2011 October 31 Monday
Genetic Causes Of Metabolic Differences Identified

Researchers have identified 37 single letter differences (SNPs or single nucleotide polymorphisms) in DNA that are associated with metabolic differences.

Now researchers addressed this challenge by using a new technology, called metabolomics. They measured the levels of more than 250 biochemical compounds in over 60 metabolic pathways, including lipids, sugars, vitamins, amino acids and others in blood from over 2,800 individuals. They then combined this dataset with information on more than 600,000 genetic variants (SNPs) that were detected in the genes of each of the study participants. Most of the SNPs were located in genes known to encode proteins involved in the relevant metabolic pathways. Fifteen of the SNPs had previously been associated with metabolism-related conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, gout, diabetes, gastrointestinal diseases, cancer and adverse drug reactions. But the new findings also uncovered a wealth of new associations that link the genetic makeup of a person to his or her biochemical capacities. This data is publicly available in an online database, accessible at http://www.gwas.eu.

Note they used only 2,800 individuals, 600,000 SNPs in each person, and about 250 chemical measurements in each person. Imagine using hundreds of thousands of people, double the number of SNPs, some other kinds of genetic differences (e.g. deletions and copy number variations), and more measures of metabolism. Plus, throw in various measures of body shape (e.g. facial shape, height, assorted widths and lengths, condition of teeth, etc), diet, allergies, and other medical history. That scale of measurement is just a few years off at most and it will turn up many functionally significant genetic differences.

Genetic testing is getting close to telling you useful things about your metabolism.

Given the exceptional size of the dataset, the researchers prioritized the data to focus on 37 SNPs that were most strongly associated with metabolic traits, 23 of which had never been described before. The 37 SNPs had very large effects on the individuals' metabolite levels and can be considered to constitute what the authors call the "genetic basis of human metabolic individuality."

Crowd sourcing could make a big impact on this sort of research. Take the SNP testing that will be available in 2012, recruit 20,000 people to get themselves SNP tested and extensively blood tested, and get them to fill in web forms of health information. A much bigger study yielding many more useful results could be done. I'm ready to sign up...

By Randall Parker 2011 October 31 08:02 PM  Health Genetics
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2011 October 30 Sunday
Bike Trail Proximity And Transportation Policy

Julie Irwin Zimmerman in The Atlantic looks at evidence for high value which home buyers place on bike trail proximity.

The research, by planning professor Rainer vom Hofe and economics professor Olivier Parent, looked at houses along a 12-mile stretch of the Little Miami Scenic Trail, a former rail line that cuts across the northeastern portion of Cincinnati. The pair found that home buyers were willing to pay a premium of $9,000 to be within 1,000 feet of access to the trail.

It so happens I've spent a lot of time in Google Maps in one example city with a good few mile long bike trail comparing commute times by car, bike, and mass transit. If you haven't ever done this before try choosing starting and ending locations between housing and business offices in a city that offers at least car and mass transit options or car and isolated bike trail options. Here are some web pages with some urban bike trails to consider for comparisons in Google Maps. I'll be curious to hear any observations you come up with if you try this.

I chose office destinations and home locations that would put one near a bike trail at both ends. For people whose commute could be done mostly via a bike trail biking took much less time than taking a bus (said bus stopping at red lights and bus stops that don't stop bikes on a trail). Biking took about twice the amount of time of driving but mass transit was near double the biking time. Time walking to a bus stop, waiting for the bus, having the bus take a non-direct route, and stops along the way makes busing slower. Plus, you can only go when the bus goes. Biking seems like a much more attractive alternative to the car in areas where trails make bikes feasible. More bike and pedestrian overpasses and underpasses and trails would make biking and walking more feasible.

Now, if your drive doesn't involve much in the way of surface streets with stop lights and your local highway is not slow at rush hour then cars are going to offer a much bigger time advantage. Also, a bus in a HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lane from a more distant starting point will beat a bike. But in the right locations bikes offer time advantages over mass transit and exercise and cost advantages over cars. Plus, bikes are like cars in that you can decide when to start your trip rather than be at the mercy of bus schedules.

