Chapter 1. Biological Psychology: Scope and Outlook
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by Ferris Jabr Slimy and often sluggish they may be, but some molluscs deserve credit for their brains – which, it now appears, they managed to evolve independently, four times. The mollusc family includes the most intelligent invertebrates on the planet: octopuses, squid and cuttlefishMovie Camera. Now, the latest and most sophisticated genetic analysis of their evolutionary history overturns our previous understanding of how they got so brainy. The new findings expand a growing body of evidence that in very different groups of animals – molluscs and mammals, for instance – central nervous systems evolved not once, but several times, in parallel. Kevin Kocot of Auburn University, Alabama, and his colleagues are responsible for the new evolutionary history of the mollusc family, which includes 100,000 living species in eight lineages. They analysed genetic sequences common to all molluscs and looked for differences that have accumulated over time: the more a shared sequence differs between two species, the less related they are. The findings, which rely on advanced statistical analyses, fundamentally rearrange branches on the mollusc family tree. In the traditional tree, snails and slugs (gastropods) are most closely related to octopuses, squid, cuttlefish and nautiluses (cephalopods), which appears to make sense in terms of their nervous systems: both groups have highly centralised nervous systems compared with other molluscs and invertebrates. Snails and slugs have clusters of ganglia – bundles of nerve cells – which, in many species, are fused into a single organ; cephalopods have highly developed central nervous systems that enable them to navigate a maze, use tools, mimic other species, learn from each other and solve complex problems. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Mo Costandi Research showing that action video games have a beneficial effect on cognitive function is seriously flawed, according to a review published this week in Frontiers in Psychology1. Numerous studies published over the past decade have found that training on fast-paced video games such as Medal of Honor and Grand Theft Auto that require a wide focus and quick responses has broad 'transfer effects' that enhance other cognitive functions, such as visual attention. Some of the studies have been highly cited and widely publicized: one, by cognitive scientists Daphne Bavelier and Shawn Green of the University of Rochester in New York, published in Nature in 20032, has been cited more than 650 times, and was widely reported by the media as showing that video games boost visual skills. But, say the authors of the review, that paper and the vast majority of other such studies contain basic methodological flaws and do not meet the gold standard of a properly conducted clinical trial. "Our main focus was recent work specifically examining the effects of modern action games on college-aged participants," says Walter Boot, a psychologist at Florida State University in Tallahassee, and lead author of the review. "To our knowledge, we've captured all of these papers in our review, and all of the literature suffers from the limitations we discuss." © 2011 Nature Publishing Group,
by Celeste Biever HOW intelligent are you? I'd like to think I know how smart I am, but the test in front of me is making me reconsider. On my computer screen, a puzzling row of boxes appears: some contain odd-looking symbols, while others are empty. I click on one of the boxes. A red sign indicates I made an error. Dammit. I concentrate, and try again. Yes, a green reward! Despite this small success, I am finding it tough to make sense of what's going on: this is unlike any exam I've ever done. Perhaps it's not surprising that it feels unfamiliar - it's not your average IQ test. I am taking part in the early stages of an effort to develop the first "universal" intelligence test. While traditional IQ and psychometric tests are designed to home in on differences between people, a universal test would rank humans, robots, chimps and perhaps even aliens on a single scale - using a mathematically derived definition of intelligence, rather than one tainted by human bias. What's the point? The idea for a universal test has emerged from the study of artificial intelligence and a desire for better ways to measure it. Next year, the most famous test for gauging the smarts of machines will be widely celebrated on the 100th anniversary of the birth of Alan Turing, its creator. The Turing test is, however, flawed. To pass it, a machine has to fool a human judge into believing he or she is conversing with another person. But exactly how much smarter are you than the cleverest robot? The test cannot tell you. It also cannot measure intelligence greater than a human's. Machines are getting smarter - possibly smarter than us, soon - so we need a much better way to gauge just how clever they are. