Chapter 16. None

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By NICHOLAS BAKALAR A new study suggests that vigorous physical activity may increase the risk for vision loss, a finding that has surprised and puzzled researchers. Using questionnaires, Korean researchers evaluated physical activity among 211,960 men and women ages 45 to 79 in 2002 and 2003. Then they tracked diagnoses of age-related macular degeneration, from 2009 to 2013. Macular degeneration, the progressive deterioration of the central area of the retina, is the leading cause of vision loss in the elderly. They found that exercising vigorously five or more days a week was associated with a 54 percent increased risk of macular degeneration in men. They did not find the association in women. The study, in JAMA Ophthalmology, controlled for more than 40 variables, including age, medical history, body mass index, prescription drug use and others. The authors write that excessive exercise might affect the eye’s choroid, a sensitive vascular membrane that surrounds the retina, but “epidemiologic studies cannot provide any evidence for the mechanism or pathology.” The authors acknowledge that the study depends partly on self-reports, which are not always reliable, and that it is an observational study that does not prove cause and effect. © 2017 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Vision
Link ID: 24425 - Posted: 12.15.2017

Amy Maxmen A study of some of the world’s most obscure marine life suggests that the central nervous system evolved independently several times — not just once, as previously thought1. The invertebrates in question belong to families scattered throughout the animal evolutionary tree, and they display a diversity of central nerve cord architectures. The creatures also activate genes involved with nervous system development in other, well-studied animals — but they often do it in non-neural ways, report the authors of the paper, published on 13 December in Nature. “This puts a stake in the heart of the idea of an ancestor with a central nerve cord,” says Greg Wray, an evolutionary developmental biologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. “That opens up a lot of questions we don’t have answers to — like, if central nerve cords evolved independently in different lineages, why do they have so many similarities?” In 1875, German zoologist Anton Dohrn noted anatomical similarities between the central nerve cord that runs length-wise through the bodies of annelids — a group of invertebrates that includes earthworms — and the nerve cord in the spine of vertebrates. He proposed that the groups’ ancient common ancestor had a nerve cord that ran along its belly-side, as seen in annelids. He also suggested that this cord flipped to the back of the body in a more recent animal that gave rise to all vertebrates. © 2017 Macmillan Publishers Limited,

Keyword: Evolution; Development of the Brain
Link ID: 24424 - Posted: 12.14.2017

By GRETCHEN REYNOLDS Intense treadmill exercise can be safe for people who have recently been given diagnoses of Parkinson’s disease and may substantially slow the progression of their condition, according to an important new study of adults in the early stages of the disease. But the same study’s results also indicate that gentler exercise, while safe for people with Parkinson’s, does not seem to delay the disease’s advance. As most of us know, Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurological disorder that involves problems with motor control. Symptoms like weakness, stiffness, loss of balance and falls can make exercise difficult and potentially hazardous. Though Parkinson’s is currently incurable, its symptoms can be eased for a time with various drugs. But most of those drugs lose their effectiveness in people over time. So some researchers have begun searching for other treatment options, particularly for use in the beginning stages of the disease. If people with early Parkinson’s could brake the disease’s advance and delay their need to start medications, the researchers have reasoned, they might change the arc of their disease, delaying its most severe effects. That possibility recently led a consortium of researchers from Northwestern University, the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora and other institutions to look at exercise as a treatment. There were precedents. Animal studies already had shown that exercise reduced symptoms and slowed physical decline in a rodent version of Parkinson’s. But rodents are not people. © 2017 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Parkinsons
Link ID: 24423 - Posted: 12.14.2017