Given trends in oil production a substantial improvement in the usability of bikes via trails isolated from surface car traffic will offer bigger advantages in the future.

By Randall Parker 2011 October 30 10:28 AM  Energy Transportation
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Exercise Cuts Risk From Obesity Gene

The obesity risk of a genetic variation can be least partially offset with exercise.

The genetic predisposition to obesity due to the 'fat mass and obesity associated' (FTO) gene can be substantially reduced by living a physically active lifestyle according to new research by a large international collaboration, led by Ruth Loos from the Medical Research Council Epidemiology Unit, in Cambridge, UK, and published in this week's PLoS Medicine. The researchers found that the effect of the FTO gene on obesity risk is nearly 30% weaker among physically active than in physically inactive adults.

I see 2 ways to spin this: First, hey great news. Your gene report mentions that exercise will cancel some of the risk from having this weight gene.So you aren't destined to become massively obese. No need to be a victim of genetic determinism. What good news. Right?

But there's a way different way to spin this: Your gene report just came back and it says turn off the TV! Get your lazy butt of the couch NOW! Get up, put on your jogging clothes and go run 10 miles. Your genetic report says you've got to be treated like someone in boot camp. So put on a full pack and start running. Make that 20 miles. Then lift weights until you barf. Its either that or some day you are going to weigh so much you won't be able to get out of bed.

This finding holds an important public health message relevant to health care professionals and the wider public as it challenges the widely-held view that obesity 'is in my genes' and not amenable to lifestyle changes. On the contrary, this study shows that even those genetically predisposed can reduce their risk of becoming obese by being physically active.

The authors performed a comprehensive literature search and invited all researchers who had reported on the FTO gene in the past to participate in their study. They used an extensive and innovative methodology to analyze data from over 218,000 adults, to show that, in general, carrying a copy of the FTO gene increases the risk of becoming obese. However, the effect of the FTO gene on obesity risk was 27% less pronounced in individuals who were physically active (1.22 fold) compared with those who were physically inactive (1.30 fold).

By Randall Parker 2011 October 30 08:23 AM  Genetics
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2011 October 29 Saturday
Hypothyroidism And Fear Memory

If you find your personality changing so that you experience emotional alterations, memory impairments and perhaps a heightened formation of fear memories you might want to get your thyroid level checked.

Hypothyroidism is the most common hormonal disease in adults, which is frequently accompanied by learning and memory impairments and emotional disorders.

At least in rats cutting out thyroid hormone causes increased formation of fear memories and general increase in formation of emotional memories.

However, the deleterious effects of thyroid hormones deficiency on emotional memory are poorly understood and often underestimated. To evaluate the consequences of hypothyroidism on emotional learning and memory, we have performed a classical Pavlovian fear conditioning paradigm in euthyroid and adult-thyroidectomized Wistar rats. In this experimental model, learning acquisition was not impaired, fear memory was enhanced, memory extinction was delayed and spontaneous recovery of fear memory was exacerbated in hypothyroid rats. The potentiation of emotional memory under hypothyroidism was associated with an increase of corticosterone release after fear conditioning and with higher expression of glucocorticoid and mineralocorticoid receptors in the lateral and basolateral nuclei of the amygdala, nuclei that are critically involved in the circuitry of fear memory. Our results demonstrate for the first time that adult-onset hypothyroidism potentiates fear memory and also increases vulnerability to develop emotional memories.

Lots of older people have lower thyroid hormone output. So the potential scale of similar impact on humans is quite large.

The researchers wonder whether people suffering from post-traumatic stress have thyroid hormone levels that aren't right.

Furthermore, our findings suggest that enhanced corticosterone signaling in the amygdala is involved in the pathophysiological mechanisms of fear memory potentiation. Therefore, we recommend evaluating whether inappropriate regulation of fear in patients with post-traumatic stress and other mental disorders is associated with abnormal levels of thyroid hormones, especially those patients refractory to treatment.

I hesitate to even suggest this idea: Some day governments could use hormone manipulation as part of interrogations. Imagine getting your hormones altered so that you feel intense fear. Without even using physical torture it will probably become possible to evoke a large range of emotions. Interrogators could become emotional state conductors.

