Friday, November 12, 2010

Our Vagabond Minds

Be warned, I'm calling shenanigans on this one.
ScienceDaily (Nov. 11, 2010) — People spend 46.9 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they're doing, and this mind-wandering typically makes them unhappy. So says a study that used an iPhone web app to gather 250,000 data points on subjects' thoughts, feelings, and actions as they went about their lives.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Nature Beats Monsanto

In genetics there has been of late considerable interest in a phenomenon known as "horizontal gene transfer". This news release takes that concept to new heights.

ScienceDaily (Nov. 8, 2010) — Genetically modified plants can come about by natural means. A research group at Lund University in Sweden has described the details of such an event among higher plants. It is likely that the gene transfer was mediated by a parasite or a pathogen.
One of the consistent trends of late has been that the idea of "gene transfer" needs to widened because there is increasing evidence that genes are much mobile than we once believed. As it happens just last night I caught some snippets of a documentary about viruses. I was amazed to see that the HINI virus was composed of genes from a number of sources.

Even more amazing was that in a cell infected with two viruses the constant replication, with a relatively high error rate, allowed a mixing and matching of the two viral genomes. Now when you consider the extremely high replication rates that can occur you realise that viruses are emulating a very powerful mathematical strategy against our immune responses.

There was some uproar about the responses to the viral outbreaks in recent years. The strategy is based on the obvious fact when a viral outbreak occurs containment must be the first priority. In many cases we won't have time to determine just how dangerous the pathogen is. While immunology is making some great strides keep in mind that the task is almost herculean in its objectives. So be kind to immunologists, they are very important people.

In this news release the mode of gene transfer was quite odd. About 700,000 years ago part of a  chromosome was incorporated into the genome of another plant, the hypothesis this was probably mediated by a pathogen or sap sucking parasite. It has long been known that bacteria can share their genetic material, and over recent years the Weismann Barrier has been breached on numerous occasions, and we have a much better appreciation of just how mobile genes can be. In that light the diversity of Life is not so surprising.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Bright Side of the Fish Oil Component - DHA

This news release from ScienceDaily directly contradicts the findings of just a a few weeks ago. In my earlier post I was addressing research which indicated DHA can induce a "Th 1 type mediated inflammatory response". In relation to Stroke the conventional wisdom quite literally screams that such a response is the very last thing one would want to treat stroke yet now we have a report asserting remarkable efficacy of DHA in ameliorating damage from stroke.

ScienceDaily (2010-11-08) -- A new study shows that a component of fish oil is a powerful therapeutic agent that can protect brain tissue in a model of stroke, even when treatment is delayed by five hours. These findings not only target a new stroke treatment approach, but also provide vital information about the length of the therapeutic window.
For those so interested you can download the full article at this link. Bit of surprise, Springerlink usually doesn't give stuff away and I suspect this is a website error so be quick!

The findings of this study are remarkable:

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Black Man Wins Genius Award

A friend of mine sent me this clip of John Dabiri. Great clip. If you have ever wondered what is the point of studying jellyfish movement and other such seemingly obscure research watch this clip. For some background on Dabiri you can read the following links:

Microglia as Regulators of Neural Transmission

This study, freely available here(4.61MB), has some striking implications. These are listed below. The Science Daily news release can read here. Microglia are typically perceived as the immune cells of the CNS but this study builds on former studies all pointing to the possibility that our current understanding about neural transmission and memory is too constrained. This present study indicates:

  • Microglia regulate the fate the synapses
  • Microglia are constantly on the move and at a rapid pace.
  • Microglia may be regulating memory consolidation.
  • Our conceptual separation of immune processes and neural transmission is a fundamental error.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Business of Intelligence

A report from Science Daily highlights the problems of modern intelligence research:
ScienceDaily (2010-10-30) -- General intelligence is not enough. Practical intelligence can mean the difference between entrepreneurial success or failure. Psychologists have identified multiple kinds of intelligence, but a new study has found one -- practical intelligence -- to be an indicator of likely entrepreneurial success.
Charles Spearman created the concept of the "g factor", a general intelligence that underlies the styles of intelligence measured in iq tests. I'll stay away from the whole issue of iq tests, I have two professional friends with a behaviorist orientation and they seem to hate IQ concept with a vengeance. I think I know what they are getting at but I still maintain that IQ as a metric is fine but has a theoretical construct or as data for the same it is useless. The history of the debate about IQ is in itself instructive that when dealing with the question of intelligence we are still very much in the dark. At the end of this post I will reference a research item that demonstrates we may have absolutely no idea about the true basis of intelligence.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Dark Side of the Fish Oil component, DHA

This news release contains some very worrying information ...

"We found that mice developed deadly, late-stage colon cancer when given high doses of fish oil," she said. "More importantly, with the increased inflammation, it only took four weeks for the tumors to develop."

The results do not surprise me because I have long known that DHA can induce inflammation and in this study inflammation was very present in the gut tissue of the organisms. So for the last few years I have been warning people about the dangers of high fish oil intake, though I suspect most thought I was balmy for making such warnings. But hey, I actually read stuff! 

In relation to fish oil a large Australian study recently found no benefit for babes or mums who were taking DHA during pregnancy. No improvement in babe health and no reduction in post partum depression. What I don't understand is the empahsis on DHA, the emphasis should be on EPA because of its direct modulation of the prostaglandin pathways. 

I realise this is all very frustrating for health conscious people and can offer no easy solutions. The methodology I use to examine biomedical data is time and memory consuming, it takes a lot of work and a lot of memorisation. That is easy for me because I have time on my hands and a bloody good memory. For most people it simply is not possible to read the relevant literature and discern good health advice, especially in a world where there are so many "health experts" offering easy solutions! 

