Archive for April, 2011

Apr 14 2011

Power Balance Smacked in Another Lawsuit

By now most people have heard of those Power Balance bracelets – small rubber wristbands with a cheap hologram or three embedded in them that some pro-athletes (with or without being paid to do so) claim improve their performance. The company makes a variety of claims on their website and promotional material – or I should say they used to:

  • “Power Balance holograms are embedded with frequencies that react positively with your body’s natural energy field to improve balance, strength and flexibility;
  • “Power Balance holograms are designed to work with your body’s natural energy field;
  • Power Balance is Performance Technology;
  • Power Balance products boost the body’s self defense mechanisms creating the immediate benefits of strength, balance and flexibility gain;
  • When the hologram comes into contact with your body it gives you that added balance, strength, flexibility;
  • Use of the Power Balance results in lots of endurance and stamina”

The company was claiming, prior to a pair of lawsuits, that a small piece of rubber and plastic being next to the body can have a physiological effect – to improve balance, strength, flexibility, endurance, and stamina. This is as close to magic as you can get – they are selling magic amulets to the gullible. (To be clear, I am not in the habit of blaming victims of this kind of fraud, but there is no way around the fact that buying the magic amulet constitutes gullibility.)

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Apr 13 2011

The Yellowstone Supervolcano

Published by under General Science

Did you know that there is a supervolcano hiding beneath Yellowstone National Park? I know scientists frequently delight in telling the public all the horrible ways in which we can be killed, massive damage can be done, or even how the entire human civilization can be wiped out. (My friend, Phil Plait, even wrote an entire book dedicated to the topic – Death from the Skies). It’s a good hook for a scientific discussion – we have an instant morbid fascination with the prospect of epic disaster.

The supervolcano, as the name implies, is a really big volcano. In the past the Yellowstone supervolcano has erupted, to devastating effect. And it will erupt again some day. It’s just a matter of time. Supervolcano eruptions can be so big that they have even been blamed for mass extinctions in the past.

Yellowstone is over what geologists call a hotspot – an area where the hot magma of the molten mantle rises close to the surface, collecting in a magma chamber. At Yellowstone this hotspot is what is causing all the hot springs and geysers. This hotspot is actually stationary, but the North America plate is moving to the west-southwest over the hotspot, making it seem as if is moving to the east-northeast – now over the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho.

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Apr 12 2011


Published by under Neuroscience

There are approximately 100 billion neurons in the adult human brain. Each neuron makes thousands of connections to other neurons, resulting in an approximate 150 trillion connections in the human brain. The pattern of those connections is largely responsible for the functionality of the brain – everything we sense, feel, think, and do. Neuroscientists are attempting to map those connections – in an effort known as connectomics. (Just as genomics is the effort to map the genome, and proteomics is mapping all the proteins that make up an organism.)

This is no small task. No matter how you look at it, 150 trillion is a lot of connections. One research group working on this project is a team led by Thomas Mrsic-Flogel at the University College London. They recently published a paper in Nature in which they map some of the connections in the mouse visual cortex.

What they did was to first determine the function of specific areas and neurons in the mouse visual cortex in living mice. For example, they determined which orientation they are sensitive to. In the visual cortex different neurons respond to different orientations (vertical vs horizontal, for example). Once they mapped the directional function of the neurons they then mapped the connections between those neurons in vitro (after removing the brain). They found that neurons made more connections to other neurons with the same directional response, rather than neurons with sensitivity to different (orthogonal) directions.

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Apr 11 2011

Guy Hottel Document – UFO Proof?

Proponents of theories and ideologies are always looking for that knockout punch – the smoking-gun evidence that proves their beliefs in a single stroke. Most theories are too complex to be established by a single piece of evidence, and require multiple independent lines of evidence to establish them. But there are often cases in which a single solid piece of evidence can push a theory over the line to general acceptance.

For many pseudosciences the lack of such smoking-gun evidence calls the claims into serious question. There are no artifacts from Atlantis. There is no bigfoot corpse or live specimen. And there are no crashed alien spaceships or, you know – aliens. Incidentally this is not the case for truly paranormal claims, like ghosts, because by being “paranormal” they would require a large set of rigorous evidence to establish a new phenomenon. But one actual bigfoot would do it.

So it is no surprise that from time to time we hear claims that “final proof” has finally come to light of one pseudoscientific claim or another. Just such a claim is now circulating regarding an FBI document from 1950 – a report regarding the recovery of three “flying saucers” in New Mexico. Here is the full text of the document, dated March 22, 1950:
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Apr 07 2011

Predicting Alzheimer’s Disease

Published by under Neuroscience

As our population ages, diseases of old age are increasing, including Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and other dementias (brain disorders that impair overall memory and cognition). One challenge facing patients and practitioners is distinguishing mild cognitive symptoms of either aging or of a functional process, like poor sleep or depression, from the early stages of a progressive degenerative disease like AD.

