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November 2012 Archives

Do Elections Constitute True "Wisdom of the Crowd?"

On matters of general knowledge, quantity estimation, and spatial reasoning, an aggregated answer from a large group is often better than a single answer from an individual, even one supplied by a supposed "expert." This peculiar phenomenon is commonly known as the "wisdom of the crowd."

An early example of such collective insight originated from English polymath Sir Francis Galton. Very much an elitist, Galton believed that the mindless masses could not be trusted to make important decisions or, honestly, do much of anything. One day, as he was strolling through a local county fair, Galton came across a competition where individuals were attempting to guess the weight of a cow. The lucky person who guessed the cow's weight (after it had been slaughtered and dressed) would win the meat of the butchered bovine. In total, 800 people privately submitted their guesses on tickets.

Seeking statistical evidence to substantiate his haughty notions that common crowds couldn't correctly determine anything, Galton borrowed the tickets from the organizer at the conclusion of the competition. He presumed that the aggregated guesses wouldn't be remotely close to the actual weight of the cow.

How wrong he was.

As it turned out, the mean of the crowd's guesses was remarkably near to the actual answer, much closer, in fact, than any of the individual guesses. The collective guess was 1,197 pounds, while the actual weight of the animal after being butchered was 1,198!

Since Galton's discovery, other examples of the wisdom of the crowd effect have been documented scientifically and anecdotally. Most involve guessing the amount of jellybeans in a jar. The effect is also on display in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire's "ask the audience" lifeline, which, amazingly, is correct over 90% of the time.

But beyond winning game shows, sating sweet tooths, and appraising weight, can the wisdom of the crowd effect be harnessed effectively to make important, practical decisions, such as electing politicians?

My guess (albeit a solo one) is no, at least not in the purest terms.

shutterstock_118014631.jpgIn his book, The Wisdom of the Crowds, author James Surowiecki describes four key criteria that separate wise crowds from dysfunctional ones. They are:

Diversity of Opinion - Each person should have private information even if it's just an eccentric interpretation of the known facts.
Independence - People's opinions aren't determined by the opinions of those around them.
Decentralization - People are able to specialize and draw on local knowledge.
Aggregation - Some mechanism exists for turning private judgments into a collective decision.

So how does the American electorate and electoral process stack up? Well, diversity of opinion is certainly respected (thank you, First Amendment). We also fair well as far as decentralization is concerned -- people from all walks of life are allowed to vote and can thus apply their unique experiences to the collective decision. And aggregation is made possible through standard voting procedures.

Now, you might have noticed that I left out "independence." That's because this is the one criterion that's certainly not met. Social influence can seriously undermine the wisdom of the crowd effect, and our society is by no means lacking in sources of influence.

Most of our opinions are shaped by others' opinions, be they from columnists, news anchors, politicians, parents, friends, Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC. Others' viewpoints pervade our lives through polls, airwaves, newspapers, and office conversations, delving down into our psyche, where they can roost and shape our own beliefs without us even knowing it. Concrete facts often have little effect. Usually, the only thing that matters is how often you've heard the opinion.

In light of a 2011 study, excessive influence might work to our advantage if the only opinion we hear is that of successful individuals who are always correct. But in our society, such seers seem infinitesimally rare. More likely, however, they are simply nonexistent.

In all, while we Americans vote as a crowd -- and did so less than a month ago -- I'm not sure we technically fall under the strict definition of a "wise" one.

(Image: Crowd via Shutterstock)

November 2012 Archives

Seeing Dead People? Don't Worry, You're Not Insane.

What's that, out of the corner of your eye, lurking in the periphery? It's a colorful shape of some kind, slowly creeping into the foreground. But wait, now it has taken the form of a bright, pink pig, oinking with gusto. The shimmering swine hovers in midair for a few moments, until it suddenly plops out of existence.

Under normal circumstances, If you experienced a hallucination like this, rational thinking might lead you to one logical conclusion: You're going totally bonkers. But are you really?

