Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Elite scientists to study neuronal circuits

I have great respect for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and today they have named scientists who will have the elite positions in a new research campus under construction.

In a press release issued today, the HHMI says when the group leaders arrive at Janelia Farm in the summer of 2006, they will have two ambitious goals waiting for them: Identifying the general principles that govern how information is processed by neuronal circuits; and developing imaging technologies and computational methods for image analysis.

Janelia Farm will provide a setting in which small research groups can explore fundamental biomedical questions in a highly collaborative, interdisciplinary culture. This $500 million, yes $500 million, campus will open in late 2006.

"These scientists are an exceptional group with diverse backgrounds and training," says HHMI President Thomas R. Cech. "They bring extensive experience in biology, computational biology, genetics, mathematics, and physics. But more importantly, they all share a deep curiosity about major scientific questions that lie at the boundaries of these disciplines."

The advanced degrees of these scientists include the following areas: physics, chemistry, computer science, biophysics, molecular biology, and genetics!

The subjects of interest to these scientists are wide ranging and include applying mathematical theories to understand how the brain is designed; studying the structure and function of genes and genomes; developing new methods for image analysis; understanding how genes, neurons, and neural circuits contribute to specific behaviors; and learning how the brain of the fruit fly processes information to navigate successfully.

HHMI says it has "picked big science problems that are not being addressed well in conventional research settings."

You can learn more at Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

This grouping of lead scientists will be awesome, and their work will undoubtedly provide amazing contributions in the future!

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Human intelligence, AI, and algorithms

I am interested in a word - one that can have scientific context, but certainly has a behavioral meaning.

Let's take the word "iteration" and link it to some interesting points - with some help from "Who's Afraid of Schrodinger's Cat," by Ian Marshall and Danah Zohar. Marshall is a British psychiatrist with a background in math and physics, and Zohar is an American physicist and philosopher (what I want to be in my next life).

In simple terms, an iteration is the repetition of a sequence of instructions or processes. When some experts on the brain look at cognitive processes - they think that the brain actually performs tasks based on this process, such as understanding language.

Okay, so stick with me...

Iterations can occur on the scientific side when a chemical reaction keeps producing a substance. In turn these actions create a stable structure - order out of chaos - we are talking the basis of life stuff. If this algorithmic process is repeated it generates shapes of "inexhaustible richness."

Marshall and Zohar say fractals (infinetly complex shapes that fall between the cracks of dimensionality and serve as the generating principles of chaos) that are then created imitate the patterns of nature, such as clouds, coastlines, interstellar dust and noise in electrical circuits.

Okay now to my point - it has been suggested that human intelligence is based on, or can be reduced to, a series of algorithms. And from here we get back to the artificial intelligence (AI) topic, because it may be algorithms that delivers AI capability.

So the question is can human intelligence be totally reduced to algorithms - or is it infintely more complex and able to "recognize shifting contexts and transcend paradoxes" making it difficult to mimic?

To be continued ...

Monday, June 27, 2005

The brain is a "dynamic continuum," study says

Here is something to add to the conversation about how the brain works and the way computers work. This news post on Eurekalert by Cornell is a very concrete look at this subject.

Cornell psycholinguist Michael Spivey says the theory that the mind works like a computer, in a series of distinct stages, was an important steppingstone in cognitive science, but it has outlived its usefulness. Instead, the mind should be thought of more as working the way biological organisms do: as a dynamic continuum, cascading through shades of grey. He has been focused on analyzing language comprehension processes.

In a new study published online this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Spivey tracked the mouse movements of undergraduate students while working at a computer. The findings provide compelling evidence that language comprehension is a continuous process.

Spivey says in the new model, "perception and cognition are mathematically described as a continuous trajectory through a high-dimensional mental space; the neural activation patterns flow back and forth to produce nonlinear, self-organized, emergent properties - like a biological organism.

"In thinking of cognition as working as a biological organism does, on the other hand, you do not have to be in one state or another like a computer, but can have values in between - you can be partially in one state and another, and then eventually gravitate to a unique interpretation, as in finally recognizing a spoken word.

"Whereas the older models of language processing theorized that neural systems process words in a series of discrete stages, the alternative model suggests that sensory input is processed continuously," Spivey says.

This bit of news is really over my head, but I do know that Spivey has published in the premier science publication, the PNAS, so scientists interested in computers and artificial intelligence (AI) will be checking this out!

Thursday, June 23, 2005

NIH has free health newsletters for publishing

I like this concept the NIH provides - a health feature newsletter that is free, not copyrighted, and can be taken from its web site and used in newsletters and other ways.