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By Christopher Eppig Being smart is the most expensive thing we do. Not in terms of money, but in a currency that is vital to all living things: energy. One study found that newborn humans spend close to 90 percent of their calories on building and running their brains. (Even as adults, our brains consume as much as a quarter of our energy.) If, during childhood, when the brain is being built, some unexpected energy cost comes along, the brain will suffer. Infectious disease is a factor that may rob large amounts of energy away from a developing brain. This was our hypothesis, anyway, when my colleagues, Corey Fincher and Randy Thornhill, and I published a paper on the global diversity of human intelligence. A great deal of research has shown that average IQ varies around the world, both across nations and within them. The cause of this variation has been of great interest to scientists for many years. At the heart of this debate is whether these differences are due to genetics, environment or both. Higher IQ predicts a wide range of important factors, including better grades in school, a higher level of education, better health, better job performance, higher wages, and reduced risk of obesity. So having a better understanding of variations in intelligence might yield a greater understanding of these other issues as well. Before our work, several scientists had offered explanations for the global pattern of IQ. Nigel Barber argued that variation in IQ is due primarily to differences in education. Donald Templer and Hiroko Arikawa argued that colder climates are difficult to live in, such that evolution favors higher IQ in those areas. © 2011 Scientific American,
by Michael Marshall Anyone who has used an in-car satnav will be familiar with Jane, the calm voice that tells you to turn around because you've gone the wrong way. Many users will also be familiar with the response: yelling "Shut up, Jane!" while performing illegal turns. Bumblebees, it turns out, could give Jane a run for her money. Despite having a brain the size of a poppy seed, these insects can solve a fiendish navigational problem that modern supercomputers struggle to crack. Not so bumbling Bumblebees have been changing their name for centuries. From Shakespeare through to Darwin they were known as "humblebees", because of the humming sound they make. Then in the 20th century, for no good reason, they became "bumblebees". Like honeybees and ants they are social insects, with a queen who controls hordes of sterile workers. Among other ingenious behaviours, they keep their nests at a constant temperatureMovie Camera, avoid foraging close to homeMovie Camera for fear of leading predators to it, and become paranoid when camouflaged predators are aboutMovie Camera. Buff-tailed bumblebee workers fly from flower to flower in search of nectar and pollen. But each flight costs energy and time, so they need to minimise the distance they fly. To do that, they have to solve one of the hardest problems in mathematics: the travelling salesman problem. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By Maria Popova Far from a mere motherboard, the brain has swollen into one of humanity's greatest obsessions. We have been trying to visualize it since antiquity, we have written countless books about it, we've even enlisted it in our pop culture satire. The brain, in fact, has become a pop culture fixture in and of itself. That's exactly what Davi Johnson Thornton explores in Brain Culture: Neuroscience and Popular Media -- a fascinating account of the rhetoric and sociology of cognitive science, exploring our culture's obsession with the brain and how we have elevated the vital organ into cultish status, mythologizing its functions and romanticizing the promise of its scientific study. The brain, it seems, has become a modern muse. (As Jonah Lehrer brilliantly notes in his Wired interview with Thornton, "If Warhol were around today, he'd have a series of silkscreens dedicated to the cortex; the amygdala would hang alongside Marilyn Monroe.") From the media's propensity for pretty pictures like PET and fMRI scans, often misinterpreted or presented out of context to the misappropriation of the language of neuroscience in simplistic self-help narratives to the "anxious parenting" triggered by the facile findings of developmental cognitive science, Thornton offers a refreshing lens on the many contradictions in how we think about the brain as we continue to hope that making the brain calculable and mappable would also make it manipulable in precisely the ways we need it to be. What makes Thornton's take most compelling is the lucidity with which she approaches exactly what we know and don't know about the brain. Every day, we're bombarded with exponentially replicating headlines about new "sciences" like neuromarketing, which, despite the enormous budgets poured into them by the world's shortcut-hungry Fortune 500, remain the phrenology of our time, a tragic manifestation of the disconnect between how much we want to manipulate the brain and how little we actually know about its intricately connected, non-compartmentalizable functions. © 2011 by The Atlantic Monthly Group
Link ID: 15686 - Posted: 08.20.2011