Almost certainly not, says New York University neurologist Oliver Sacks. Hallucinations aren't solely limited to the realms of psychoactive drugs and mental illness. In fact, they're actually quite prevalent among the general population. In 2000, Stanford researchers surveyed 13,000 people on the matter. 38.7% of respondents reported experiencing some form of hallucination at one point in their lives.

A 1993 study examined a more sensitive topic: seeing the dead. Researchers queried 14 men and 36 women in their early seventies who had lost a loved one in the previous year. About one-third of the subjects reported seeing, hearing, or talking to their deceased spouses in the months following their death. Contrary to what you might think, those that experienced these hallucinations considered them "helpful" to the grieving process.

shutterstock_117975178.jpgThough recent evidence shows that sane people commonly hallucinate, the link between hallucinations and mental illness has been around much longer. Thus, "seeing things" is often thought to be synonymous with insanity. In a recent piece for the New York Times, Sacks wrote:

In a famous 1973 study by the Stanford psychologist David Rosenhan, eight "pseudopatients" presented themselves at various hospitals across the country, saying that they "heard voices." All behaved normally otherwise, but were nonetheless determined to be (and treated as) schizophrenic (apart from one, who was given the diagnosis of "manic-depressive psychosis").

WHILE many people with schizophrenia do hear voices at certain times in their lives, the inverse is not true: most people who hear voices (as much as 10 percent of the population) are not mentally ill. For them, hearing voices is a normal mode of experience.
And why shouldn't hallucinations be normal? After all, the eyes and ears really only serve as gateways to the outside world. Ultimately, we see and hear with our brains.

Think of the brain as a projector, playing the reels produced by its various working regions. When a specific brain area becomes over activated, the theater of the mind can present some pretty bewildering shows.

This analogy is perfectly demonstrated by Charles Bonnet Syndrome (CBS). CBS is a condition in which mentally-sound, lucid individuals with severe or slight vision loss actually see vivid figures, faces, or even cartoons.

In the last decade, scientists have been able to perform brain scans on people while they're hallucinating. They've found, for example, heightened activity in the fusiform face area when people hallucinate faces, or in the insular cortex when people hallucinate smells.

"Sometimes there may actually be something wrong there, and there's a hemorrhage or a seizure focus, but sometimes, as with the sense-deprived people, it's just as if normal constraints have been removed and a whole area has sort of become anarchically active and is just doing its thing," Sacks told Science Friday.

Someday you might find yourself lying comfortably in bed, eyelids closed, when suddenly, geometric shapes, faces, or even landscapes pop into view, perhaps accompanied by doorbell rings, crashes or bangs -- a hypnagogic hallucination. Or you  might awaken bright and early, and with open eyes, see a large swooping owl with claws outstretched, or an enormous spider clinging to its web in the corner -- a hypnopompic hallucination.

If these hallucinations excessively recur or grow overly disturbing, you might want to visit a neurologist or a psychiatrist. But all in all, don't fret.

You're not going insane.

(Photo: Abstract Image via Shutterstock)

November 2012 Archives

Aristotle's Thoughts on the Thanksgiving Food Coma

Tomorrow, the vast majority of Americans will join with friends and family to sit around long, festively decorated tables -- landscapes beset with colorful mountains of sweet potatoes, cloudy lakes of gravy, hearty plateaus of turkey, and endless fields of green beans. Revelry will be had. Laughter will be shared. Food -- lots of food -- will be scarfed.

Afterwards, Thanksgiving partakers will retire to comfy sofas and padded chairs, perhaps watching football games or challenging relatives to rousing games of Scrabble or Parcheesi. The lively merriment will continue, for a time. But in scenes as sure as fridges stocked with feast leftovers, loud cheers will quiet to mutters, cheeky banter will diminish to soft pleasantries, and Uncle Bob will be soundly snoozing on the recliner, as postprandial somnolence, the condition more commonly known as "food coma," sets in over the gathering like a dense, dreary fog.

shutterstock_114972133.jpgYou are getting very, very sleepy.

