland, that acts as biological clock, regulating night-day cycles and seasonal patterns of behavior. The authors suggest that the lack of pigment in the crowning pink spot and thin skull region underlying it act as a “skylight,” allowing the turtles to sense the subtle changes in sunlight that accompany changing seasons, signaling them to return south when autumn approaches. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science

Keyword: Animal Migration; Aggression
Link ID: 20069 - Posted: 09.13.2014

by Helen Thomson DON'T mind the gap. A woman has reached the age of 24 without anyone realising she was missing a large part of her brain. The case highlights just how adaptable the organ is. The discovery was made when the woman was admitted to the Chinese PLA General Hospital of Jinan Military Area Command in Shandong Province complaining of dizziness and nausea. She told doctors she'd had problems walking steadily for most of her life, and her mother reported that she hadn't walked until she was 7 and that her speech only became intelligible at the age of 6. Doctors did a CAT scan and immediately identified the source of the problem – her entire cerebellum was missing (see scan, below left). The space where it should be was empty of tissue. Instead it was filled with cerebrospinal fluid, which cushions the brain and provides defence against disease. The cerebellum – sometimes known as the "little brain" – is located underneath the two hemispheres. It looks different from the rest of the brain because it consists of much smaller and more compact folds of tissue. It represents about 10 per cent of the brain's total volume but contains 50 per cent of its neurons. Although it is not unheard of to have part of your brain missing, either congenitally or from surgery, the woman joins an elite club of just nine people who are known to have lived without their entire cerebellum. A detailed description of how the disorder affects a living adult is almost non-existent, say doctors from the Chinese hospital, because most people with the condition die at a young age and the problem is only discovered on autopsy (Brain, doi.org/vh7). © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.

Keyword: Brain imaging; Aggression
Link ID: 20068 - Posted: 09.12.2014

By Glendon Mellow University and scientific research center programs are increasingly finding it useful to employ artists and illustrators to help them see things in a new way. Few works of art from the Renaissance have been studied and pored over as meticulously as Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. Yet, the Master may still have some surprises hidden for an illustrator-scientist. Biomedical Illustrator Ian Suk (BSc, BMC) and Neurological Surgeon Rafael Tamargo (MD, FACS), both of Johns Hopkins proposed in a 2010 article in the journal Neurosurgery, that the panel above, Dividing Light from the Darkness by Michelangelo actually depicts the brain stem of God. Using a series of comparisons of the unusual shadows and contours on God’s neck to photos of actual brain stems, the evidence seems completely overwhelming that Michelangelo used his own limited anatomical studies to depict the brain stem. It’s unlikely even the educated members of Michelangelo’s audience would recognize it. I encourage you to look over the paper here, and enlarge the images in the slideshow: Suk and Tamargo are utterly convincing. Unlike R. Douglas Fields in this previous blog post from 2010 on Scientific American, I don’t think there’s room to believe this is a case of pareidolia. I imagine the thrill of feeling Michelangelo communicating directly with the authors across the centuries was immense. © 2014 Scientific American,

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 20067 - Posted: 09.12.2014

by Simon Makin Talking in your sleep might be annoying, but listening may yet prove useful. Researchers have shown that sleeping brains not only recognise words, but can also categorise them and respond in a previously defined way. This could one day help us learn more efficiently. Sleep appears to render most of us dead to the world, our senses temporarily suspended, but sleep researchers know this is a misleading impression. For instance, a study published in 2012 showed that sleeping people can learn to associate specific sounds and smells. Other work has demonstrated that presenting sounds or smells during sleep boosts performance on memory tasks – providing the sensory cues were also present during the initial learning. Now it seems the capabilities of sleeping brains stretch even further. A team led by Sid Kouider from the Ecole Normale Supérieur in Paris trained 18 volunteers to classify spoken words as either animal or object by pressing buttons with their right or left hand. Brain activity was recorded using EEG, allowing the researchers to measure the telltale spikes in activity that indicate the volunteers were preparing to move one of their hands. Since each hand is controlled by the motor cortex on the opposite side of the brain, these brainwaves can be matched to the intended hand just by looking at which side of the motor cortex is active. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.