David Cyranoski Mu-ming Poo leads a double life. For three weeks every month, he works in a cramped, cluttered office at the University of California, Berkeley. Looking drab in his dark-green pullover, olive trousers and black Adidas sports shoes, the 62-year-old neuroscientist slumps slightly in his chair. In the adjoining laboratory, half a dozen postdoctoral researchers, expected to work independently, go quietly about their business. Cut to Shanghai, China, where Poo spends the remaining quarter of his time. In the director's office at the Institute of Neurosciences (ION), he sports a pressed, light-blue shirt neatly tucked into belted trousers (same trainers). With few books and papers about, the room seems more spacious than its Californian counterpart; mangoes and other fruit in a bowl provide a tasteful flourish. Here, Poo supervises only one postdoctoral researcher, but a dozen chattering graduate students are stuffed into an office, waiting for the hour that he sets aside for each one during his whirlwind visits. Poo sits straighter, talks faster and seems more alert, alive — younger, even. As stimulating as he finds his research in the United States, where he is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, Poo finds a sense of mission in China. "It's more exciting, exhilarating here," he says. "They need me. I feel it's the best use of my life." China is alive with possibilities in science, but realizing them is a complicated affair. The country's fondness for speed — for short-term achievements and, increasingly, short-term profits — has worked relatively well in the chemical and physical sciences and in large-scale genomics, where researchers can systematically tick off the chemical compounds or genetic sequences that they have produced (see 'Eastern promise'). © 2011 Nature Publishing Group,
Link ID: 15648 - Posted: 08.04.2011
By Judith Burns Science reporter, BBC News Humans living at high latitude have bigger eyes and bigger brains to cope with poor light during long winters and cloudy days, UK scientists have said. The Oxford University team said bigger brains did not make people smarter. Larger vision processing areas fill the extra capacity, they write in the Royal Society's Biology Letters journal. The scientists measured the eye sockets and brain volumes of 55 skulls from 12 populations across the world, and plotted the results against latitude. Lead author Eiluned Pearce told BBC News: "We found a positive relationship between absolute latitude and both eye socket size and cranial capacity." The team, from the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, used skulls dating from the 1800s kept at museums in Oxford and Cambridge. The skulls were from indigenous populations ranging from Scandinavia to Australia, Micronesia and North America. Largest brain cavities The largest brain cavities came from Scandinavia, while the smallest were from Micronesia. BBC © 2011
Link ID: 15619 - Posted: 07.28.2011
by David DeGusta and Jason E. Lewis Stephen Jay Gould claimed unconscious bias could affect even seemingly objective scientific measurements. Not so TRUTH is hard to come by, as personal lives and politics readily illustrate. Since science lays claim to providing some form of truth, it is bound to draw criticism on that count. Surprisingly, one of the sharpest attacks came from within, and from one of the giants, Harvard University's Stephen Jay Gould. Gould was a man of many parts - invertebrate palaeontologist, evolutionary theorist, historian of science, crusader against creationism and a prolific populariser of science with a slew of bestselling books. He was an iconic scientist of the late 20th century, a stature confirmed by that arbiter of cultural relevance, The Simpsons, in which he was a featured guest star in one episode. Even so, Gould harboured grave doubts about the ability of science to remain free from social pressures and bias. He made a series of statements in a 1978 Science paper that are startling given his role as a spokesperson for science: "...unconscious or dimly perceived finagling, doctoring, and massaging are rampant, endemic, and unavoidable in a profession [science] that awards status and power for clean and unambiguous discovery"; "unconscious manipulation of data may be a scientific norm"; "scientists are human beings rooted in cultural contexts, not automatons directed toward external truth". This was blasphemy from the pulpit. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Link ID: 15608 - Posted: 07.26.2011
By Laura Sanders Almost a minute after a rat’s head is severed from its body, an eerie shudder of activity ripples through the animal’s brain. Some researchers think this post-decapitation wave marks the border between life and death. But the phenomenon can be explained by electrical changes that, in some cases, are reversible, researchers report online July 13 in PLoS ONE. Whether a similar kind of brain wave happens in humans, and if so, whether it is inextricably tied to death could have important implications. An unambiguous marker could help doctors better decide when to diagnose brain death, knowledge that could give clarity to loved ones and boost earlier organ donation. In a PLoS ONE paper published in January, neuroscientist Anton Coenen and colleagues at the Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands described this wave of electrical activity in the rat brain occurring 50 seconds after decapitation. The Nijmegen team, which was exploring whether decapitation is a humane way to sacrifice lab animals, wrote that this brain activity seemed to be the ultimate border between life and death. They dubbed the phenomenon the “wave of death.” But neurologist Michel van Putten of the University of Twente in Enschede, the Netherlands, wasn’t convinced. “We have no doubt the observation is real,” he says. “But the interpretation is completely speculative.” © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2011