Food coma may seem a recent phenomenon -- one brought on by the age of never-ending buffets and fast food -- but it didn't escape the observant gaze of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who theorized, "...while food is being digested, vapors rise from the stomach because of their higher temperature and collect in the head. As the brain cools, the vapors condense, flow downward and then cool the heart, which causes sleep." The more food is consumed, the greater the effect.

That supposition didn't exactly prove correct, but we thank the sage Aristotle for his ancient wisdom anyhow!

When mounds of food are consumed, activity of the parasympathetic nervous system -- the system responsible for the body's "resting" activities -- increases, resulting in a state of low energy and a desire to relax. Additionally, the consumption of carbohydrates -- like potatoes, stuffing, cranberries, bread, etc. -- causes insulin levels to rise in order to mitigate blood glucose levels. Concurrently, muscles take in various amino acids, except for one called tryptophan. With the ratio of tryptophan elevated in the blood stream, the amino acid has an easier time getting into the brain. Once there, tryptophan is converted to serotonin, which is then converted to melatonin. Elevated levels of these two hormones make us very, very sleepy.

Happy Turkey Day!

(Image: Turkey Dinner via Shutterstock)

November 2012 Archives

Pseudoscience from the Luxury of a Full Stomach

I often wonder if our ancient ancestors -- when they were sowing the very first crops -- were aware of how their modest, earthly toils would transform the human race. Because, without question, agriculture was the advancement that allowed our species to flourish.

Fast forward to the present and we find ourselves in a well-fed country, where starvation is almost unheard of. The vast majority of Americans will never know the throbbing pangs of hunger, but they're well acquainted with the discomfort of a brimming, bloated belly.

In this modern age of plenty, we no longer worry about what to eat. Now, we agonize over what not to eat. Since starvation is no longer a threat to our survival, food itself is the new hazard. And born from the luxury of a full stomach, anti-science and alarmist beliefs have grown into prominence.

Outspoken activists urge us to avoid all manner of eatable evils -- dairy, gluten, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for example. Live life "dairy-free," "gluten-free," or "GMO-free," they declare. I never realized that milk, bread, and corn had me in chains.

shutterstock_115832773.jpgCritics of dairy argue that it's linked to heart disease, prostate cancer, obesity, and other health problems. These statements are overblown and often supported with small studies that apply only to those who are lactose intolerant or allergic to milk. Make no mistake, if you're allergic to dairy or are lactose intolerant, you shouldn't eat or drink dairy. But for the rest of us, it's probably okay.

For most people, gluten is just fine as well. There's nothing inherently bad about it. Moreover, gluten-free diets aren't necessarily healthier, nor do they aid in weight loss. If you're concerned that you may have a gluten intolerance, have your doctor test for Celiac's Disease. A recent study also showed that gluten sensitivity in people without Celiac's could be an issue, but the underlying causes are not yet understood.

GMOs are similarly innocuous, according to the scientific organizations whose job it is to mold good science into informed policy. The American Medical Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Science, the World Health Organization, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency are a few of the many respected agencies backing GMOs, basing their support on the best, most reputable data that scientists have to offer.

Whether it's dairy-free, gluten-free, or GMO-free, pseudoscientific dietary fads have given rise to a cadre of firm believers who will contend that -- whatever their solution -- it instantly made them "feel better." Yes, I'm sure that placebo is working wonders.

Frankly, I'm happy for the people who've discovered their dietary niche. But, I also have a message for the crusaders out there: dismount off your high horses, stop nit-picking scientific studies, and quit trying to convert the masses. Be more like Novak Djokovic, the tennis champion whose meteoric ascendance began after his transition to a gluten-free diet. "Gluten is good," he says. "It just might not be good for you."

Fair enough. But personally, I prefer the scientifically supported route, concurrently in step with humanity's evolutionarily-selected omnivory. Eat a little bit of everything, even the "bad" stuff, all in moderation. Don't forget to stay active, as well!

