Friday, March 30, 2007

Anti-inflammatory effects of carbon monoxide

Makes me awfully nervous, since we know that carbon monoxide is a toxic poison.

"Specifically, mitochondria react to low levels of carbon monoxide by releasing chemical signals that reduce or shut down the body's inflammatory response, raising the possibility for the development of new anti-inflammatory therapies, one of which may be low levels of inhaled carbon monoxide."
Researchers seem to be having a good response, though.

"...inhaled medical grade carbon monoxide has been shown to be useful in animal models for organ transplantation, vascular injury, inflammatory bowel disease, organ injury resulting from severe blood loss, as well as experimental hepatitis and experimental pulmonary hypertension."

As long as they can find an effective antidote for overdose, this could be really useful in the future.

A Mini console for your collection of old Atari 2600 games

Brings back memories...

This guy makes them on request, and has cool pics on his website. He calls this latest creation the Atari VCSp Rev 5.1.

Takes 4 AA batteries.

Treating asthma with radio waves?

Might this someday mean the end of inhalers? (left)

By using radiofrequencies in a procedure called bronchial thermoplasty, researchers heat the muscle lining and bronchial tubes to decrease bronchial inflammation. They hypothesize that there is an excess of smooth muscle, which may narrow the airways and cause inflammation. More info at the New England Journal of Medicine narrative video.

Their findings:
"At the end of the one-year trial, the subjects who received bronchial thermoplasty treatments reported an average of 10 mild asthma attacks over the course of the study – roughly 50% fewer than those who received asthma drugs only. The researchers defined "mild" asthma attacks as those that did not warrant a hospital visit...The patients who received the experimental heat treatment were free of asthma symptoms for 40% of days during the year, on average. Those who did not receive thermoplasty were symptom-free for only 17% of the days."

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Star Wars Commemorative Postage Stamps

Lots more gossip about it here:

41 cent postage stamps, from the US Postal Service.

Light pulses for reversibly silencing overactive neurons

Left: MIT is spelled out by neuronal voltage, with yellow light inducing downward neural deflections, and blue light inducing upward neural deflections. Such unprecedented, precise programming of neuronal activity is now possible due to efforts of MIT scientists. (Credit: MIT Media Lab)

The first thing this made me think of was when Pikachu was giving children seizures in 1997. That has led to some banned pokemon episodes, as well as increased awareness of photosensitive epilepsy.

Since it has been established that light can stimulate cells into seizure activity in a small percent of the population, it also makes sense that there should be some way to harness light to turn off these signals.
"Science Daily — Scientists at the MIT Media Lab have invented a way to reversibly silence brain cells using pulses of yellow light, offering the prospect of controlling the haywire neuron activity that occurs in diseases such as epilepsy and Parkinson's disease."
Check out the article for more information about how they are using the halorhodopsin gene. By shining a yellow light, this gene activates chloride pumps, which inhibit the cell, like an 'off' switch. By shining blue light on the cell, it gets turned back on. They plan to use this to learn more about neural circuits.
"The technique also offers a way to study other brain diseases, as well as normal brain circuitry, offering insight into which brain regions and neurons contribute to specific behaviors or pathological states, Boyden said."
What a cool map this could someday make. Creeping ever closer to cyborg-ness. Their hope:
"In the future, controlling the activity patterns of neurons may enable very specific treatments for neurological and psychiatric diseases, with few or no side effects," said Edward Boyden, assistant professor in the Program in Media Arts and Sciences and leader of the Media Lab's new Neuroengineering and Neuromedia Group."

Antidepressants vs. mood stabilizers vs. placebo in bipolar disorder

Since I spend many of my waking workday hours on this conundrum, I definitely had to mull over this one.

"Science Daily — For depressed people with bipolar disorder who are taking a mood stabilizer, adding an antidepressant medication is no more effective than a placebo (sugar pill), according to results published online in the New England Journal of Medicine. The results are part of the large-scale, multi-site Systematic Treatment Enhancement Program for Bipolar Disorder (STEP-BD), a $26.8 million clinical trial funded by the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)."
It is accepted knowledge that if you give a person with bipolar disorder an antidepressant without a mood stabilizer, there is as good chance you may trigger a manic episode. Often, once someone is on adequate doses of their mood stabilizer (many are available, the most well known are lithium or depakote, though I tend to like lamictal for bipolar depression), then an antidepressant medication is added to help lift up the depression without worry of mania.

This study had 366 participants. Participants were randomized to placebo, wellbutrin, or paxil. They first stabilized patients on their mood stabilizers, then added them into one of these treatment groups.

"After about 26 weeks, Sachs and colleagues found that 24 percent of those who had been randomized to the antidepressants stayed well for at least eight consecutive eeks--the study's stringent standard for recovery; 27 percent of those randomized to a placebo stayed well long enough to meet the eight-week recovery standard, indicating no difference between adding an antidepressant or adding placebo. In addition, about 10 percent of each group experienced emerging symptoms of mania, indicating that the antidepressants did not trigger a manic switch any more than placebo. Finally, when comparing the two antidepressants to each other, both showed similar rates of response and manic switch."
If their findings are reproducible, it could lead to changes in clinical practice which would definitely simplify things. Fewer different drugs means less polypharmacy, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, it still doesn't give us many good options for managing the depression in bipolar people.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The highest resolution holo deck so far

Muthukkumar Kadavasal, an Iowa State doctoral student in human computer interaction, demonstrates how improvements to Iowa State's C6 provide virtual reality at the world's highest resolution. (Credit: Kevin Teske)And there are tours available to the public. Too bad it's in Iowa.

Iowa State University's Virtual Reality Applications Center has a virtual reality cube called C6. They recently poured another $5 million into upgrades, to make the resolution twice that of any other virtual reality room in the world. All 6 sides have images and sound. No smells yet though.

"The public is invited to tour C6 -- Iowa State's 10-foot by 10-foot virtual reality cube that immerses users in computer-generated 3-D images and eight channels of audio -- from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday, April 26, in Howe Hall on the Iowa State campus. Reservations are required and can be made by calling (515) 294-3092. The tours will be part of the Emerging Technologies Conference 07."