Keyword: Sleep; Aggression
Link ID: 20066 - Posted: 09.12.2014

David Cyranoski A Japanese patient with a debilitating eye disease is about to become the first person to be treated with induced pluripotent stem cells, which have generated enthusiastic expectations and earned their inventor a Nobel Prize. A health-ministry committee has vetted researchers' safety tests and cleared the team to begin the experimental procedure. Masayo Takahashi, an ophthalmologist at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology (CDB) in Kobe, has been using induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells to prepare a treatment for age-related macular degeneration. Unlike embryonic stem cells, iPS cells are produced from adult cells, so they can be genetically tailored to each recipient. They are capable of becoming any cell type in the body, and have the potential to treat a wide range of diseases. The CDB trial will be the first opportunity for the technology to prove its clinical value. In age-related macular degeneration, extra blood vessels form in the eye, destabilizing a supportive base layer of the retina known as the retinal pigment epithelium. This results in the loss of the light-sensitive photoreceptors that are anchored in the epithelium, and often leads to blindness. Takahashi took skin cells from people with the disease and converted them to iPS cells. She then coaxed these cells to become retinal pigment epithelium cells, and then to grow into thin sheets that can be transplanted to the damaged retina. Takahashi and her collaborators have shown in monkey studies1 that iPS cells generated from the recipients' own cells do not provoke an immune reaction that causes them to be rejected. There have been concerns that iPS cells could cause tumours, but Takahashi's team has found that to be unlikely in mice2 and monkeys1. © 2014 Nature Publishing Group

Keyword: Vision; Aggression
Link ID: 20065 - Posted: 09.12.2014

Corie Lok Tami Morehouse's vision was not great as a child, but as a teenager she noticed it slipping even further. The words she was trying to read began disappearing into the page and eventually everything faded to a dull, grey haze. The culprit was a form of Leber's congenital amaurosis (LCA), a group of genetic disorders in which light-sensing cells in the retina die off, usually resulting in total blindness by the time people reach their thirties or forties. But Morehouse got a reprieve. In 2009, at the age of 44, the social worker from Ashtabula, Ohio, became the oldest participant in a ground-breaking clinical trial to test a gene therapy for LCA. Now, she says, she can see her children's eyes, and the colours of the sunset seem brighter than before. Morehouse calls these improvements life-changing, but they are minor compared with the changes in some of the younger trial participants. Corey Haas was eight years old when he was treated in 2008 — the youngest person to receive the therapy. He went from using a white cane to riding a bicycle and playing softball. Morehouse often wonders what she would be able to see now if she had been closer to Haas's age when she had the therapy. “I was born a little too soon,” she says. Visual impairment affects some 285 million people worldwide, about 39 million of whom are considered blind, according to a 2010 estimate from the World Health Organization. Roughly 80% of visual impairment is preventable or curable, including operable conditions such as cataracts that account for much of the blindness in the developing world. But retinal-degeneration disorders — including age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in the developed world — have no cure. © 2014 Nature Publishing Group

Keyword: Vision
Link ID: 20064 - Posted: 09.11.2014

By JOSHUA A. KRISCH PHILADELPHIA — McBaine, a bouncy black and white springer spaniel, perks up and begins his hunt at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center. His nose skims 12 tiny arms that protrude from the edges of a table-size wheel, each holding samples of blood plasma, only one of which is spiked with a drop of cancerous tissue. The dog makes one focused revolution around the wheel before halting, steely-eyed and confident, in front of sample No. 11. A trainer tosses him his reward, a tennis ball, which he giddily chases around the room, sliding across the floor and bumping into walls like a clumsy puppy. McBaine is one of four highly trained cancer detection dogs at the center, which trains purebreds to put their superior sense of smell to work in search of the early signs of ovarian cancer. Now, Penn Vet, part of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, is teaming with the university’s chemistry and physics departments to isolate cancer chemicals that only dogs can smell. They hope this will lead to the manufacture of nanotechnology sensors that are capable of detecting bits of cancerous tissue 1/100,000th the thickness of a sheet of paper. “We don’t ever anticipate our dogs walking through a clinic,” said the veterinarian Dr. Cindy Otto, the founder and executive director of the Working Dog Center. “But we do hope that they will help refine chemical and nanosensing techniques for cancer detection.” Since 2004, research has begun to accumulate suggesting that dogs may be able to smell the subtle chemical differences between healthy and cancerous tissue, including bladder cancer, melanoma and cancers of the lung, breast and prostate. But scientists debate whether the research will result in useful medical applications. © 2014 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste)
Link ID: 20063 - Posted: 09.11.2014