Keyword: Animal Rights
Link ID: 15596 - Posted: 07.25.2011
Alison Abbott The increasingly sophisticated blending of different species to create chimaeras is pushing biology into a new ethical dimension. Last year, scientists used new stem-cell technologies to create a mouse with a functioning pancreas composed entirely of rat cells. So might it soon be possible to create a monkey with a brain composed entirely of human neurons? And would it think like a human? Such an animal might be useful to researchers studying human cognition or human-specific pathogens. But it would be ethically unacceptable and should be banned, argues a government-commissioned report from the UK Academy of Medical Sciences, a body that promotes medical research. The document, Animals Containing Human Material , says that genetic and stem-cell technologies are now so advanced that the creation of such animals is already on the horizon. But no country has yet devised a broad regulatory framework for the research. The report, released on 22 July, calls for the United Kingdom to take the lead in putting in place specific safeguards. "We are not proposing a new tier of regulation that will hold up important research," says Robin Lovell-Badge, a developmental biologist at the Medical Research Council's National Institute for Medical Research in London, and a member of the working group that drew up the report. At the same time, he says, "we don't want scientists to cause problems for the future by overstepping the mark of what is publicly acceptable". Unlike the hypothetical monkey with a human brain, many animals containing human material (ACHMs) are likely to advance basic biology and medicine without transgressing ethical boundaries, the report concludes. © 2011 Nature Publishing Group
By JOHN TAGLIABUE AMSTERDAM — It has not been a good year for Ahmet Kilic. Sales are down in the store where for the last two and a half years he has sold groceries and meat, slaughtered according to halal conditions. The store, on the southern edge of this Dutch city, was started 22 years ago by his brother and uncle, natives of Turkey, who took it over from its former Dutch owners. But many of the Turks who are their clients have moved farther out of the city; moreover, customer access is blocked by work to lay tram tracks on the street in front. “Things are not good,” he said, tallying up sausage, an all-beef variety, and Turkish white cheese, which the Greeks call feta, for a shopper. Now he fears they could get worse. The Dutch Parliament will vote Tuesday on a bill that, if enacted, will effectively require even Jewish and Muslim butchers to stun animals — mechanically, electrically or with gas — before they are slaughtered, eliminating an exception in current law. A tiny animal rights party, which has two seats in Parliament, proposed the bill, arguing that failing to stun the animals before slaughter subjects them to unnecessary pain. The debate over the bill has divided the Dutch. Because the bill would mainly affect Muslims, of whom there are about 1.2 million in a Dutch population of about 16 million, compared with a Jewish population of 50,000, the debate has become a focus of Dutch animosity toward Muslims. © 2011 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Animal Rights
Link ID: 15494 - Posted: 06.27.2011
By Stephanie Pappas Senior writer Parrots are capable of logical leaps, according to a new study in which a gray parrot named Awisa used reasoning to figure out where a bit of food was hidden. The task is one that kids as young as 4 could figure out, but the only other animals that have been shown to use this type of reasoning are great apes. That makes gray parrots the first non-primates to demonstrate such logical smarts, said study researcher Sandra Mikolasch, a doctoral candidate at the University of Vienna. "We now know that a gray parrot is able to logically exclude a wrong possibility and instead choose the right one in order to get a reward, which is known as 'inference by exclusion,'" Mikolasch wrote in an email to LiveScience. Parrots are no birdbrains. One famous gray parrot, Alex, even understood the concept of "zero," something children don't grasp until they are 3 or 4. Alex, who died in 2007, had a vocabulary of 150 words, which he seemed to use in two-way communication with the researchers who worked with him. Other animals have also revealed high levels of intelligence. Elephants, for example, know when and how to cooperate. And hyenas are even better than primates at cooperation. Earlier studies had shown that about one out of five chimps and other great apes could use logical reasoning to find hidden food. © 2011 msnbc.com
