Chapter 1. An Introduction to Brain and Behavior
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By BENEDICT CAREY BETHESDA, Md. — The police arrived at the house just after breakfast, dressed in full riot gear, and set up a perimeter at the front and back. Not long after, animal rights marchers began filling the street: scores of people, young and old, yelling accusations of murder and abuse, invoking Hitler, as neighbors stepped out onto their porches and stared. It was 1997, in Decatur, Ga. The demonstrators had clashed with the police that week, at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at nearby Emory University, but this time, they were paying a personal call — on the house of the center’s director, inside with his wife and two teenage children. “I think it affected the three of them more than it did me, honestly,” said Dr. Thomas R. Insel, shaking his head at the memory. “But the university insisted on moving all of us to a safe place for a few days, to an ‘undisclosed location.’ “I’ll say this. I learned that if you’re going to take a stand, you’re going to make some people really angry — so you’d better believe in what you’re doing, and believe it completely.” For the past 11 years, Dr. Insel, a 62-year-old brain scientist, has run an equally contentious but far more influential outfit: the National Institute of Mental Health, the world’s leading backer of behavioral health research. The job comes with risk as well as power. Patient groups and scientists continually question the agency’s priorities, and politicians occasionally snipe at its decisions. Two previous directors resigned in the wake of inflammatory statements (one on marijuana laws, one comparing urban neighborhoods to jungles), and another stepped down after repeatedly objecting to White House decisions. © 2014 The New York Times Company
By Evelyn Boychuk, Caleb is a 14-year-old who enjoys playing video games and reading any book he can get his hands on – and in his spare time, he edits neuroscience papers for a scientific journal. Frontiers for Young Minds is the first journal to bring kids into the middle of the scientific process by making them editors – and it’s free for everyone. The idea came “from the depths of my mind, in a moment when I was bored at a scientific meeting,” says Bob Knight, editor in chief of Frontiers for Young Minds and a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley. This is one of many science outreach efforts that are trying to get youth excited about science, technology, engineering and math courses. A preview version with 15 articles was released at the Society for Neuroscience conference on Nov. 11. The official launch of the monthly journal is planned for the U.S.A. Science and Engineering Festival in Washington D.C. in April. “The kids have been great,” says Knight. “Their reviews are not filtered, they just tell you what they think.” In an e-mail, one of the young editors said, “'Hey Bob, I have to tell you, I didn’t understand anything in this article. The words are too big and it’s too confusing,'” Knight recounted. When Caleb was asked if he would edit an article for this preview, "it seemed like an interesting opportunity," he said, so he gave it a try. © CBC 2014
Link ID: 19145 - Posted: 01.18.2014
Imagine a couple of million years ago, a curious young alien from the planet Zantar — let's call him a grad student — lands on Earth, looks around and asks, "Who's the brainiest critter on this planet? Relative to body size, who's got the biggest brain?" The answer, back then, would not have been us. (Two million years ago, apes — even walking ones — had much smaller brains.) The brainiest weren't ancestral crows or parrots or magpies or ravens or elephants or colonies of ants or bees or termites. The Earthlings with the biggest brains back then were dolphins (and certain whales). The Zantarian grad student would have wanted to meet them. A visitor from Zantar and a dolphin check each other out. But had the grad student arrived earlier, dolphins wouldn't have been the champs, because evolution is always changing life. , at Emory University in Atlanta, has been studying fossilized brains. And looking back, she sees sudden spurts of brain growth in different animals. "[T]he most dramatic increase in brain-to-body ratio in dolphins and toothed whales occurred 35 million years ago," she tells Chris Impey, the astronomer and writer, in Talking About Life. Something happened to make their medium-sized brains bigger, Lori says, then bigger still. For 20 million years certain dolphin species kept their brains growing until — just as mysteriously as it started — about 15 million years ago, they stopped. Why? Had the dolphins answered some secret dolphin question? Figured out a puzzle? Adapted to an environmental change? Gotten tired? Hit a limit? What? Dolphin says, "Enough." ©2014 NPR
