Chapter 5. The Sensorimotor System
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At the Society for Neuroscience meeting earlier this month in San Diego, California, Science sat down with Geoffrey Ling, deputy director of the Defense Sciences Office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), to discuss the agency’s plans for the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, a neuroscience research effort put forth by President Barack Obama earlier this year. So far, DARPA has released two calls for grant applications, with at least one more likely: The first, called SUBNETS (Systems-Based Neurotechnology for Emerging Therapies), asks researchers to develop novel, wireless devices, such as deep brain stimulators, that can cure neurological disorders such as posttraumatic stress (PTS), major depression, and chronic pain. The second, RAM (Restoring Active Memory), calls for a separate wireless device that repairs brain damage and restores memory loss. Below is an extended version of a Q&A that appears in the 29 November issue of Science. Q: Why did DARPA get involved in the BRAIN project? G.L.: It’s really focused on our injured warfighters, but it has a use for civilians who have stress disorders and civilians who also have memory disorders from dementia and the like. But at the end of the day, it is still meeting [President Obama’s] directive. Of all the things he could have chosen—global warming, alternative fuels—he chose this, so in my mind the neuroscience community should be as excited as all get-up. Q: Why does SUBNETS focus on deep brain stimulation (DBS)? G.L.: We’ve opened the possibility of using DBS but we haven’t exclusively said that. We’re challenging people to go after neuropsychiatric disorders like PTS [and] depression. We’re challenging the community to come up with something in 5 years that’s clinically feasible. DBS is an area that has really been traditionally underfunded, so we thought what the heck, let’s give it a go—in this new BRAIN Initiative the whole idea is to go after the things that there aren’t 400 R01 grants for—and let’s be bold, and boy, if it works, fabulous. © 2013 American Association for the Advancement of Science
Scientists at the National Institutes of Health have used RNA interference (RNAi) technology to reveal dozens of genes which may represent new therapeutic targets for treating Parkinson’s disease. The findings also may be relevant to several diseases caused by damage to mitochondria, the biological power plants found in cells throughout the body. “We discovered a network of genes that may regulate the disposal of dysfunctional mitochondria, opening the door to new drug targets for Parkinson’s disease and other disorders,” said Richard Youle, Ph.D., an investigator at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) and a leader of the study. The findings were published online in Nature. Dr. Youle collaborated with researchers from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS). Mitochondria are tubular structures with rounded ends that use oxygen to convert many chemical fuels into adenosine triphosphate, the main energy source that powers cells. Multiple neurological disorders are linked to genes that help regulate the health of mitochondria, including Parkinson’s, and movement diseases such as Charcot-Marie Tooth Syndrome and the ataxias. Some cases of Parkinson’s disease have been linked to mutations in the gene that codes for parkin, a protein that normally roams inside cells, and tags damaged mitochondria as waste. The damaged mitochondria are then degraded by cells’ lysosomes, which serve as a biological trash disposal system. Known mutations in parkin prevent tagging, resulting in accumulation of unhealthy mitochondria in the body.
By RONI CARYN RABIN Women are more likely than men to die after a heart attack, and some researchers have suggested a reason: Doctors may be misdiagnosing women more often because their symptoms differ from those experienced by men. But a study published Monday indicates that too much has been made of gender differences in chest pain, the hallmark symptom of heart disease. Although the researchers found some distinctions, no pattern was clearly more characteristic of women or could be used to improve heart attack diagnosis in women, the authors concluded. “We should stop treating women differently at the emergency room when they present with chest pain and discomfort,” said Dr. Maria Rubini Gimenez, a cardiologist at University Hospital Basel and lead author of the new study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine. Instead, she said, all patients with acute chest pain must be evaluated for heart attack with appropriate diagnostics, including an electrocardiogram and blood tests. Roughly 80 percent of people who have chest pain and discomfort are suffering from indigestion, acid reflux or another relatively benign condition, said Dr. John G. Canto, director of the chest pain center at Lakeland Regional Medical Center in Lakeland, Fla., who has researched heart attack diagnosis. “The trick is, how do you figure out the 15 to 20 percent actually having a heart attack?” he said. The new research confirms “that there is a lot of overlap in symptoms between patients who are having a heart attack and those who aren’t, and there is a lot of overlap in symptoms between men and women.” The new study examined 2,475 patients, including 796 women, who reported to emergency rooms at nine hospitals in Switzerland, Spain and Italy complaining of acute chest pain between April 21, 2006, and Aug. 12, 2012. Copyright 2013 The New York Times Company