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Unquantified Placebo Effect

Upon viewing the Headline - No Standard for the Placebo? I had hoped for something more in line with my current interests. Alas no, the news item relates to how the placebo pill contents are rarely published and may have important bearing on experimental results. I was off on a completely different tangent, wondering about the variability of the placebo response and the implications this has for interpreting clinical trial results. Turns out it is rather variable.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

More Glory For Open Access Scientific Publishing

Open Access Publishing is where researchers can submit their results to an Open Access Journal, such as found on Biomedcentral, and is freely available to everyone. This study highlights how open access publishing is promoting increasing citation of studies. Makes sense, especially in an age where there is so much like research(wasteful duplication?). So why pay exorbitant fees for download a paper when you can go to an open access site to find similiar if not identical findings? It is not uncommon to look for a paper, land on a journal website, only to be advised you can download the paper for $30 USD for 7 days viewing. That is a ripoff.

Open access publishing began about a decade ago and is becoming increasingly popular. That, together with the rise of sites like Scientific Blogging and Science Blogs, allows the average person much greater access to scientific research and scientists. So I imagine the life of the science writer is becoming increasingly difficult.

The major reason open access publishing took off is because journal publishers were charging outrageous fees for publishing the work of scientists, even going so far on occasion as to charge scientists for publishing their research, and then making very fat profits from journal sales. So I imagine there are many publishers who hate these sites BiomedcentralHighwire Press, and PLOS.

Patrick Lockerby: October Arctic Ice Update

Patrick provides extensive analysis and nice graphics to keep us informed of Arctic Ice movements.

Product Warning - MMS and alkalinity

This product, MMS, touted as a cure of everything from AIDS to cancer, is dangerous. (The product warning can be found here.) It equates to eating bleach. Relates to the idea that alkalinity is the key to killing cancer. Which is odd because I've read abstracts showing how alkalinity definitely helps some cancers survive. But there is no point looking at scientifically derived information because as Deepak Chopra would say, "that is based on Newtonian Mechanics, we're into Quantum Healing now". High school chemistry is sufficient, you don't have to be Quantumy to deal with this.

If your pH ranges are skewing there is something wrong with your diet. If you have to keep taking something to restore your pH values then you are potentially masking a serious illness. It may even be the case that your body is shifting the pH towards more acidic or alkaline for a specific reason. pH values may well vary throughout the day. For example, one study on retina found pH values ranging from 7.0 - 7.8. This circadian dependent shifting of pH values is entirely consistent with circadian dynamics in general. Life abhors stillness, our bodies and cells are typically in constant flux. It is as if it is easier to maintain a dynamic system that it is cycling through various phases rather than static. Perhaps not so surprising when you have feedback loops that directly impinge on other feedback loops. In that scenario perhaps it is impossible to obtain a "steady state". On the other hand, do "steady states" ever exist? Now if you'll excuse me, Bodhidharma is seeking my advice regarding a severed finger ... . 

Monday, October 18, 2010

Dancing at the End of Time

"If you're standing on thin ice you may as well dance."

Steven Cummings, Australian Singer

You have to wonder about the unbounded optimism of our political leaders. At present there is yet another big meeting, this time in Japan, to try and find strategies to prevent the further transformation of the environment. Dreamers, silly little dreamers. Too late, that boat has sailed and was last seen wallowing in the horse latitudes.

Eco transformation is happening now. Even by Greenie logic it must be conceded that we have introduced so much novelty into the "web of life" that we must have irretrievably perturbed the "balance of nature" and so have inexorably set in train processes which will entail a eco-transformation that we will neither be able to predict or control.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

A Remarkable Anti-Inflammatory diet

You can download the press release here. This is a startlingly good result, so good I want to see it followed up. It could be too good to be true or wonderful.

The results in brief ...

The results show that the food portfolio significantly reduced inflammation. Furthermore, LDL-cholesterol was reduced by 33%, blood triglycerides by 14%, blood pressure by 8 % and a thrombotic risk factor by 26 %. In addition, the subjects’ cognitive functions were improved after the food portfolio compared with the reference food.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Enjoy Airline Food - Wear Ear Plugs

This news item from Physorg throws some light on the complexity of tasting. We might think it is just about taste buds and smell. Think again, our senses are not as separate as we are inclined to believe.

Professor Holick on Vitamin D

This news link from Physorg has an interview with the man who kept promoting vitamin D when everyone else thought the sun was enough.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Price of Freedom


“This is an extraordinary and alarming result,” said Busby, a professor of molecular biosciences at the University of Ulster and director of scientific research for Green Audit, an independent environmental research group. “To produce an effect like this, some very major mutagenic exposure must have occurred in 2004 when the attacks happened. We need urgently to find out what the agent was. Although many suspect uranium, we cannot be certain without further research and independent analysis of samples from the area.”
Busby told an Italian television news station, RAI 24, that the “extraordinary” increase in radiation-related maladies in Fallujah is higher than that found in the populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the US atomic strikes of 1945. “My guess is that this was caused by depleted uranium,” he said. “They must be connected.”

Cannabis, Schizophrenia, Cognition, and Autoimmunity

When I was writing up the earlier piece last night I came across some searches from Norml, the rabidly pro marijuana organisation. The search page had the extract - schizophrenics have improved cognition if smoking pot. At the time I dismissed it but today I realised I was being silly, there is a very good neuroimmunological explanation for why cannabinoids can be helping schizophrenics.

"Spontaneous recovery" in schizophrenia

I just found this article from the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 2007. This statement is striking ...