The battle over animal experimentation in Italy took a nasty turn this week when anonymous activists posted fliers showing photos, home addresses, and telephone numbers of scientists involved in animal research at the University of Milan and labeled them as "murderers." The leaflets, which appeared in the night of 6 to 7 January, triggered widespread condemnation in academic and political circles. The posters targeted physiologist Edgardo D'Angelo, parasitologist Claudio Genchi, pharmacologist Alberto Corsini, and Maura Francolini, a biologist. The texts say they are “guilty” of performing animal experiments; Corsini is said to "have tortured and killed animals for more than 30 years.” His flier ends with his phone number and the suggestion to "call this executioner and tell him what you think of him." Although the fliers didn't contain a specific call to violence, the implicit threat is unmistakable, Italian scientists say. Pro-Test Italia, an organization that seeks to defend and explain animal research, has likened the campaign to a witch hunt. “It's unacceptable that those who work for the good of science and public health are called murderers by someone who publicly incites violence against them,” says Dario Padovan, a biologist and president of Pro-Test Italia. Many politicians condemned the new tactic as well. "I wish to express my deepest sympathy and support to the researchers in Milan for the intimidation and threats they suffered," Italy's minister of education, universities and research, Maria Chiara Carrozza, tweeted yesterday. The University of Milan has filed a complaint and the city's police department has started an investigation. “We will strengthen our commitment to the defense of research as a tool to improve knowledge and care for sick people,” Gianluca Vago, the university's rector, told the newspaper Corriere della Sera. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science
Keyword: Animal Rights
Link ID: 19116 - Posted: 01.11.2014
By Christian Jarrett Christmas is over and the start of the movie awards season is only weeks away! This is my excuse for a post about cinema and the brain. Over the years I’ve been keeping note of actors who studied neuroscience and other similar factoids and now I have the chance to share them with you. So here, in no particular order, are 10 surprising links between the worlds of Hollywood and brain research: 1. Actress Mayim Bialik is a neuroscientist. Bialik currently plays the character of neuroscientist Amy Fowler in the Big Bang Theory, which is neat because Bialik herself has a PhD in neuroscience. Her PhD thesis, completed at UCLA in 2007, has the title: “Hypothalamic regulation in relation to maladaptive, obsessive-compulsive, affiliative, and satiety behaviors in Prader-Willi syndrome.” “I don’t try and rub my neuroscience brain in people’s face[s],” Bialik says, “but when we have lab scenes … I have had to say that’s not where the tectum would be, we need it down here … or I’ve actually carved the fourth ventricle into slices … ’cause you know, why not have me do it.” Among her other acting roles, Bialik also featured in the short film for Michael Jackson’s Liberian Girl and she played the child version of Bette Midler’s character in Beaches (1988). 2. Natalie Portman is a neuroscientist. Perform a Google Scholar search on her name and you won’t get very far. But under her original name of Natalie Hershlag, the Oscar-winning actress co-authored a paper in 2002 on the role of the frontal lobes in infants’ understanding of “object permanence” – recognizing that things still exist even when you can’t see them. According to the Mind Hacks blog, Ms. Portman contributed to this research while working as a research assistant at Harvard University. Her paper has now been cited in the literature over 100 times. © 2013 Condé Nast.