Or you can choose the pseudoscientific path of the alarmist: Stringently avoid dairy (unless it's raw), gluten (even if you're not a Celiac), GMOs (Frankenfoods, oh my!), and especially anything that's processed. That leaves a very slim selection of food, but at least you'll be safe from whatever there is to be afraid of.

Allow me to recommend a delicious staple for this persnickety diet: lentil soup. Organic, of course!

(Lentil soup is actually amazingly healthy and delicious.)

(Image: Evil Cabbage via Shutterstock)

November 2012 Archives

The Scientific Method: For Science, for Life

Science comes in all shapes and sizes. There's aeronautics, agronomy, archaeology, optics, psychology, ethology, neuroscience, ecology, mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, seismology, linguistics, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other equally important fields -- too many to list.

What suffuses throughout these diverse disciplines and drives their many practitioners is a fundamental curiosity about the world around us, and a burning desire to know more about it. Science is fueled by the spirit of inquiry.

Though most of us grasp what powers science, it's far more difficult to comprehend what it truly is. (See RealClearScience's article "What Separates Science from Non-Science?") The definition of science is infinitely more nuanced, which explains why there are so many different versions:

From the American Physical Society:

"Science is the systematic enterprise of gathering knowledge about the universe and organizing and condensing that knowledge into testable laws and theories."

From the UK Science Council:

"Science is the pursuit of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence."

From New Oxford American Dictionary:

"Science is the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment."

From Isaac Asimov:

"Science does not purvey absolute truth, science is a mechanism. It's a way of trying to improve your knowledge of nature, it's a system for testing your thoughts against the universe and seeing whether they match."

Despite the difference in diction, one commonality that endures throughout these four definitions is a reference to an underlying system. That system is the scientific method, and it's at the very heart of the entire enterprise. LiveScience sums it up nicely:

  1. Make an observation or observations.
  2. Ask questions about the observations and gather information.
  3. Form a hypothesis -- a tentative description of what's been observed, and make predictions based on that hypothesis.
  4. Test the hypothesis and predictions in an experiment that can be reproduced.
  5. Analyze the data and draw conclusions; accept or reject the hypothesis or modify the hypothesis if necessary.
  6. Reproduce the experiment until there are no discrepancies between observations and theory.

It's this method that truly defines science. Superficial, all-encompassing definitions constantly change, but the mechanics central to science do not. To understand science, know the scientific method.

shutterstock_45001972.jpgWhy It's So Important

The beauty of the scientific method is that it can be applied to both intricate problems of particle physics and straightforward conundrums that arise in everyday life. It's a simple, step-by-step process that can guide you to an answer on how much water your plants need to flourish, what kind of exercise program will deliver the best results, or even whether or not the contentious assertion you just heard during a political debate is grounded in evidence.

If one makes use of the scientific method, one will be equipped with a tool more useful than any material object, religious doctrine, or expert at answering questions about the physical universe. Moreover, that individual will be able to gain a layperson's understanding of far-reaching science projects at the forefront of human cognizance and discovery, and, in a way, become a scientist, too.

(Image: Scientific Method via Shutterstock)

November 2012 Archives

A License to Smoke?

"Anybody got a match?"
That was the first line uttered by Lauren Bacall in her storied Hollywood career, spoken in an early scene of the war-romance To Have and Have Not. The sleek, sultry actress needed a light for her cigarette. Humphrey Bogart acquiesced to Bacall's request, tossing her a small box of matches. She caught it with blasé indifference. Mystery shone in her eyes as she kindled the match and the flame flared. The allure with which she lit her cigarette and took a puff was almost dizzying to moviegoers (the males, at least). It was not smoke that she exhaled, but sheer sexiness.

The way that smoking is viewed in society has certainly changed a lot since the days when Bacall and Bogart lit up the silver screen. We now understand that the habit leads to lung cancer, emphysema, and heart disease, health conditions that are aren't remotely sexy. Today, smoking is oft viewed with contempt, and the act is banned from bars, restaurants, and public places across the United States. Additionally, cigarettes are wantonly taxed, and tobacco companies are virtually disallowed from advertising their products.