By Helen Briggs Health editor, BBC News website There may be a link between a rare blood type and memory loss in later life, American research suggests. People with AB blood, found in 4% of the population, appear more likely to develop thinking and memory problems than those with other blood groups. The study, published in Neurology, builds on previous research showing blood type may influence heart risk. A charity said the best way to keep the brain healthy was a balanced diet, regular exercise and not smoking. A US team led by Dr Mary Cushman, of the University of Vermont College of Medicine, Burlington, analysed data from about 30,000 US citizens aged 45 and above. It identified 495 participants who had developed thinking and memory problems, or cognitive impairment, during the three-year study. They were compared to 587 people with no cognitive problems. People with AB blood type made up 6% of the group who developed cognitive impairment, which is higher than the 4% found in the general population. They were 82% more likely to have difficulties with day-to-day memory, language and attention, which can signal the onset of dementia. However, the study did not look at the risk of dementia. The study supported the idea that having a certain blood group, such as O, may give a lower risk for cardiovascular disease, which in turn protected the brain, the researchers said. "Our study looks at blood type and risk of cognitive impairment, but several studies have shown that factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes increase the risk of cognitive impairment and dementia," said Dr Cushman. BBC © 2014

Keyword: Alzheimers; Aggression
Link ID: 20062 - Posted: 09.11.2014

By Sarah Zielinski The marshmallow test is pretty simple: Give a child a treat, such as a marshmallow, and promise that if he doesn’t eat it right away, he’ll soon be rewarded with a second one. The experiment was devised by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel in the late 1960s as a measure of self-control. When he later checked back in with kids he had tested as preschoolers, those who had been able to wait for the second treat appeared to be doing better in life. They tended to have fewer behavioral or drug-abuse problems, for example, than those who had given in to temptation. Most attempts to perform this experiment on animals haven’t worked out so well. Many animals haven’t been willing to wait at all. Dogs, primates, and some birds have done a bit better, managing to wait at least a couple of minutes before eating the first treat. The best any animal has managed has been 10 minutes—a record set earlier this year by a couple of crows. The African grey parrot is a species known for its intelligence. Animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg, now at Harvard, spent 30 years studying one of these parrots, Alex, and showed that the bird had an extraordinary vocabulary and capacity for learning. Alex even learned to add numerals before his death in 2007. Could an African grey pass the marshmallow test? Adrienne E. Koepke of Hunter College and Suzanne L. Gray of Harvard University tried the experiment on Pepperberg’s current star African grey, a 19-year-old named Griffin. In their test, a researcher took two treats, one of which Griffin liked slightly better, and put them into cups. Then she placed the cup with the less preferred food in front of Griffin and told him, “wait.” She took the other cup and either stood a few feet away or left the room. After a random amount of time, from 10 seconds to 15 minutes, she would return. If the food was still in the cup, Griffin got the nut he was waiting for. Koepke and colleagues presented their findings last month at the Animal Behavior Society meeting at Princeton. © 2014 The Slate Group LLC.

Keyword: Intelligence; Aggression
Link ID: 20061 - Posted: 09.11.2014

|By Amy Nordrum If you were one of millions of children who completed the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, or D.A.R.E., between 1983 and 2009, you may be surprised to learn that scientists have repeatedly shown that the program did not work. Despite being the nation’s most popular substance-abuse prevention program, D.A.R.E. did not make you less likely to become a drug addict or even to refuse that first beer from your friends. But over the past few years prevention scientists have helped D.A.R.E. America, the nonprofit organization that administers the program, replace the old curriculum with a course based on a few concepts that should make the training more effective for today’s students. The new course, called keepin’ it REAL, differs in both form and content from the former D.A.R.E.—replacing long, drug-fact laden lectures with interactive lessons that present stories meant to help kids make smart decisions. Beginning in 2009 D.A.R.E. administrators required middle schools across the country that teach the program to switch over to the 10-week, researcher-designed curriculum for seventh graders. By 2013, they had ordered elementary schools to start teaching a version of those lessons to fifth and sixth graders, too. "It's not an antidrug program," says Michelle Miller-Day, co-developer of the new curriculum and a communications researcher at Chapman University. “It's about things like being honest and safe and responsible." Even so, keepin’ it REAL has reduced substance abuse and maintained antidrug attitudes over time among students in early trials—an achievement that largely eluded the former iteration of the program. D.A.R.E.’s original curriculum was not shaped by prevention specialists but by police officers and teachers in Los Angeles. They started D.A.R.E. in 1983 to curb the use of drugs, alcohol and tobacco among teens and to improve community–police relations. Fueled by word of mouth, the program quickly spread to 75 percent of U.S. schools. © 2014 Scientific American,

