Thursday, December 15, 2011

13 Antidotes to economic 'doom and gloom'

Antidote to personal doom and gloom .. (adapted from  Luke Johnson’s suggestions: Financial Times: Nov 9, 2011)

1) Study history:   It puts the present situation into context. Worse situations have occurred many times before

2) Avoid the news:  Editors believe bad news sells better than good. Neither do many hesitate to exaggerate

3) Spend more time with the young:  Age and experience make too many older people cynical and at times melancholy

4) Remain rational :  The worst almost never happens

5) Avoid pessimists:  Keep the company of sunny characters

6) Read the Stoics:  Writers such as Marcus Aurelius have given uplifting advice for hundreds of years

7) Admit mistakes and move on ; We all make bad decisions at times. Don’t dwell on them. Recognize them, learn,  and move on

8)  Keep busy:  dynamic individuals don’t have time to become depressed nor are interested in doing so

9) Get fit:  physical exercise is an excellent antidote for stress. Endorphins help banish the blues

10) Focus on small wins:   we all have little victories every day

11) Ignore events over which you have no control:   worrying about such things, such as what will happen to the Euro,  is a waste of intellectual effort.

12) Concentrate on your own micro-economy: forget the macroeconomic climate.

13) Laugh:  seek out comedy when you can.  Don’t take yourself too seriously

Cancer in devoping countires; huge increase

Cancer incidence in developing countries is increasing at a staggering rate. The disease now kills more people in those countries than malaria, AIDs and tuberculosis combined.   But a Global Task Force  on Expanded Access to Cancer Care and Control in Developing Countries  (GTF.CCC) released a report in November (2011) showing that by using affordable and readily available drugs, more than 2.4 million lives could be saved each year.

While medical effort have increased survival from infectious diseases in developing countries, this has not been the same for cancer where  the increased survival has meant a greater predisposition to contracting the illnesses of the richer countries, cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

According to the report of GTF.CCC, 26 out of 29 key drugs that could treat the most prevalent and curable cancers are now off-patient. People could receive a course of treatment for less than $100.

In Canada the survival rate for childhood leukemia is around 90%, In low-income countries it is around 10%. Access to drugs would increase this dramatically.  A couple of  hundred million dollars (the cost of 100 cruise missiles) would treat all of these childhood leukemias.

Elite takers-over spell social discord

A good indicator of mature states on the verge of collapse is the degree of corruption found in elitist group(s) perpetuated on their fellow citizens.  With mathematical modeling Peter Turchin of the University of Connecticut has predicted this fact. ‘War and Peace and War’  Pi  press 2005)

In healthy growing societies resources are shared with a degree of equity, with high employment.  After this though the population outgrows the demand for labour, which grows cheap and employers become rich, causing inequality to widen. ‘Elites’ proliferate and compete for power and patronage, and if one group succeeds in grabbing a bigger slice of the pie than others there is generally trouble ahead.

There are many examples in history leading up to the present day. In 16th Century France for example, decades of civil war followed when one aristocratic clan elbowed out the others and Turchin also notes that Egypt saw a quadrupling of graduates, a classic sign of a burgeoning elite in recent years.

Do broad faces really rule ?

Men with broad faces tend to feel  more powerful than those with longer faces. So say researchers at the University of Wisconsin. (Proceedings of the Royal Society B, DOI;10.1098/rspb.2011.1193). This could explain the findings of the same workers that broad faced men are more likely to engage in unethical behaviour, for example, lying in negotiations.

The researchers speculate that the cause behind this may be that people possibly view the ratio of height to width of a male face as an indicator of certain personality traits, notably aggression and untrustworthiness and so behave more deferentially to wide faced individuals. This could  generate a psychological sense of power in such individuals over time. 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Screen shots of your thoughts now a reality !

Generating images of  what someone is thinking, shown on screen. It sounds like science fiction, but it is now on the road to becoming science fact.  Already, images have been generated albeit at low resolution bearing definite resemblance to that of the dream
Achievements have been made both through three methods, two of which rely on raw computing power, and the other on clever experimentation.