Check out this story (excerpted); you can find it at the NIH web site:

The End of One-Size-Fits-All Medicine? Personalized Medicine Showing Promise

Most of the time, doctors can be pretty sure that the medicine they give you is going to help. But sometimes they have to just wait and see. The fact is, people don't all respond the same way to medications. A new field of research is trying to take out the guesswork and help doctors predict which medicines will be right for you.

Because each of us has a unique set of genes , we all have tiny differences in our bodies that can affect the way medicines do their jobs. While typical doses of medicines work well for most people, in others they might not work at all or could cause unwanted side effects. The study of how our genes affect the way we respond to medicines is called pharmacogenomics. The ultimate goal of this research is to tailor medicines to people's unique genetic make-ups, making drugs safer and more effective for everyone in the end.

For example, some people don't process certain cancer medicines as fast as others. A normal dose for most people could be a dangerous overdose for them. Dr. Howard L. McLeod's NIH-funded research group at Washington University in St. Louis has found specific differences that can predict whether certain cancer drugs will be toxic to a patient. This knowledge can be used to design a test to help doctors know which patients shouldn't take these medicines.

“Patients will have more of a say in their therapy,” McLeod explained at a recent scientific meeting. “It'll be their genes guiding decisions.”

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Connecting insomia and depression dots

I am back to covering sleep and lack of sleep again.

Experts say that insomnia and depression are linked - some say that depression causes insomnia and others think that insomnia could contribute to depression.
Two new studies reported today show that insomnia may not be a symptom or side effect of depression, but may actually precede it.

One study was presented by researchres at the 19th Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies (APSS) in Denver, and the other will be published in the Journal of Behavioral Sleep Medicine, both from the University of Rochester.

The first study shows that insomnia prolongs episodes of sadness, hopelessness, and loss of interest in life activities that help define major depression. The scientists hope that targeting insomnia will help people recover from depression.

The press statement on Eurekalert says the two studies point to more research which recently received $2.3 million in grant support from the National Institutes of Health to investigate whether treatment for insomnia can reduce major depression and improve pain tolerance in patients with chronic back pain.

Clinical studies are underway to find out whether or not cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia leads to fewer, shorter, and less severe bouts of depression, as well as to improved pain tolerance.

You really cannot say enough about the importance of gaining this kind of knowledge, as depression and pain affect hundreds of thousands of people!

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Epilepsy linked to risk of schizophrenia

This study finding fits into one of my interests - how the brain works. The results of the study seems very preliminary to me, but is intriguing and in a credible journal, the British Medical Journal. You can find the abstract at

The press statement from the editors at the BMJ states that persons with a history of epilepsy are at increased risk of developing schizophrenia and schizophrenia-like psychosis, concludes a study published online by the BMJ today. The authors suggest that the two conditions may share common genetic or environmental causes.

The study was really large, involving 2.27 million people who were born in Denmark between 1950 and 1987, and were identified from national registers. Personal and family histories of epilepsy and psychosis were obtained, and individuals were monitored for up to 25 years.

The team found that people with a history of epilepsy had nearly two and a half times the risk of developing schizophrenia and nearly three times the risk of developing a schizophrenia-like psychosis compared with the general population. The risk was the same for men and women but increased with age.

"This finding suggests that genetic or environmental factors shared by family members may have an important role," researchers stated. The study was led by the National Centre for Register-based Research, University of Aarhus in Denmark.

Scientists have so much more to learn about the brain, but advances in research tools such as the new funding by the NIH to study high-tech screening methods to identify small molecules will help. The NIH states that "small molecules have great potential to help scientists in their efforts to learn more about key biological processes involved in human health and disease."

Friday, June 17, 2005

Viagra may help life-threatening problem in children

Sometimes medications used for one problem can be used for other problems. Here is a terrific story where researchers looked at a mechanism to improve erectile dysfunction and thought about using it to improve something else.

Researchers reported this week in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association that the medication sildenafil (Viagra), taken over the course over a year, helped children with pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH) walk further and breathe easier.

The new report is presented on the American Heart Association web site in a press release.

Scientists at UCSF Children's Hosptial say childhood PAH is a condition in which blood pressure in the arteries that supply the lungs is extremely high. The small blood vessels in the lungs become progressively narrower and their walls thicken, so they can’t carry as much blood. If the pressure soars high enough, the heart cannot keep up, causing fatigue, dizziness, shortness of breath and eventually heart failure and death. PAH can be inherited, caused by a congenital heart defect or result from another chronic heart or lung disease.

“Untreated, children usually die within one year of diagnosis,” says senior study author Ian Adatia, associate professor of pediatrics. “And even with the best therapy ... few patients live five years past diagnosis.”