What would be helpful: An emotional weather forecast based on the biochemical state of your body. Imagine embedded sensors that get fed into a smart phone app to tell you how the biochemical state of your body is altering your ability to think clearly. The data could be processed a personal emotional and cognitive weather forecast based on biochemical considerations. Such an application could advise you avoid situations you aren't up to dealing with, suggest diet alterations, exercise, or to get more sleep to get your brain biochemistry back into a state that allows you to function near your peak.

A more advanced version of an emotional weather forecaster could integrate details about your work schedule, relationship status (e.g. by processing phone calls into text and then analyzing them for signs of arguments and break-ups), and other life circumstances to come up with more sophisticated advice based on integrating many different factors from your life. Really, I think it only a matter of time until such an application exists and works well.

By Randall Parker 2011 October 29 03:12 PM  Brain Emotion Alteration
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2011 October 27 Thursday
De-Orbit Space Junk With High Powered Lasers?

Lots of little and big pieces of space junk are making Earth's orbit an increasingly polluted and hazardous place. What to do about it? A Wired piece reports on a proposal to hit space junk with lasers to cause plasma jets that will de-orbit the junk.

The heat from the laser blasts would vaporize a minuscule part of a piece of space junk, resulting in a plasma jet that could slow the object down enough to bring it out of Earth orbit.

“You’re essentially creating a laser-powered rocket, using the object to be its own fuel,” said engineer Claude Phipps of the company Photonic Associates, LLC, who co-authored the laser-removal paper, published Oct. 17 on arxiv.

This is a cool idea. Lots of other ideas (see the article) involve lots of mass up in Earth's orbit moving around trying to catch the junk. Getting the fuel to do this up into orbit is quite expensive. But energy on the ground is a lot cheaper. So laser beams from the ground have real potential if the targeting problem can be solved. Anyone know how hard that problem is?

By Randall Parker 2011 October 27 08:32 PM  Space Pollution
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2011 October 25 Tuesday
Greater Disgust Response Associated With Political Right?

John Alford and John Hibbing, noted researchers on the biological basis of political orientation, have joined with a few other researchers in a Plos One report on evidence that rightward leaning people appear to have a stronger disgust reflex.

Disgust has been described as the most primitive and central of emotions. Thus, it is not surprising that it shapes behaviors in a variety of organisms and in a variety of contexts—including homo sapien politics. People who believe they would be bothered by a range of hypothetical disgusting situations display an increased likelihood of displaying right-of-center rather than left-of-center political orientations. Given its primal nature and essential value in avoiding pathogens disgust likely has an effect even without registering in conscious beliefs. In this article, we demonstrate that individuals with marked involuntary physiological responses to disgusting images, such as of a man eating a large mouthful of writhing worms, are more likely to self-identify as conservative and, especially, to oppose gay marriage than are individuals with more muted physiological responses to the same images. This relationship holds even when controlling for the degree to which respondents believe themselves to be disgust sensitive and suggests that people's physiological predispositions help to shape their political orientations.

The report has an intro with a pretty interesting survey of what is known about the biological basis for political orientation. Here's an excerpt:

Disgust has been referred to as “the most visceral of all basic emotions” [11] and the lust-disgust axis is often seen as the original building block of all emotions [12]. The role of disgust in the avoidance of disease, one of the primary sources of mortality over the centuries, makes it essential to survival [13]. Numerous connections between disgust responses and social behavior have been identified [14][16]. The foundation for hypothesizing a connection between disgust response and political behavior more specifically is anchored the groundbreaking work of Haidt and colleagues [17], [18]. On the basis of numerous large N surveys, Haidt reports that people on the left make judgments primarily on the basis of two “moral foundations:” harm avoidance and a desire for fairness/equity. People on the political right, on the other hand, display similar attention to harm avoidance and fairness but demonstrate additional concerns for purity, in-group/loyalty, and authority/structure. Interestingly, these differences in moral foundations hold up across cultures [18], a finding consistent with the work of Schwartz on cross-cultural similarity in the relationship between political orientations and patterns of values as well as work on the relationship between political orientations and personality traits across cultures [19][21]. This nuanced view of differentially weighted decision considerations is the basis for expecting people on the right to be more likely to emphasize purity/disgust as a foundation for moral and political orientations.