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

MIBO, the robotic dog of LEGOS

A 6 six year old robot designed by Jin Sato. Mindstorm legos, 5 motors, and even a remote control. The YouTube interview below is the new addition to the project, and shows MIBO in action.

Top 20 most harmful drugs listed and ranked

From gizmagOf all the places, I finally found the table on gizmag.

Go here to for more details on how these were selected and ranked.

Puzzling, isn't it?
5. Alcohol
9. Tobacco
11. Marijuana
14. LSD
15. Ritalin
18. Ecstasy (MDMA)

Further reading on ABC classification systems, Schedule I through V defined, and summary of drug legislations between US, UK, Netherlands, Sweden:

Batteries powered by sugar for your hand held devices

Not a new idea, but it sounds like it is becoming closer to a viable reality.

"Juicing up your cell phone or iPod may take on a whole new meaning in the future. Researchers at Saint Louis University in Missouri have developed a fuel cell battery that runs on virtually any sugar source -- from soft drinks to tree sap -- and has the potential to operate three to four times longer on a single charge than conventional lithium ion batteries, they say. "

This new battery is biodegradable, and employs an enzyme that breaks down the sugar into energy and water. Just think: a new diet craze where instead of letting those empty calories go to your hips, you can power your ipod or cell phone with it!

Friday, March 23, 2007

Junior college students develop color changing suit

New and improved camouflage, by junior college students in Singapore (pic on left). Sounds more like a 'Predator' style suit, aka active camouflage, since it can 'blend into any surrounding'.

Done with electrochromism.

Too bad I can't find any better pics of their actual invention.

No surprise: alcohol and cigarettes are in the top 10 worst drugs

A study published in the Lancet ranks drugs based on their harmful effects to society.

"Nutt and colleagues used three factors to determine the harm associated with any drug: the physical harm to the user, the drug's potential for addiction, and the impact on society of drug use.
The researchers asked two groups of experts -- psychiatrists specializing in addiction and legal or police officials with scientific or medical expertise -- to assign scores to 20 different drugs, including heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, amphetamines, and LSD."
Here are some of the rankings: (1 is the most harmful)

4. Street methadone

They also stressed the disruptiveness of the 'legal drugs', and hope to push for better regulation.

"Tobacco causes 40 percent of all hospital illnesses, while alcohol is blamed
for more than half of all visits to hospital emergency rooms. The substances
also harm society in other ways, damaging families and occupying police
If anyone comes across the full Lancet article, feel free to fill in the rest of the top 20 list.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

A transparent, flexible battery

That's the picture of the battery. Though it's unclear what this means in actual utility, here's some cool data about it:

"Drs Hiroyuki Nishide, Hiroaki Konishi and Takeo Suga at Waseda University have designed the battery – which consists of a redox-active organic polymer film around 200 nanometres thick. Nitroxide radical groups are attached, which act as charge carriers. Because of its high radical density, the battery has a high charge/discharge capacity. This is just one of many advantages the ‘organic radical’ battery has over other organic based materials according to the researchers. The power rate performance is strikingly high – it only takes one minute to fully charge the battery and it has a long cycle life, often exceeding 1,000 cycles."

Possibilities are endless with this one. Would sure make a light, comfy el-wire suit.

Happy digital faces are more successful sales droids

Li Gong's research indicates that a happy Baldi face (left) that also speaks in a happy manner is a better salesperson than a sad face speaking sadly, regardless of a product's product's emotional tone. (Credit: Dominic Massaro)An odd study, but definitely makes sense in this world of increasing internet commerce, and ubiquity of worlds such as Second Life or World of Warcraft. On Virtual Magic Kingdom (VMK), everything is so happy already, I wonder if that helps it along at all (Disneyland's world, designed for kids, with lots of weird restictions and banned words. I'm rarely on, but if you see Kallisto, say hi to me.).

"The study, appearing in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies,
found that digital characters might be better merchants if they act consistently
happy, even if the products they're selling—such as novels—are heart-wrenchingly
In the study, "Baldi" (face in the picture on the right; mouseover for credits), read happy and sad book reviews. Regardless of whether the book was happy or sad in content, the happy faced Baldi sold more books, and left an overall more positive impression.
"But the reactions of putting on a happy face didn't end there. “Participants
said they were more likely to read a book presented by the happy face
compared to the sad one,” Gong said. The participants liked a happy Baldi
more, felt it was more competent, and trusted it more than they did a sad
Still pondering what this says about human nature, as well as how this will impact our future avatar designs. I really can't imagine a happy, smiling Goth website. :-)

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Messy is more productive than neat?

Oh my, can't wait for the flames to start flying.

This is for all you 'messy' people out there: "Sponsored by publisher Little, Brown and Co., the competition promoted "A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder," by Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman, a new book that argues neatness is overrated, costs money, wastes time and quashes creativity.
"We think that being more organized and ordered and neat is a good thing and it turns out, that's not always the case," said Freedman.
"Most of us are messy, and most of us are messy at a level that works very, very well for us," he said in an interview. "In most cases, if we got a lot neater and more organized, we would be less effective." "

See article for the other side's argument too.

Fujitsu's color e-paper, closer to becoming reality

Eventually, we won't have to carry heavy books around, just a cell phone and e-paper. This 8-inch, 640 x 480 color display is about 0.03-inches thick.

"With potential to change the way businesses communicate information, Fujitsu's color e-paper, which is essentially a thin liquid crystal display, is getting closer to market."