By Oliver Wright, Whitehall Editor Britain's leading health charities last night warned that vital medical research into cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer's could be set back by decades because of a high-profile boycott campaign being launched by animal rights campaigners. Animal Aid plans to take out a series of newspaper adverts urging the public to stop giving money to Cancer Research UK, the British Heart Foundation, the Alzheimer's Society and Parkinson's UK unless they end their support for animal testing. But the campaign has been condemned as irresponsible and damaging by the charities and scientists, who have warned that it could set back medical research and damage other important areas of the charities' work. "This is an illogical and ill-conceived campaign," said Lord Willis of Knaresborough, the chairman of the Association of Medical Research Charities. "It will have consequences for charities targeted as, during tight economic times, any small downturn in donations could really put back cures by decades." Colin Blakemore, a Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Oxford, added: "This is an utterly irresponsible attack by Animal Aid on some of the most important charitable contributors to medical research in this country. "These charities have a duty to use money given to them to support patients and to understand and treat disease. They support research on animals only when it's absolutely essential. If Animal Aid were successful in discouraging donation to medical charities, they would be guilty of delaying progress towards treatments and cures for devastating conditions." ©independent.co.uk
Keyword: Animal Rights
Link ID: 15474 - Posted: 06.21.2011
By Ben Harder, Those who believe in free will might be troubled to learn a few secrets about viruses, bacteria and parasites. While it may sound like science fiction, science hints at the potential for microbes to influence our minds, or at least our behavior. Granted, with very limited exceptions, there’s no conclusive proof that foreign agents can control us from within. But when you consider the evidence with an open mind, it’s interesting to consider the possibilities. The latest relevant finding seems innocuous enough. Last month, three insect and plant disease researchers in the University of California system reported a discovery about the tomato spotted wilt virus. As its name suggests, this virus infects and damages tomato plants. It’s harmless to people. To jump from plant to plant, the virus relies on insects known as thrips. A thrip feeds by sticking its oral probe into a plant’s cells and sucking out the contents. If a cell happens to contain the virus, the thrip sucks it up, too. Scientists already knew that virus-infected tomato plants are more appealing to thrips than uninfected plants. The California researchers discovered something else: Once a thrip consumes the virus, its behavior changes. It spends more time feeding, and it licks more plant cells in the process, coating the next tomato plant with the virus. © 1996-2011 The Washington Post
Sandrine Ceurstemont, video producer How does an octopus locate a hidden meal? In this video, filmed by Michael Kuba and his team at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, food is placed in one compartment of a maze denoted with a visual cue. The octopus picks the right route and successfully retrieves the treat. It's the first time that an octopus has been shown to guide one of its arms to a location, based on sensory input, using a complex movement. In the wild, octopuses use their arms to search for food in small crevices. Previously, it's been thought that they feel their way to a food source by simply using sensors on their tentacles. Now this research is showing that they are capable of more complex processing, in this case by combining information from their tentacles with visual input to achieve a goal. Six out of the seven octopuses tested successfully learned the task and used the strategy more often once it was mastered. It's only one example of clever tricks used by cephalopods. Check out our full-length feature to find out more about these animals' astounding mental skills. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Meredith Wadman The unusual meeting was held in a conference room, but it might have been called a war room. Gathered inside a little-known research centre in southern Louisiana, the people who oversee chimpanzee research in the United States were preparing to battle for the survival of their enterprise. Although no other country besides Gabon carries out invasive experiments with chimpanzees, the United States continues such work at three major research facilities. Louisiana's New Iberia Research Center (NIRC) is the largest, with a population of 360 chimps, used by investigators from pharmaceutical companies and federal agencies to test new drugs and study diseases such as hepatitis. During the meeting, Thomas Rowell, director of the NIRC, stood up, surveyed the audience, and launched into a presentation about possible strategies to build public support for their work. Another slide went on to note that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) spends about US$12 million a year caring for the chimpanzees it supports (currently totalling 734), versus the billions in health-care costs for the human diseases that can be studied through experiments on chimpanzees. One of them, hepatitis C, currently affects at least 170 million people globally. If researchers don't have access to the chimp model, said Rowell, people afflicted with hepatitis C will suffer. "Their lifespans are going to be shortened. They will not have a proper quality of life." He called them a "silent voice". © 2011 Nature Publishing Group,