What I want to know: Once offspring genetic engineering becomes possible will the population as a whole shift left or right? Or will the population splinter into 2 or more factions that are more strongly their pure type? (e.g. leftists with even stronger desires for equality of outcomes and right-wingers with even stronger desires for loyalty or authority). In other words, will humanity splinter into mutually incomprehensible or hostile factions made so by genetic differences that cause deep differences in moral natures?

By Randall Parker 2011 October 25 08:47 PM  Brain Ethics Law
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Willpower Depletes More In Younger Folks?

Self-regulation depletion or ego-depletion is the scientific study of willpower and how using willpower for one purpose can drain one's ability to exercise willpower for other reasons. An excellent recent book, Willpower, by Ray Baumeister and John Tierney surveys the research in the field. Well, a new report in Plos One took a look at ego-depletion as a function of age and found willpower seems to deplete much less as people get older.

Self-regulation depletion (SRD), or ego-depletion, refers to decrements in self-regulation performance immediately following a different self-regulation-demanding activity. There are now over a hundred studies reporting SRD across a broad range of tasks and conditions. However, most studies have used young student samples. Because prefrontal brain regions thought to subserve self-regulation do not fully mature until 25 years of age, it is possible that SRD effects are confined to younger populations and are attenuated or disappear in older samples. We investigated this using the Stroop color task as an SRD induction and an autobiographical memory task as the outcome measure. We found that younger participants (<25 years) were susceptible to depletion effects, but found no support for such effects in an older group (40–65 years). This suggests that the widely-reported phenomenon of SRD has important developmental boundary conditions casting doubt on claims that it represents a general feature of human cognition.

They used an Autobiographical Memory Task as part of their test. Do older people have an easier time on that test just due to having more episodic memories from life? In the report they say that in control groups the young do better than the old at this task. But I'm not sure that result is a sufficient control. This needs to be repeated using a number of other methods used to measure depletion of willpower. e.g. some experiments measure willingness to keep hands immersed in cold water and others fatigue the subjects with lots of decisions to make. This is an intriguing result. But I still expect decision fatigue to show up in the middle aged.

Their point about the prefrontal region not maturing until about age 25 is important. The brain continues to develop into early adulthood. Humans gain more self control in their 20s and this is probably at least part of the cause of declining risk of car accidents in the 20s. Perhaps there are different forms of willpower that involve different parts of the brain. Resisting immediate gratification might involve different brain circuits than the ability to continue to subject oneself to mild pain such as cold water.

See my previous posts Brain Willpower Depleted By Use, Doing Tasks Depletes Willpower, Decision Fatigue And Conservation Of Willpower, and Good Or Evil Ups Willpower.

By Randall Parker 2011 October 25 08:40 PM  Brain Performance
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2011 October 24 Monday
Advantages Of Self-Driving Cars

A Technology Review article looks at the advantages of self-driving cars.

Several automakers are developing technology to let cars drive themselves, mainly as a way to make driving more convenient and improve safety. But it could also significantly reduce gasoline consumption, says Nady Boules, the director of GM's Electrical and Controls Integration Lab.

Robotic cars would reduce gasoline consumption by making electric cars more economically viable in a number of ways:

  • Electric vehicles could take themselves to recharge stations after dropping their passengers off at work. So batteries in EVs could be smaller and therefore cheaper.
  • Electric vehicles could carry more people per day because after dropping off one passenger at work a vehicle could be routed to someone nearby who has signaled with their cell phone for the need for a ride. The ability to more human-moving trips would up the utilization of batteries and allow their costs to be amortized more rapidly.
  • Electric vehicles would lower parking costs since EVs could take themselves away from expensive city centers after dropping off passengers.

Autonomous vehicles will also allow non-drivers to get around even in areas with population densities too low to support mass transit. They'll also free up time for people to work. Plus, autonomous vehicles will displace much of mass transit since they won't require the expensive labor of the bus drive and they will go when people want to go and where people want to go. I expect autonomous cars to make the Zipcar short term car rental model much more viable by getting cars to where people want to start from. Basically, Zipcar will become like a taxi service but at much lower cost.