But the current policies don't go far enough, says Simon Chapman, a professor of public health at the University of Sydney. In a paper appearing as a part of a PLoS Medicine Debate, Chapman makes a persuasive case for a "smoker's license" - a smart swipecard that would be required to purchase cigarettes from a tobacco retailer.

Chapman prefaces his policy explanation by noting that many life-saving pharmaceuticals currently require doctors' prescriptions, which are basically just temporary licenses. It's hypocritical, he says, that tobacco products -- which present far more danger to public health, are sold almost everywhere, and are easily purchased by underage teens -- are not subject to the same rigorous stipulation.

The key points of Chapman's plan are outlined below (click here to seem them all):

  1. License Card - All smokers would be required to obtain a swipecard to purchase cigarettes. Applications would be made widely available. There would be a yearly license fee ranging from approximately $100 to $200. Smokers would have to renew their license annually.
  2. Purchase Limits - Smokers would be able to set limits to the amount of cigarettes they can purchase per week, ranging from 70 to 350. The higher the limit, the more they must pay in license fees. Smokers could adjust their limits at any time.
  3. Incentive to Surrender License - If a smoker quits his or her habit before age forty, he or she would be able to surrender their license and be refunded all license fees paid during their licensing period. The smoker would not be allowed to reapply for a license.
  4. New Smoker's Test - An 18-year-old wishing to obtain a smoking license must first pass a test on the health risks of tobacco use.

Chapman admits that his plan may seem radical now, but he insists that it's no more radical that the current smoking laws and restrictions which are now commonplace.

He also acknowledges that a smoking license comes with a few potential concerns, including administration costs, smoker stigmatization, infringement of rights, and the potential to create a black market. But he believes that the benefits of the plan far outweigh the costs, especially when you consider that upwards of $96 billion is spent on smoking-related healthcare costs in the United States each year.

"The requirement for a license would send a powerful, symbolic message to all smokers and potential smokers that tobacco is no ordinary commodity, akin to grocery items, confectionary, or any product on unrestricted sale," Chapman asserts.

The Case Against

Jeff Collin, the director of the Global Public Health Unite at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland agrees that tobacco consumption needs to be reduced, but disagrees with the idea of a smoking license. He contends that such a law would "inevitably be widely perceived as demeaning, onerous, and punitive" against smokers.

Collin also cites legendary British philosopher John Stuart Mill, who said, "(t)he only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." Under this reasoned definition, laws that ban smoking in public places are legitimate. But a smoking license merely restricts individual consumption, so it certainly oversteps Mill's boundary of responsible lawmaking.

The smoking license: a boon for public health and the economy, or a degradation of personal rights? What do you think?

Source: Chapman S (2012) The Case for a Smoker's License. PLoS Med 9(11): e1001342. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001342

Source: Collin J (2012) The Case against a Smoker's License. PLoS Med 9(11): e1001343. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001343

November 2012 Archives

Why Do Guys Have Spines on Their Genitals?

It's a clear, pristine midsummer night in the skies over eastern North America, and love is in the air... No literally, lovemaking is taking place in the air.

The sky is aflutter with the flapping wings of mating eastern red bats. Males and females join together in a deft, midair maneuver, then subsequently drift down to the ground, locked in coitus. It's a beautiful act between two majestic flying mammals, made possible by the male's gigantic, nightmarish penis spines.

Sorry to spoil the moment.

The spines are hypothesized to serve as copulatory clamps during aerial mating, but that's not all. They also may provide sensory feedback for the male bats, and believe it or not, stimulate the release of female sex hormones. How's that for a turn on, ladies?

journal.pone.0047586.g003.pngThe penile spines of adult male hoary bats.

Penile spines certainly aren't exclusive to bats. They're actually fairly widespread throughout the animal kingdom. Hamsters, parasites, mice, and beetles are but a few of the critters that sport varying forms of penile spines, some hardly noticeable, others positively horrific.

Fruit flies in particular have spines of extraordinary length (relatively speaking). The large barbs belonging to Drosophila ananassae are absolutely vital to male mating success.