"Power is necessary to change the image on the film--say, to turn a page. But the power requirement is so low that focused energy from a wireless device, like a cell phone, is enough to do the job. Consequently, one of the coolest applications for color e-paper now is as an enhancement to small mobile devices, according to Fujitsu special projects consultant Dave Marvit. Can't stand looking at Web sites on your handheld's itty bitty screen? Beam it from your phone to a piece of e-paper, like the 8-inch, 640x480 resolution reader Marvit showed off, and you can see the page without squinting. If 8 inches seems too small, the Fujitsu researchers are currently working on a 12-inch version. Eventually, the displays will grow to 2.5 meters, said Mike Beirne, a Fujitsu spokesman. "

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Body clock disruption associated with bipolar mania

Mice were mutated to have a flawed 'Clock' gene, "which helps control the body's circadian rhythms: waking, sleeping and eating times as well as the maintenance of proper body temperature, heart and blood functions, and hormone levels."

This created manic mice:
"...the flawed Clock gene induced a manic state in mice that had a profile similar to that of humans suffering from bipolar disorder or manic depression, a condition during which a person cycles from deep depression to manic behavior.
The mutant mice showed increased response to reward stimuli in several hedonic scenarios. When trained that depressing a pedal would trigger an enjoyable electrical stimulation to the forebrain, the mice pressed it more frequently than their wild (unaltered) counterparts. They acted the same way when the reward was a sugar solution. In the presence of cocaine the mutant mice needed smaller doses than the normal mice to activate their reward circuits, indicating that they were hyperactive. McClung notes that manic people, who are prone to drug abuse, shopping sprees, compulsive gambling and other high-impulse behaviors, "tend to find rewarding things more rewarding" than others do. "

To prove it, they gave the mice lithium, which is still our gold standard for treating mania. After 10 days on lithium, the mice were already starting to revert to more normal behavior.

The hope is that someday we will be able to actually 'cure' bipolar disorder by fixing the flawed brain regions.

Here's how it worked for the mice: "...the scientists used a targeted virus to return a proper copy of Clock to cells in the ventral tegmental area, a midbrain region critical in the reward pathway involved in production of the pleasure system neurotransmitter dopamine. After the virus was introduced, the mutant mice began to act more like the control animals but were still a bit more hyper, McClung notes. "

How cool would that be? My job would be SO much easier.

An effective alarm clock? Chase it down.

They call it clocky.

And yes, it does roll around and and try to hide after the first snooze. Starts by jumping off your nightstand.

Can also jump up to three feet. Runs around for 30 seconds. Comes in 3 colors, can blare at 80 dB. $49.99

I wonder if it's better as a cat toy? Also comes in shag. Kinda scary.

Air powered car, coming soon

Lots of details in the parent article.

Here's some spiffy stats: "The MiniC.A.T is a simple, light urban car, with a tubular chassis that is glued not welded and a body of fibreglass. The heart of the electronic and communication system on the car is a computer offering an array of information reports that extends well beyond the speed of the vehicle, and is built to integrate with external systems and almost anything you could dream of, starting with voice recognition, internet connectivity, GSM telephone connectivity, a GPS guidance system, fleet management systems, emergency systems, and of course every form of digital entertainment. The engine is fascinating, as is and the revolutionary electrical system that uses just one cable and so is the vehicle’s wireless control system. Microcontrollers are used in every device in the car, so one tiny radio transmitter sends instructions to the lights, indicators etc
There are no keys – just an access card which can be read by the car from your pocket.
Most importantly, it is incredibly cost-efficient to run – according to the designers, it costs less than one Euro per 100Km (about a tenth that of a petrol car). Its mileage is about double that of the most advanced electric car (200 to 300 km or 10 hours of driving), a factor which makes a perfect choice in cities where the 80% of motorists drive at less than 60Km. The car has a top speed of 68 mph.
Refilling the car will, once the market develops, take place at adapted petrol stations to administer compressed air. In two or three minutes, and at a cost of approximately 1.5 Euros, the car will be ready to go another 200-300 kilometres.
As a viable alternative, the car carries a small compressor which can be connected to the mains (220V or 380V) and refill the tank in 3-4 hours.
Due to the absence of combustion and, consequently, of residues, changing the oil (1 litre of vegetable oil) is necessary only every 50,000 Km.""

Soak your meat in tea to decrease bacteria?

What will they think of next? Scientists found the most effective antimicrobial tea mixture consisted of jasmine tea, green tea, and honey.

"Treating turkey breast slice with combinations of Jasmine tea extract and wildflower dark honey reduced Listeria monocytogenes by 10 to 20 percent. Similar reductions of the pathogen were recorded when applied to hot dogs."

It worked well in hot dogs too. The article speculates creating a tea based surface wash for meat and veggies.

I wonder what kind of flavoring it could also add to our food? Green tea infused pork loin? Kobe jasmine steak? The combinations are endless.

Monday, March 19, 2007

I've finally bought a super cool bicycle

It's getting delivered this afternoon. Mine is a Haluzak Leprechaun, and no, I didn't buy it on St. Patrick's Day.

It's a beautiful recumbent bicycle, which is much more comfortable than the uprights (aka what we think of as bicycles). We went for a test ride over the weekend, and had a wonderful, though somewhat klutzy time. Once I get thru the learning curve, I'll be able to keep up with all you upright bike riders. :-)

The history of the recumbent bike is a bit of soap opera.
Bottom line: these bikes have been around since the early 1900's, and were banned from the racing circuit by the French in the 1930's because they were too fast and kept breaking records. Then they mostly died out, and in the 1970's there was a resurgence.

Current speed and distance bicycle records are both held by recumbent bikes.
Official speed records for recumbents are governed by the rules of the International Human Powered Vehicle Association...The current record is 130.36 km/h (81.00 mph), set by Sam Whittingham of Canada on a fully faired Varna Diablo front-wheel-drive recumbent lowracer bicycle designed by George Georgiev. The official record for an upright bicycle under somewhat similar conditions is 82.53 km/h (51.29 mph) set by Jim Glover in 1986 with an English-made Moulton bicycle with a hardshell fairing around him and the bike.

"The IHPVA hour record is 85.991 km (53.432 miles), set by Fred Markham on July 2, 2006. The equivalent record for an upright bicycle is 49.700 km (30.882 miles), set by Ondřej Sosenka in 2005. "

My particular model is not designed to ever be that fast, but it's so much fun to ride.