By Jessica Hamzelou An Italian family that is barely able to sense pain has had the genetic root of their shared disorder uncovered. Understanding this gene may lead to new painkiller drugs. The affected family members include a 78-year-old woman, her two middle-aged daughters, and their three children. All of them fail to sense pain in the way most of us do, and don’t notice when they are being injured. When they were assessed, the family members were found to have bone fractures in their arms and legs that they hadn’t realised were there. “Sometimes they feel pain in the initial break but it goes away very quickly,” says James Cox, of University College London. “For example, Letizia broke her shoulder while skiing, but then kept skiing for the rest of the day and drove home. She didn’t get it checked out until the next day.” To find the cause of their lack of pain sensitivity, Cox and his colleagues performed a series of tests on the family members. The team found that all six individuals had normal numbers of nerves in their skin, but that they all had a mutation in a gene called ZFHX2. When the team deleted this gene entirely in mice, they found that the animals were not as good at sensing when painful pressure was applied to their tails, but they were hypersensitive to heat sensations. This suggests the gene may play a role in controlling whether stimuli are painful or not. © Copyright New Scientist Ltd.

Keyword: Pain & Touch; Genes & Behavior
Link ID: 24422 - Posted: 12.14.2017

Hannah Devlin Science correspondent A landmark trial for Huntington’s disease has announced positive results, suggesting that an experimental drug could become the first to slow the progression of the devastating genetic illness. The results have been hailed as “enormously significant” because it is the first time any drug has been shown to suppress the effects of the Huntington’s mutation that causes irreversible damage to the brain. Current treatments only help with symptoms, rather than slowing the disease’s progression. Prof Sarah Tabrizi, director of University College London’s Huntington’s Disease Centre who led the phase 1 trial, said the results were “beyond what I’d ever hoped ... The results of this trial are of ground-breaking importance for Huntington’s disease patients and families,” she said. The results have also caused ripples of excitement across the scientific world because the drug, which is a synthetic strand of DNA, could potentially be adapted to target other incurable brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche has paid a $45m licence fee to take the drug forward to clinical use. Huntington’s is an incurable degenerative disease caused by a single gene defect that is passed down through families. The first symptoms, which typically appear in middle age, include mood swings, anger and depression. Later patients develop uncontrolled jerky movements, dementia and ultimately paralysis. Some people die within a decade of diagnosis. © 2017 Guardian News and Media Limited

Keyword: Huntingtons; Genes & Behavior
Link ID: 24419 - Posted: 12.11.2017

Hannah Devlin Huntington’s has blighted Peter Allen’s family for generations. He watched his mother, Stephanie, slowly die from the disease and before that his grandmother, Olive, fell victim to the same illness. At 51 years old, Peter is the first of his generation to show signs of the illness, but his sister, Sandy, and brother, Frank, know they are also carrying the gene. The onset of Huntington’s is insidious. Psychological changes typically come first – tiredness, mood swings, apathy and anger. Four years ago, Peter was formally diagnosed as symptomatic when he began suffering anxiety and panic attacks so severe he would become convinced that he couldn’t swallow. In retrospect, the depression he suffered in his thirties may have been an earlier manifestation of changes happening his brain. In person, Peter is articulate, funny and exudes affection for his wife and siblings, but there are small signs of the changes that are underway. Every now and then he pauses to search for the right word. A loss of dexterity means he can no longer write or sign his name, his balance is unsteady and, when tired, his speech becomes slurred. “You know that you’re gradually lessening,” he says. A lack of awareness about the disease and its symptoms means people sometimes assume he is drunk. “I’ve been asked to leave pubs before I’ve even had a drink,” he says. “I don’t go to those pubs any more.” Peter took redundancy from his marketing job at Network Rail in 2015 and has not returned to full-time work, although he is retraining to become a garden designer. Anti-depressant drugs have helped bring the psychological symptoms under control. In future, he will be offered other drugs to stiffen his muscles, which helps reduce involuntary movements. But no current treatments can slow the relentless progression of the disease, the loss of memory, motor control and eventually the ability to think. © 2017 Guardian News and Media Limited