The sex scene for this species of fly is best described as a scrambling free-for-all. Hundreds of fruit flies will gather on, say, a wayward orange, and manic feeding ensues, along with intercourse, lots of intercourse. Thus, males evolved penile spines to latch onto and mate with as many females as possible during the mayhem. Recently, researchers at the University of Cincinnati found that flies which have their penile spines removed were unable to copulate at all, demonstrating how important they really are.

Penis spines aren't merely present in animals on the lower rungs of the evolutionary ladder. Chimpanzees have them, too. The spines on the adult chimp member are described as hard, corny bumps about 0.35mm wide. They're certainly not intended for "hooking up" in the literal sense (like in fruit flies), so what's their purpose?

As David Kingsley of Stanford University School of Medicine told Discovery News, the spines "have been proposed to do many different things, including increasing stimulation in males, increasing stimulation in females, removing copulatory plugs left by other males or even inflicting minor damage during mating so that females are less receptive to sexual intercourse with other males."

Just in case you weren't sufficiently irked by this blush-inducing discussion of prickly phalluses, I've got one more detail that might very well rile up some indignity: Our ancestors were adorned with penis spines as well. Don't fret however; they were certainly the less pronounced "bumpy" variety, perhaps similar to those of modern-day primates. They weren't of the frightening variety, like those of eastern red bats. Scientists hypothesize that these bumps may have been used to remove the previously deposited sperm of other male suitors. They also believe that the trait was lost when our species eschewed instinctive promiscuity in favor of socially evolved monogamy.

If penile spines are linked to promiscuity, perhaps that's why wanton sex remains such a thorny subject?

(Photo Source: Cryan PM, Jameson JW, Baerwald EF, Willis CKR, Barclay RMR, et al. (2012) Evidence of Late-Summer Mating Readiness and Early Sexual Maturation in Migratory Tree-Roosting Bats Found Dead at Wind Turbines. PLoS ONE 7(10): e47586. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0047586)

November 2012 Archives

Where Are All of the Baby Squirrels?

It's been a banner year for gray squirrels, and not everyone is nuts about it. The adorable, poof-tailed mammals devour crops, chew building wires, strip trees clean of their bark, and, as evidenced by the video below, can wreak havoc on your kitchen and subsequently escape in daring, ninja style.

2012's rise of the pervasive rodents has been fueled by the unseasonably warm winter, which resulted in a bountiful harvest of pine nuts and acorns, two of the small mammal's favorite foods. Squirrels are now multiplying at levels far above normal, prompting scientists to pioneer innovative ways of administering birth control, like lacing seeds with contraceptive drugs, for example. Tasty.

Yet as researchers get ready to do battle with the pesky rodents, I can't help but notice one, somewhat ironic observation: If squirrels are so overpopulated, then where are all their infants? Seriously, have you ever seen a baby squirrel in the wild? Do they even exist? Having lived on the border between woodland and city in Minnesota for a good chunk of my life, I can attest to seeing neonate rabbits and chipmunks aplenty, but never a baby squirrel. What gives?

As you might have guessed, most squirrel species are late-bloomers. Young of the two most prominent species, the eastern and western gray, don't leave their nests for ten weeks and six months, respectively, after being born. By then, they're fairly sizable, and not easily distinguished as youth.

320px-Baby_Squirrel_Sleeping.jpgThe young of another widespread squirrel species, the American red, emerge from their natal nests after a mere 42 days, but they reach adult body size at 125 days. Moreover, they suffer severe early mortality, a result of unbridled predation by bobcats, coyotes, owls, hawks, foxes, wolves, and even crows. In tandem, these facets of red squirrel existence leave little time for you to entice the cute kits into posing for photographs by tempting them with potato chips.

If you're dead set on viewing a baby squirrel in the wild, you can find their nests located in the forks of trees or even occasionally in the exterior walls of houses. But beware, if you poke your head in at an inopportune time, you may find yourself face-to-face with a stressed, overworked mother not in the mood for an unannounced visit from a nosy human.

