Brain and Behavior

As I just mentioned a week ago, there used to be a time when I dreaded Autism Awareness Month, which begins tomorrow. The reason was simple. Several years ago to perhaps as recently as three years ago, I could always count on a flurry of stories about autism towards the end of March and the beginning of April about autism. That in and of itself isn't bad. Sometimes the stories were actually informative and useful. However, in variably there would be a flurry of truly aggravating stories in which the reporter, either through laziness, lack of ideas, or the desire to add some spice and…
Our future is at risk. The science is settled, in the main, though there are many details to continue to work out and there are unknowns. But no one doubts that business as usual release of fossil carbon into the atmosphere mainly as the greenhouse gas Carbon Dioxide spells big trouble for humanity and the planet Earth, including eventual massive sea level rise and highly disruptive changes in the Earth’s climatology that will make a mess of many things including our food supply. Think failed state. Think Syria. Now, think failed planet, Syria over half the globe, the other half merely a mess…
The latest issue of the Journal of Public Health Policy includes an interesting piece by Linda Richter and Susan E. Foster of the organization CASAColumbia about "changing the language of addiction." (The journal is open access during the month of March; the home page is here.) They note that while the science of addiction has advanced, outdated public attitudes about it persist and interfere with effective treatment. Surveys have found adults, and even many physicians, to consider alcohol addiction to be at least partially a personal or moral weakness. Stigmatizing addiction can interfere…
Solar cells made with bismuth vanadate achieve a surface area of 32 square meters per gram.  This compound can be paired with cheap oxides to split water molecules (and make hydrogen) with record efficiency. Short-term geoengineering could postpone global warming, only to have it happen more quickly in the future. Carotenoids tinge blackbird bills a deep orange, signalling fitness; birds with oranger bills are "are heavier and larger, have less blood parasites and pair with females in better condition than males with yellow bills." Fibroblasts can extrude a tidy biological scaffold for stem-…
Most people infected with mosquito-borne West Nile virus don’t experience any symptoms at all. However, the tiny percentage of cases that do end up in the hospital total hundreds of millions of dollars in medical costs and lost productivity. Published earlier this week in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, researchers estimated that the cumulative cost of reported hospitalized cases of West Nile virus between 1999 and 2012 totaled $778 million. The study is the first to examine the economic burden of West Nile on infected patients who were hospitalized with conditions such…
Kevin Drum and Aaron Carroll report on a new study of the effect of new grocery stores opening in "food deserts" in poor neighborhood. The study is paywalled, so I can't speak to the whole thing, but both of them quote similar bits making the same point: no statistically significant effects on the BMI of people in the neighborhood, and very few signs of healthier eating in general. This is one of those studies that probably belongs in the Journal of "Well, Yeah...", because it doesn't surprise me a bit. Not for reasons that can be addressed via policy measures-- Drum quotes the study saying "…
Antivaccinationists irritate me, for reasons that should be obvious to regular readers. The reason is that vaccine-preventable diseases can kill. Contrary to the beliefs of many nonvaccinating parents, who downplay these diseases as being not particularly dangerous, they are dangerous. Of these, one of more dangerous vaccine-preventable diseases is pertussis. That's why a story that popped up in my Facebook feed disturbed me so. Unsurprisingly, it's on that other wretched hive of scum and quackery (with respect to vaccines), Mothering.com: So, my almost ten month old started coughing and…
It’s probably my earliest public health memory — the image of Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and his grandfatherly beard on the television warning my elementary school self about the dangers of smoking. He was the first doctor I knew by name. But while Koop may be the surgeon general that people of my generation most likely associate with the public health movement to reduce smoking, he wasn’t the first to speak out against tobacco. Koop was carrying on a legacy that began decades before with the nation’s ninth surgeon general, Luther Terry, who on Jan. 11, 1964, released the first surgeon…
By Stacy JannisKavli Science Video Contest Manager The Kavli Science in Fiction Video Contest challenges Gr 6-12 students to examine the science in fiction, including science fiction movies, TV shows, and games. Our contest advisors include science educators , scientists, and Hollywood scifi visual effects experts. Steven Schlozman, M.D. is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a staff child and adult psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, MA. He is also the co-director of Medical Student Education in Psychiatry for Harvard Medical School. His…
Razib Khan poked me on twitter yesterday on the topic of David Dobbs' controversial article, which I've already discussed (I liked it). I'm in the minority here; Jerry Coyne has two rebuttals, and Richard Dawkins himself has replied. There has also been a lot of pushback in the comments here. I think they all miss the mark, and represent an attempt to shoehorn everything into an established, successful research program, without acknowledging any of the inadequacies of genetic reductionism. Before I continue, let's get one thing clear: I am saying that understanding genes is fundamental,…