Link ID: 19079 - Posted: 12.31.2013
Ian Sample, science correspondent Differences in children's exam results at secondary school owe more to genetics than teachers, schools or the family environment, according to a study published yesterday. The research drew on the exam scores of more than 11,000 16-year-olds who sat GCSEs at the end of their secondary school education. In the compulsory core subjects of English, maths and science, genetics accounted for on average 58% of the differences in scores that children achieved. Grades in the sciences, such as physics, biology and chemistry, were more heritable than those in humanities subjects, such as art and music, at 58% and 42% respectively. The findings do not mean that children's performance at school is determined by their genes, or that schools and the child's environment have no influence. The overall effect of a child's environment – including their home and school life – accounted for 36% of the variation seen in students' exam scores across all subjects, the study found. "The question we are asking is why do children differ in their GCSE scores? People immediately think it's schools. But if schools accounted for all the variance, then children in one classroom would all be the same," said Robert Plomin, an expert in behavioural genetics who led the study at King's College London. To tease out the genetic contribution to children's school grades, the researchers studied GCSE scores of identical twins (who share 100% of their genes) and non-identical twins (who share on average half of the genes that normally vary between people). Both groups share their environments to a similar extent. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited
Three lawsuits filed last week that attempted to achieve “legal personhood” for four chimpanzees living in New York have been struck down. The suits, brought by the animal rights group the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), targeted two chimps on private property and two in a research lab at Stony Brook University in New York. They were the first step in a nationwide campaign to grant legal rights to a variety of animals. NhRP had spent 5 years honing its legal strategy. It picked what it thought would be the most favorable jurisdictions and petitioned the judges with a writ of habeas corpus, which allows a person being held captive to have a say in court. Suffolk County Supreme Court Justice W. Gerard Asher denied the writ for the Stony Brook chimpanzees, writing in a brief decision that the animals did not qualify for habeas corpus because they were not “persons.” Both chimps are used in locomotion research at the university in work that is attempting to shed light on the origin of bipedalism in humans. Asher did not meet with NhRP lawyers; he issued his decision via a court clerk. The other judges were more accommodating. Fulton County Supreme Court Justice Joseph Sise and Niagara County Supreme Court Justice Ralph Boniello both allowed NhRP lawyers to make oral arguments in the courtroom. “As an animal lover, I appreciate your work,” said Sise, who handled the case of a chimpanzee named Tommy living in cage on his owner’s property in Gloversville, according to an NhRP press release. The group made “a very strong argument,” Sise said, according to the release, but he did not agree that habeas corpus applied to chimpanzees. Boniello, who oversaw the case of a chimp named Kiko living on his owner’s property in Niagara Falls, said he did not want to be the first “to make that leap of faith” equating chimpanzees with human beings. © 2013 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Keyword: Animal Rights
Link ID: 19016 - Posted: 12.11.2013
This morning, an animal rights group known as the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) filed a lawsuit in a New York Supreme Court in an attempt to get a judge to declare that chimpanzees are legal persons and should be freed from captivity. The suit is the first of three to be filed in three New York counties this week. They target two research chimps at Stony Brook University and two chimps on private property, and are the opening salvo in a coordinated effort to grant “legal personhood” to a variety of animals across the United States. If NhRP is successful in New York, it could be a significant step toward upending millennia of law defining animals as property and could set off a “chain reaction” that could bleed over to other jurisdictions, says Richard Cupp, a law professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, and a proponent of focusing on animal welfare rather than animal rights. “But if they lose it could be a significant step backward for the movement. They’re playing with fire.” The litigation has been in the works since 2007, when animal rights attorney Steven Wise founded NhRP, an association of about 60 lawyers, scientists, and policy experts. The group argues that cognitively advanced animals like chimpanzees and dolphins are so self-aware that keeping them in captivity—whether a zoo or research laboratory—is tantamount to slavery. “It’s a terrible torture we inflict on them, and it has to stop,” Wise says. “And all of human law says the way things stop is when courts and legislatures recognize that the being imprisoned is a legal person.” NhRP spent 5 years researching the best legal strategy—and best jurisdiction—for its first cases. The upshot: a total of three lawsuits to be filed in three New York trial courts this week on behalf of four resident chimpanzees. © 2013 American Association for the Advancement of Science
Keyword: Animal Rights
Link ID: 18993 - Posted: 12.03.2013
To expedite research on brain disorders, the National Institutes of Health is shifting from a limited funding role to coordinating a Web-based resource for sharing post-mortem brain tissue. Under a NIH NeuroBioBank initiative, five brain banks will begin collaborating in a tissue sharing network for the neuroscience community. “Instead of having to seek out brain tissue needed for a study from scattered repositories, researchers will have one-stop access to the specimens they need,” explained Thomas Insel, M.D., director of NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), one of three NIH institutes underwriting the project. “Such efficiency has become even more important with recent breakthrough technologies, such as CLARITY and resources such as BrainSpan that involve the use of human tissue.” Historically, NIH institutes have awarded investigator-initiated grants to support disease-specific brain bank activities. The NIH NeuroBioBank instead employs contracts, which affords the agency a more interactive role. Contracts totaling about $4.7 million for the 2013 fiscal year were awarded to brain banks at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York City; Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., the University of Miami; Sepulveda Research Corporation, Los Angeles; and the University of Pittsburgh. These brain and tissue repositories seek out and accept brain donations, store the tissue, and distribute it to qualified researchers seeking to understand the causes of – and identify treatments and cures for – brain disorders, such as schizophrenia, multiple sclerosis, depression, epilepsy, Down syndrome and autism.