I think autonomous self-driving vehicles are inevitable. They'll enable many conveniences such as grocery stores that pack vehicles to deliver food. Much lower delivery costs will cut traffic as vehicles do drop-offs at several homes per trip. At the same time, cars will function as automated taxis so that owning a car will become unnecessary for many without the inconveniences of mass transit.

By Randall Parker 2011 October 24 10:32 PM  Robotics Cars
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Thoughts Of Mating Change Aversion To Losses

The willingness to take losses for larger gains depends on whether one has been primed to think about mating and also one's sex.

TEMPE, Ariz. – Could a passing mood influence your financial portfolio for decades to come? Can impulses you inherited from your cave-man ancestors influence your financial decisions in the modern world in ways that may have lifelong consequences?

In a word, yes.

Arizona State University researchers report new evidence that passing mood and deeply embedded human impulses can and do influence us as we make important financial decisions. The new findings, just released online by the American Psychological Association, suggest that our economic decisions change radically when either survival or reproduction is on our minds.

The old view of economic decision-making focuses on human beings as acting rational. In the last few years, cognitive psychologists have revolutionized economics by demonstrating that economic decisions are often irrational. One of the best-known examples of such irrationalities is the phenomenon of "loss aversion."

To a rational economist, $100 is worth exactly $100, whether it's in your pocket now or on the gambling table. But dozens of studies have demonstrated that the typical person places about twice as much psychological value on keeping the $100 bill in their wallet as they do when they place it on winning another $100.

From an evolutionary perspective the effects on men and women make sense. Though today we aren't in the environment for which we are evolutionarily adapted and as a result we are making decisions that are less than optional.

New research re-examines economic decisions in an evolutionary light and suggests that our decision biases may not be so irrational at all. In a series of three studies to appear in the March 2012 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a team of Arizona State University psychologists shows that loss aversion waxes and wanes in flexible ways, depending of whether or not the person is experiencing different fundamental motivational states, such as self-protection or looking for a mate.

Men in a mating frame of mind become less loss-averse while getting into a mating frame of mind has the opposite effect on women. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective.

In the first study, research participants were asked how happy or unhappy it would make them to gain or lose $100, or to experience a 30-percentile boost in their financial assets. As in previous research, losses typically loomed slightly larger than gains. But all that changed for participants who answered the questions in a mating frame of mind (after imagining themselves having a romantic encounter with someone they found highly attractive).

According to Li, the first author of the study: "For men in a mating frame of mind, loss aversion completely disappeared and they became more focused on wins than losses. For women, on the other hand, mating motivation led them to be even more loss averse, to focus less on possible gains and even more on the pain of loss.

From an evolutionary perspective this makes sense because reproductive decisions are inherently much more costly for females, who pay higher costs of pregnancy and nursing.

So we've got innate differences hard wired into our brains. Whether the male or female tendency is adaptive depends on the situation.

I see all the tendencies of humans to react to their environments in ways that cut into our ability to think rationally as opportunities to better manage oneself. Set up cues and avoidance of cues on your subconscious to shape your biases in more adaptive directions.

By Randall Parker 2011 October 24 06:51 AM  Brain Sex Differences
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2011 October 23 Sunday
Omega 3 Fats Cut Guinea Pig Osteoarthritis Risk

Tell all the guinea pigs you know they should get more fish fat in their diets. Omega-3 fats found in fish oil cut the incidence of osteoarthritis in guinea pigs

New research has shown for the first time that omega-3 in fish oil could "substantially and significantly" reduce the signs and symptoms of osteoarthritis.

According to the University of Bristol study, funded by Arthritis Research UK and published in the journal Osteoarthritis and Cartilage, omega-3-rich diets fed to guinea pigs, which naturally develop osteoarthritis, reduced disease by 50 per cent compared to a standard diet.

The research is a major step forward in showing that omega-3 fatty acids, either sourced from fish oil or flax oil, may help to slow down the progression of osteoarthritis, or even prevent it occurring, confirming anecdotal reports and "old wives' tales" about the benefits of fish oil for joint health.