Keyword: Drug Abuse
Link ID: 20060 - Posted: 09.11.2014

By Lesley Evans Ogden Humans are noisy creatures, our cacophony of jet engines and jackhammering drowning out the communications of other species. In response, a number of animals, including marmosets and whales, turn up their own volume to be heard above the din, a phenomenon called the Lombard effect. A new study reveals that even fish “shout.” Researchers took a close look at the blacktail shiner (Cyprinella venusta), which is common to freshwater streams of the southeastern United States and whose short-distance acoustic signals are often exposed to boat and road noise. Only male shiners make sounds; popping sounds called knocks are used aggressively toward other males, while staticky-sounding “growls” are used for courtship, both heard in the above video. When the scientists brought the fish back to the lab and cranked up white noise from an underwater amplifier, they found that shiner males emitted fewer, shorter pulses, and cranked up the volume of their acoustic signals to be heard above background noise. Published in Behavioral Ecology, it’s the first study documenting the Lombard effect in fish, suggesting that freshwater fish are another group potentially impacted by our ever-increasing hubbub. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science

Keyword: Animal Communication; Aggression
Link ID: 20059 - Posted: 09.11.2014

Ian Sample, science editor Heartbreak can impair the immune system of older people and make them more prone to infections, researchers have found. Scientists said older people who had suffered a recent bereavement had poorer defences against bacteria, which could leave them more vulnerable to killer infections, such as pneumonia. Blood tests showed that the same group had imbalances in their stress hormones, which are known to have a direct impact on the body's ability to fight off bugs. Anna Phillips, a reader in behavioural medicine at Birmingham University, said the damaging effects of bereavement on the immune system were not seen in younger people, whose defences seemed more resilient. The finding suggests that in the weeks and months after the loss of a loved one, older people should keep in touch with their friends and family, and exercise and eat well, to reduce stress levels and boost their immune systems. "Bereavement is a really key stressor that happens to all of us at some point so it's worth being aware of the negative impact it can have on your health," Phillips said. "It's a key time to look after yourself in terms of your psychological and physical wellbeing. Don't try and cope by staying in, drinking more and exercising less. Try to cope by having social interactions, looking after yourself by keeping a certain level of fitness and eating well," she added. For her study, Phillips recruited people who had lost a loved one, either a spouse or family member, in the past two months. She then looked at how well bacteria-killing immune cells called neutrophils performed. © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited

Keyword: Neuroimmunology; Aggression
Link ID: 20058 - Posted: 09.10.2014

By Helen Briggs Health editor, BBC News website Long-term use of pills for anxiety and sleep problems may be linked to Alzheimer's, research suggests. A study of older Canadian adults found that past benzodiazepine use for three months or more was linked to an increased risk (up to 51%) of dementia. NHS guidelines say the drugs should be used for eight to 12 weeks at most. The French-Canadian team says while the link is not definitive, it is another warning that treatments should not exceed three months. "Benzodiazepine use is associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer's disease," lead researcher, Sophie Billioti de Gage of the University of Bordeaux, France, and colleagues wrote in the BMJ. "Unwarranted long-term use of these drugs should be considered as a public health concern." The study involved about 2,000 cases of Alzheimer's disease in adults aged over 66 living in Quebec. All had been prescribed benzodiazepines. They were compared with about 7,000 healthy people of the same age living in the same community. While an increased risk was found in those on benzodiazepines, the nature of the link was unclear. Dr Eric Karran, director of research at Alzheimer's Research UK, said: "This study shows an apparent link between the use of benzodiazepines and Alzheimer's disease although it's hard to know the underlying reason behind the link. BBC © 2014