Link ID: 18992 - Posted: 12.03.2013
By Scott Barry Kaufman One of the longest standing assumptions about the nature of human intelligence has just been seriously challenged. According to the traditional “investment” theory, intelligence can be classified into two main categories: fluid and crystallized. Differences in fluid intelligence are thought to reflect novel, on-the-spot reasoning, whereas differences in crystallized intelligence are thought to reflect previously acquired knowledge and skills. According to this theory, crystallized intelligence develops through the investment of fluid intelligence in a particular body of knowledge. As far as genetics is concerned, this story has a very clear prediction: In the general population– in which people differ in their educational experiences– the heritability of crystallized intelligence is expected to be lower than the heritability of fluid intelligence. This traditional theory assumes that fluid intelligence is heavily influenced by genes and relatively fixed, whereas crystallized intelligence is more heavily dependent on acquired skills and learning opportunities. But is this story really true? In a new study, Kees-Jan Kan and colleagues analyzed the results of 23 independent twin studies conducted with representative samples, yielding a total sample of 7,852 people. They investigated how heritability coefficients vary across specific cognitive abilities. Importantly, they assessed the “Cultural load” of various cognitive abilities by taking the average percentage of test items that were adjusted when the test was adapted for use in 13 different countries. © 2013 Scientific American
by NPR Staff Soon you'll be able to direct the path of a cockroach with a smartphone and the swipe of your finger. Greg Gage and his colleagues at Backyard Brains have developed a device called the that lets you control the path of an insect. It may make you squirm, but Gage says the device could inspire a new generation of neuroscientists. "The sharpest kids amongst us are probably going into other fields right now. And so we're kind of in the dark ages when it comes to neuroscience," he tells NPR's Arun Rath. He wants to get kids interested in neuroscience early enough to guide them toward that career path. And a cyborg cockroach might be the inspiration. "The neurons in the insects are very, very similar to the neurons inside the human brain," Gage says. "It's a beautiful way to just really understand what's happening inside your brain by looking at these little insects." The idea was spawned by a device the Backyard Brain-iacs developed called , which is capable of amplifying real living neurons. Insert a small wire into a cockroach's antennae, and you can hear the sound of actual neurons. "Lining the inside of the cockroach are these neurons that are picking up touch or vibration sensing, chemical sensing," Gage says. "They use it like a nose or a large tongue, their antennas, and they use it to sort of navigate the world. "So when you put a small wire inside of there, you can actually pick up the information as it's being encoded and being sent to the brain." With the RoboRoach device and smartphone app, you can interact with the antennae to influence the insect's behavior. ©2013 NPR
Link ID: 18819 - Posted: 10.22.2013
By MICHAEL WINES NEW HOLSTEIN, Wis. — Next to their white clapboard house on a rural road here, in long rows of cages set beneath the roofs of seven open-air sheds, Virginia and Gary Bonlander are raising 5,000 minks. Or were, anyway, until two Saturdays ago, when the police roused them from bed at 5 a.m. with a rap on their door. The Bonlanders woke one recent morning to find thousands of the creatures zipping across their lawn. Outside, 2,000 minks were scampering away — up to 50 top-quality, full-length and, suddenly, free-range mink coats. “The backyard was full of mink. The driveway was full of mink,” Mrs. Bonlander recalled a few days ago. “Then, pshew” — she made a whooshing sound — “they were gone.” And not only in Wisconsin, the mink-raising capital of the United States. After something of a hiatus, the animal rights movement has resumed a decades-old guerrilla war against the fur industry with a vengeance — and hints of more to come. In New Holstein; in Grand Meadow, Minn.; in Coalville, Utah; in Keota, Iowa; and four other states, activists say, eight dark-of-night raids on mink farms have liberated at least 7,700 of the critters — more than $770,000 worth of pelts — just since late July. That is more such raids than in the preceding three years combined. Two more raids