Patients with schizophrenia who had removed themselves or been removed from antipsychotic medications showed significantly better global functioning and outcome than those still being treated with antipsychotics. Detailed analyses of those patients with schizophrenia on antipsychotic medications versus those not on medications at the 15-year follow-ups also were conducted. These analyses indicated that in addition to the significant differences in global functioning between these groups, 19 of the 23 schizophrenia patients (83%) with uniformly poor outcome at the 15-year follow-ups were on antipsychotic medications.
Not good, not at all. Lots of issues involved here, especially that the possibility that those who go off medication did not have such a severe condition. Much more worryingly though is that those on medication generally declined in function, whereas those on medication had a much greater chance of improvement.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Do Neuroleptics Increase an Aberrant Neurodegenerative Autoimmune Response?

Long, 2250 words, difficult, give yourself a chance. My conclusion is that the current approach to treating schizophrenia could very well be inducing neurodegeneration through an autoimmune mediated pathology. I examine this from the perspective of heat shock proteins, autoimmunity, and neuroimmunology. This raises very serious questions about the current emphasis on "pre treating" so called "pre-psychotic" individuals.

This recent news item caught my interest because it relates to a set of immune cells that play a cardinal role in autoimmunity and cancer prevention. The news item addresses gamma delta T cells, a set of T cells that respond to one of the most abundantly expressed stress proteins in our body, heat shock protein 60. This protein is very strongly associated with autoimmunity. While autoimmunity is typically associated with pathology it plays a fundamental role in our health by eliminating dangerous cells that could become cancerous or induce the release inflammatory mediators that initiate tissue damage.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Good News on Saturated Fat

Must be that time of year when all the long held myths concerning health and nutrition are held up for scrutiny. About time, many people believe that saturated fat is bad. That is bollocks. You need saturated fat. This obsession with the terror of saturated fat is what drove many people to avoid eggs and dairy products. This in spite of good literature showing that eggs are an excellent food and FULL FAT dairy is good for you, albeit keeping in mind total fat intake and the balance of fatty acid intake.

Thus, from the news article ...
A recent meta-analysis of epidemiological and intervention studies of milk fat conducted by Peter Elwood, DSc, MD, FRCP, FFPHM, DUniv, Hon DSc, Honorary Professor at the School of Medicine, Cardiff University, found that milk and dairy consumption actually was associated with a decrease in CVD risk.
The above has been known for years. What many people don't realise is that dairy products contain a very beneficial fatty acid - conjugated linoleic acid.

Cannabis and Memory Loss

This finding from the British Journal of Psychiatry is very consistent with the known pharmacology of THC. It is found that the higher the THC content, the greater the memory loss. Modern breeds of marijuana undoubtedly have higher THC content, though this increase is greatly exaggerated by the authorities.

This modern change in the ratios of THC to CBD probably explains the rise in cannabis associated psychosis. This recent research piece, a nice piece of work, highlights the differing roles.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Blowing up Cancer Cells

Remarkably creative and clever approach to attacking cancer ...

In the zebra-fish study, Lapotko and his collaborators at Rice directed antibody-tagged gold nanoparticles into the implanted cancer cells. A short laser pulse overheated the surface of the nanoparticles and evaporated a very thin volume of the surrounding medium to create small vapor bubbles that expanded and collapsed within nanoseconds; this left cells undamaged but generated a strong optical scattering signal that was bright enough to detect a single cancer cell.
A second, stronger pulse generated larger nanobubbles that exploded (or, as the researchers called it, "mechanically ablated") the target cell without damaging surrounding tissue in the zebra fish. Scattering of the laser light by the second "killer" bubble confirmed the cellular destruction.

Friday, September 24, 2010

A Natural Response to Alzheimer's Disease

It was only a few years ago that most believed amyloid plaques and protein tangles could not be removed from the nervous system. We now know better and recent findings have important implications for our cerebral health. Over recent years there have been a number of studies highlighting that in contradiction to another once well established opinion, age associated cognitive impairment is not inevitable and there exist a wide range of strategies to ameliorate cognitive decline with aging. Achieving that goal, and in these days that is a realistic goal, is no easy task. It requires a variety of strategies but the long term pay offs are potentially enormous. This possibility first occurred to me on yet another afternoon when I had the energy of a bamboo deprived panda, I was flicking through TV stations and caught a glimpse of an interview with BF Skinner. He related that at his age, 85, he felt he was still going work but he stressed that throughout his life he had been very careful about his health. There is a very important for those who wish to live long and prosper: if that truly is your goal you had better start living towards that goal before you are 35 years old.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Patrick Lockerby: Arctic Ice Update

Every month or so Patrick provides update on the ice dynamics in the Arctic. Here is the latest report. Thanks Patrick!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Daleks Thwarted by a Call Centre


Epigenetics and PTSD

This news release from Science Daily highlights yet another epigenetic study that raises difficult questions about our understanding of natural selection. There is a long, fascinating, and in some ways sad history about epigenetics. It all began with the Australian immunologist Ted Steele.

Does the Impact of Psychological Trauma Cross Generations?

It has been assumed that these trans-generational effects reflected the impact of PTSD upon the parent-child relationship rather than a trait passed biologically from parent to child. 
However, Dr. Isabelle Mansuy and colleagues provide new evidence in the current issue of Biological Psychiatry that some aspects of the impact of trauma cross generations and are associated with epigenetic changes, i.e., the regulation of the pattern of gene expression, without changing the DNA sequence

The Australian immunologist Ted Steele, in the 1970's, was the first to strongly argue for a Lamarckian style of inheritance. I read his book long ago, Lamarck's Signature, and put a question mark over it, waiting for studies. Ted Steele was treated like a pariah by the scientific community. Not surprising, science does have its stories of the intellectually adventurous being burnt alive. A friend of mine once noted that Aussies tend towards the iconoclastic type. (Can we find an epigenetic trait for that Frank!?). Ted Steele, and that wonderfully cynical and insightful Aus philosopher, Dave Stove, are excellent examples of that iconoclastic motif. Dave Stove is one of those few precious philosophers who can call out bullshit with remarkable clarity. For example, in regard to the Selfish Gene hypothesis, one of the dumbest ways you can ever perceive genetics, Stove writes: if genes were that selfish incest would be all the rage. So FU Dawkins, I always knew you were wrong and now everyone does. But I digress ...