When sildenafil is used to treat erectile dysfunction, the drug relaxes the smooth muscle of blood vessels, expanding the blood vessels and increasing blood flow.

The scientists say that those same effects should help people with pulmonary arterial hypertension, because expanding the blood vessels would prevent small blood vessels from becoming obstructed, and improve symptoms.

Adatia says the next step is conducting larger, randomized trials comparing sildenafil against placebo (an inactive substance) or other PAH medications. By the way, just fyi, Pfizer, Inc., maker of Viagra, funded the study.

You can find more about this study on the AHS web site at

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Looking for genetic clues to bipolar disorder

New research presented at the Sixth International Conference on Bipolar Disorder shows genetic linkages associated with mental illness, but finding the genes associated with this sometimes devastating disorder is still a hope not a reality.

I follow some research on the brain, including that related to mental health. Bipolar disorder can be very difficult to manage and sometimes heartbreaking for the person who has this diagnosis.

The National Institutes of Mental Health says bipolar disorder, also called manic-depressive illness, causes shifts in a person's mood, energy, and ability to function. Bipolar disorder causes dramatic mood swings from overly "high" and/or irritable to sad and hopeless, and then back again, often with periods of normal mood in between. Find more information about bipolar disorder at

You can imagine how tough this cycle could be.

Dr. Marion Leboyer, of the University of Paris Faculty of Medicine, studied 87 bipolar sibling pairs from 70 European families who were participants in the European Collaborative Study on Early Onset Bipolar Affective Disorder and looked at what may be the specific genes that predispose individuals to early onset of this disease.

Finding these genes would help researchers develop more effective treatments or even prevent the disorder from occurring in at-risk individuals.

"Why hasn't a gene for bipolar disorder been identified when clearly the illness affects some families more than others and what is science telling us about who is most vulnerable and how the onset of the illness can be prevented?" says Michael Thase, M.D., professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, in a press statement. "By exploring these genetic connections, we inch closer to surer diagnosis and more rational and effective treatments."

You can find more detailed information on this study at

Let's hope these dedicated researchers can pinpoint the genes, and then new medications or gene therapy can be developed to help this group.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Chickens with reproductive attitude

This is not a medical story, but it is intriguing if you extrapolate this to how the human brain/body could make this kind of thing happen. Or maybe just another food production story for you....

Researchers report that they have discovered that chickens raised for meat can choose whether or not they will funnel the nutrients they eat towards themselves or their eggs.

Called 'reproductive attitude,' this points to hens that "partition" nutrients needed for egg production into their own bodies.

You don't think about chickens with this kind of know-how, but it makes you wonder why you are eating animals in the first place.

"They like to be a little bit more selfish with their nutrients, and continue growing," says Dr. Martin Zuidhof, at the University of Alberta, in a press statement. "It is not a conscious thing the bird does, but it does express a tendency of that bird to either be generous or to be selfish with its nutrients."

Now think about this: "The trouble with this is that these 'martyr birds' may eventually suffer from burnout when they don't balance their own needs well enough," says Dr. Rob Renema, a researcher in the Department of Agricultural Food and Nutritional Science at the University of Alberta.

Discovery of the exceptional "super-mom" birds that don't fit the textbook norm has opened new doors in the research program, the researchers say.


Saturday, June 11, 2005

Insecticides cause neurological problems

Today's post takes a serious look at insecticides - with results from a major study released by the NIH recently.

Farmers who used agricultural insecticides had neurological problems, even when they were no longer using them. The largest study ever conducted, 18,782 North Carolina and Iowa farmers linked use of insecticides, including organophosphates and organochlorines, to reports of reoccurring headaches, fatigue, insomnia, dizziness, nausea, hand tremors, numbness, and other neurological symptoms.

DDT and some of the insecticides studied have been banned or restricted, but some are still on the market. These are available to home gardeners, although in different formulations and in lower concentrations, which may make them less hazardous, the scientists guess.

ScientistFreya Kamel says, "This research is really important because it evaluated the health effects of agricultural chemicals as they were commonly used by farmers. It's different from previous studies that focused on pesticide poisoning or high dose exposures, for example when large amounts of a chemical were accidentally spilled on the skin."

The research is part of the ongoing Agricultural Health Study funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Cancer Institute.

There really has not been enough said about the harm from these chemicals - the politics of food production is way too complex to get into here, but obviously what many believe to be true of these insecticides has been substantiated in this study.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Immune cell dance remix

Okay, it's Friday afternoon, and this story looks good. This is another one of those science reports that creatively uses common language to describe complex science.

It looks so good, I am just copying part of the John's Hopkins medical center press release into this:

If a dividing cell's activity is a pop song, then the same process in an immune cell is an extended-play dance remix. The basics of cell division are the same in both, but there's a heck of a lot more going on in immune cells, Johns Hopkins scientists have discovered.