Keyword: Huntingtons; Genes & Behavior
Link ID: 24418 - Posted: 12.11.2017

By Ferris Jabr Chickens are loquacious creatures, and Kevin Mitchell would know. He oversees the care of about a million of them on Wilcox Farms properties in Washington State and Oregon. Mitchell says the birds have “patterns of speech” that reveal a lot about their well-being. They are usually noisiest in the morning—a robust concert of clucks, chortles and caws. “When I hear that, I know they are pretty healthy and happy,” Mitchell says. In the evenings when they’re preparing to roost, the chickens are much more mellow, cooing softly. When a hen lays an egg she celebrates with a series of staccato clucks, like drumbeats, culminating in a loud “buck-caw!” If chickens detect an aerial predator—say, by spotting the shadow of a hawk or eagle—they produce a short, high-pitched shriek. And they have a distinct warning for terrestrial threats: The repetitive clucking most people associate with chickens is in fact a ground predator alarm call. One morning many years ago Mitchell entered a chicken house and found it oddly calm and quiet. Instead of making the usual ruckus, the birds were murmuring and shuffling lethargically. He soon discovered that an automated lighting system had failed and the lights had not switched off the night before; the chickens were sleep-deprived. If he had only been able to eavesdrop on the flock, he might have known much sooner that something was amiss. Over the past five years, engineers and poultry scientists at The University of Georgia and Georgia Institute of Technology have been collaborating to help farmers like Mitchell make better use of the information latent in chicken chatter. © 2017 Scientific American

Keyword: Animal Communication; Language
Link ID: 24415 - Posted: 12.11.2017

By Catherine Offord Mantis shrimps are not the easiest animals to work with, as neuroanatomist Nicholas Strausfeld knows firsthand. Not least, there’s the challenge of capturing the crustaceans in the wild. Also known as stomatopods, mantis shrimps live in burrows in shallow seawater and have earned the descriptive nickname “thumb splitters,” thanks to their tendency to use their sharp, powerful claws to slash at prey and pursuers. “At low tide, you wade around and you try and catch these things,” says Strausfeld, who has plenty of experience chasing after the purple-spotted mantis shrimp (Gonodactylus smithii) with a small handheld net in the tropical waters around Lizard Island, Australia. “They’re incredibly fast—it’s very difficult.” For Strausfeld and other neurobiologists, however, all the trouble is well worth it, as these feisty little marine predators are yielding unique insight into the evolution of the arthropods—the most species-rich animal phylum on the planet, containing around 85 percent of all described animal species. “We knew [these shrimps] were very interesting,” says neuroanatomist Gabriella Wolff, previously a PhD student in Strausfeld’s lab at the University of Arizona and now a research associate at the University of Washington in Seattle. In addition to a complex visual system that receives inputs from independently moving eyes, “mantis shrimps have very advanced behaviors that we haven’t necessarily seen in other crustaceans so far.” Research has also suggested they are sophisticated navigators, regularly finding their way home from distant feeding sites. Plus, they recognize other individual mantis shrimps, and remember whether their interactions were confrontational or not. © 1986-2017 The Scientist

Keyword: Learning & Memory; Evolution
Link ID: 24414 - Posted: 12.11.2017

By Ruth Williams Two studies in Science today—one that focuses on prenatal development in humans, the other on infancy to old age—provide insights into the extent of DNA sequence errors that the average human brain cell accumulates over a lifetime. Together, they reveal that mutations become more common as fetuses develop, and over a lifetime a person may rack up more than 2,000 mutations per cell. “I think these are both very powerful technical papers, and they demonstrate how single-cell sequencing . . . can reliably detect somatic changes in the genomes of human neurons,” says neuroscientist Fred Gage of the Salk Institute in La Jolla who was not involved in either study. “What’s cool about [the papers] is that they show two different ways that one can look at somatic mutations in single human neurons . . . and yet they get consistent results,” says neuroscientist Michael McConnell of the University of Virginia School of Medicine. Cells of the human body acquire mutations over time, whether because of errors introduced during DNA replication or damage incurred during transcription and other cellular processes. But, until recent technological developments enabled whole genome sequencing from the miniscule quantities of DNA found inside single cells or small clones of the same cell, investigating the nature and extent of such somatic mutations—and the resulting tissue mosaicism—was practically impossible. © 1986-2017 The Scientist