Epigenetics Nutshell: The concept refers to changes in gene transcription mediated by the the attachment of methyl and\or acetyl groups to the proteins which surrounds genes (chromatin, heterochromatin) and impact on the rate of gene transcription.

Ted Steele's fight cost him his career, he was even subject to disciplinary proceedings which were later thrown out on appeal. In science rocking the boat can have you tossed overboard. He crossed a sacred barrier, the Weismann Barrier. This refers to the long held view that irrespective of what happens to the body(soma), the germ line cells remain unaffected. We can now regard that as unmitigated bollocks.

There are deep and difficult questions surrounding epigenetics. This study highlights one such problem. For it is unimaginable how epigenetic changes could have the precision suggested in this article. The same problem is suggested in relation to epigenetic findings on diabetes, that if your grandparents went through a noticeable famine your diabetes risk was raised. This is quite fascinating, especially when you consider that India is the diabetes capital of the world and aborigines also have extraordinarily high rates of diabetes. How's that for an unintended consequence of being well fed! So even if we looked for gene changes the answer may be masked, what we need to also look for is epigenetic changes. These findings and many like findings have profound implications for our understanding of evolution. It is going to be another revolution and calls into question all those models of gene variation and natural selection dynamics.

BTW, a study released a few months ago suggested that congenital mental retardation can occur not through changes in the genes but in epigenetic changes.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Follow Patrick Lockerby on Scientific Blogging

Hats off to Richard Lockerby for his continued efforts to bring the science of climate change to the wider public. His recent post, Mad 2.0, illustrates the urgent need for the wider public to become much more informed about the science of climate change. Follow his posts because Patrick has an excellent grasp of the problem and the need for urgent change.

Behaviorism and Culture

A friend of mine in the USA sent me this long (30min) and fascinating video which highlights the development of a new perspective on cultural analysis that is based on ideas drawn from behavioral analysis. This is a seminal approach and will take many years if not decades to be explored. There are some interesting ideas being explored here, the talk introduces these ideas but you'll need to track down the relevant research to obtain a larger picture. Great stuff, pleasing to see that there is at least someone out there trying to develop a novel approach to understanding cultural dynamics.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Monkey Economics

Primate Economics

Longevity(Exceptional) - the genes have it

This recent press release has caused a world wide stir, with critics pointing out flaws in the analyses, though with the caveat that the identified flaws did not disprove the conclusions but raised questions that needed further investigation. In that link the researcher states his own research also identifies 150 specific markers in the exceptionally long lived. This more critical analysis though suggests the whole methodological approach is up the creek with one scientist quoted as saying the paper should not have been published because all the conclusions are suspect. The question is: Do we now know enough to enable people to realistically aim at extending their healthy lifespan? Not with studies like the above, but when the current centenarians were born people were only just becoming interested in the work of the quiet monk, Gregor Mendel, who pioneered modern genetics. Today we know so much more, and there is sufficient information to suggest it is possible to increase our lifespan and avoid illness. It is still a numbers game but we can play with the odds. First, some more of these genetic studies ... .

Monday, August 9, 2010

Diabetes Mediated by Pollution

This news release reminded me of this prior research which prompted me to think about this research. Then I found this and  this and this and this  and this which of course led to the obvious hypothesis being thus  and thus (full text available at link)all of which reminded of this recent research news wherein they still fail to recognise the obvious hypothesis. Take note from the last reference:
One striking observation is that obese persons that do not have elevated POPs are not at elevated risk of diabetes, suggesting that the POPs rather than the obesity per se is responsible for the association.
At a personal level I find this quite incredible because several years ago I wrote up a report for an environmental group wherein I argued that the compounds found in many electronic components were known to be toxic and needed to be safely disposed of instead of being put in landfill. The Queensland Environmental Protection Agency laughed at my report. Idiots, it was the obvious hypothesis back then, if only because several countries had already passed legislation to address the issue.

All that is a friggin disaster.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

2- Enriched environment, stress, inhibits cancer?

In a previous post I mentioned the new research showing how an enriched environment can markedly impede the development of cancer. This research, the abstract of which is available here. (This research is concordant with research I earlier addressed, you can read it here.)The results of this current research indicate that a key variable is leptin. Leptin is a hormone released by fat cells(and other cells) that suppresses appetite. When writing up that previous post I was in a hurry so did not have time to think about it. As I driving over to a friend's place I had a petit epiphany, realising that there could very well be a linkage between the findings of this study and another post I put up on the same day that indicated regular coffee consumption is associated with cancer reduction. The typical assumption is that coffee confers this protection because it is extremely high in antioxidants, but together with the above research we can see another way in which coffee exerts its anti-cancer effects. There are some important lessons here, both in relation to the dangers of extrapolation when dealing with complex adaptive systems and the need to constantly re-evaluate our assumptions. I know, whilst thinking about this during the week I made some silly logical errors.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

bad science
Dr. Ben Goldacre
Fourth Estate - London, 2008
Website: Bad Science

Purpose of this text: to inform the general public about how to better understand modern biomedical news and in particular health related news. He is a British doctor and keeps his focus on the British scene but his lessons are universal and badly needed. In an earlier post  I  made some comments on the chapter in this text "Professor Patrick Holford".