Catching Fire is apparently a very popular book and/or movie that everyone is very excited about. But Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human is a different a book about some interesting research I was involved in about the origin of our genus, Homo. You can pick up a copy of our paper on this page. We call it "The Cooking Hypothesis." The basic idea can be summarized with these points: 1) Cooking food transformed human ecology. Many potential foods in the environment can't be consumed by humans (or apes in general) without cooking. But adding cooking to our species-specific technology,…
Warning: here be spoilers In many latter-day zombie movies, books, and TV shows, zombie-ism has a biological cause. In 28 Days Later, the infection is caused by the "Rage" virus, which escaped from a lab when animal rights activists break in and release a group of infected chimpanzees. Of course, one of the animals promptly bites one of its "liberators," and the infection spreads rapidly throughout Great Britain. In Zombieland, it's a mutated form of "mad cow" disease. The Crazies, it's the Trixie virus; World War Z, the Solanum virus; Resident Evil, the T virus. I could go on and on. Zombie…
Can we replace Classroom Chaos with Learning-Centered Education? K–12 education can be better. One of the most effective changes that could be made is to reduce the amount of chaos in the classroom and replace it with learning. I spend several hours a year in various schools giving presentations on Anthropology, Evolution, Brainzz, and other topics. Plus, I know some teachers and have taught seminars specifically for teachers. For these reasons I have a sense of what happens in high school (and to a lesser extent middle school and elementary school) classrooms. What I am about to describe…
Blogging is a rather immediate endeavor. Over the last nine years (nearly), I've lost track of how many times I saw something that I wanted to blog about but but by the time I got around to it was no longer topical. Usually what happens is that my Dug the Dog tendencies take over, as I'm distracted by yet another squirrel, although sometimes there are just too many targets topics and too little time. Fortunately, however, sometimes the issue is resurrected, sometimes in a really dumb way, such that I have an excuse to correct my previous oversight. This is just such a time, and the manner in…
A recent article published in The Scientist about the use of robots to study animal behavior is a must-read! I had no idea this was such a seemingly common use of robots. Some researchers use them to mimic the movements of ants along paths of least resistance. While others have developed robots to study cockroaches, rodents, birds, squirrels, frogs, fish, bees, etc. Researchers study the robots in the lab or field to see how well they mimic the real thing or to understand how robotic animals and real animals interact. By studying robots, researchers often learn about the constraints an…
...for rodents and men at least. A team of researchers at UC Berkeley have discovered that mice infected with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii lose their innate fear of cats, even months after the infection is cleared. In fact, infected mice were mildly attracted to the odor of cats. This side effect likely evolved because the parasite can only sexually reproduce in a cat's gut necessitating ingestion of the parasite. Incidentally, other researchers have described the same side effects in rats and men (but not women). The findings suggest that the parasitic infection causes permanent changes in…
Yesterday, I did a bit of navel gazing about how cranks, quacks, and antivaccinationists have a penchant for attacking skeptics at work in order to try to intimidate them into silence. Reading the post over again, I realize that it came across perhaps more whiny than it should have, but I guess I was just in that sort of mood when I wrote it. One thing that I didn't discuss, though, is how attacks like this have traditionally been a very reliable indication that that I'm on the right track with respect to the quackery being called out. When I write my usual, run-of-the-mill posts about…
What effect does a constant stream of engaging stimuli have on our relationships? On our social structure as a whole? What percentage of our actions is influenced by others, and how does this translate, at some point, into group behavior? Neurobiologists Prof. Alon Chen and Dr. Elad Schneidman of the Weizmann Institute and their team members have been using mice to investigate these questions. Chen and Schneidman approach the group as a network composed of the joint behavior patterns of mice that had had their fur dyed in bright, glow-in-the-dark colors. Among other things, this enables the…
The damaged done by the antivaccine movement is primarily in how it frightens parents out of vaccinating using classic denialist tactics of spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD). Indeed, as has been pointed out many times before, antivaccinationists are often proud of their success in discouraging parents from vaccinating, with one leader of the antivaccine movement even going to far as to characterize his antivaccine "community, held together with duct tape and bailing wire," as being in the "early to middle stages of bringing the U.S. vaccine program to its knees." Meanwhile, just…
While we've been waiting and waiting for the physicists to get their act together and deliver on Mr Fusion home energy sources and flying cars, the biologists have been making great progress on the kinds of things that turn biologists on. The latest development: growing tiny little human brains in a bucket. Only let's not call them brains…they are cerebral organoids. Hugo Gernsback would be so proud. Here's the latest development. Start with embryonic human stem cells, or induced pluripotent stem cells (cells which you've reset to a kind of embryonic state by using a virus to transfect them…