Keyword: Development of the Brain; Epigenetics
Link ID: 24412 - Posted: 12.09.2017

Michael Ruffolo When we talk about female representation in science, we’re rarely talking about test subjects. We tend to want more women behind the microscope, not under it. Neuroscience is one of the most skewed fields when it comes to testing on female physiology. One review found single-sex brain studies using male animals outnumbered those using females 6.7 to one. Aarthi Gobinath, a neuroscientist at the University of British Columbia, calls this a “hidden gap” in her field. She says there’s reason to question the assumption that the brains of males and females are identical, particularly in unique states like pregnancy. This is particularly true for early animal testing, where new drugs for depression and anxiety are first developed. “This leads to the ultimate outcome of our research not even benefiting males and females equally,” Gobinath said. Gobinath wanted to tackle the issue of sex bias by trying to understand what depression looks like in female rat brains, specifically looking at postpartum depression. Her research suggests our standard depression treatments don’t apply to new moms. VICE caught up with Gobinath to ask about her new study, which could have wide-ranging implications for humans of all sexes and genders. VICE: What do you mean when you say there’s “sex bias” in brain research? Aarthi Gobinath: So when I say "sex," what I mean is genetic sex, meaning XX or XY chromosomes. [Sex bias] is a bias toward using male subjects in research and then concluding from that research that what was true in that experiment will be true for both sexes without necessarily addressing that maybe it won’t be true for the female physiology.

Keyword: Sexual Behavior
Link ID: 24411 - Posted: 12.09.2017

By SHEILA KAPLAN Chris Beekman, whose company sells the dietary supplement Opiate Detox Pro, does not understand what all the fuss is about. “If it works, it works,” Mr. Beekman, the owner of NutraCore Health Products, said in an interview. “If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.” His customers, addicts trying to shake a dependence on opioids, can always get their money back, he said. Opiate Detox Pro’s label says, “Opioid addiction ease,” and the company’s website claims, “Our ingredients are the most effective on the market for treating withdrawal symptoms.” Mr. Beekman said he did not have scientific evidence to prove that the product worked, and would not be conducting research to buttress the company’s claims. “It’s just not going to happen,” he said, citing what he called the prohibitive cost of scientific studies and clinical trials. Peter Lurie thinks that is an unacceptable position from someone who sells supplements that purport to treat addiction. Dr. Lurie, a former Food and Drug Administration official, runs the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, which on Friday urged the F.D.A. and the Federal Trade Commission to crack down on businesses that target addicts with products that make unproven health claims. The F.D.A. has already zeroed in on another supplement, kratom, a botanical substance that has been promoted as a safe substitute for opioids and an adjunct to opioid use. Last month, the agency issued a public health advisory for kratom, warning that the product carried “deadly risks,” and linked about three dozen deaths to it. Earlier, the agency had ordered that kratom imports be seized and told companies to take it out of supplements. In general, the agency can fine companies that make and distribute them, or take other enforcement actions. In the past few weeks, reacting to other agency warnings, Amazon has stopped making available some products claiming to assist in opioid withdrawal. © 2017 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Drug Abuse
Link ID: 24410 - Posted: 12.09.2017

