Posted in Blog Archive

Posted by abeodbart January 31, 2012 at 12:52 pm


“Skin cells have been converted directly into cells which develop into the main components of the brain, by researchers studying mice in California.

The experiment, reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, skipped the middle “stem cell” stage in the process.

The researchers said they were “thrilled” at the potential medical uses.

Far more tests are needed before the technique could be used on human skin.

Stem cells, which can become any other specialist type of cell from brain to bone, are thought to have huge promise in a range of treatments. Many trials are taking place, such as in stroke patients or specific forms of blindness.

One of the big questions for the field is where to get the cells from. There are ethical concerns around embryonic stem cells and patients would need to take immunosuppressant drugs as any stem cell tissue would not match their own.

An alternative method has been to take skin cells and reprogram them into “induced” stem cells. These could be made from a patient’s own cells and then turned into the cell type required, however, the process results in cancer-causing genes being activated.

The research group, at the Stanford University School of Medicine in California, is looking at another option – converting a person’s own skin cells into specialist cells, without creating “induced” stem cells. It has already transformed skin cells directly into neurons.”

Read more at BBC News


Posted in Blog Archive

Posted by abeodbart January 27, 2012 at 8:07 am

“Scientists and doctors have been studying placebos for more than half a century. These inert “sugar pills” remain highly controversial, yet they are widely used in clinical treatment today—especially in the area of pain management. So-called “placebo analgesia” has been observed again and again not only in the pain clinic, but also in the neuroscience lab, where scientists have documented a placebo response in the brain’s pain pathways.

Despite this evidence, nobody really understands the psychological processes involved in placebo analgesia. Presumably the power of these inert substances has something to do with the expectation of relief, but how do expectations translate into basic cognitive processes, like attention and thought? One possibility is that when sufferers expect relief, they are able to redirect their attention away from their pain, creating an analgesic effect. If that’s the case, then expectation itself might actually act as an agent of cognitive control, and the mind’s executive powers might be the link between expectation and relief. Imaging studies have revealed placebo-related activity in a brain region involved in executive function—bolstering this theory.

But this brain imaging evidence is merely suggestive, and the theory has never been tested directly. A team of psychological scientists, headed up by Jason Buhle of Columbia University, decided to investigate this explanation for placebo analgesia. The brain has a limited supply of cognitive power, so if indeed placebo analgesia requires executive attention, then performance on a demanding cognitive task should interfere with pain relief from a placebo, and vice versa. One kind of executive power is working memory, and in previous work Buhle and colleagues have shown that performing a difficult working memory task itself reduces pain, presumably by distracting sufferers. So in a new experiment, they tested whether this same cognitive task interferes with the relief offered by a placebo drug, as one would expect if they are using the same cognitive mechanisms. If not, then the evidence would suggest that sugar pills and distraction have independent analgesic effects.”

Read more at Psychological Science (Thanks Annette)


Posted in Blog Archive

Posted by abeodbart January 24, 2012 at 10:07 am

A fun article at poses an interesting question; “What happens if we all become twice as smart?”

This is not a strange thought since human IQ has been steadily rising since measurements began. This is called the Flynn effect and social scientists are not sure what caused it, though improved nutrition, education and social complexity in the media age are all pinned as being factors in the increase.

Interestingly, not as much would change as you think, says Richard Haier, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Irvine. Although we would be able to learn faster and remember more (since our IQ’s would effectively be equivalent to that of rare crazy genius Isaac Newton) society is unlikely to suddenly turn into a futuristics utopia of like minded pacifists.

We would certainly be healthier, probably more physically attractive and less superstitious as these all correlate with increased intelligence, but the same personal defects (arrogance, anti-social behaviour, selfishness, etc.) would plague a civilisation of geniuses like they do today. Some of us would be able to devise brilliant new technological solutions to complex problems we face today, but similarly, those with nefarious purposes would be able to turn great new inventions towards destructive new ways of profit at the cost of others, or if we are really unlucky, new and apocalyptic weapons of war.

Certainly an entertaining thought. Be sure to read the article and post in the comments what you would think is most likely to change when we all have an average IQ of 200.