Keyword: Alzheimers; Aggression
Link ID: 20057 - Posted: 09.10.2014

By GARY GUTTING Sam Harris is a neuroscientist and prominent “new atheist,” who along with others like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens helped put criticism of religion at the forefront of public debate in recent years. In two previous books, “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation,” Harris argued that theistic religion has no place in a world of science. In his latest book, “Waking Up,” his thought takes a new direction. While still rejecting theism, Harris nonetheless makes a case for the value of “spirituality,” which he bases on his experiences in meditation. I interviewed him recently about the book and some of the arguments he makes in it. Gary Gutting: A common basis for atheism is naturalism — the view that only science can give a reliable account of what’s in the world. But in “Waking Up” you say that consciousness resists scientific description, which seems to imply that it’s a reality beyond the grasp of science. Have you moved away from an atheistic view? Sam Harris: I don’t actually argue that consciousness is “a reality” beyond the grasp of science. I just think that it is conceptually irreducible — that is, I don’t think we can fully understand it in terms of unconscious information processing. Consciousness is “subjective”— not in the pejorative sense of being unscientific, biased or merely personal, but in the sense that it is intrinsically first-person, experiential and qualitative. The only thing in this universe that suggests the reality of consciousness is consciousness itself. Many philosophers have made this argument in one way or another — Thomas Nagel, John Searle, David Chalmers. And while I don’t agree with everything they say about consciousness, I agree with them on this point. © 2014 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Consciousness
Link ID: 20056 - Posted: 09.10.2014

By Smitha Mundasad Health reporter, BBC News More than 300 people a year in the UK and Ireland report they have been conscious during surgery - despite being given general anaesthesia. In the largest study of its kind, scientists suggests this happens in one in every 19,000 operations. They found episodes were more likely when women were given general anaesthesia for Caesarean sections or patients were given certain drugs. Experts say though rare, much more needs to be done to prevent such cases. Led by the Royal College of Anaesthetists and Association of Anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland, researchers studied three million operations over a period of one year. More than 300 people reported they had experienced some level of awareness during surgery. Most episodes were short-lived and occurred before surgery started or after operations were completed. But some 41% of cases resulted in long-term psychological harm. Patients described a variety of experiences - from panic and pain to choking - though not all episodes caused concern. The most alarming were feelings of paralysis and being unable to communicate, the researchers say. One patient, who wishes to remain anonymous, described her experiences of routine orthodontic surgery at the age of 12. She said: "I could hear voices around me and I realised with horror that I had woken up in the middle of the operation but couldn't move a muscle. BBC © 2014

Keyword: Consciousness; Aggression
Link ID: 20055 - Posted: 09.10.2014

People who are obese may be more susceptible to environmental food cues than their lean counterparts due to differences in brain chemistry that make eating more habitual and less rewarding, according to a National Institutes of Health study published in Molecular Psychiatry External Web Site Policy. Researchers at the NIH Clinical Center found that, when examining 43 men and women with varying amounts of body fat, obese participants tended to have greater dopamine activity in the habit-forming region of the brain than lean counterparts, and less activity in the region controlling reward. Those differences could potentially make the obese people more drawn to overeat in response to food triggers and simultaneously making food less rewarding to them. A chemical messenger in the brain, dopamine influences reward, motivation and habit formation. “While we cannot say whether obesity is a cause or an effect of these patterns of dopamine activity, eating based on unconscious habits rather than conscious choices could make it harder to achieve and maintain a healthy weight, especially when appetizing food cues are practically everywhere,” said Kevin D. Hall, Ph.D., lead author and a senior investigator at National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), part of NIH. “This means that triggers such as the smell of popcorn at a movie theater or a commercial for a favorite food may have a stronger pull for an obese person — and a stronger reaction from their brain chemistry — than for a lean person exposed to the same trigger.” Study participants followed the same eating, sleeping and activity schedule. Tendency to overeat in response to triggers in the environment was determined from a detailed questionnaire. Positron emission tomography (PET) scans evaluated the sites in the brain where dopamine was able to act.

Keyword: Obesity; Aggression
Link ID: 20054 - Posted: 09.10.2014