Keyword: Animal Rights
Link ID: 15440 - Posted: 06.16.2011
by Caroline Williams Octopuses' astonishing mental skills might help us unearth the roots of intelligence – but first we need to understand what makes them so smart BETTY the octopus is curled up in her den, eyes half-closed and clutching a piece of red Lego like a child with a teddy bear. She is, says Kerry Perkins, cephalopod researcher at the Sea Life aquarium in Brighton, UK, much better behaved than some of the octopuses she has worked with. One used to short-circuit a light in its tank by squirting water at it, and would do so whenever the bulb was left on at night. Another made a bid for freedom via the aquarium drainage system, which it seemed to know headed straight out to sea. "Any octopus tank worth its salt has a way of stopping the octopus from escaping," Perkins says as she adds two weights to the lid of Betty's tank. "They love to explore." Aristotle once took this kind of curiosity as a sign that octopuses are stupid - after all, he pointed out, just waving your hands in their direction brings them close enough to catch. We now know that it is just one example of how smart they are. Between them, cephalopods, which also include squids, cuttlefish and nautiluses, can navigate a maze, use tools, mimic other species, learn from each other and solve complex problems. If the latest analyses are to be believed, these skills might show a rudimentary form of consciousness. Cephalopods are the only invertebrates that can boast anything like this kind of mental prowess, and some of their more impressive tricks are shared with only the cleverest vertebrates, such as chimps, dolphins and crows. Yet they evolved along a completely separate path, from snail-like ancestors, and their brains look completely alien to our own (see "A brain apart"). © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By BENEDICT CAREY Like any other high school junior, Wynn Haimer has a few holes in his academic game. Graphs and equations, for instance: He gets the idea, fine — one is a linear representation of the other — but making those conversions is often a headache. Or at least it was. For about a month now, Wynn, 17, has been practicing at home using an unusual online program that prompts him to match graphs to equations, dozens upon dozens of them, and fast, often before he has time to work out the correct answer. An equation appears on the screen, and below it three graphs (or vice versa, a graph with three equations). He clicks on one and the screen flashes to tell him whether he’s right or wrong and jumps to the next problem. “I’m much better at it,” he said, in a phone interview from his school, New Roads in Santa Monica, Calif. “In the beginning it was difficult, having to work so quickly; but you sort of get used to it, and in the end it’s more intuitive. It becomes more effortless.” For years school curriculums have emphasized top-down instruction, especially for topics like math and science. Learn the rules first — the theorems, the order of operations, Newton’s laws — then make a run at the problem list at the end of the chapter. Yet recent research has found that true experts have something at least as valuable as a mastery of the rules: gut instinct, an instantaneous grasp of the type of problem they’re up against. Like the ballplayer who can “read” pitches early, or the chess master who “sees” the best move, they’ve developed a great eye. © 2011 The New York Times Company
There can be few competitions with such a rich prize - a massive one billion euros. That's what a team of European scientists are aiming to win. In return they are promising to create a simulated computer version of the human brain. The Human Brain Project is one of six research proposals competing for EU funding under its Future and Emerging Technologies initiative. Universities and organisations from nine countries in Europe are part of the brain research group, among them the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, and researchers in Manchester, Plymouth, London and Leicester. "Our aim is to use supercomputers to establish how the brain is designed and to build a biologically detailed simulation", according to Professor Henry Markram, director of the Human Brain Project. "There are thousands of research papers published each year on aspects of neuroscience. We need to integrate all that information so that we can assemble all knowledge of the brain." The human brain has taken millions of years to evolve so it is a tall order to build a synthetic model in just a decade. BBC © 2011
Keyword: Development of the Brain
Link ID: 15391 - Posted: 06.02.2011