This is a very important book. If you have never read a text on how to read and understand biomedical literature yet read biomedical literature you should read this text.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Professor Patrick Holford - Nutrition Nonsense

The other day I picked up this text and late last night decided to read the chapter Professor Patrick Holford because I read a book of his some years ago. Ben Goldacre is a British doctor who writes regularly for the Guardian and has taken up the challenge of addressing all the kookiness out there in relation to health advice. Good on him, high time the medical profession put some effort into attacking the multitude of spurious nutrition advice out there. I may provide a full review of "Bad Science" later but for now I will focus on this Patrick Holford character.

Coffee and Cancer

Coffee used to be regarded as a dangerous substance. The research is now clearly pointing out that coffee can confer a great many benefits. This video from Healthday puts forward the results of some surprising research showing that regular coffee consumption is protective against a range of cancers.

Enriched environment, stress, inhibits cancer?

This report from the Ohio State University Medical Center presents some challenging ideas in relation to stress and cancer. It has been assumed that cancer patients should avoid stress, this advice being predicated on the common presumption that any stress suppresses the immune response. That idea is not correct, it is sustained stress that inhibits the immune response, but mild intermittent stress can have a positive effect on the immune response. I have previously addressed this issue in this post. This recent research again highlights the complexity of immune responses and how we still have much to learn.

For an excellent overview of their research these neuroscientists have provided a good video which you can view below. It is great to see scientists using these resources to communicate their findings to the public. We are witnessing a revolution in the dissemination of scientific information.

I have some other ideas I wish to follow up with this study so I may edit this post later. For now though, read the news article above and watch the video. Good stuff.

The Universe: A Biography

The Universe: A Biography

John Gribbin
Allen Lane, 2006


Cosmos Review
New Statesman Review

John Gribbin is an astrophysicist with an uncanny ability to communicate his love for cosmology in an accessible and entertaining manner. If you are not familiar with cosmology then this book is an excellent starting point. Unlike Re-inventing Gravity which addresses the specific issue of gravity and goes into some technical detail, this text takes you along for the ride in a non-technical explanation of cosmology. If you are not familiar with the subject matter, it is better to start with this text before moving on to Re-inventing Gravity.

The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century

The Modern Mind: An intellectual history of the 20th Century
Peter Watson
Perennial, London, 2001


Wiki entry on the author

This work is a remarkable scholarly achievement. The author admits he cannot cover in detail all the relevant ideas of the last century yet he does an excellent job in providing the reader with a sweeping panorama of 20th century thought.

The writing is lucid and entertaining, though at times I found some of the material covered tedious. That is to be expected, a coverage of this extent is bound to leave the individual reader with pages tedious to read. That is not the author's fault, it is just a function of human behavior. This is a valulable text, one that should be read in its entirety and then kept handy as a reference source.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Intelligent Universe by James Gardner

I have long toyed with the idea that intelligence is embedded in the universe, it is not an emergent property but an intrinsic property. Materialists will resile at that idea but they can eat my shorts. As I like to say, how is it that in this materialist universe our most powerful tools are ideas?

I have long been sceptical of the strict materialist position because I have always found the probabilities of life emerging, let alone the marvellous complexity and diversity of life, as being so improbable that Hoyle's famous comment about life arising by chance being akin to a hurricane going through a junkyard and creating an aircraft in the process to be a reasonable argument. There is an important caveat here and it is this: when confronted with mysteries don't embrace ghosts to deal with the mystery. Acknowledge the mystery but don't second guess it.

Re inventing Gravity: a Physicist Goes Beyond Einstein

Physics is something I read for fun because I'm too ignorant to analyse it. I love it though, the research is fascinating and hats off to the physicists who labor so hard and long to uncover the mysteries of the universe.

For a preview of this work you can refer to this website of Prof Moffat.

Full credit to John Moffat for presenting very complex arguments in a highly accessible literary style that kept me going at a cracking pace. The man is not only a brilliant intellectual but an excellent communicator. If you are not familiar with the issues concerning gravity you will find this text difficult but if you are someone like myself who has held a life long fascination with physics and cosmology you'll find this text to be a hoot of a read.

Butterflys and Brains

Can you believe that your brain is intrinsically unreliable? I can't, I implicitly trust it. I have no choice. In this news release they address one of the great mysteries of nervous function: is "noise" a byproduct of nervous function or does it serve some fundamental purpose?

I used to become very annoyed at people who likened brains to complicated computers. The analogy is so stupid it is hardly worthy of serious consideration yet Artificial Intelligence bods adopted it as a working assumption. They should stick to designing computer games because I'm bored with ones I've got.

As an "information processing" device, and I have great difficulty with that phrase but I won't go there, the brain represents a formidable challenge in understanding its function. This is because......

Inhibition and Depression: GABA a hidden player?

Initially I was pleased to see this news release because it appeared concordant with my earlier post wherein I explored the angle of depression and arousal. Upon further reflection I realise there are some serious problems with the conclusions put forward in the news item.

Nonetheless this study represents a novel approach to the issue of depression. What they did was create a mouse with a defect in GABA A receptors. GABA A receptors are key receptors in inhibition. GABA is the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in nervous function and is strongly implicated in the etiology of epilepsy. Many drugs for epilepsy aim to increase GABA levels, though there is some recent research which suggest astrocyte release of glutamate may also be implicated in the condition. In relation to depression and arousal though the loss of GABA suggests the potential for excessive arousal. Most anxiety drugs also target GABA. Interestingly, depression and anxiety are often co-morbidities so perhaps GABA does play a role.

