Archive for January, 2007

Jan 31 2007

Train your Brain

While trolling science news sites for topics for my blog or podcast, sometimes the ads are more fruitful. Today I saw an ad for an iMusic site, which makes the following claims:

“Fact 1: Your brain’s performance levels and your overall mental abilities are largely governed by your state of mind, which is determined by your brainwaves.
Fact 2: Science has uncovered which brainwaves create peak performance mental states for learning, thinking, studying & virtually every mental task.
Fact3: Listening to iMusic, an advanced acoustic technology, automatically dials your brain waves into a peak performance state for any situation or environment.”

This is utter rubbish, but it is very popular rubbish. It’s slick marketing because it uses lots of scientific sounding terminology and it promises to improve you effortlessly. It follows a common theme in such misleading marketing, playing off the notion (wish, really) that modern science can magically and effortlessly make our lives better. Sometimes this is true. I love my microwave and my iPod. So why can’t I make myself smarter just by listening to music?
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Jan 30 2007

New Cancer Cure?

Yesterday Jeff asked:

“I just read a story about a new drug that apparently cures most types of cancers. The problem is that it is not patented so no drug company will pay for the trials. It just sounds too good to be true. Here is the link.”

There has been a media flurry surrounding this new study by lead author Dr. Evangelos Michelakis, in which he found that dichloroacetate (DCA) can selectively kill a wide range of cancer cells.

Basically, in most cancers the mitochondria are turned off. Mitochondria are the little energy factories inside every cell. They also are responsible for triggering apoptosis – programmed cell death. Cancer cells make their energy outside the mitochrondria, their mitochondria turn off, they lose the ability to trigger apoptosis, and they become immortal. Being immortal is part of what makes them cancer. DCA turns mitochondria back on, which in Dr. Michelakis’s study caused the cancer cells to immediately die, while having no affect on healthy cells.

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Jan 29 2007

Tai Chi, Neuropathy, and Clinical Trials

Li Li, a kinesiology professor at the Louisiana State University (LSU), is conducting a study  of the effectiveness of tai chi in treating peripheral neuropathy. He reports very positive results from this ongoing study that started in 2004, uncritically passed along by the media. I thought it would be a good example of the difficulty in designing good clinical trials and interpreting their results. Below are some of the issues raised by this study.

What is the target disease and how is it defined?
Ideally a clinical trial will focus on a specific disease with both inclusion and exclusion criteria designed to make sure that everyone in the study has the same disease and does not have anything else. The tai chi study says it is studying “peripheral neuropathy.” But peripheral neuropathy is not a disease, it is a category of diseases with a long list of very different causes. There are different types of nerves, different types of nerve damage, and many different types of causes. Mixing them together makes for a very messy trial.
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Jan 26 2007

The Brain’s Windows

Published by under Neuroscience

In response to yesterday’s blog, Jim Shaver asked the following question:

“So what effect does childhood development have on the brain’s compartmentalization of function? Are many of the brain’s specialized functions established during early development into an essentially permanent normal or abnormal state? For example, in the very rare cases of so-called “feral” children, who have grown from a very early age with little or no human interaction, they are said to be unable to learn language and other social skills after they have been rescued as teenagers.”

This is an excellent question, and relates to a fascinating aspect of brain development. The brain contains much more information than the genes that code for the brain – so where does all this extra information come from? Primarily from the manner in which the brain develops. Essentially, genes establish the rules of development, but the development process creates emerging complexity that adds information to the final structure.
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Jan 25 2007

This is Your Brain on Drugs

Published by under Neuroscience

In the early days of neuroscience there was a big debate about how the brain is organized. On one side were those who argued that brain function is diffuse – the entire brain works together to do all the stuff that the brain does. On the other side were those who believed the brain is compartmentalized – that different parts of the brain are dedicated to specific tasks. Incidentally, advocates of the pseudoscience of phrenology were on the winning side of that debate – the brain is compartmentalized.

In recent years new imaging techniques, especial functional magentic resonance imaging (fMRI) have been able to create an increasingly complex map of the brain, and with it an increasingly complex picture of how the brain functions. In fact, sometimes we learn that a part of the brain is wired to create a function we did not realize we even needed. For example, a part of the frontal lobe is responsible for giving us a sense that we are inside our bodies. I bet you didn’t realize that we needed a special part fo the brain for that.
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Jan 24 2007

The AMA Bogeyman

On the SGU boards I was recently asked to comment on some claims made regarding the American Medical Association (AMA). Here is an excerpt:

“In the U.S., science and the American Medical Association (AMA) are not completely congruent in the realm of health care as a result of an effective monopoly with regard to competing practices. This is not to say the AMA recommends non-scientific solutions, but they tend to rule out less profitable ones and they may recommend scientific, but also needlessly dangerous, solutions. Some of that is done by necessity, or at least by the necessity of profit in the private practice of medicine.”

That the AMA exerts a Big Brother degree of control over the practice of medicine is a common misconception. It is especially popular among proponents of so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) or just critics of established medicine. Such criticism of mainstream science often takes the form of conspiracy mongering, and conspiracies need a villain – the more powerful and cold-hearted the better.
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Jan 23 2007

Mediocrity and Meritocracy

Published by under Skepticism

I love the movie Amadeus and its portrayal of Mozart. But my favorite character in the film is actually Salieri . Salieri is also a composer, and a contemporary of Mozart, although older and more established in his career. In Amadeus, Salieri fumes with jealousy and anger against God for cursing him with the dual burdens of his own mediocrity and the ability to recognize the astounding musical talent of Mozart, a talent not generally appreciated in his own time.

One of the aspects of the institutions of science that I find most appealing is that at its heart science is a meritocracy. Scientific claims and ideas survive because of their merits of logic, evidence, and elegance. This is not to say that there are no politics in the halls of science or academia – humans are political animals and politics follows us into every institution we inhabit. It is also not to suggest that forces of culture, authority, national pride, and other biases do not play a role in the social construct of science.
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Jan 22 2007

Skepticism and the Media

The theme of The Amazing Meeting this year was Skepticism and the Media. I had the opportunity to both listen to, talk with, and interview many luminaries from various types of media, including political columnist Christopher Hitchens, NPR radio host Peter Sagal, Scott Dickers the editor and chief of The Onion, Adam Savage from Mythbusters, South Park creator Matt Stone, and others. Here are a few observations.

First, Wow! What a great meeting. Thanks to Randi and his crew for putting together such an incredible lineup of intellectual talent and giving me access to them. My lobes (cortical, that is) are still tingling.
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Jan 20 2007

More from TAM5

Published by under Skepticism

Well, TAM5 is turning out to be all that I had hoped and more. I always find these conferences exhilarating. Every now and then I feel I need to recharge my intellectual batteries by immersing myself in the ideas of really smart people, and TAM5 is doing the trick.

It has also been an opportunity to record great interviews for The Skeptics Guide podcast. Thursday night, for example, we were hanging out with John Rennie, the Editor and Chief of Scientific American, and he gave us a great interview. I love it when smart successful people turn out also to be just great, regular, friendly people.
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Jan 19 2007

Reporting from TAM5

At this moment I am attending The Amazing Meeting 5 in Las Vegas, hosted by the James Randi Educational Foundation. The theme of the meeting is skepticism and the media – a topic I find both important and interesting.

This is somewhat of a mission statement – but in our society, which is increasingly driven by science and technology, the public understanding of science is critically important. Yet, it seems that the gap of knowledge between working scientists and the public is growing. The theme of TAM5, and the purpose of this blog, is how to narrow this gap.
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