(Baby squirrel photo taken by Audry via Wikimedia Commons)

November 2012 Archives

Stopping a Seizure in a Flash... of Light

"If I ever have a seizure, just step back and watch the show. Or, if you feel up to it, you can move away any dangerous objects from where I'm shaking and maybe throw me a pillow, but don't get too close because apparently I kick and bite. I might yell and scream, too, so feel free to tell me to shut up. Just know that I probably won't be listening."

Those simple, frank instructions on how to deal with an epileptic seizure came from the mouth of my college roommate, Sam. A modest genius, an epileptic, and now a medical student at Northwestern University, Sam knew what he was talking about. In the event of an epileptic seizure, there's really little that a bystander can do besides spectate. Just let the violent shakes, convulsions, and cries run their course. (Though a 911 call is definitely in order if the seizure lasts longer than five minutes.)

Epilepsy, a condition that affects approximately 2 million Americans, occurs when permanent changes in brain tissues cause the brain to be too excitable or jumpy, resulting in repeated, unpredictable seizures. Unfortunately, there's currently no safe and effective method for stopping a seizure, so as Sam suggested, watching and waiting truly is the best option. But that could one day change.

shutterstock_117246937.jpgIn a study just published in Nature Neuroscience, scientists at Stanford University illuminate a technique effective at halting epileptic seizures in lab rats by using targeted flashes of light to stop specific neurons from firing in the thalamus, a brain region that relays sensory and motor information to the cerebral cortex.

The researchers accomplished the feat in two parts. First off, by examining rats suffering epileptic seizures as a result of stroke, they gleaned that thalamus activity was clearly involved with causing or maintaining seizures.

Second, the researchers sought to ascertain whether or not mitigating this activity would alleviate or even stop a seizure altogether. To do this, they expressed a light-activated ion channel within the affected neurons of the thalamus. The channel was designed to reduce neuronal firing when flashed with yellow light. A device containing multiple electrodes was implanted in the thalamus to emit the light. At seizure onset, the implant was activated, which promptly halted excited neuronal activity as well as the seizure. The rats immediately resumed normal behavior.

Going further, the scientists designed an implantable system capable of detecting and silencing seizures within one second of initiation. The method proved reliable for nearly a year after being implanted in two rats with stroke-induced chronic epilepsy.

"Disruption of seizures at their onset with closed-loop control, via a brief targeted inhibition of thalamocortical cells... is a promising potential therapeutic approach for otherwise untreatable epilepsies," the researchers say, "as it would not affect normal brain activity between seizures, as might other therapeutic approaches, such as surgical lesions or chronic treatment with pharmacological agents."

Using flashes of light to halt seizures is not remotely close to being ready for use in humans, but the research suggests that targeting and silencing neurons within the thalamus can provide relief from seizures caused by a stroke or brain injury. Perhaps, one day, epileptics might not have to fret about seizing at inconvenient times, and their friends won't have to stand idly by and watch.

(Image: Epilepsy Road Sign via Shutterstock)

November 2012 Archives

What Transformed a Marine into a Mass Murderer?

Whitman1963.jpgCharles Whitman was a bright, upstanding individual. An IQ examination at the age of six yielded a phenomenal score of 172. At only twelve-years-old, he became an Eagle Scout, an exemplary achievement at such a young age. Whitman followed up this accomplishment with an impeccable high school career. He then joined the Marines in 1959, where he merited the Good Conduct Medal, a Sharpshooter's Badge, and the Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal. He later was honorably discharged, attended college for architectural engineering, and married the love of his life.

Like any normal person, Whitman had committed a few minor transgressions and endured some troubles, but collectively, they didn't explain why, on July 31st, 1966, he shot his mother, and hours later, repeatedly stabbed his wife. The next day, he perched himself atop the Tower at the University of Texas and started shooting.

The mayhem was sheer, random, senseless. Whitman shot pedestrians. He shot students. He even gunned down the paramedics and good Samaritans who tried to aid those that had been hit. He didn't relent until he himself was riddled with bullets by police.