The problem I have with this study though is that knock out gene studies are very crude instruments. There is value in such studies but we need to be very careful in drawing too many conclusions from such studies. Why? Because we know next to zilch about how nervous systems function as a whole, so when we introduce such a gross morphological deficit there are potentially any number of possible reasons for the observed effects. So we must rely on the old scientific demand: more research is required.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Oils Aint Oils: EPA for Depression

One of the more remarkable features about depression is the number of therapies that have proved beneficial. I explored that issue in this post. This latest study highlights the importance of prostaglandin regulation in depression. This latest study, the largest ever trial on omega 3 fats in treating depression, demonstrates a careful delineation that helps clarify the role of omega 3's in treating depression. The nutshell is this: they focused on EPA, typically at 120mg in your fish oil tablets, and boosted that intake to a big 1000mg per day. That's a lot but given the role of EPA in regulating prostaglandin pathways makes good sense.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Beatroot Juice for Blood Pressure?

Not really sure that eating lots of nitrates to control blood pressure is a good idea. As the news item states the nitrates are converted to nitric oxide, which is very important in inducing relaxation of the blood vessel muscles, thereby reducing blood pressure. There are 3 major enzymes for producing nitric oxide, iNOS,nNOS,eNOS. i=inducible, typically associated with inflammatory events, n=neuronal, nitric oxide being very important for neural transmission, 3=endlothelial NOS, that which helps the blood vessels relax. Nitric oxide concentrations are tightly regulated and with good reason: it is a potent free radical. Nitrates are a substrate for boosting nitric oxide, perhaps generally, so while it may help with blood pressure it may also upset nitric oxide regulation, induce inflammation, cause free radical damage, and over activate the immune responses, thereby setting the stage for atherosclerosis ... . I suspect it would be better to focus on arginine intake(esp. vs. lysine?) and the let the body work it out. The effect in the below study was within 24 hours, which suggests a strong response. All the more reason to worry.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Climate Change, Ecological Novelty, This is not the Age of Aquarius

Generally I prefer to stay away from debates about climate change. I try to perceive the issue in an ecological setting rather than some argument what is going to happen in 50 years if we don't or do do A or B. I have little confidence in our ability to predict the future but I often get the impression that arguments from sceptics and advocates appear predicated on the idea we can make reasonable predictions about future outcomes with sufficient degrees of confidence so as to justify actions A or B. Logically speaking we can't have such confidence, practically speaking if we try we learn something. We might even learn something useful but that's a long shot.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Can Diet Reverse Alzheimers?

Hope springs eternal, except when you're dead. (With no Arrow of Time is one eternally dead or eternally alive? Or am I in a box and if God happens to look inside will my fate then be decided? God, don't look!) On the internet there is a cure and conspiracy for everything. Such is the nature of human cognition, a ramshackle attack on reality that through brute force manages to get enough things right amidst the a multitude of errors and disasters. I read Camus in another life and I really must try to start forgetting him.
If the only significant history of human thought were to be written, it would have to be the history of its successive regrets and its impotences.
The Myth of Sisyphus, page 24
I seriously doubt there can ever be a cure of Alzheimers. (At the end of this post though I do suggest one idea that is worthy of serious consideration.) By the time diagnosis is made the damage tends to be extensive. Take Parkinsons Disease as an example, the individual can lose up to 60% of the neurons in the substantia nigra before symptoms arise. In dementias generally, by time of diagnosis a vicious physiological cycle of destruction has become established and at present there is no obvious solution to that problem. There is an increasingly detailed understanding of these processes and in time it will be possible for individuals to institute strategies that can seriously arrest the progression of even advanced dementia; though at that stage of dementia I'd rather take a bullet than pills. Such treatment expectations however are for another generation.

In our time, studies like this point to strategies that *may* help us. All things considered, it will not be a matter of single strategies or golden elixirs, but rather a lifestyle that incorporates a variety of strategies to minimise the risk of dementia.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Can we all Possess Savant Like Skills?

My friend in New York sent me a link addressing the work of Alan Snyder who for many years has been arguing that within all of us reside hidden talents that can be unmasked through inhibiting certain regions of the brain. He goes so far as to state that this ability can constitute genius, more on that latter.  While I have a number of problems with the various assumptions embedded in the ideas of Snyder and his team I also acknowledge that most laypeople operate from the same assumptions and as do many professionals. Nonetheless the perspective of Snyder may have utility and so in the spirit of "News ideas are like seedlings, easily trampled", let's play the game and see what we can learn ...

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Peter Carey You Pretentious Dumbass

Who are these dinosaurs who think they can determine the true measure of intelligence? At the Sydney Writers' Festival one of Australia's most prominent "literary novelists", Peter Carey, whines about how we are turning into a nation of idiots. As regards to the purported dumbing down of our culture I addressed that in this post. Peter Carey might want to learn something about the vagaries of statistical analyses the douchebag. He might also wish to remember that the earliest recorded instance of someone complaining about the younger generation goes back to the Assyrians.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

New Targets for Anti-Depressants?

This post is very long (3850 words) and very difficult. It is a preliminary investigation of the idea that depression arises from chronic sustained arousal leading to amine depletion and various other physiological changes.

This news release from Science Daily highlights a new pharmacological approach to treating depression. The nutshell is this: there is a class of proteins in our brains called RGS proteins which inhibit the signalling of various neurotransmitters. By manipulating the RGS protein that inhibits serotonin signalling we can treat depression. Most current anti-depressant drugs attempt to increase the levels of serotonin or norepinephrine. Unfortunately there are now some studies emerging which indicate these current anti-depressants can increase the risk to develop a range of disorders, from kidney problems to cataracts. Generally the risk profiles are low but given the very widespread use of anti-depressants it could constitute a considerable public health cost. Which raises an interesting question: if we place our faith in these statistical analyses then is the government entitled to extract an "pharmaceutical externality tax" to address the health risks and subsequent costs associated with drug side effectss? Yeah, like that'll ever happen. We'll develop a new class of anti-depressants, and wait 30 years before we know about the associated risks ... .