Can't wait to ride it!

Have since gotten it, and taken it for a short ride. Will take some relearning, but I don't expect I'll want to go back to an upright bike anytime soon. If you've never tried a recumbent bike, it's definitely worth a test ride. :-)

There are a few local shops that have recumbents available for test rides, mostly by appointment only.

In San Francisco: CVC Recumbents: 415-221-3601 or

In Alameda: Zach Kaplan Cycles: (510) 522-BENT (2368) or

Friday, March 16, 2007

Growing irises from stem cell transplants

Apparently they've been using this technique to regrow irises in patients with chemical accidents since 2000, but the new twist is that they are now using it for aniridia.

"Aniridia results in near blindness since the limbal cells that keep the surface of the cornea clear and healthy are missing or few in number. Mr Daya takes a donor's limbal cells then grows them on in a laboratory. A sheet of the cells is placed over the patient's cornea, held by an amniotic membrane from donated placentas. After two or three weeks, the membrane dissolves but the stem cells remain and restore the epithelium, or top layer of the cornea. The donor stem cells themselves disappear over a few months, so immuno-suppressant drugs can be stopped."

Makes me think of the eyeball scene in Blade Runner.,,2035069,00.html

Water to ice in nanoseconds, at temperatures way above water's boiling point!

Daniel Dolan has used Sandia's Z machine to compress water into ice at extreme temperatures and pressures. (Credit: Bill Doty: DOE/Sandia National Laboratories)Wow.

"Science Daily — Sandia's huge Z machine, which generates temperatures hotter than the sun, has turned water to ice in nanoseconds. However, don't expect anything commercial just yet: the ice is hotter than the boiling point of water. "The three phases of water as we know them -- cold ice, room temperature liquid, and hot vapor -- are actually only a small part of water's repertory of states," says Sandia researcher Daniel Dolan. "Compressing water customarily heats it. But under extreme compression, it is easier for dense water to enter its solid phase [ice] than maintain the more energetic liquid phase [water]." "

And they're talking about compressing water at 50,000 to 120,000 atmospheres.

Why? : ""This work," says Dolan, "is a basic science study that helps us understand materials at extreme conditions." "Accurate knowledge of water's behavior is potentially important for Z because the 20-million-ampere electrical pulses the accelerator sends through water compress that liquid. Ordinarily, the water acts as an insulator and as a switch. But because the machine is being refurbished with more modern and thus more powerful equipment, questions about water's behavior at extreme conditions are of increasing interest to help avoid equipment failure for the machine or its more powerful successors, should those be built. "

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Celexa vs. Lexapro in treating compulsive shoppers

First off, let me try to explain the difference between celexa (citalopram), and lexapro (escitalopram), since they are very similar.

Note: celexa is on the left, and lexapro is on the right.

Celexa is the older drug that has lost its patent in the last few years. Lexapro, is the 'new and improved' version of celexa, which consists of only the S (left) isomer escitalopram, whereas celexa is a 'dirtier' drug, consisting of both the S (left) and R (right) isomers. Celexa eventually gets converted into lexapro in the body.

Or, if you prefer, wikipedia's technical explanation: "Citalopram is sold as a racemic mixture, consisting of 50% R-(−)-citalopram and 50% S-(+)-citalopram. Only the S-(+) enantiomer has the desired antidepressant effect. Lundbeck now markets the S-(+) enantiomer, the generic name of which is escitalopram. Whereas citalopram is supplied as the hydrobromide, escitalopram is sold as the oxalate salt.[10] The salt form makes these otherwise lipophilic compounds watersoluble."

What's puzzling to the researchers about this study is that while celexa was shown to be helpful in treating compulsive shopping, lexapro was not.

I'd like to leave it at that, and say that celexa and lexapro really are different, as many of us have observed in patients who have been on both. People often do like one better than the other (totally depends on the individual).

Thankfully, the article below does actually analzye both studies, and it appears that both studies have design flaws, most glaringly of which is their small sample sizes (24 pts in the celexa study in 2003, 17 lexapro and 9 controls in the newer study).

Too bad...

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

230 mile per gallon prototype car

Looks a bit odd for a ground vehicle, but it's got some impressive stats.

"Today, we've learned of another high-mileage vehicle in our midst. The Aptera Motor Company has showed off its Aptera typ-1 which can achieve a remarkable 230MPG while cruising at 55MPH. The Aptera type-1 uses a diesel-electric hybrid powertrain and is able to sprint from 0-60 in under 10 seconds.
Unlike most hybrid automobiles which use Lithium-ion (Li-ion) or Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) batteries, the Aptera typ-1 uses Nickel-zinc (NiZn) batteries. "

No release date in sight, but they estimate it will retail for around $20,000 .

Don't smoke, exercise!

"As little as five minutes of exercise seems to help smokers curb their craving for a cigarette, a review of a dozen studies found.
The research showed that moderate exercise, such as walking, significantly reduced the intensity of smokers' nicotine withdrawal symptoms.
"If we found the same effects in a drug, it would immediately be sold as an aid to help people quit smoking," said Dr. Adrian Taylor, the study's lead author and professor of exercise and health psychology at the University of Exeter.

Their hypothesis: "Nearly anything that distracts people from smoking is thought to help, but scientists have long suspected that exercise might have a more potent effect. Taylor theorized that exercise could produce the mood-enhancing hormone dopamine, which could, in turn, reduce smokers' nicotine dependence."

Sounds like it's time to teach exercise in smoking cessation programs.

Shrinking the fuel combustion engine

At MIT's Sloan Automotive Laboratory, Daniel Cohn (pictured above) stands behind an engine equipped with test instruments (in yellow) and an injection system that sprays fuel directly into the engine's combustion chambers.  Credit: Porter Gifford Researchers at MIT have found a way to make internal combustion engines three times more efficient than current engines.