Lead researcher Dr John Tarlton, from the Matrix Biology Research group at the University of Bristol's School of Veterinary Sciences, said classic early signs of the condition, such as the degradation of collagen in cartilage and the loss of molecules that give it shock-absorbing properties, were both reduced with omega-3.

In humans getting more omega 3 fatty acids appears to cut inflammation.

By Randall Parker 2011 October 23 10:16 PM  Aging Diet Bone Studies
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2011 October 20 Thursday
Scientists Model Chicxulub Meteorite Impact

When a massive meteorite hit the Earth 65 million years ago how big was its effects? Princeton researchers have developed a better model for simulating the effects of a large meteorite impact.

Seeking to better understand the level of death and destruction that would result from a large meteorite striking the Earth, Princeton University researchers have developed a new model that can not only more accurately simulate the seismic fallout of such an impact, but also help reveal new information about the surface and interior of planets based on past collisions.

Princeton researchers created the first model to take into account Earth's elliptical shape, surface features and ocean depths in simulations of how seismic waves generated by a meteorite collision would spread across and within the planet. Current projections rely on models of a featureless spherical world with nothing to disrupt the meteorite's impact, the researchers report in the October issue of Geophysical Journal International.

The researchers -- based in the laboratory of Jeroen Tromp, the Blair Professor of Geology in Princeton's Department of Geosciences -- simulated the meteorite strike that caused the Chicxulub crater in Mexico, an impact 2 million times more powerful than a hydrogen bomb that many scientists believe triggered the mass extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The team's rendering of the planet showed that the impact's seismic waves would be scattered and unfocused, resulting in less severe ground displacement, tsunamis, and seismic and volcanic activity than previously theorized.

2 million times more powerful than a hydrogen bomb is pretty extreme.

On the bright side, the researchers do not think a Chicxulub-sized impact would unleash the scale of volcanic eruption that would basically wipe out huge numbers of species.

"Regarding the mass extinction, we saw from our measurements that a Chicxulub-sized impact alone would be too small to cause such a large volcanic eruption as what occurred at the Deccan Traps. Our model shows that the antipodal focusing of the seismic wave from such an impact was hugely overestimated in previous calculations, which used a spherical-Earth model.

"The Earth's maximum ground displacement at this point has been calculated to be 15 meters, which is extreme. The first outcome of our model was that this is reduced by a large amount to about three to five meters. On the spherical model, all the waves come together at exactly one point and, as a result, have a huge amplitude. We found the waves are disturbed by surface features and take on a more ragged structure, meaning less energy is concentrated at the antipode.

Still, surviving such an impact would not be easy. The ground movements and potentially huge ocean waves would combine with a big shock wave in the atmosphere and reduced sunlight afterward.

We need to find all the large objects that might strike the Earth and see if any will hit us any time this century. Then prepare accordingly.

By Randall Parker 2011 October 20 09:34 PM  Dangers Asteroids
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Genes That Make Human Brain Distinctively Human

Why are humans smarter than other species? About 50 to 60 genes unique to humans are involved in building and operating the frontal cortex of the brain.

Young genes that appeared after the primate branch split off from other mammal species are more likely to be expressed in the developing human brain, a new analysis finds. The correlation suggests that evolutionarily recent genes, which have been largely ignored by scientists thus far, may be responsible for constructing the uniquely powerful human brain. The findings are published October 18 in the online, open access journal PLoS Biology.

"We found that there is a correlation between new gene origination and the evolution of the brain," said senior author Manyuan Long, PhD, Professor of Ecology & Evolution at the University of Chicago. "There are some 50 to 60 human-specific genes in the frontal cortex of the brain, the part that makes humans diverge with other non-human primates."

These genes are good candidates to compare people to identify the genes that cause IQ differences.

Here's the report: Accelerated Recruitment of New Brain Development Genes into the Human Genome

These genes express early in development:

The researchers found that a higher percentage of primate-specific young genes were expressed in the brain compared to mouse-specific young genes. Human-specific young genes also were more likely to be expressed in the recently expanded human brain structures, such as the neocortex and prefrontal cortex.