by Erika Engelhaupt If you had to have a prosthetic hand, would you want it to look like a real hand? Or would you prefer a gleaming metallic number, something that doesn’t even try to look human? A new study looks at one of the issues that prosthetic designers and wearers face in making this decision: the creepy factor. People tend to get creeped out by robots or prosthetic devices that look almost, but not quite, human. So Ellen Poliakoff and colleagues at the University of Manchester in England had people rate the eeriness of various prosthetic hands. Forty-three volunteers looked at photographs of prosthetic and real hands. They rated both how humanlike (realistic) the hands were and how eerie they were, defined as “mysterious, strange, or unexpected as to send a chill up the spine.” Real human hands were rated both the most humanlike and the least eerie (a good thing for humans). Metal hands that were clearly mechanical were rated the least humanlike, but less eerie overall than prosthetic hands made to look like real hands, the team reports in the latest issue of Perception. The realistic prosthetics, like the rubber hand shown above, fell into what's known as the uncanny valley. That term, invented by roboticist Matsuhiro Mori in 1970, describes how robots become unnerving as they come to look more humanlike. The superrealistic Geminoid DK robot and the animated characters in the movie The Polar Express suffer from this problem. They look almost human, but not quite, and this mismatch between expectation and reality is one of the proposed explanations for the uncanny valley. In particular, if something looks like a human but doesn’t quite move like one, it’s often considered eerie. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2013
by Simon Makin "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," said Franklin D. Roosevelt. He might have been onto something: research suggests that the anticipation of pain is actually worse than the pain itself. In other words, people are happy to endure a bit more pain, if it means they spend less time waiting for it. Classical theories of decision-making suppose that people bring rewards forward and postpone punishments, because we give far-off events less weight. This is called "temporal discounting". But this theory seems to go out the window when it comes to pain. One explanation for this is that the anticipation of pain is itself unpleasant, a phenomenon that researchers have appropriately termed "dread". To investigate how dread varies with time, Giles Story at University College London, and his colleagues, hooked up 33 volunteers to a device that gave them mild electric shocks. The researchers also presented people with a series of choices between more or less mildly painful shocks, sooner or later. During every "episode" there was a minimum of two shocks, which could rise to a maximum of 14, but before they were given them, people had to make a choice such as nine extra shocks now or six extra shocks five episodes from now. The number of shocks they received each time was determined by these past choices. Although a few people always chose to experience the minimum pain, 70 per cent of the time, on average, participants chose to receive the extra shocks sooner rather than a smaller number later. By varying the number of shocks and when they occurred, the team was able to figure out that the dread of pain increased exponentially as pain approached in time. Similar results occurred in a test using hypothetical dental appointments. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By Helen Briggs BBC News A condition where people experience a mixing of the senses, such as tasting words, has been linked with autism. Research suggests synaesthesia is nearly three times as common in adults with autism spectrum disorder than in the general population. The two conditions may share common features such as unusual wiring of the brain, say UK scientists. The study helps understanding of how people with autism experience life, says the National Autistic Society. Synaesthesia is a condition where one sense automatically triggers another. Some people experience tastes when they read or hear words, some perceive numbers as shapes, others see colours when they hear music. People with synaesthesia might say: "The letter q is dark brown," or: "The word 'hello' tastes like coffee," for example. Following anecdotal evidence of links between synaesthesia and Asperger's syndrome, researchers at the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University set out to test the idea. More than 200 study participants - 164 adults diagnosed with high-functioning autism or Asperger's syndrome, and 97 adults without autism - were asked to fill in questionnaires to measure synaesthesia and autism traits. The study found one in five adults with autism spectrum conditions - a range of related developmental disorders, including autism and Asperger's syndrome - had synaesthesia compared with about 7% of people with no signs of the disorders. Prof Simon Baron-Cohen, who led the research, told BBC News: "Synaesthesia involves a mixing of the senses and it's a very subjective private experience, so the only way we know it's happening is if you ask people to report on their experiences. BBC © 2013
Link ID: 18948 - Posted: 11.20.2013