Paula Span Jeannie Cox currently enjoys a flavor called Coffee & Cream when she vapes. She’s also fond of White Lotus, which tastes “kind of fruity.” She buys those nicotine-containing liquids, along with her other e-cigarette supplies, at Mountain Oak Vapors in Chattanooga, Tenn., where she lives. A retired secretary in her 70s, she’s often the oldest customer in the shop. Not that she cares. What matters is that after ignoring decades of doctors’ warnings and smoking two packs a day, she hasn’t lit up a conventional cigarette in four years and four months. “Not one cigarette,” she said. “Vaping took its place.” Like Ms. Cox, some smokers have been able to stop smoking by switching to e-cigarettes, and many are trying. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more smokers now attempt to quit by using e-cigarettes as a partial or total substitute for cigarettes than by using nicotine gum or lozenges, prescription medications or several other more established methods. Her success is what researchers disdainfully call “anecdotal evidence,” however. There’s “no conclusive evidence” that e-cigarettes help people stop smoking long-term, said Brian King, deputy director of the C.D.C.’s Office of Smoking and Health. At the moment, therefore, neither the C.D.C., the Food and Drug Administration nor the United States Preventive Services Task Force has approved or recommended e-cigarettes for smoking cessation. In fact, the rise of e-cigarettes has generated contentious debate among public health officials and advocates. But while the proportion of Americans who smoke continues to decrease — down to 15.1 percent in 2015 — the decline has stalled among older adults. © 2017 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Drug Abuse
Link ID: 24409 - Posted: 12.09.2017

By KAREN WEINTRAUB Q. For working parents, it’s difficult to find time to exercise during the week, and early morning is often the only time slot available. Is it better for my overall health to get eight hours of sleep per night during the week but not have time to exercise, or to get six and a half to seven hours of sleep per night and fit in a morning workout? A. “That’s a terrible choice,” said Dr. Charles Czeisler, a sleep expert at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston. Both sleep and exercise are key components of a healthy lifestyle and shouldn’t be pitted against each other, Dr. Czeisler said. Sleep is important for workouts, he noted, reducing the risk of injury and allowing muscles to recover from exercise. Lack of sleep weakens the immune system, making people more likely to become sick — which means missing workouts. Sacrificing sleep has also been tied to weight gain, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, among other health problems. Of course, regular exercise provides a lot of benefits, too, including sounder sleep. Dr. Czeisler also noted that going to bed late, particularly if you’re using electronic devices and sitting under bright lights before bedtime, shifts the body’s circadian rhythms later. But people still need around eight hours of sleep per night. So if you get up after six and a half hours to work out, “you’re essentially exercising during your biological night,” he said. Research from Northwestern University suggests that muscle cells also have circadian rhythms, and that they perform and recover much better during the biological daytime than the biological night. “So, getting up during your biological night to exercise is counterproductive,” Dr. Czeisler said. © 2017 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Sleep
Link ID: 24406 - Posted: 12.08.2017

Mariah Quintanilla When escaping from humans, narwhals don’t just freeze or flee. They do both. These deep-diving marine mammals have similar physiological responses to those of an animal frozen in fear: Their heart rate, breathing and metabolism slow, mimicking a “deer in the headlights” reaction. But narwhals (Monodon monoceros) take this freeze response to extremes. The animals decrease their heart rate to as slow as three beats per minute for more than 10 minutes, while pumping their tails as much as 25 strokes per minute during an escape dive, an international team of researchers reports in the Dec. 8 Science. “That was astounding to us because there are other marine mammals that can have heart rates that low but not typically for that long a period of time, and especially not while they’re swimming as hard as they can,” says Terrie Williams, a biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. So far, this costly escape has been observed only after a prolonged interaction with humans. Usually, narwhals will escape natural predators such as killer whales by stealthily slipping under ice sheets or huddling in spots too shallow for their pursuers, Williams says. But interactions with humans — something that will happen increasingly as melting sea ice opens up the Arctic — may be changing that calculus. Monitoring a female narwhal showed that her heart rate dropped precipitously low at times as she performed a series of dives after escaping a net (top graph). The red box shows periods of “cardiac freeze,” when her heart only beat a few times per minute. About two days later, the same narwhal was back to performing regular deep dives (bottom graph), in which her heart rate dropped to 10 to 20 beats per minute, an adaption that allows the sea mammals to conserve energy during stretches underwater. |© Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2017.