"Newer genes are found in newer parts of the human brain," said Yong Zhang, PhD, postdoctoral researcher and first author on the study. "We know the brain is the most remarkable difference between humans and other mammals and primates. These new genes are a candidate for future studies, as they are more likely to underlie this difference."

The timing of when the young human-specific genes are expressed in the brain also intrigued the researchers. Inspired by an ultrasound appointment with his pregnant wife, Zhang calculated when young genes were expressed in the human brain, discovering that they were more likely to appear during fetal or infant development.

The early activity of these genes suggests scientists should be looking at earlier developmental stages for genetic activity that ultimately shapes the complexity of the human brain.

These genes probably don't just play a role in boosting IQ. They might make unique human behaviors manifest as well.

By Randall Parker 2011 October 20 06:02 AM  Brain Intelligence
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2011 October 19 Wednesday
Brain Regions Correlate With Facebook Socializing

Are these findings on online socializing regions of the brain really reporting brain defects of online addicts or superior mutations that adapt one to the massive online environment in which more socializing takes place? Some areas of brain grey matter are bigger in people with large Facebook friend lists.

Scientists funded by the Wellcome Trust have found a direct link between the number of 'Facebook friends' a person has and the size of particular brain regions. In a study published today, researchers at University College London (UCL) also showed that the more Facebook friends a person has, the more 'real-world' friends they are likely to have.

However, the researchers are keen to stress that they have found a correlation and not a cause: in other words, it is not possible from the data to say whether having more Facebook friends makes the regions of the brain larger or whether some people are 'hard-wired' to have more friends.

So what's the direction of the arrow of causation? I'm guessing it is from brain region size to number of friends. But some volunteers could be plunged into big friend networks and agree to spend hours every day conversing on Facebook to see if they grow more gray matter.

I'd like to see the size of Facebook friend lists and levels of activity in Facebook correlated with IQ and its main two sub-components.More grey matter could just be boosting verbal skills. But maybe it is boosting enjoyment of interacting and having friends or alters behavior in some other way that either attracts one to others or others to oneself.

Professor Rees and colleagues at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging studied brain scans of 125 university students – all active Facebook users – and compared them against the size of the students' network of friends, both online and in the real world. Their findings, which they replicated in a further group of 40 students, are published today in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Professor Rees and colleagues found a strong connection between the number of Facebook friends an individual had and the amount of grey matter in several regions of the brain. Grey matter is the brain tissue where the processing is done. One of these regions was the amygdala, a region associated with processing memory and emotional responses. A study published recently showed that the volume of grey matter in this area is larger in people with a larger network of real world friends – today's study shows that the same is true for people with a larger network of online friends.

What would be especially interesting: Do people with big friend networks initiate most of the friending? (and why does my browser thing friending isn't a legal verb?)

But here's where it gets even more interesting: Some people have larger brain regions that boost their online networks without boosting their real life networks. Are these people who can't handle large doses of other humans in real life but can handle text from other humans online?

The size of three other regions – the right superior temporal sulcus, the left middle temporal gyrus and the right entorhinal cortex – also correlated with online social networks, but did not appear to correlate with real-world networks.

The superior temporal sulcus plays a role in our ability to perceive a moving object as biological, and structural defects in this region have been identified in some children with autism. The entorhinal cortex, meanwhile, has been linked to memory and navigation – including navigating through online social networks. Finally, the middle temporal gyrus has been shown to activate in response to the gaze of others and so is implicated in perception of social cues.

Dr Ryota Kanai, first author of the study added: "We have found some interesting brain regions that seem to link to the number of friends we have – both 'real' and 'virtual'. The exciting question now is whether these structures change over time – this will help us answer the question of whether the internet is changing our brains."

Then there's my standard question about all cognitive differences caused by innate differences that probably have a large genetic component: Once it becomes possible to do offspring genetic engineering and choose genetic variants for one's kids will parents elect to make their kids more inclined to form more online or offline or both kinds of relationships?

Will some heavily future-oriented parents figure it is best to just boost the he right superior temporal sulcus, the left middle temporal gyrus and the right entorhinal cortex in order to adapt their kids to online life? I'm thinking that'll be a mistake because by the time the babies born in 2020 reach their teen years online life will happen mostly with full res video feeds into implanted brain jacks. We'll see real faces (or at least really good simulations acting as agents for real humans) and we'll need in-person style social skills to deal with this much richer online environment.