Helen Shen To researchers who study how living things move, the octopus is an eight-legged marvel, managing its array of undulating appendages by means of a relatively simple nervous system. Some studies have suggested that each of the octopus’s tentacles has a 'mind' of its own, without rigid central coordination by the animal’s brain1. Now neuroscientist Guy Levy and his colleagues at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem report that the animals can rotate their bodies independently of their direction of movement, reorienting them while continuing to crawl in a straight line. And, unlike species that use their limbs to move forward or sideways relative to their body's orientation, octopuses tend to slither around in all directions. The team presented its findings on 10 November at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in San Diego, California. The new description of octopus movement is “not how one would imagine that would happen, but it seems to give a lot of control to the animal", says Gal Haspel, a neuroscientist at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark. Haspel studies worm locomotion, and he was also surprised by the researchers’ report that the octopus pushes itself with worm-like contractions of its tentacles. Different combinations flex together to produce movement in different directions. Levy, who began the research as part of a project to design and control flexible, octopus-like robots, says that the work could also help to uncover basic biological principles of locomotion. Levy’s team deconstructed octopus movement using a transparent tank rigged with a system of mirrors and video cameras, in which they tested nine adult common octopuses (Octopus vulgaris). © 2013 Nature Publishing Group
By BARRY MEIER Addiction experts protested loudly when the Food and Drug Administration approved a powerful new opioid painkiller last month, saying that it would set off a wave of abuse much as OxyContin did when it first appeared. An F.D.A. panel had earlier voted, 11 to 2, against approval of the drug, Zohydro, in part because unlike current versions of OxyContin, it is not made in a formulation designed to deter abuse. Now a new issue is being raised about Zohydro. The drug will be manufactured by the same company, Alkermes, that makes a popular medication called Vivitrol, used to treat patients addicted to painkillers or alcohol. In addition, the company provides financial support to a leading professional group that represents substance abuse experts, the American Society of Addiction Medicine. For some critics, the company’s multiple roles in the world of painkillers is troubling. Dr. Gregory L. Jones, an addiction specialist in Louisville, Ky., said he had long been concerned about financial links between the group and the drug industry, adding that the Zohydro situation amplified those potential conflicts. Dr. Stuart Gitlow, the current president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, said he had been unaware until now of Alkermes’s involvement with Zohydro. Dr. Gitlow, who is affiliated with Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, said that the group would seek more information from Alkermes about the situation and then decide what, if anything, to do next. Officials of Alkermes appear to recognize the issue they face. In recent years, the company has been trying to increase sales of Vivitrol, a form of a drug called naltrexone, that is used to treat both alcoholism and opioid addiction. © 2013 The New York Times Company
by Jessica Griggs, San Diego No practice required. Wouldn't it be great if you could get better at playing sport or hone your piano skills simply by thinking about it? A small pilot study suggests that it might be possible. In the last few years, brain training using computer games that provide neurofeedback – a real-time representation of your brain activity – has become a popular, if controversial, method of enhancing cognitive abilities such as spatial memory, planning and multitasking. It has even been used to help actors get into character. Most of the games aim to enhance activation in a single part of the brain. But motor skills are known to involve two main areas – the premotor cortex and the supplementary motor cortex. Both are involved when people make movements or imagine moving. Brain activity between these regions is known to be less synchronised in people who are poor at motor tasks than in those who excel at them. So to see if brain training could target both areas and improve motor performance, Sook-Lei Liew and her colleagues from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Maryland, recruited eight young adults. The researchers and asked the participants to watch a white circle on a screen while an fMRI machine scanned their brain. When the circle turned into a red triangle, the volunteers were told to move their fingers. This movement caused activation in their premotor cortex and supplementary motor cortex, which in turn moved a bar on the screen. The higher the synchronisation of activity between the two brain areas, the higher the bar went. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Link ID: 18928 - Posted: 11.14.2013
Helen Shen Long used to treat movement disorders, deep-brain stimulation (DBS) is rapidly emerging as an experimental therapy for neuropsychiatric conditions including depression, Tourette’s syndrome, obsessive–compulsive disorder and even Alzheimer’s disease. But despite some encouraging results in patients, it remains largely unknown how the electrical pulses delivered by implants deep within the brain affect neural circuits and change behaviour. Now there is a prototype DBS device that could provide some answers, researchers reported on 10 November at the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting in San Diego, California. Called Harmoni, the device is the first DBS implant to monitor electrical and chemical responses in the brain while delivering electrical stimulation. “That’s new data that we haven’t really had access to in humans before,” says Cameron McIntyre, a biomedical engineer at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, who is not involved in the work. Researchers hope that the device will identify the electrical and chemical signals in the brain that correlate in real time with the presence and severity of symptoms, including the tremors experienced by people with Parkinson’s disease. This information could help to uncover where and how DBS exerts its therapeutic effects on the brain, and why it sometimes fails, says Kendall Lee, a neurosurgeon at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, who is leading the project. The results come at a time of great excitement in the DBS field. Last month, the US government's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced a 5-year, US$70-million initiative to support development of the next generation of therapeutic brain-stimulating technologies. © 2013 Nature Publishing Group,