Posted in Blog Archive

Posted by abeodbart January 18, 2012 at 9:51 am

This will probably be the most amazing thing you’ll see for a while. But if you think we’re referring to an encounter with the Derrenite dynasty of Clan Brown, you’ll be sorely disappointed (or not, depends?). What you’ll see below, and we do urge you to watch, is footage of a troop of wild mountain gorillas in Uganda, marching through a tourist camp as if they own the place, sitting down for a snack next to a stunned tourist before moving on. These are our second closest living relatives after the chimpanzee, since our common ancestors with the gorillas diverged about 7 million years ago and about 5 million for chimps. We share 95-99% of the same DNA.

Now, we say wild, but these gorillas in Uganda are exposed to human tourists all year long. With only about 750 of the heavily endangered mountain gorillas left, tourism is the only way to pay for the rangers needed to protect the animals from encroaching urban interference and the witchdoctors or poachers that sell the gorilla body parts for use in “magical” potions. It was also common to eat the great apes, before conservationists were able to end this practice.

The gorillas in the video are called the Rushegura troop and consist of a harem of females (the moderate sized black apes), a ton of toddlers of various sizes and one giant male silverback (you will know him when you see him, trust us). As you’ll notice, the silverback is perhaps three-or four times the size of the females! “Why?”, a male visitor might ask in a trembling, thin voice so his 7ft tall 280lbs silverback wife won’t hear him from the couch. Well, as you suspect the males have to fight for domination of the harems. Hence evolution has favoured an ongoing arms-race between males that resulted in them growing steadily bigger. The rationale being that randomly born larger males won more fights, had more sex and hence their own male offspring also got the genes for being larger. Whilst females, not encumbered with this tiresome competitive boasting, could stay nice and small so they in theory could still catcha cab to a theatre in Britain to see Derren’s awesome Svengali show (hint, hint).

As a result, a silverback gorilla in his prime, as the specimen in the video certainly seems to be, is not only huge, but also has the estimated strength of around 10 to 20 strong human men! Don’t believe us? Look at the video and pay special attention to the mass of muscles on the silverback. These amazing animals have been observed casually snapping giant bamboo stalks, equivalent to the strength of two inch steel bars, like twigs. Imagine what it could do to your parents in law? Luckily (for your parents in law) these are rather meek non-violent creatures, and if you treat them with respect, no looking in the eyes, stay low, still and submissive, you’ll be absolutely fine as the video will show you.

What a wonderful and terrifying experience this must have been. To have those little gorillas crawl all over you, kissing your face (sublime!) whilst their dad, a massive silverback 50 times your strength (the guy is kinda feeble, OK?) is having a little rest right behind you, keeping a protective eye on his brood and you…

For a somewhat higher quality video visit the Whyevolutionistrue blog of biologist and author Jerry Coyne, who wrote an amazing book on evolution called “Why Evolution is True”.


Posted in Blog Archive

Posted by abeodbart January 17, 2012 at 9:56 am

In the video below we take a look at the beautiful and rather psychedelic world of intracellular life. These animated images show in stunning detail how molecules containing the genetic instructions that form life, DNA, fold up to form chromosomes (46 compact packages of genetic material) so the cell can divide. Cell division is of course necessary for creatures to grow or to replace older cells in bodies. More importantly we need some of those chromosomes to share our genetic material and to produce a next generation of Derren-loving hairless apes.

In total there is 6 feet (1,8 meters) of DNA in every single one of our 50 trillion or so cells. They would, if you put all of these strands of DNA together in some mad and evil experiment, reach to the sun….and back… for over four times! How’s that for some juicy facts to impress a crowd of your choosing?

You’ll also see how the DNA is split and copied from one original strand in the first place. In a rather roundabout (literally) way, you will agree.

The video is especially powerful for highlighting some of the more ‘random’ elements of our inner workings. Amino-acids and proteins move around in a cell like tiny drunken sheep, intoxicated by small atomic forces and just bump in to each other, after which which their unromantic mechanical coupling begins to start the chain reaction leading to folding, replicating and a thousand other functions. No direction, no mind, just a jittery recombination of atoms that complements each other. So stunning and enthralling, we just call it life.

Thanks to It’s Okay To Be Smart for pointing out this lovely video. Find a longer version, with more of the stunning animations below:


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