in Ontario and British Columbia freed 1,300 other minks and foxes during the same period, according to the North American Animal Liberation Press Office, which bills itself as a conduit for messages from anonymous animal rights activists. “What we’re seeing now is unprecedented,” Peter Young, a Santa Cruz, Calif., activist who was imprisoned in 2005 for his role in raids on six mink ranches, said in a telephone interview. Though still an outspoken defender of the animal rights movement and mink-ranch raids, Mr. Young says he has no contact with those who raid fur farms or commit other illegal acts and, in fact, does not know who they are. © 2013 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Animal Rights
Link ID: 18797 - Posted: 10.17.2013
by Jack Flanagan Although dogs are said to be man's best friend, it doesn't mean they "get" us. At least, not like elephants seem to. Without any training, the giant herbivores can understand and follow our hand gestures – the first non-human animals known to be able to do so. Elephants have lived alongside humans for between 4000 and 8000 years. Despite their potential to be tamed, though, elephants have never been domesticated in the same way as dogs, cats and agricultural animals have. This hasn't prevented them from developing a number of human-like skills. In the wild, they are famously empathetic towards one another. In captivity, elephants have displayed a degree of self-awareness by being able to recognise themselves in a mirrorMovie Camera. Others have developed the teamwork necessary to coordinate and complete a task. In fact, one elephant has even learned some basic phrases in Korean – and another has been taught to paint by its parents. Arguably it was only a matter of time before they added another skill to their impressive repertoire. Hidden talent Pointing gestures are common enough among humans: from an early age babies naturally recognise the meaning behind them. We know that chimpanzees and even seals can do this too, but not without hours of training. It comes as a surprise, then, to discover that elephants can find hidden food once it is pointed out to them – without any prior lessons. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By Justin Gregg Santino was a misanthrope with a habit of pelting tourists with rocks. As his reputation for mischief grew, he had to devise increasingly clever ways to ambush his wary victims. Santino learned to stash his rocks just out of sight and casually stand just a few feet from them in order to throw off suspicion. At the very moment that passersby were fooled into thinking that he meant them no harm, he grabbed his hidden projectiles and launched his attack. Santino was displaying an ability to learn from his past experiences and plan for future scenarios. This has long been a hallmark of human intelligence. But a recently published review paper by the psychologist Thomas Zentall from the University of Kentucky argues that this complex ability should no longer be considered unique to humans. Santino, you see, is not human. He’s a chimpanzee at Furuvik Zoo in Sweden. His crafty stone-throwing escapades have made him a global celebrity, and also caught the attention of researchers studying how animals, much like humans, might be able to plan their behavior. Santino is one of a handful of animals that scientists believe are showing a complex cognitive ability called episodic memory. Episodic memory is the ability to recall past events that one has the sense of having personally experienced. Unlike semantic memory, which involves recalling simple facts like “bee stings hurt,” episodic memory involves putting yourself at the heart of the memory; like remembering the time you swatted at a bee with a rolled up newspaper and it got angry and stung your hand. © 2013 Scientific American
Many people, I've heard talk, wonder what's going on inside Republican speaker John Boehner's brain. For cognitive neuroscientists, Boehner's brain is a case study. At the same time, others are frustrated with Democrat Harry Reid. The Senate Majority leader needs to take a tip from our founding fathers. Many of the intellectual giants who founded our democracy were both statesmen and scientists, and they applied the latest in scientific knowledge of their day to advantage in governing. The acoustics of the House of Representatives, now Statuary Hall, allowed John Quincy Adams and his comrades to eavesdrop on other members of congress conversing in whispers on the opposite side of the parabolic-shaped room. Senator Reid, in stark contrast, is still applying