Link ID: 18922 - Posted: 11.13.2013
Sedentary adults may improve their memory as soon as six weeks after taking up aerobic exercise, a small brain imaging study suggests. Cardiovascular fitness and cognitive performance such as attention seem to improve after six months or more of aerobic exercise in previous aging studies. Now researchers in Texas have found signs of increased regional blood flow in the brain of 37 sedentary adults with an average age of 64 who were randomized to physical training or a control group who had the training after a waiting period. They found a higher resting cerebral blood flow in the brain's anterior cingulate region in the physical training group compared with controls. The anterior cingulate region is associated with better memory functions. The size of this brain region was also larger in another study of "successful cognitive agers" over the age of 80 compared to middle-aged or elderly controls. "A relatively rapid health benefit across brain, memory and fitness in sedentary adults soon after starting to exercise, some gains starting as early as six weeks, could motivate adults to start exercising regularly," the study's lead author, Sandra Bond Champman of the Center for BrainHealth in Dallas and her co-authors concluded in Monday's issue of the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. "The current findings shed new light on ways exercise promotes cognitive/brain health in aging." The participants all had a physical exam and screening for dementia, early cognitive impairment, depression and IQ before the study began. A noninvasive type of MRI was used to measure brain blood flow before, half way through the 6-week training sessions and at 12 weeks. © CBC 2013
Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 18920 - Posted: 11.13.2013
Babies born to women who exercised during pregnancy have enhanced brain development compared with babies born to moms who didn’t exercise while they were pregnant, a new Canadian study suggests. The babies of 10 women who did as little as 20 minutes of moderate exercise three times a week during pregnancy showed more advanced brain activity when they were tested at eight to 12 days old than the babies of eight women who did not exercise during pregnancy, reported University of Montreal researcher David Ellemberg and his colleagues at the Neuroscience 2013 conference in San Diego on Sunday. “We are optimistic that this will encourage women to change their health habits, given that the simple act of exercising during pregnancy could make a difference for their child's future,” Ellemberg said in a statement. The women in the study were randomly assigned to an exercise group or a sedentary group at the beginning of their second trimester. Those in the exercise group had to spend at least 20 minutes three times a week doing exercise intense enough to lead to at least a slight shortness of breath. After their babies were born, the researchers tested them by placing a cap of electrodes on the babies' heads and then playing novel sounds while they slept. They measured the electrical response of the babies' brains to see how well they could distinguish between different sounds. The researchers found that the babies in the exercise group produced signals associated with more mature brains. The researchers said they plan to test the children’s cognitive, motor and language development at age one to see if there are lasting effects. © CBC 2013
Keyword: Development of the Brain
Link ID: 18916 - Posted: 11.12.2013
By PAM BELLUCK It is probably no accident that the pivotal object in Martin Cruz Smith’s newest detective thriller, “Tatiana,” is a notebook nobody can read. Early on, Mr. Smith worried that his novel, being published Tuesday by Simon & Schuster, would be unreadable too — or wouldn’t be written at all. Author of the 1981 blockbuster “Gorky Park” and many acclaimed books since, Mr. Smith writes about people who uncover and keep secrets. But for 18 years, he has had a secret of his own. In 1995, he received a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. But he kept it hidden, not only from the public, but from his publisher and editors. He concealed it, although for years, tremors and stiffness have kept him from taking detailed notes and sketching people, places and objects for his research — and even as he became unable to type the words he needed to finish his 2010 best seller “Three Stations.” “I didn’t want to be judged by that,” Mr. Smith, 71, explained recently in his light-filled Victorian home north of San Francisco. “Either I’m a good writer or I’m not. ‘He’s our pre-eminent Parkinson’s writer.’ Who needs that?” In talking about his Parkinson’s odyssey, including a relatively new but promising treatment, Mr. Smith is opening a window on the still incurable disorder affecting four million people worldwide, a disease that is becoming increasingly prevalent as baby boomers age. His experience reflects a common desire to conceal often-stigmatizing symptoms, like shaking, slowness, and rigidity. (He mostly didn’t mind his Parkinsonian hallucinations: a black cat in his lap, whirlwinds spiraling from computer keys, a butler, a British military officer in full regalia. “Having hallucinations for a fiction writer is redundant,” he said.) Copyright 2013 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 18914 - Posted: 11.12.2013