In the wake of what was then the worst mass murder in American history, people were plagued with the one question that always shadows such a dark event: Why did this happen?

The answer actually came from Whitman, himself. In the months preceding the killing spree, he began experiencing unexplainable, intense fits of rage and unquenchable desires to inflict pain. All of this he chronicled in his journal. In his writing, Whitman seemed almost at war with himself, struggling to quell his violent urges. But eventually, he surrendered to them. After deciding to kill his wife, he introspectively wrote:

"I don't really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average, reasonable, and intelligent young man. However, lately (I can't recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts. These thoughts constantly recur, and it requires tremendous mental effort to concentrate on useful and progressive tasks. In March... I consulted a Dr. Cochrum at the University Health Center and asked him to recommend someone that I could consult with about some psychiatric disorders I felt I had. I talked with a Doctor once for about two hours and tried to convey to him my fears that I felt some overwhelming violent impulses. After one session I never saw the Doctor again, and since then I have been fighting my mental turmoil alone, and seemingly to no avail. After my death I wish that an autopsy would be performed on me to see if there is an visible physical disorder."
After Whitman's violent death, an autopsy was indeed performed, and what the examiner discovered was revealing. He found a malignant glioblastoma in the white matter above Whitman's brain stem. The nickel-sized tumor was impinging on the nearby amygdalae, which are involved in regulating fear and aggression.

In the days following the shooting, a large commission composed of neurosurgeons, psychiatrists, pathologists, and psychologists determined that the tumor conceivably could have had an influence on Whitman's actions. Additionally, the commission discerned that if left untreated, it likely would have killed him by the end the year.

This story is incredibly striking to me, because it exhibits how such a seemingly slight alteration to the brain's physiology and structure can catastrophically change one's psyche.

November 2012 Archives

Legalize Marijuana? But Think of the Pets!

On November 6th, Washington, Colorado, and Oregon could become the first states to legalize recreational use of marijuana. If passed, the ballot initiatives would allow adults to possess small amounts of the drug under the load of strict regulation and thorough taxation. Polls have consistently shown leads for decriminalization in Washington and Colorado.

Opponents of legalization contend that the measures would harm children, conflict with current federal law, promote drug abuse, and increase impaired driving, but they leave out another compelling argument that tugs at the heart strings: marijuana is a danger to your pets!

shutterstock_115044298.jpgA five-year study conducted by veterinarians in Colorado recently discovered that the number of dogs sickened by marijuana in the state has quadrupled since medical marijuana was legalized. Before, most veterinarians reported treating doped dogs only a few times a year. Now, many of them are seeing these cases multiple times a week.

This should come as no surprise, as there are now 204 medical marijuana dispensaries in the Denver area alone. That's roughly three times the number of Starbucks and McDonald's combined! From these establishments, the real pot perpetrators that sicken pooches are purchased: marijuana eatables.

Consumers can buy all manner of culinary creations from dispensaries, treats like pot cookies, pot brownies, and pot candy. These rapidly deliver a significant dose of marijuana's psychoactive chemical, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and when left out in the open, are incredibly alluring to your average canine.

Since marijuana is toxic to dogs in relatively low doses, pets that consume misplaced pot confections will suffer from a host of troubling symptoms. In almost all cases, neurological ailments such as anxiety, hallucinations, severe lethargy, unconsciousness, or even coma will occur. And in a third of cases, gastrointestinal signs such as drooling, vomiting, and loss of bladder control will materialize. Deaths from marijuana intoxication are extremely rare, but they have happened. The aforementioned Colorado study unearthed two such events. 

Make no mistake, dogs are not getting the enjoyable "high" felt by us humans. THC is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream, so symptoms will manifest themselves within minutes. Moreover, because THC is fat soluble, dogs may experience them for up to 96 hours as the chemical gradually seeps from fat stores.

So in the time leading up to Election Day, perhaps opponents to marijuana legalization should implore voters to, "Think of the pets!"

(Image: Marijuana Leaf via Shutterstock)