"Both turbocharging and direct injection are pre-existing technologies, and neither looks particularly impressive. Indeed, used separately, they would lead to only marginal improvements in the performance of an internal-­combustion engine. But by combining them, and augmenting them with a novel way to use a small amount of ethanol, Cohn and his colleagues have created a design that they believe could triple the power of a test engine, an advance that could allow automakers to convert small engines designed for economy cars into muscular engines with more than enough power for SUVs or sports cars."

Though it's cheaper to use this new technology ($1,000 to $1,500 added to the cost of the current engine) than to build a hybrid system ($3,000 to $,5,000 additional), it seems a shame to continue our reliance on oil, even if they are employing the use of an ethanol supercharger. Researchers are hopeful that they might be able to get these engines into production as early as 2011.

A very well written, informative article:

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Antidepressants help create new brain cells

Definitely another argument for using antidepressant medications in the treatment of depression.

"The study describes for the first time the molecular mechanisms and the identity of the protein, vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), which underlie the actions of antidepressants on new cell growth and behavior."
"Duman said recent studies demonstrated that stress decreases the expression of VEGF in the hippocampus, a region of the brain involved in the control of emotion, mood, learning, and memory, and this could contribute to the atrophy and loss of cells caused by stress and depression.
In prior groundbreaking research Duman found that antidepressants increase the expression of growth factors in the hippocampus and other regions of the brain. Duman also found that antidepressants increase the birth of new neurons in the hippocampus.
According to Duman, future studies could look at VEGF and related pathways for genetic mutations that might contribute to depression, or make a person more susceptible to depression. VEGF signaling also could provide targets for the development of novel, faster acting, and more effective therapeutic agents."

Ideally, this could mean eventually creating drugs that specifically stimulate VEGF to treat depression. But what happens when someone who is not under stress, and not depressed, takes antidepressants?

Eye candy: The Inner Life of a Cell

Beautifully created by XVIVO, originally designed for biology students.

Exercise boosts brainpower

Malcolm at Castle Rock, belayed by JanieWant more brainpower? Exercise. Makes sense to me, since the brain is another part of the body, and the body functions more efficiently when one takes care of it. (And yes, that is me in the pic, at the bottom belaying the climber.)

"Exercise boosts brainpower by building new brain cells in a brain region linked with memory and memory loss, U.S. researchers reported Monday.
Tests on mice showed they grew new brain cells in a brain region called the dentate gyrus, a part of the hippocampus that is known to be affected in the age-related memory decline that begins around age 30 for most humans.
The researchers used magnetic resonance imaging scans to help document the process in mice -- and then used MRIs to look at the brains of people before and after exercise.
They found the same patterns, which suggests that people also grow new brain cells when they exercise."

"They recruited 11 healthy adults and made them undergo a three-month aerobic exercise regimen.
They did MRIs of their brains before and after. They also measured the fitness of each volunteer by measuring oxygen volume before and after the training program.
Exercise generated blood flow to the dentate gyrus of the people, and the more fit a person got, the more blood flow the MRI detected, the researchers found.
"The remarkable similarities between the exercise-induced cerebral blood volume changes in the hippocampal formation of mice and humans suggest that the effect is mediated by similar mechanisms," they wrote.
"Our next step is to identify the exercise regimen that is most beneficial to improve cognition and reduce normal memory loss, so that physicians may be able to prescribe specific types of exercise to improve memory," Small said."

'Virtual Iraq' to aid in treating post traumatic stress disorder

Inside 'virtual' Iraq. (Credit: Image courtesy of University of Reading)Kinda cool. Basically, a holo-deck for helping desensitize soldiers to their combat experience by using exposure therapy.

"Professor Paul Sharkey, a Director of the University of Reading's Visualisation Centre has been working with Professors Albert "Skip" Rizzo and Jarrell Pair from the USC Institute for Creative Technologies to port the software – which recreates the sights, smells, sounds and jolts of the battlefield – from USC's headset-delivered application to one which can be delivered via a fully immersive 3mtr × 3mtr virtual room (called the ReaCToR) at Reading's Visualisation Centre. "

Monday, March 12, 2007

Cutely disturbing videos

Thanks to Hui for the links.

L'amour: short, sweet, and wonderfully simple.

Greaser Babies: this is just plain disturbing; you really need to be in the right sickeningly sweet mood for this one. Try not to cringe too much :-)

A vitamin in cocoa?

Another study that says cocoa is good for you, but this time because of the prescence of epicatechin. Epicatechin is also found in teas, wine, chocolate and some fruit and vegetables.

Here's the scoop: "Hollenberg has spent years studying the benefits of cocoa drinking on the Kuna people in Panama. He found that the risk of 4 of the 5 most common killer diseases: stroke, heart failure, cancer and diabetes, is reduced to less then 10% in the Kuna. They can drink up to 40 cups of cocoa a week. Natural cocoa has high levels of epicatechin.
'If these observations predict the future, then we can say without blushing that they are among the most important observations in the history of medicine,' Hollenberg says. 'We all agree that penicillin and anaesthesia are enormously important. But epicatechin could potentially get rid of 4 of the 5 most common diseases in the western world, how important does that make epicatechin?... "

Sounds like a wonderful pipe dream, but... all we need to do is a double blind study out here where people get to drink cocoa with or without epicatechin for a while, and see if the 'with epicatechin' group gets any healthier. :-)
Or, if we decided to adopt the lifestyle of the Kuna of Panama, we might be a lot healthier too.

Automating homemade waffles

The project was crafted at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, and looks to be constructed primarily of wood, strings, and pulleys.

Duh! Nicotine is addictive, even for squirrel monkeys

In the name of science, they are getting squirrel monkeys addicted to nicotine too.

"This study is the first of its kind to evaluate the motivational value of nicotine in experimentally naive monkeys. "

They found: "These results demonstrate that nicotine plays a critical role in maintaining smoking behaviour," said lead researcher Dr. Le Foll. "
Yes, the nicotine itself is what addicts people. Sure, there is the ritual involved with smoke breaks, such as oral gratification and chat breaks through the day, but for these monkeys, it's all about the nicotine.

