Brain and Behavior

There is a disturbance in the antivaccine Force. I can sense it. Actually, it doesn’t take any special talent to detect this. You don't have to be some sort of pro-science Jedi. The evidence is everywhere. The most prominent examples of posts in the antivaccine crankosphere that tipped me off are on—of course!—the antivaccine propaganda blog Age of Autism, which references another blog’s post with blaring capitalized headlines, BREAKING: CDC WHISTLEBLOWER "DR. THOMPSON HAS BEEN HANDLED" SAYS DR. HOOKER AT MANHATTAN VAXXED Q&A. Elsewhere, He Who Shall Not Be Named (and to whom I shall no…
Whenever a story like Robert De Niro's decision to choose an antivaccine film by Andrew Wakefield for screening at his prestigious Tribeca Film Festival followed by his decision to drop the film like the proverbial hot potato upon being shown just how full of misinformation, distortions, and pseudoscience the film is shows up, I not infrequently feel as though the topic takes over the blog. And so it often does. It's been the main topic here for the last week. That's why I thought I'd move on to something else, but then, seeing the reaction of the antivaccine crankosphere yesterday to the…
I wasn't sure if I was going to write about this again so soon, because one post seemed adequate to describe the massive dump that the Tribeca Film Festival just took on reality by announcing the screening of a pseudoscientific antivaccine propaganda film by The One Antivaccine Quack To Rule Them All, Andrew Wakefield. Any skeptic with an interest in medicine and vaccines knows that he's one man most responsible for creating the myth that the MMR vaccine can cause autism. As a result, MMR vaccine uptake plummeted in the UK, and the measles came roaring back. I speculated why this might have…
Peter Watts has this short short story about a brain interface technology that allows people to merge their consciousness with other organisms -- and in this one, "Colony Creature", someone experiences what it is like to be an octopus, and is horrified by it. “Those arms.” His Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat. “Those fucking crawly arms. You know, that thing they call the brain— it’s nothing, really. Ring of neurons around the esophagus, basically just a router. Most of the nervous system’s in the arms, and those arms… every one of them is awake…” It's a good story, and I'm not knocking it…
A special thank you to reader Dr. Barbara Goodman, Professor of Physiology at Sanford School of Medicine of the University of South Dakota who sent me a story from The Scientist about sleep in animals complete with footage of a dolphin that was seen apparently "sleeping" (video posted on YouTube): Why do animals sleep? This is a question with many potential answers. It is known that birds and mammals experience slow-wave and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep patterns. During the first pattern, slow waves with high amplitudes can be seen if measuring electrical activity (EEG) in the cortex.…
When last I visited this topic, I was highly tempted to start out out by making a simple observation, namely by quoting John Wooden's famous adage, "The true test of a man's character is what he does when no one is watching." Since I didn't use it for the two posts I did on this particular topic, Sh*t naturopaths say and Sh*t naturopaths say, part 2, I just did it for this post. It's the perfect quote for this topic. What I'm referring to is a private discussion forum for naturopaths known as Naturopathic Chat, or NatChat for short, and how a leak from the group had revealed the sort of pure…
Believe it or not, I frequently peruse Retraction Watch, the blog that does basically what its title says: It watches for retracted articles in the peer-reviewed scientific literature and reports on them. Rare is it that a retracted paper gets by the watchful eyes of the bloggers there. So it was that the other day I noticed an post entitled Journal temporarily removes paper linking HPV vaccine to behavioral issues. I noticed it mainly because it involves a paper by two antivaccine "researchers" whom we've met several times before, Christopher A. Shaw and Lucija Tomljenovic in the Department…
I have often made the argument that religiosity, a personal belief in god, spirits, the supernatural, etc., would emerge in human societies on its own if it wasn't there already. Imagine taking an entire generation of people in a geographically isolated region, and wiping out their memory of religion, and also, removing all references to religion that they might ever encounter. They would be religion free for a while, maybe even for a number of generations, but eventually, they would reinvent it. Everybody has a theory of why religion exists, what purposes it serves, etc. etc. Until proven…
We came back from the developmental pediatrician yesterday in a jubilant mood. Two of my sons came to us with significant developmental delays. Both of them have made wonderful progress, so last night was an occasion for celebration. A lot of parents have children who are delayed in some ways. Some kids catch up. Some catch up part of the way. Some never do. It can be a huge struggle to trust that you are doing things "right." After almost 16 years of parenting kids with significant disabilities, I've come to feel that as long as you are in there working to support your kids and get…
Last week, Simon Davis wrote to me with questions about this cryonic brain preservation technique, which has now been published as How to Freeze Your Brain and Live Forever (Maybe). Unfortunately, my comments did not make it into the story, because, Simon politely explained, there are length restrictions and perhaps, I assume, also because my extended dismissive scorn does not translate well to polite journalism. And that's OK! Because I have a blog, and I can rant here! The Brain Preservation Society has a goal: to preserve dead brains today, so they can be reanimated at some distant time in…