ancient techniques used when senators wore togas -- reason and argument -- and we all know how badly that turned out. The search for a path to compromise can be found in the latest research on the neurobiological basis of social behavior. Consider this new finding just published in the journal Brain Research. Oxytocin, a peptide produced in the hypothalamus of the brain and known to cement the strong bond between mother and child at birth, has been found to promote compromise in rivaling groups! This new research suggests that Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi could single-handedly end the Washington deadlock by spritzing a bit of oxytocin in her perfume and wafting it throughout the halls of congress. One can only imagine the loving effect this hormone would have on Senate Republican Ted Cruz, suddenly overwhelmed with an irresistible urge to bond with his colleagues, fawning for a cozy embrace like a babe cuddling in its mother's arms. And it is so simple! No stealthy spiking the opponent's coffee (or third martini at lunch) would be required, oxytocin works when it is inhaled through the nasal passages as an odorless vapor. © 2013 TheHuffingtonPost.com, Inc.
Link ID: 18761 - Posted: 10.08.2013
At the TEDx conference in Detroit last week, RoboRoach #12 scuttled across the exhibition floor, pursued not by an exterminator but by a gaggle of fascinated onlookers. Wearing a tiny backpack of microelectronics on its shell, the cockroach—a member of the Blaptica dubia species—zigzagged along the corridor in a twitchy fashion, its direction controlled by the brush of a finger against an iPhone touch screen (as seen in video above). RoboRoach #12 and its brethren are billed as a do-it-yourself neuroscience experiment that allows students to create their own “cyborg” insects. The roach was the main feature of the TEDx talk by Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo, co-founders of an educational company called Backyard Brains. After a summer Kickstarter campaign raised enough money to let them hone their insect creation, the pair used the Detroit presentation to show it off and announce that starting in November, the company will, for $99, begin shipping live cockroaches across the nation, accompanied by a microelectronic hardware and surgical kits geared toward students as young as 10 years old. That news, however, hasn’t been greeted warmly by everyone. Gage and Marzullo, both trained as neuroscientists and engineers, say that the purpose of the project is to spur a “neuro-revolution” by inspiring more kids to join the fields when they grow up, but some critics say the project is sending the wrong message. "They encourage amateurs to operate invasively on living organisms" and "encourage thinking of complex living organisms as mere machines or tools," says Michael Allen Fox, a professor of philosophy at Queen's University in Kingston, Canada. © 2013 American Association for the Advancement of Science
Keyword: Animal Rights
Link ID: 18755 - Posted: 10.08.2013
By John Horgan Last spring, I kicked up a kerfuffle by proposing that research on race and intelligence, given its potential for exacerbating discrimination, should be banned. Now Nature has expanded this debate with “Taboo Genetics.” The article “looks at four controversial areas of behavioral genetics”—intelligence, race, violence and sexuality—”to find out why each field has been a flashpoint, and whether there are sound scientific reasons for pursuing such studies.” Behavioral genetics has failed to produce robust evidence linking complex traits and disorders to specific genes. The essay provides a solid overview, including input from both defenders of behavioral genetics and critics. The author, Erika Check Hayden, quotes me saying that research on race and intelligence too often bolsters “racist ideas about the inferiority of certain groups, which plays into racist policies.” I only wish that Hayden had repeated my broader complaint against behavioral genetics, which attempts to explain human behavior in genetic terms. The field, which I’ve been following since the late 1980s, has a horrendous track record. My concerns about the potential for abuse of behavioral genetics are directly related to its history of widely publicized, erroneous claims. I like to call behavioral genetics “gene whiz science,” because “advances” so often conform to the same pattern. Researchers, or gene-whizzers, announce: There’s a gene that makes you gay! That makes you super-smart! That makes you believe in God! That makes you vote for Barney Frank! The media and the public collectively exclaim, “Gee whiz!” © 2013 Scientific American