All dividing cells have to faithfully copy their DNA so that both new cells get the same information, and immune cells are no exception. But only immune cells must do some genetic rearranging -- a genetic "jam session" -- so they can make the endless variety of antibodies needed to fight infections and foreign proteins in general. If this recombination happens at the wrong time or interrupts the wrong genes, lymphoma, a cancer of tissues that make immune cells, may result.

Although the jam session itself -- the actual rearrangement of particular genes -- is well- studied and has an official name, V(D)J recombination, no one had ever tied its beginning or end to the process of cell division.

Writing in the June 10 issue of Molecular Cell, researchers from Johns Hopkins report that the band leader that normally launches the DNA-copying machinery to start cell division also brings the jam session to a close, intricately connecting the two processes.

Really, for those of you somewhat familiar with immune system science - it gives you an interesting picture!

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Raisin industry touts dental benefits

Sometimes I like to follow research about the benefits of a particular kind of food - and what is fun is that the press release about the finding is always from the company that produces that type of food. So, here is one that comes from a reputable meeting - the American Society for Microbiology (ASM):

Researchers say at the annual ASM meeting that compounds found in raisins fight bacteria in the mouth that cause cavities and gum disease.

Christine D. Wu, professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Dentistry and lead author of the study, says the data she reports counters a longstanding public perception that raisins promote cavities.

I am just curious, have you had that perception for a while?

"Raisins are perceived as sweet and sticky, and any food that contains sugar and is sticky is assumed to cause cavities," Wu says in a press release. "But our study suggests the contrary. Phytochemicals in raisins may benefit oral health by fighting bacteria that cause cavities and gum disease.

"Foods that are sticky do not necessarily cause tooth decay; it is mainly the added sugar (sucrose) that contributes to the problem," Wu says.

And of course - the part I like best: "The present study was funded by the California Raisin Marketing Board," according to the press statement.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Quasar theory supported by dust finding

Quasar: An extremely distant, and thus old, celestial object whose power output is several thousand times that of our entire galaxy.

Stick with me, I am off track with an astronomy story.

Astronomer Lei Hao thinks about dust alot, and recently she found a bunch of dust other atronomers are excited to know about. Acutally, the dust is between 0.88 billion and 2.4 billion light years away from Hao's office, in galaxies scientists classify as active galactic nuclei (AGNs).

Okay, I could not resist....

According to a press release from Cornell University, by confirming that the dust exists, Hao and her team have given new weight to a popular, but not universally accepted, theory of AGNs. Since the early 1980s, the most widely accepted model of AGNs, called the unified theory, involves a basic structure: a black hole at the center, an accretion disc (a round, flat sheet of gas) around it, and a doughnut-shaped ring of dusty gas, called a torus, around the accretion disc. Jets of matter are propelled out from the center perpendicular to the plane of the accretion disc.

Are you still with me?

Hao says AGNs include quasars, which look like stars in optical telescopes but emit massive amounts of radiation; Seyfert galaxies, which are low-energy counterparts of quasars; and blazars, which are AGNs viewed pole-on and which show rapid variations in radiation output over short intervals.

However, Hao says, for years, a key piece of evidence has been missing.

According to her observations, Hao believes that she has an important discovery because she sees more dust than previously noted. Hao says her finding has just been recognized by other astronomers. "You can see," she says, "that we verified the unification model."

The new report can be found in the Astrophysical Journal - shouldn't you have this on your reading list?

"Molecular zipper" may hold clue to disease

I have been away briefly, but I am back to look at medical discovery and some of the quirkier and more interesting aspects of this world. I like to look at the language scientists use, language that is selected from the everyday to describe what is less than ordinary.

Recently, researchers found a molecular mechanism linked to Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, mad cow disease, and other diseases. David Eisenberg, director of the UCLA-DOE Institute of Genomics and Proteomics, has looked at the structure of a peptide that reveals what he calls a "molecular zipper," and this zipper turns our to be "pathologically dry." He says that once the zipper forms, there is no turning back on disease progression. Eisenberg's report presents the first atomic-level look at these structures.

This is the kind of science that will be the basis for medical treatment and cures of the future, and I am intrigued when they go to the atom - this falls in line with what worms and black holes are to astronomers - only looking inward instead of into the heavens!

"Other proteins just do their jobs," Eisenberg says in a press release, "but these transformer proteins are different, and exceedingly strange. We believe we are now coming to grips with these proteins." Melinda Balbirnie, a researcher on Eisenberg's team, says, "We are learning how these biological machines work."

The discovery is reported June 9 in the journal Nature, so check it out!