 Firstly, there was a need to establish whether the brain gives out the same signals for a particular thought or action whether it is awake or asleep. This was achieved by recruiting people known as 'lucid dreamers' who are able to both be asleep yet partially awake at the same time to be able to signal that they are dreaming.  Measurements on these volunteers showed that indeed mental signals were the same for the brain whether it was 'asleep' or 'awake'

The second experiment consisted of showing volunteers thousands of film clips of many varied types, and  monitoring their mri (magnetic resonance imaging) responses produced by their brains. A computer looked for correlations between specific images or sequences and the mri responses obtained.   They then fed their computer 5000 hours of You Tube sequences and asked the machine to predict, based on the correlations what the matching MRI response would be.   Finally the volunteers were asked to watch a further two more hours while the computer picked its own sequences based on the new mri signals it received. .  The sequences picked were melded together to produce an estimate of what was being watched looked like.   The results often gave recognizable simulations on screen (see )

The third study by Francisco Pereira and colleagues at Princeton University, used a similar method to the one above but successfully attempted to see what topics his subjects were pondering. His method was to examine data conducted in an experiment 4 years previously where volunteers were shown 60 labeled objects. They were then asked to imagine the same objects while they had their brains scanned  Again, a portion of the results were used to program his computer while the other half were used to see what the computer generated itself on being given the scans.   While the accuracy was found not to be at a level to totally identify the object,  it was enough to determine what type of object it was i.e.  it could not distinguish a carrot from a celery stick, but could determine it was a vegetable.

These are early days with studies performed in a fairly limited way.  Both the last two studies however could be repeated at many times greater numbers, which would no doubt increase 'focus' considerably.

'Mind reading' by machine has thus started and will only become more sophisticated and accurate. While it may have worrying implications in the wrong hands, it also has considerable potential to assist mankind. It may, for example unlock those who have suffered stroke or injury and are locked in their own minds. It  could help the disabled to lead more normal lives.   As with many scientific breaks through it will be up to society to decide their use, controls and limits.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Schizophrenia - Nature or Nurture ?...

'Nature' (inherited traits encoded within the genes) vs 'nurture' (characteristics acquired through exposure to environmental or social input) is core to many debates around health and behavioural issues.    Now, using studies on twins it is shown that the nurture can be a significant factor. with environmental factors changing gene activity.  (Human Molecular Genetics. DOI:10.1098/hmg/ddr416)

The work by Jonathan Mill at Kings College london, carried out genetic studies on 22 pairs of identical twins, selected because one of each pair had been diagnosed with either schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. DNA was, of course identical in each but had significant differences in "epigenetic" markings which do not change the DNA of the genes but indicate how active they are.  Commonly,these markings are by a process of 'methylation' which switches genes on and off and the methylation process is a result of processes influencing the genes from the external environment.  ie not within the genes themselves.

A prominant known promotor genes for  both schizophrenia and bipoar disorder were were. studied.  One interesting additional finding was that one gene (ZNF659) showed over methyllation for people with schizophrena but under-methiation for in those with bipolar disorder, suggesting that the conditions might result from opposing gene activity.  Thus, some genes may be over-acitve in one disease but under-active in another.

Jonathan Mill says that if it were shown that epigenetic changes preceed the onset of disorders, a fact which could be established by scanning twins throuout life, then it might be possible to identify the environmental changes, such as diet, stress or other inputs, which cold then be prevented.   This first step however possibly gives the best evidence to date that epigenetic mechanism may drive psychiatric disorders.

You are what you eat !..

 New evidence has shown that gentic material that we eat in food survives digestion without breakdown and and cirulates through the body.  Furthermore some of these gene fragments, are known to muffle gene expresson which lead to measurable biochemical changes.  (Cell Research, DOI:10.1038/cr.2011.158).

 The study, by Cheu-Yu-Zhang, of Nanjing University showed that  plant RNA's from the cabbage family, along with rice, brocoli, and possibly all the plants you eat can change the behaviour of your genes in ways previously unkown to science.   Among other things, the study looked at cholesterol levels in the blood and found that they could be influenced by the gene affecting affect of the  RNA plant fragments.

The studies have yet to be followed up and further validated. However, in the least case they will very likely result in a swell of research into the effects of food DNA and RNA on our health.  They may demonstrate both unknown adverse as well as advantagious affects and lead to the developent of new drugs.