Smart, successful, and well-connected: a good description of Albert Einstein … and his brain. The father of relativity theory didn’t live to see modern brain imaging techniques, but after his death his brain was sliced into sections and photographed. Now, scientists have used those cross-sectional photos to reveal a larger-than-average corpus callosum—the bundle of nerve fibers connecting the brain’s two hemispheres. Researchers measured the thickness of the famous noggin’s corpus callosum (the lighter-colored, downward-curving region at the center of each hemisphere, above) at various points along its length, and compared it to MRIs from 15 elderly men and 52 young, healthy ones. The thickness of Einstein’s corpus callosum was greater than the average for both the elderly and the young subjects, the team reported online last week in the journal Brain. The authors posit that in Einstein’s brain, more nerve fibers connected key regions such as the two sides of the prefrontal cortex, which are responsible for complex thought and decision-making. Combined with previous evidence that parts of the physicist’s brain were unusually large and intricately folded, the researchers suggest that this feature helps account for his extraordinary gifts. © 2013 American Association for the Advancement of Science
by Colin Barras SHAKEN, scorched and boiled in its own juices, this 4000-year-old human brain has been through a lot. It may look like nothing more than a bit of burnt log, but it is one of the oldest brains ever found. Its discovery, and the story now being pieced together of its owner's last hours, offers the tantalising prospect that archaeological remains could harbour more ancient brain specimens than thought. If that's the case, it potentially opens the way to studying the health of the brain in prehistoric times. Brain tissue is rich in enzymes that cause cells to break down rapidly after death, but this process can be halted if conditions are right. For instance, brain tissue has been found in the perfectly preserved body of an Inca child sacrificed 500 years ago. In this case, death occurred at the top of an Andean mountain where the body swiftly froze, preserving the brain. However, Seyitömer Höyük – the Bronze Age settlement in western Turkey where this brain was found – is not in the mountains. So how did brain tissue survive in four skeletons dug up there between 2006 and 2011? Meriç Altinoz at Haliç University in Istanbul, Turkey, who together with colleagues has been analysing the find, says the clues are in the ground. The skeletons were found burnt in a layer of sediment that also contained charred wooden objects. Given that the region is tectonically active, Altinoz speculates that an earthquake flattened the settlement and buried the people before fire spread through the rubble. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Link ID: 18741 - Posted: 10.05.2013
Intelligence tests were first devised in the early twentieth century as a way to identify children who needed extra help in school. It was only later that the growing eugenics movement began to promote use of the tests to weed out the less intelligent and eliminate them from society, sparking a debate over the appropriateness of the study of intelligence that carries on to this day. But it was not the research that was problematic: it was the intended use of the results. As the News Feature on page 26 details, this history is never far from the minds of scientists who work in the most fraught areas of behavioural genetics. Although the ability to investigate the genetic factors that underlie the heritability of traits such as intelligence, violent behaviour, race and sexual orientation is new, arguments and attitudes about the significance of these traits are not. Scientists have a responsibility to do what they can to prevent abuses of their work, including the way it is communicated. Here are some pointers. First: be patient. Do not speculate about the possibility of finding certain results, or about the implications of those results, before your data have even been analysed. The BGI Cognitive Genomics group in Shenzhen, China, is studying thousands of people to find genes that underlie intelligence, but group members sparked a furore by predicting that studies such as theirs could one day let parents select embryos with genetic predispositions to high intelligence. Many other geneticists are sceptical that the project will even find genes linked to this trait. © 2013 Nature Publishing Group