by Ashley Yeager The compound that gives mold its musty smell can cause changes in fruit flies’ brains that mimic those of patients with Parkinson’s disease. Scientists do not know the exact cause of Parkinson’s disease, but studies have shown that exposure to human-made chemicals may be a risk factor for developing the movement disorder. Now researchers have found that the chemical 1-octen-3-ol, which mold naturally emits, kills flies’ brain cells that transmit dopamine, a compound involved in controlling movement. The mold molecule also reduces dopamine levels in the flies’ brains. In experiments with human cells, the mold chemical also blocked the cells from taking in dopamine, researchers report November 11 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The results offer insight into cases of movement problems that doctors have associated with fungi exposure, the scientists say. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2013
Sarah DeWeerdt Parts of the brain that process vision and control movements are poorly connected in children with autism, according to results presented Saturday at the 2013 Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in San Diego. In addition to the social deficits that are a core feature of autism, children with the disorder often have clumsy movements. Studies have also found that people with autism have trouble imitating others. The new study uncovers patterns of brain activity suggesting all three of these deficits may be related. The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure resting-state activation — brain activity that occurs while individuals are resting quietly in the scanner — in 45 children with autism and 45 controls. Parts of the brain that tend to activate and deactivate together during this procedure are said to be functionally connected. The researchers zeroed in on two sets of brain structures involved in motor activity. One of them, the ventral motor component, includes parts of the cortex, the thalamus and lobule 6 of the cerebellum. They also focused on three areas of the brain involved in visual processing. The most interesting is a region at the back of the brain responsible for complex interpretation of visual information. © Copyright 2013 Simons Foundation
Roughly a year ago, I found myself at an elegant dinner party filled with celebrities and the very wealthy. I am a young professor at a major research university, and my wife and I were invited to mingle and chat with donors to the institution. To any outside observer, my career was ascendant. Having worked intensely and passionately at science for my entire adult life, I had secured my dream job directing an independent neuroscience research laboratory. I was talking to a businessman who had family members affected by a serious medical condition. He turned to me and said: “You're a neuroscientist. What do you know about Parkinson's disease?” My gaze darted to catch the eyes of my wife, but she was involved in another conversation. I was on my own, and I paused to gather my thoughts before responding. Because I had a secret. It was a secret that I hadn't yet told any of my colleagues: I have Parkinson's. I am still at the beginning of my fascinating, frightening and ultimately life-affirming journey as a brain scientist with a disabling disease of the brain. Already it has given me a new perspective on my work, it has made me appreciate life and it has allowed me to see myself as someone who can make a difference in ways that I never expected. But it took a bit of time to get here. The first signs I remember the first time I noticed that something was wrong. Four years ago, I was filling out a mountain of order forms for new lab equipment. After a few pages, my hand became a quaking lump of flesh and bone, locked uselessly in a tense rigor. A few days later, I noticed my walk was changing: rather than swinging my arm at my side, I held it in front of me rigidly, even grabbing the bottom edge of my shirt. I also had an occasional twitch in the last two fingers of my hand. © 2013 Nature Publishing Group
Link ID: 18896 - Posted: 11.08.2013
Most of us don’t think twice when we extend our arms to hug a friend or push a shopping cart—our limbs work together seamlessly to follow our mental commands. For researchers designing brain-controlled prosthetic limbs for people, however, this coordinated arm movement is a daunting technical challenge. A new study showing that monkeys can move two virtual limbs with only their brain activity is a major step toward achieving that goal, scientists say. The brain controls movement by sending electrical signals to our muscles through nerve cells. When limb-connecting nerve cells are damaged or a limb is amputated, the brain is still able to produce those motion-inducing signals, but the limb can't receive them or simply doesn’t exist. In recent years, scientists have worked to create devices called brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) that can pick up these interrupted electrical signals and control the movements of a computer cursor or a real or virtual prosthetic. So far, the success of BMIs in humans has been largely limited to moving single body parts, such as a hand or an arm. Last year, for example, a woman paralyzed from the neck down for 10 years commanded a robotic arm to pick up and lift a piece of chocolate to her mouth just by thinking about it. But, "no device will ever work for people unless it restores bimanual behaviors,” says neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, senior author of the paper. "You need to use both arms and hands for the simplest tasks.” In 2011, Nicolelis made waves by announcing on The Daily Show that he is developing a robotic, thought-controlled "exoskeleton" that will allow paralyzed people to walk again. Further raising the stakes, he pledged that the robotic body suit will enable a paralyzed person to kick a soccer ball during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Brazil World Cup. (Nicolelis is Brazilian and his research is partly funded by the nation’s government.) © 2013 American Association for the Advancement of Science