"In these tests, the animals could voluntarily self-administer nicotine by pressing on a lever. Receiving nicotine was associated with distinctive environmental cues, to mimic the situation associated with tobacco smoke in humans. Whereas animals initially showed no preference for the active lever, over time a strong preference for the lever delivering nicotine developed. Animal subjects were motivated to press a lever up to 600 times to get a single injection of nicotine.
"This clearly demonstrates a high motivation to get nicotine that develops over time", said Dr. Le Foll. "

They say their goal is to find better drugs to treat tobacco dependence. So much for not getting exposed in the first place.

Antidepressants Help Men, But Not Women, Decrease Alcohol Consumption

I don't know how much antidepressants 'help' per say, but there is definitely a correlation.

Study background: "14,063 Canadian residents aged 18-76 years were surveyed. The survey included measures of quantity, frequency of drinking, depression and antidepressants use, over the period of a year.
The researchers used data from the GENACIS Canada survey, part of an international collaboration to investigate the influence of cultural variation on gender differences in alcohol use and related problems."

Findings: " Non-depressed men consumed 436 drinks per year, compared to 579 drinks for depressed men not using antidepressants, and 414 drinks for depressed men who used antidepressants.
Unfortunately for women, the alcohol use remained higher whether those experiencing depression took antidepressants or not. The numbers are telling: 179 drinks per year for non-depressed women, 235 drinks for depressed women not using antidepressants, and 264 drinks for depressed women who used antidepressants."

Conclusions: "While men suffering from depression generally consume more alcohol than non-depressed men, those who use antidepressants consume alcohol at about the same level as non-depressed men."

There are still many possible explanations for this that have nothing to do with the actual effects of the antidepressants themselves. Hopefully their next study can try to tease those out.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Smells, sleep, and memory

The hypothesis: "Olfactory sensing pathways in the brain lead more directly to the hippocampus than visual and auditory ones. That may be why smells can be linked so closely to memory, and may revive forgotten joys, humiliations and other remembrances of things past. "

Here's what they did: "In the study, neuroscientists from the University of Lubeck and the University Medical Center, Hamburg-Eppendorf, had groups of medical students play a version of concentration, memorizing the location of card pairs on a computer screen. Upon learning the location of each pair, the students received a burst of rose scent in their noses, through a mask they wore. The researchers delivered the fragrance in bursts because the nose quickly adjusts to strong smells in the air and begins to ignore them. "

Then, while the subjects were asleep: "The brain is thought to process newly acquired facts, figures and locations most efficiently in deep sleep. This restful state usually descends within the first 20 minutes or so after head meets pillow, and it may last an hour or more, then recur later in the night. The researchers delivered pulses of rose bouquet during this slow-wave state; the odor did not interrupt sleep, and the students said they had no memory of it. "

Here's what they found: "But their brains noticed, and they retained an almost perfect memory of card locations. The students scored an average of 97 percent on the card game, compared with 86 percent when they played the concentration game and slept without being perfumed by nighttime neuroscience fairies.
The students did not get the same boost when they received bursts of the fragrance before falling asleep, and their improvements were not a result of practice, the study found. "

Just think, someday soon I could peddle my lavender sachets as study aids or memory enhancers.

A blood test for panic disorder

Researchers at the University of Iowa are now developing a blood test for commercial use that will examine the genetic expression of immature white blood cells to detect panic disorder.

How they came up with this: "The team compared gene expression in lymphoblasts (immature white blood cells) culled from 16 participants with panic disorder and 17 participants without the disorder. The study found many genes were more expressed in people with panic disorder than in people without the condition. Similarly, the study found many genes were less expressed in people with panic disorder. There were also sex-related differences.
Overall, people with panic disorder had noticeably different patterns of gene expression than people without the disorder. Although panic disorder is a disease of brain cells, the study used lymphoblasts as "stand-ins" for the genetic testing because brain cells are not accessible or easily tested. "

Seems like an awfully small sample size, and there could be so many other confounding factors.

How will the information be used? The hope is that you could use this information to train and treat people with a predisposition for panic disorder to better manage and cope with it. The fear is that it could be used to deny people jobs, health coverage, or even social standing. Gattaca is closer than we think.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Rats are capable of metacognition too

from The Secret of NIMHThis study challenges the idea that non-primates are also capable of metacognition, "reasoning or thinking about one's own thinking".
"The study involved what is called a "duration-discrimination" test--offering rats rewards for classifying a signal as either short or long. As in most such tests, the "right" answer led to a large food reward, while a "wrong" answer led to no reward at all. The twist, however, is that before taking the duration test, the rats were given the chance to decline the test completely. If they made that choice, they got a small reward anyway.
"If rats have knowledge about whether they know or don't know the answer to the test, we would expect them to decline most frequently on difficult tests," said Crystal. "They would also show the lowest accuracy on difficult tests that they can't decline. Our data showed both to be true, suggesting the rats have knowledge of their own cognitive states.""

If animals really do have the ability to "know what they don't know", it makes me wonder how much of our projections about their psyches may be plausible (like in all those cartoons we grew up watching). I suddenly have a craving to watch The Secret of NIMH again.

Synthetic compound blocks alcoholism in rats

Researchers have created a synthetic compound, MTIP, blocks the activity of Corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) in the brain under stress while not interacting under normal situations.

"CRF levels in the brain rise in the short term after drinking; in subjects that are not dependent, this activation returns to normal within a day or so. The new study shows that the CRF system becomes overactive in the long term in animals with a history of alcohol dependence, increasing the risk for relapse. "

Researchers speculate that they might be able to use MTIP to eventually treat many diseases in addition to alcoholism where CRF levels are high. This includes anxiety and depression.

If this someday turns into a prescription medication, it could change the field of chemical dependency practice.

Currently, there are no 'good' drugs for alcoholism. The three main ones for preventing alcohol relapse are naltrexone (Revia), acamprosate (Campral), or disulfiram (Antabuse). The first two are supposed to decrease cravings and/or decrease the euphoria associated with alcohol. The third, and oldest (antabuse), helps to curb alcohol relapse by making you physically ill if you drink (you will vomit, have nausea, etc...).