Keyword: Stress
Link ID: 24405 - Posted: 12.08.2017

Nell Greenfieldboyce At least one young woman suffered eye damage as a result of unsafe viewing of the recent total solar eclipse, according to a report published Thursday, but it doesn't appear that many such injuries occurred. Doctors in New York say a woman in her 20s came in three days after looking at the Aug. 21 eclipse without protective glasses. She had peeked several times, for about six seconds, when the sun was only partially covered by the moon. The area between the yellow brackets in the top photo shows the damage to the center part of the retina. The middle image is a type of visual field test and the bottom image uses optical coherence tomography. Courtesy of New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai Four hours later, she started experiencing blurred and distorted vision and saw a central black spot in her left eye. The doctors studied her eyes with several different imaging technologies, described in the journal JAMA Ophthalmology, and were able to observe the damage at the cellular level. "We were very surprised at how precisely concordant the imaged damage was with the crescent shape of the eclipse itself," noted Dr. Avnish Deobhakta, a retina surgeon at New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai in New York, in an email to NPR. © 2017 npr

Keyword: Vision
Link ID: 24404 - Posted: 12.08.2017

By Bret Stetka Every day our brains grapple with various last-minute decisions. We adjust our gait to avoid a patch of ice; we exit to hit the rest stop; we switch to our backhand before thwacking a tennis ball. Scientists have long accepted that our ability to abruptly stop or modify a planned behavior is controlled via a single region within the brain’s prefrontal cortex, an area involved in planning and other higher mental functions. By studying other parts of the brain in both humans and monkeys, however, a team from Johns Hopkins University has now concluded that last-minute decision-making is a lot more complicated than previously known, involving complex neural coordination among multiple brain areas. The revelations may help scientists unravel certain aspects of addictive behaviors and understand why accidents like falls grow increasingly common as we age, according to the Johns Hopkins team. The findings, published Thursday in Neuron, reveal reneging on an intended behavior involves coordinated cross talk between several brain regions. As a result, changing our minds even mere milliseconds after making a decision is often too late to alter a movement or behavior. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging—a technique that monitors brain activity in real time—the Johns Hopkins group found reversing a decision requires ultrafast communication between two specific zones within the prefrontal cortex and another nearby structure called the frontal eye field, an area involved in controlling eye movements and visual awareness. © 2017 Scientific American

Keyword: Attention
Link ID: 24403 - Posted: 12.08.2017

By DOUGLAS QUENQUA If you grew up as part of the D.A.R.E. generation — kids of the 1980s and ’90s who learned about drugs from alarmist public service announcements — you know all too well the dangers of so-called gateway drugs. Go to bed with marijuana or beer, you were taught, and risk waking up with cocaine or heroin. Three decades later, scientists and politicians still debate whether using “soft” drugs necessarily leads a person down a slippery slope to the harder stuff. Critics note that marijuana has, in some cases, been shown to actually prevent people from abusing other substances. And even D.A.R.E. now acknowledges that the overwhelming majority of people who smoke pot or drink never graduate to pills and powders. But new research is breathing fresh life into the perennially controversial theory, and the timing seems apt. As marijuana legalization and the opioid epidemic sweep across the country, parents are once again questioning the root causes of addiction. And politicians opposed to legalization, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, have routinely used the gateway effect as their chief argument against reform. A Columbia University study published in November in Science Advances showed that rats exposed to alcohol were far more likely than other rats to push a lever that released cocaine. The researchers also found that the alcohol suppressed two genes that normally act as cutoff switches for the effects of cocaine, creating a “permissive environment” for the drug within the rodents’ brains. A similar study from 2011 — conducted by some of the same researchers, most notably Denise Kandel, who helped formulate the gateway theory in 1975 — produced comparable findings using nicotine and mice. © 2017 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Drug Abuse
Link ID: 24399 - Posted: 12.07.2017