Link ID: 18888 - Posted: 11.07.2013
By DONALD G. McNEIL Jr. The World Health Organization has approved a new vaccine for a strain of encephalitis that kills thousands of children and leaves many survivors with permanent brain damage. The move allows United Nations agencies and other donors to buy it. The disease, called Japanese encephalitis or brain fever, is caused by a mosquito-transmitted virus that can live in pigs, birds and humans. Less than 1 percent of those infected get seriously ill, but it kills up to 15,000 children a year and disables many more. Up to four billion people, from southern Russia to the Pacific islands, are at risk; it is more prevalent near rice paddies. There is no cure. The low-cost vaccine, approved last month, is the first authorized by the agency for children and the first Chinese-made vaccine it has approved. It is made by China National Biotec Group and was tested by PATH, a nonprofit group in Seattle with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Dr. Margaret Chan, W.H.O.’s director-general, said she hoped that approval would encourage other vaccine makers from China and elsewhere to enter the field. China had given the vaccine domestically to 200 million children over many years but had never sought W.H.O. approval. India, which previously bought 88 million doses from China, launched the first locally produced version last month. © 2013 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 18872 - Posted: 11.05.2013
By JANE E. BRODY Marijuana has been used medically, recreationally and spiritually for about 5,000 years. Known botanically as cannabis, it has been called a “crude drug”: marijuana contains more than 400 chemicals from 18 chemical families. More than 2,000 compounds are released when it is smoked, and as with tobacco, there are dangers in smoking it. Medical marijuana clinics operate in 20 states and the District of Columbia, and its recreational use is now legal in Colorado and Washington. A Gallup poll conducted last month found that 58 percent of Americans support the legalization of marijuana. Yet researchers have been able to do relatively little to test its most promising ingredients for biological activity, safety and side effects. The main reason is marijuana’s classification by Congress in 1970 as an illegal Schedule I drug, defined as having a potential for abuse and addiction and no medical value. American scientists seeking clarification of marijuana’s medical usefulness have long been stymied by this draconian classification, usually reserved for street drugs like heroin with a high potential for abuse. Dr. J. Michael Bostwick, a psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., said the classification was primarily political and ignored more than 40 years of scientific research, which has shown that cellular receptors for marijuana’s active ingredients are present throughout the body. Natural substances called cannabinoids bind to them to influence a wide range of body processes. In a lengthy report entitled “Blurred Boundaries: The Therapeutics and Politics of Medical Marijuana,” published last year in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, Dr. Bostwick noted that the so-called endocannabinoid system has an impact on the “autonomic nervous system, immune system, gastrointestinal tract, reproductive system, cardiovascular system and endocrine network.” Copyright 2013 The New York Times Company
If you were stung by a bark scorpion, the most venomous scorpion in North America, you’d feel something like the intense, painful jolt of being electrocuted. Moments after the creature flips its tail and injects venom into your skin, the intense pain would be joined by a numbness or tingling in the body part that was stung, and you might experience a shortness of breath. The effect of this venom on some people—small children, the elderly or adults with compromised immune systems—can even trigger frothing at the mouth, seizure-like symptoms, paralysis and potentially death. Based solely on its body size, the four-inch-long furry grasshopper mouse should die within minutes of being stung—thanks to the scorpion’s venom, which causes temporary paralysis, the muscles that allow the mouse to breathe should shut down, leading to asphyxiation—so you’d think the rodent would avoid the scorpions at all costs. But if you put a mouse and a scorpion in the same place, the rodent’s reaction is strikingly brazen. If stung, the four-inch-long rodent might jump back for a moment in surprise. Then, after a brief pause, it’ll go in for the kill and devour the scorpion piece by piece: This predatory behavior isn’t the result of remarkable toughness. As scientists recently discovered, the mouse has evolved a particularly useful adaptation: It’s immune to both the pain and paralytic effects that make the scorpion’s venom so toxic. Although scientists long knew that the mouse, native to the deserts of the American Southwest, preys upon a range of non-toxic scorpions, “no one had ever really asked whether they attack and kill really toxic scorpions,” says Ashlee Rowe of Michigan State University, who led the new study published today in Science.