I don't know a single person on any end of the political spectrum who doesn't want to see an end to police shootings of black folk. I don't know a single person who doesn't want to make sure that shootings like the Charleston one never happen again. But most ordinary white people also don't have a clue how they could help with that, other than posting the occasional facebook meme or generally feeling it would be a good thing if something were done. Or maybe they'd like to do something, but are nervous about it - how will other people feel if they just show up to a protest or meeting? The…
This post will be different than my usual post. Let's just say that it has to do with quackery of a different kind than I usually write about here. It's about a public health disaster that was entirely preventable and had nothing to do with vaccines. It has to do with government malpractice on an epic scale, right here in my very own state. It's a story that's huge here in Michigan but doesn't seem to be penetrating the national news very much, at least not yet. I suspect that my international readers, most of whom are likely unaware of this story, will have to pick their jaws up off the…
One of the stories dominating my blogging in 2015 was a manufactroversy that started in August 2014 when, after several months of rumbling in the antivaccine crankosphere that there was a CDC scientist ready to blow the whistle on an alleged coverup of evidence that vaccines cause autism, Andrew Wakefield, ever the publicity hog, released a video entitled CDC Whistleblower Revealed, in which he claimed that he had evidence of a "high level deception" of the American people about vaccine safety and revealed the "CDC Whistleblower" to be one William W. Thompson, PhD, a psychologist by training…
I know this is a horrible photo -- I just snapped a picture of the journal hardcopy, which I own, instead of grabbing a PDF from the web, because it's from 1985 and I'd have to pay to get a copy of my own paper -- but this is what I was doing in grad school. I started as somebody who was interested in neurons and the nervous system, so what you're seeing is a transverse section of the spinal cord of a zebrafish, with a couple of motoneurons labeled black with a tracer enzyme. I spent most of my time teasing apart how those cells grew and made connections. But all the while there was this one…
The Discovery Institute thinks axon guidance mechanisms are evidence for intelligent design. I think they just trawl the scientific literature for the words "complex" and "purpose" and get really excited about the imaginary interpretations in their head of papers they don't really understand. There's no mention of evolution here, nor in the full paper in Science. The paper, however, does use a notable word: purpose. "These findings identify NELL2 as an axon guidance cue and establish Robo3 as a multifunctional regulator of pathfinding that simultaneously mediates NELL2 repulsion, inhibits…
Bullying. You keep saying that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. Yes, I do so love to co-opt that famous line from The Princess Bride for my own nefarious purposes, but it's so perfect for this particular topic, which comes up every so often when I'm writing about the pseudoscience behind the antivaccine movement. It usually takes the form of an emotional screed by some antivaccine parent or other complaining about how she's being "bullied" by us nasty, evil, insensitive pro-vaccine, well, bullies. (They frequently repeat the word many times throughout the course of their…
Let me tell you the hard part about writing about epigenetics: most of your audience has no idea what you're talking about, but is pretty sure that they can use it, whatever it is, to justify every bit of folk wisdom/nonsensical assumption that they have. So while you're explaining how it's a very real and important biological process that is essential for development and learning and behavior, half your readers are using the biology to confirm their biases about evolution and inheritance, and the other half already know all the basic stuff and want to get to the Evisceration of the Wrong,…
Flame retardants aren’t just found in your furniture. It’s likely you also have detectable amounts of the chemical in your body too, which is pretty worrisome considering the growing amount of research connecting flame retardants to serious health risks. Researchers have linked to the chemicals to reproductive health problems, adverse neurobehavioral development in kids, and endocrine and thyroid disruption. And so the question arises: Do the risks of today’s flame retardants outweigh the benefits? Chemical engineer Christopher Ellison, an associate professor in the University of Texas-Austin…
There's an interesting conversation in the New York Times: a neuroscientist, Kenneth D. Miller, argues that brain uploading ain't gonna happen. I agree with him, only in part because of the argument from complexity he gives. Much of the current hope of reconstructing a functioning brain rests on connectomics: the ambition to construct a complete wiring diagram, or “connectome,” of all the synaptic connections between neurons in the mammalian brain. Unfortunately connectomics, while an important part of basic research, falls far short of the goal of reconstructing a mind, in two ways. First,…
One of the limitations constraining those of us who do human subjects research is that ethical considerations often prevent us from designing our clinical trials in what would be, from a strictly scientific standpoint, in the most methodologically rigorous way. For example, we can't intentionally infect human beings with known inocula of deadly bacteria in order to cause a reproducible severity of disease to be treated with a new antibiotic. One thing that antivaccinationists seem unable to understand is this very point with respect to vaccine trials. They will call for a "vaxed versus…