My unalloyed cynicism aside, what caught my interest about this research is the reference to RGS proteins. It reminded me I read in 1999:

Upregulation of RGS7 may contribute to tumor necrosis factor-induced changes in central nervous function

Friday, May 28, 2010

Immune Driven Psychopathology in Mice?

It all began way back in the 19th century. "Sickness Behavior" was observed in humans and farm animals. As that Wiki article goes on to explain, there are some interesting similarities between sickness behavior and depression. This has been an active area of research for many years now. One key article is this one from 2003. This strange and puzzling linkage between the nervous systems and immune systems has been evidenced by the following:
  • Shizophrenia is associated with differing rates of cancer and autoimmune disease from others.
  • Epileptics also have altered immunological responses, this possibly driven by hippocampal - fornix - PVN networks(guess).
  • Traumatic brain injury can induce a variety of physiological changes, from altered melatonin production to variations in circadian cortisol secretion. 
This is going to be difficult ...

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Why Doesn't the Immune System Target Tumours?

Recently some people told me about how an Italian cardiologist is making a big fuss out of the fact that when he removes a tumour he finds fungal infections around it, the implication being the fungal infection is causing the tumour. Classic case of mis-attribution of cause. Despite the claims of the news article and\or researchers, this is not news. By way of example, look at the following graphic which is drawn from this research piece.
The article was published in November 2007. Yes, scientists love to claim they were the first to make the discovery! If you scroll down the link above you can download a powerpoint presentation pertaining to this issue. To gain some insight into why this finding is so important, read on.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Complexity in Biology: an Epistemological Nightmare

Given the massive amount of research in biomedicine it is tempting to think that we are now in the process of completing the picture of biological processes and just need to keep on moving forward. I wish, a more sober conclusion is that ongoing research into the particulars of biological processes and is going to leave us further bewildered. Fortunately there are some researchers who are strenuously attempting to create models of biological processes This particular approach offers considerable hope because it suggests that we do not need to understand in detail all the relevant processes in a biological function. You can read the Science Daily News item here. The authors even go so far as to state:

 In particular, these findings suggest not only that one may not be able to understand individual elementary reactions from macroscopic observations, but also that such an understanding may be unnecessary.
For myself at least this is very promising because I have long held the view that while the research into the individual elements involved in biological processes is very important a more useful understanding will never arrive simply through more "butterfly collecting" but through the development of models that do not require a taking into account of all these individual agents. To understand why I have long held this view please read on.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Cancer and Cellular Connections

Days of strange co-incidences. Today a friend in the USA sent me a fascinating little article from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Basically the story goes like this:

Cancer cells have very strong "pulling power", they tightly bind together. This has serious therapeutic implications which be latter addressed. What struck me as so odd about this research was just yesterday I read how immune cells also rely on pulling power to ensnare and devour dangerous cells.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

History of Madness - Michel Foucault

History of Madness

Michel Foucault



At the start of this text is a recommendation by R. D. Laing, a founder of the anti-psychiatry school. Laing states:

"... brilliantly written, intellectually rigourous, and with a thesis that thoroughly shelves the assumptions of traditional psychiatry."

As I will later illustrate, Mr. Laing is being somewhat exuberant in his praise. Talking of exuberance, the introduction carries this quote from Georges Dum├ęzil: "Foucault's intelligence literally knows no bounds."

Eat Watermelon and save your heart

Watermelon is good for the heart? Yes, and it is also is being touted by some as a "natural viagra". These two issues are inter-related and will be addressed later in the post. This post was prompted by a news item on the BBC website which found that low fat, low carb, and mediterranean diets can reduce the size of plaques in our arteries. The effect was small, only a 5% volume reduction and probably of little value to those with serious coronary plague, at least in the short term. Keep in mind that over the long term that ongoing 5% reduction, if sustained over many years, could be critical in preventing a heart attack.

Have a look at the image on the left. It shows how plague can build up to such high levels it can block the artery and induce occlusive strokes or a heart attack. The typical advice we receive is that we must be carefully control our diet, exercise regularly, and eat heart healthy foods. What is not often mentioned directly relates to benefits of watermelon and other foods that provide a substrate which is essential to maintaining cardiovascular health.

Air Power by Stephen Budiansky

Air Power: From Kitty Hawk to Gulf War 11: A History of the People, Ideas and Machines that Transformed War in the Century of Flight

Stephen Budiansky

Viking, an imprint of Penquin Books


This is a comprehensive text that deals with Air Power in a very informative and entertaining way. The author has been thorough in his research and the text has extensive footnotes and a large bibliography. Despite the author moving into some very technical areas he keeps the reader entertained with a lucid writing style and that is well paced and ideally suited to the subject matter.

One of the more striking themes of the book is how Budiansky looks at what was expected of air power and how often those expectations failed. The mass civilian bombings were expected to quickly bring Germany to its knees, to completely demoralise the populace in the face of such overwhelming destruction of their cities and homes. Never happened. Time and again military planners over estimated the capacity of air power to make decisive blows against the enemy.