Patients with mild symptoms are considered to have mild cognitive impairment (MCI), and patients with MCI progress to the clinical diagnosis of Alzheimer’s type dementia at a  rate of about 20% per year, compared to 1-2% per year for the age-matched baseline population. What this likely means is that some people with MCI do not have AD, but either have a mild vascular dementia or some other process that is not relentlessly progressive or degenerative. While others are in the early stages of AD – passing through MCI on their way to clinical AD.

What we would like are better methods for distinguishing these two populations – in essence to predict who will go on to develop AD and who has stable MCI.  We are pretty good at doing this now just based on clinical criteria – patients with certain deficits on neurological exam (as opposed to just symptoms of poor memory and concentration) are more likely to have AD. If we add to our clinical exam an MRI scan of the brain to look for atrophy, that gives us more predictive power still. And we also do an EEG (electroencephalogram), which tends to show slowing in AD.

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Apr 06 2011

Disparities in Autism Diagnosis

Published by under autism

I have been following the literature on autism diagnosis both because of my general interest as a neurologist, but also because it is at the center of the vaccine-autism myth. There is no question that autism diagnoses have been on the increase over the last 20 years. There are some who assume that this increase in the number of diagnoses being made represents a true increase in the incidence of the disorder – hence an autism “epidemic”.

However, careful analysis reveals that the increase in diagnosis is largely explained (perhaps completely explained – but a small real increase cannot be ruled out) by increased awareness of autism and an expanded diagnosis. (See my earlier posts for a full explanation.)

A recent study sheds further light on this issue. The study was not addressing the broader question of the causes of the increase in autism diagnosis, but rather was focusing on socioeconomic disparities in diagnosis. The results, however, do lend support to the conclusion that the rising autism diagnoses was largely due to increased awareness, rather than a true increase.

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Apr 05 2011

Algae – Salamander Symbiosis

Published by under General Science

This is a cool news story – scientists have found algae living inside the cells of a spotted salamander.This is an example of a plant-vertebrate symbiosis, the first documented. There are cases with invertebrates, like the sea slugs who can perform photosynthesis with proteins they acquired from algae.

It was previously known that certain species of salamander lived in symbiosis with algae, specifically the algae live outside the embryo and feed off nutrients in the embryo’s egg sac, while providing extra oxygen for the embryo. Embryos who develop in the absence of algae tend to develop deformities, so they appear to have evolved dependence on this extra oxygen from the algae. The new discovery is that the algae is also living inside the embryo – in the cells themselves.

The algae tend to suffuse inside the salamander during development, concentrating in the digestive tract, but also occurring elsewhere. It is still not clear if the algae comes in from the environment solely or if it is passed down from either parent. Researchers suspect that both occur.

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Apr 04 2011

The Thorium Conspiracy

One of the defining attributes of scientific skepticism is so-called metacognition – we think about thinking. Psychologists have amassed a large body of evidence about how people think – the most common patterns that we tend to fall into. It’s unfortunate that this knowledge is not put to more frequent use.

Just one nugget of such metacognitive knowledge is the so-called fundamental attribution error – we tend to attribute other people’s behavior to internal factors while ignoring or downplaying external or situational factors. At the same time, we happily excuse our own behavior with situational factors. The textbook example is that if we see someone walking down the sidewalk and tripping, we will tend to think that they are clumsy. If we trip, then we blame the crack in the sidewalk.

This mental bias works on every hierarchical level, not just for an individual act by an individual person. In other words – we make the same mistake when thinking about the behavior of groups and organizations, and not just single acts but long term behavior. This attribution error also dovetails effectively with another cognitive bias, the tendency to see conspiracies, even where they do not exist. We tend to assume that organizations and even groups of disconnected people are behaving according to some deliberate internal plan, rather than just responding to situational factors. If we are not aware of those external factors, then we tend to leap to the conspiracy hypothesis as an explanation.

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Apr 01 2011

Dr. Oz Promotes Homeopathy

Those of us in the science-based medicine community have been watching Dr. Mehmet Oz’s descent into abject quackery. It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion – horrific, but gripping.  The purpose of this post is not to tell you that Dr. Oz’s journey toward the dark side is now complete, because that has already happened. Dr. Oz is a product of Oprah Winfrey, and Oprah exists in a skepticism-free zone, as do all of the moons in her orbit.

At first Oz gave mostly reasonable medical advice, but liberally sprinkled in the woo. But now that he has his own show, Dr. Oz is a neverending stream of nonsensical pseudoscience. A recent example deserves mention – Oz attempts to explain to his audience what homeopathy is. Like all such attempts from proponents, the results are simultaneously humorous and exasperating. For this program Oz is helped by Dr. Russ Greenfield, an “integrative” medicine practitioner, and fellow of Dr. Andrew Weil’s program at the University of Arizona.

Oz and Greenfield explain that homeopathy uses “tiny” doses of “drugs” to treat symptoms, like chronic pain (the topic of the day). This is deceptive on two levels – in most cases the doses are not tiny but non-existent. And further, most of the substances used to prepare homeopathic water are not drugs, but a range of ordinary, toxic, or fanciful substances.

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