Surprisingly (to me, at least) I have more patients on antabuse than the other 2 combined. It is likely due to the culture of my clinic, but many patients who choose antabuse and stay on it really do swear by it. In general, I am not a firm believer in aversion therapies, but having patients who choose antabuse as a deterrent to relapse, and watching it actually work for them really forces me to reconsider.

The 'Essence' of security blankets

A study in England looks at 3-6 year old children's attachments to their cherished items.

"Children were introduced to a scientific looking machine that could copy any object but was in fact a conjurer’s cabinet where an accomplice inserted replica items from behind a screen.
Professor Hood said: “When offered the choice of originals and copies, children showed no preference for duplicates of their toys unless the object to be copied was the special one that they took to bed every night. A quarter of children refused to have their favourite object copied at all, and most of those who were persuaded to put their toy in the copying machine wanted the original back.”"

To explain this, the researchers have this hypothesis: "Hood and Bloom liken this early reasoning to adult notions of ‘essences’ where we think invisible properties inhabit objects that make them unique as if these properties were physically real. This may explain why some adults think that authentic works of art and memorabilia contain some of the essence of the original creator or owner. Likewise, it also partly explains our reluctance to touch or wear items previously owned by murderers."

Makes me wonder about the evolutionary benefits of this, much like the hypothesis that humans are hardwired to believe in God.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Extrapolations from the dreams of mice

Studying the firing patterns in various brain regions of dreaming mice have challenged our theories about dreams.

In this study, they were surprised to find: "that the interaction occurred in a surprising way: Instead of the hippocampus uploading information to the neocortex, the opposite is true. The neocortex seems to drive the dialogue."

The hippocampus is responsible for forming new memories, and spatial navigation . The neocortex has many functions, including conscious thought.

Here is one new hypothesis from the findings of this study: "Memories may not be stored during sleep at all, but while humans are awake. The role of sleep, he suggested, may be to erase memories in the hippocampus as a way of creating a fresh page for the brain’s scratch pad.
“All of this research raises more questions than it answers,” Mehta said. “But we do know this: How we make and store memories is a more complex process than we thought.”".

For more details of the study:

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Genes, stressed out parents, and shy kids?

Seems like a strange connection, but "New research from the Child Development Laboratory at the University of Maryland shows that shyness in kids could relate to the manner in which a stress-related gene in children interacts with being raised by stressed-out parents."

"Like all genes, the particular serotonin-related gene examined in this study has 2 alleles, which can be long or short. The protein produced by the short form of the gene is known to predispose towards some forms of stress sensitivity.
Fox's research found that among children exposed to a mother's stress, it was only those who also inherited the short forms of the gene who showed consistently shy behavior.
"If you have two short alleles of this serotonin gene, but your mom is not stressed, you will be no more shy than your peers as a school age child," says Fox. "But we found that when stress enters the picture, the gene starts to show a strong relationship to the child's behavior," says Fox. "If you are raised in a stressful environment, and you inherit the short form of the gene, there is a higher likelihood that you will be fearful, anxious or depressed.""

This is a nice description of the interplay between genetics and environment. Both parts need to be present for a particular effect to manifest.

Clinical implications: Yet another argument for medicating psychiatric illnesses when people are undecided. This is especially true for post partum depression, when new moms have an episode of major depression shortly after childbrith (within the first month). Some worry about medicating women who are breastfeeding because of risks of antidepressant exposure via breastmilk to the infants, but research (including this study) supports that babies do better psychologically and developmentally when moms are not depressed, and are better able to bond, and attend to their infants.

Friday, March 2, 2007

An affordable way of removing viruses from drinking water

Pei Chiu (left), an associate professor in UD's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Yan Jin, a professor of environmental soil physics in UD's plant and soil sciences department, have developed an inexpensive, nonchlorine-based technology that can remove harmful microorganisms from drinking water, including viruses. (Credit: Image courtesy of University of Delaware)It's cheap, super efficient (removes 99.999 percent of viruses), and could change the world. No chlorine involved, cleans out bacteria, viruses, and various organic matter too.

"UD's patented technology, developed jointly by researchers in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the College of Engineering, incorporates highly reactive iron in the filtering process to deliver a chemical “knock-out punch” to a host of notorious pathogens, from E. coli to rotavirus.
The new technology could dramatically improve the safety of drinking water around the globe, particularly in developing countries. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over a billion people--one-sixth of the world's population--lack access to safe water supplies."

The article also talks about using it in agriculture, say on our spinach farms, where it can clean the re-circulated water (and prevent more deadly E. coli incidents).

Software to mimic the human brain

The guy that created Palm and Treo, Jeff Hawkins, has been working on an artificial intelligence program based on principles of how our brain works.

His newest company and software platform is Numenta, "which has three main components: the core problem-solving engine, which works sort of like an operating system based on Hawkins’ theory of the cortex; a set of open source software tools; and the code for the learning algorithms themselves, which users can alter as long as they make their creations available to others. "

"How Numenta’s Software IDs a Chopper
Scan and match

1) The system is shown a poor-quality image of a helicopter moving across a screen. It’s read by low-level nodes that each see a 4 x 4-pixel section of the image.
2) The low-level nodes pass the pattern they see up to the next level.
3) Intermediate nodes aggregate input from the low-level nodes to form shapes.
4) The top-level node compares the shapes against a library of objects and selects the best match.

Predict and refine

5) That info is passed back down to the intermediate - level nodes so they can better predict what shape they’ll see next.
6) Data from higher-up nodes allows the bottom nodes to clean up the image by ignoring pixels that don’t match the expected pattern (indicated above by an X). This entire process repeats until the image is crisp. "

The whole thing sounds revolutionary, but I get flashbacks of VIKI from the I, Robot movie when I think about it.

Human powered gyms?

A very cute article about various ways different companies are trying to harness human power, via exercise equipment, dancing, or walking.