That is not to say that air power has been largely ineffectual but rather that air power, while vital in war since WW2, is not a decisive factor in winning war. As an old friend of mine who was in the army used to say: you can't win a war from the air.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Inflammation and Alzheimers

For a long time it was believed that inflammation played a critical role in the development of Alzheimer's. This can be true but needs to be carefully qualified because as the below abstract demonstrates "massive gliosis" induced by interleukin 6 actually prevented amyloid deposition. Look at the gliosis link for the wikipedia entry, it is a good example of when not to trust Wiki. Wiki is very useful for a quick overview of relatively mundane and simple concepts but can be very misleading when dealing with cutting edge research. In the abstract overleaf the bods found that inducing gliosis, which is typically associated with inflammation, is actually leading to clearance of amyloid. Clearance of amyloid is the great interest in current Alzheimer's research and this for the simple reason that amyloid aggregation appears to be a key driving factor in Alzheimer's disease. As usual, with more research, what once looked obvious becomes blurred. Inflammation is found in many pathologies but it is a mistake to assume that inflammation is the cause of that pathology. As this study indicates it can play a vital protective role.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Relative Risk and the Chernobyl Incident

Have a look at the abstract further down. It highlights something that we tend to ignore. We think that something like Chernobyl should have massive consequences but as indicated in studies on Nagasaki and Hiroshima mortality from radiation exposure was surprisingly low; excepting of course those in the immediate blast experience. What this study does highlight though is that even obesity and passive smoking is up there with radiation in terms of public health risk. I have long had concerns about the continuing polluting of our environment and the increasing amounts of artificial chemicals we are exposed too. These risks are "silent risks" in that they receive little attention but collectively these risks are going to cost individuals and governments a great deal of money.

Diet and Longevity

A quick one. This report came up on Science Daily.
The study found that a complex dietary supplement powerfully offsets this key symptom of ageing in old mice by increasing the activity of the cellular furnaces that supply energy -- or mitochondria -- and by reducing emissions from these furnaces -- or free radicals -- that are thought to be the basic cause of ageing itself. The abstract follows.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Cancer, Diet, and Angiogenesis

Over the years there have been a multitude of reports on the anti-cancer properties of various foods. There is valuable truth in these reports and it does pay to adopt your diet so as to include a variety of these foods into your lifestyle. For example, it has long been known that a carotenoid found in tomatoes, lycopene, appears to confer protection against prostate cancer. Watermelon also contains good amounts of this carotenoid. However when eating tomatoes at least you really need to cook the tomatoes as this maximises the absorption of lycopene. This study highlights an unusual trend that is appearing in the data. As they state:

"The intake of isolated lycopene does not protect from the development of PCA."

Another Study on Mercury in Fish

This news release from reports that some of the top Tuna brands sold in the USA contain levels of mercury that contravene the EPA standards. Mercury levels in some fish species have been rising for decades, the levels are now so high that pregnant women are advised to be very careful in the type of fish they consume. The irony of this is that studies done in Britain have indicated that the consumption of fish and\or fish oil  supplements results in measurable improvements in the cerebral function of their children. We must stop poisoning the planet.

Open Systems and Rapid Change - Climate on the edge

This article highlights a major problem with all modelling of climate data. When confronted with an open system like the climate there is an inherent unpredictability that is non-computable. That is, we can never fully anticipate the effects of human behavior upon the climate. We can make reasonable assumptions about what to expect but we never with the certainty we desire. This is becoming all the more important because the failure of Copenhagen to produce binding commitments means that most nations will continue to emit Greenhouse Gases at rates which are guaranteed to further perturb climate dynamics in ways which we can never fully anticipate.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Marijuana Protective Against Alzheimers - Null Result

The wider community is typically unaware of the positive aspects emerging from cannabinoid research. The headline that reports this science news is an example of why that occurs, a matter I will address later in this post. For now I'll focus on this piece of research and other research into the medical use of cannabinoids.

Complexity and Co-operation

Lynn Marguilis was the bod who championed the idea that mitochondria were originally a cell that took up residence inside other cells. Being a woman she had to work extra hard to make her argument stick. The story is that as the early earth environment became more oxygen rich from all those plant like cells absorbing CO2 and emitting O2, cells mutated to take advantage of the considerable energy potential in using oxygen. Not sure, I think primarily because of its electron sharing and transport potential. As one bod quipped: Life is just an electron looking for a home. My iconoclastic propensity led me to be very suspicious of the Theory of Evolution but not the fact of evolution. This naturally left me in a difficult position. I couldn't tolerate this "given enough time x will mutate to y" jazz because was a huge assumption that was not justified on the current data. In the last decade however that assumption is increasingly finding support from primary data.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Dumbest Generation Ever?

Once again someone is asserting that the upcoming generation will bring about the downfall of civilisation. To the best of my knowledge this refrain has been occurring since time immemorial. In this case the author is arguing that the internet age is breeding a generation of idiots. What the author fails to acknowledge is that our generation created the culture that has turned the upcoming generation away from learning about the world in general. There is no doubt education standards have markedly declined in recent decades but laying the blame at the current generation is a wonderful exercise in blame shifting. The problem lies not with THEM but US.

Friday, January 29, 2010

A Little Overweight - don't sweat it.

Another study challenging the conventional wisdom regarding nutrition and health. 

I've previously mentioned my distrust of the BMI metric. This study is consistent with other recent studies. The medical profession needs a huge kick up the ass because they rely too much on meta analyses which appear oh so authoritative but if you know how these studies are done you realise there is plenty of fudge room. Too many numbers and not enough thinking. In the last week there were also studies claiming that having fat on the thighs and hips may actually be good for you and that too many antioxidants may be bad for you. Then there was that continual tirade against the Aitken's diet but if you looked at the data it was perfectly clear that there can be value in this diet, though I still have concerns about the continual adherence to such a diet. Another study released this week found that a low carb diet decreased blood pressure, going against all conventional advice. And just today I read a doctor who stated that even the linkage between saturated fat and heart disease is up for grabs. Not to mention now numerous studies suggesting pill popping is largely a waste of time.