Seventeen million babies under the age of one are breathing toxic air, putting their brain development at risk, the UN children's agency has warned. Babies in South Asia were worst affected, with more than 12 million living in areas with pollution six times higher than safe levels. A further four million were at risk in East Asia and the Pacific. Unicef said breathing particulate air pollution could damage brain tissue and undermine cognitive development. Its report said there was a link to "verbal and non-verbal IQ and memory, reduced test scores, grade point averages among schoolchildren, as well as other neurological behavioural problems". The effects lasted a lifetime, it said. Delhi's air pollution is triggering a health crisis "As more and more of the world urbanises, and without adequate protection and pollution reduction measures, more children will be at risk in the years to come," Unicef said. It called for wider use of face masks and air filtering systems, and for children not to travel during spikes in pollution. Media captionSmog reduced visibility in Delhi to a few metres Last month hazardous smog began blanketing the Indian capital Delhi, prompting the Indian capital's chief minister Arvind Kejriwal to say the city had become a "gas chamber". Some schools in the city were closed but there was criticism when they re-opened, with parents accusing the authorities of disregarding their children's health. © 2017 BBC.

Keyword: Development of the Brain; Neurotoxins
Link ID: 24398 - Posted: 12.07.2017

By John Horgan What’s the difference between science and philosophy? Scientists address questions that can in principle be answered by means of objective, empirical investigation. Philosophers wrestle with questions that cannot be empirically resolved and hence remain matters of taste, not truth. Here is a classic philosophical question: What creatures and/or things are capable of consciousness? That is, who (and “who” is the right term, even if you’re talking about a jellyfish or sexbot) belongs to the Consciousness Club? This question animated “Animal Consciousness,” a conference I attended at New York University last month. It should have been called “Animal Consciousness?” or “Animal ‘Consciousness’” to reflect the uncertainty pervading the two-day meeting. Speakers disagreed over when and how consciousness evolved and what is required for it to occur. A nervous system? Brain? Complex responses to the environment? The ability to learn and adapt to new circumstances? And if we suspect that something is sentient, and hence capable of suffering, should we grant it rights? In my last post, I focused on the debate over whether fish can suffer. Scholars also considered the sentience of dogs, lampreys, wasps, spiders, crustaceans and other species. Speakers presented evidence that creatures quite unlike us are capable of complex cognition. Biologist Andrew Barron argued that bees, in spite of their minuscule brains, are not mindless automatons. Their capacity for learning rivals that of mammals. When harmed, bees stop eating and foraging as if they were depressed. Bees, Barron concludes, are conscious. © 2017 Scientific American

Keyword: Consciousness; Evolution
Link ID: 24394 - Posted: 12.05.2017

By KAREN WEINTRAUB In one more sign that North Atlantic right whales are struggling, a new study finds sky-high levels of stress in animals that have been caught in fishing nets. Researchers determined the stress hormone levels of more than 100 North Atlantic right whales over a 15-year period by examining their feces. Sometimes guided by sniffing dogs, researchers followed the animals, collecting waste samples that they then analyzed in their lab at the New England Aquarium. Results from the feces of 113 seemingly healthy whales helped establish a baseline of stress hormone levels, which had never before been known for the species. “We have a good idea of what normal is now,” said Rosalind Rolland, who developed the research technique and is the lead author of the study published in the journal Endangered Species Research. She then compared these baselines to hormone levels in the feces of six whales that had become entangled in fishing lines, and one that had been stranded for several days, finding that those animals were off-the-charts anxious. One whale, a young female named Bayla, showed stress levels eight times higher after she was found entangled in synthetic fishing ropes in January 2011. Several biologists trained in disentanglement couldn’t get all the gear off her, so they sedated the emaciated animal and gave her antibiotics. Two weeks later, an aerial survey team found her corpse floating at sea, possibly after being attacked by sharks, which typically leave healthy animals alone. A necropsy conducted a few days later found rope embedded in the back of Bayla’s throat, that possibly prevented her from eating. © 2017 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Stress
Link ID: 24393 - Posted: 12.05.2017