"California Fitness...owned by ... 24 Hour Fitness Worldwide, agreed to cover the cost of materials, which ultimately came to about $15,000....Those [elliptical and stairmaster] machines already contained small motion-powered generators used to light up their display screens. But the generators were producing significantly more electricity than was needed to power the screen, and the excess energy was being thrown off as heat.
Mr. Gambarota rewired the generators in 13 machines on the gym's main floor to capture the excess energy, running wires underneath the carpets to a car battery that could store the power. The battery was hooked up to an inverter taken from a mobile home. It converted the voltage from DC to AC and was connected to 13 fluorescent lights hanging above the exercise machines.
The company's U.S. parent is watching the Hong Kong experiment closely and says it would consider a global rollout if the Hong Kong project is successful. The company has three million members and close to 400 gyms in the U.S."

Predisposition to Addiction Found in Cocaine Study

The neurotransmitter in question is dopamine.

The receptor deficiency is D2 (one of the types of dopamine receptor) .

The specific brain area is the ventral (front) area of the striatum, the nucleus accumbens.

Details of the study: "Researchers at the University of Cambridge in England report in this week's Science that a lower number of specific types of receptors that bind the neurotransmitter dopamine—a chemical central to the brain's reward system—in the front (or ventral) section of the striatum (a midbrain region implicated in planning and movement as well as executive function) correlates to increased impulsive behavior in rats. In addition, they found that the more impulsive animals, when given the option, consumed more cocaine than the calmer rats did. "

This just means that some brains are more susceptible to drug addiction, and they hypothesize that deficiencies in the D2 receptor in the nucleus accumbens of the brain may explain why.

Clinical Implications (aka how I'll use it with my patients):
Many chemically dependent patients have a lot of guilt and poor self esteem around their drug abuse. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but when they start expanding this into judgements about their moral character, and being a 'bad' person, it can get in the way of treatment. By explaining to them that their addictive nature may be at least partially due to brain chemistry, it often helps them to separate out addiction from morality. I don't mean to imply that someone is not responsible for their actions. Rather, it's that if someone knows their brain has a vulnerability (ie. addiction), then they need to change their environment and/or behavior(s) if they want to stay out of trouble.
A less charged example: if you are diabetic, your body just can't process carbohydrates and sugars as well as the average person. It doesn't make you a bad person because your body is different. However, if you don't make accommodations (ie. change your diet, take medications or insulin, make efforts to keep you blood glucose in balance), you will get sick, your organs will fail, and it will likely kill you.

Basically, this supports the disease model for addiction and mental illness, rather than a character judgement about the 'weakness' of an individual. Doesn't mean they can use this as an excuse to abuse drugs either, unless they want to give up on the idea of free will.

Happy Friday everyone!

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Mapping out a wiring diagram of the brain, one neuron at a time

An overwhelming undertaking, given there are millions of neurons in the brain, and "these circuits are difficult to unravel because dozens of different neuronal types are entangled within a precisely connected network, and even neighboring neurons of the same type differ in connectivity and function.".

The good news is, researchers at the Salk Institute have created a way to isolate one neuron, and then trace its interconnections and pathways.

""The bottom line is that you need two genes expressed in the cell or cell type of interest: TVA, to get the rabies virus in, and the missing viral gene so the virus can spread to connected cells," says Wickersham.
Experimenting on slices of neonatal rat brain, the Salk researchers inserted these two genes into selected neurons -- as well as a gene that fluoresces red when expressed. Then they applied the modified rabies virus, which had furthermore been given the ability to make infected cells fluoresce green. The result was spectacular: as expected, these red cells were selectively infected by the virus, which spread to hundreds of surrounding cells, turning them brilliantly fluorescent green."

Too bad they don't have a youtube video of this yet.

More build your own projects: Multi-Touch Table

Apple's just coming out with this idea, and already there's a 'build your own' for it.

More build your own projects: Backyard Fuel Cell

Seems there are more and more of these available every day.
This would be one I'd love to have someday.

Backyard Fuel Cell
"In 2004, they started rigging up a Rube Goldberg contraption that uses solar panels and electrolyzers to generate hydrogen and allows Web-based monitoring of its proton-exchange-membrane fuel cell. In late 2006, a bemused but impressed inspector granted state approval. Now the system, which they built for around $50,000, taps any surplus solar electricity to fill a 500-gallon hydrogen fuel tank, enough reserve for about 14 days’ worth of power (a second tank can be added to double that capacity). Friend thinks of the setup as sort of a TiVo for energy — bank hydrogen during the summer, then consume as it’s needed."

Set up and run a hydrogen-fueled house in 5 easy steps.
1) GENERATE SOLAR POWER. Jason Lerner, an alternative-energy expert and family friend, installed the home’s photo­voltaic panels (cost: around $13,400) in the front yard. The cells pump out 1.6 kW during the sunniest hours of the day, which is just under a typical load for the Friend family.
2) TURN WATER INTO H AND O. Two laboratory-grade electrolyzers (Hogen GC 600 units at $7,900 each) run on solar electricity and water to make 0.3 gallon of hydrogen per minute, which is then forced into a steel tank at 200 psi. A second tank may be added to double the capacity to a month’s worth of power.
3) LEARN TO PLUMB FOR H. High-end stainless steel tubing prevents the plumbing from corroding. (Hydrogen ions are the active ingredient in acid.) A blast of nitrogen can be used to remove the air from an empty 500-gallon propane tank, which can then be carefully filled with home-brewed hydrogen.
4) TURN H AND O BACK INTO H2O. A 148-pound, 48-volt fuel cell combines hydrogen with the oxygen in air to charge the battery bank. An inverter converts the DC electricity to AC for the home’s 110-volt system. Find this gear at The builders caution that these products aren’t perfect.
5) AUTOMATE AND MONITOR. The crew connected system switches to relays controlled by battery voltage. After 20 minutes sans sun, the electro­lyzers shut down, and the house is powered by the fuel cell. A satellite link transmits reports on voltage and tank capacity, and a hydrogen sniffer checks for leaks.