By Randall Parker 2011 October 19 09:52 PM  Brain Society
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2011 October 18 Tuesday
Musical And Reading Ability Correlated

Areas of the brain involved in musical and reading ability not surprisingly overlap.

Auditory working memory and attention, for example the ability to hear and then remember instructions while completing a task, are a necessary part of musical ability. But musical ability is also related to verbal memory and literacy in childhood. New research published in BioMed Central's open access journal Behavioral and Brain Functions shows how auditory working memory and musical aptitude are intrinsically related to reading ability, and provides a biological basis for this link.

Of course if you can't remember the notes in a melody and are slow at reading sheet music you are going to have a harder time learning music.

Researchers from the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University tested children on their ability to read and to recognize words. This was compared to the extent of their auditory working memory (remembering a sequence of numbers and then being able to quote them in reverse), and musical aptitude (both melody and rhythm). The electrical activity within the children's brains was also measured as auditory brainstem responses to rhythmic, or random, sounds based on speech.

Most cognitive abilities are highly correlated. So these results are not surprising.

The team lead by Dr Nina Kraus found that poor readers had reduced neural response (auditory brainstem activity) to rhythmic rather than random sounds compared to good readers. In fact the level of neural enhancement to acoustic regularities correlated with reading ability as well as musical aptitude. The musical ability test, specifically the rhythm aspect, was also related to reading ability. Similarly a good score on the auditory working memory related to better reading and to the rhythm aspect of musical ability.

Dr Kraus explained, "Both musical ability and literacy correlated with enhanced electrical signals within the auditory brainstem. Structural equation modeling of the data revealed that music skill, together with how the nervous system responds to regularities in auditory input and auditory memory/attention accounts for about 40% of the difference in reading ability between children. These results add weight to the argument that music and reading are related via common neural and cognitive mechanisms and suggests a mechanism for the improvements in literacy seen with musical training."

Does literacy really improve when children are given musical training?

Lately I've been introspecting about my mental state when various repetitive background noises are blocking out distracting non-repetitive noises outside. So, for example, I think the sound of a dishwasher helps me relax and think thru complex problems. I want to try playing some recorded forms of white noise and continuous yet rhythmic sounds that are not meant to be musical. Can one get more done mentally if a sort of wall of sound is blocking out every other source of sound?

By Randall Parker 2011 October 18 09:31 PM  Brain Performance
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2011 October 17 Monday
Car Measures Blood Sugar

Your car as a doctor.

Your car may soon be able to warn you if your blood sugar dips, alert you to high pollen counts, and remind you to take your medication. Ford demonstrated the new in-car technology—currently a research project—this week at the Wireless Health 2011 conference in La Jolla, California.

Cars, homes, cell phones, office chairs, clothing should all measure us and report to a medical diagnostic server that tracks our health and runs expert systems diagnostic apps to detect problems. Also, embedded sensors should test our blood continuously.

We need a different economic model for medicine so that mobile medical technology and the home as a medical lab (get diagnosed while you sleep - why not?) become a reality.

One of the easiest things to predict about the future: more data will flow. But how soon will we make it useful for things that matter like our own health? It is all well and good to be able to use your cell phone to check your email. But remember my motto: First, don't die.

By Randall Parker 2011 October 17 09:02 PM  Biotech Assay Tools
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2011 October 16 Sunday
Ask Parents Before Publishing Genetic Test Results?

Back in April 2011 Razib Khan released his 23andMe Genotype v3 test results into the public domain. Larry Moran has objected to this on the ground that Razib's family should have some say given their partially shared genetic sequences. Razib offers his views on whether family members should be consulted about release of genetic data.

Larry Moran thinks that I had to ask my parents and siblings for permission before publishing my genotype. Interestingly, most of his readers seems to disagree with Larry on this, so I won’t offer my own response in any detail. They’re handling it well enough. I would like to add though that obviously this isn’t a either/or proposition. If my family had a history of a particular genetic disease which was well characterized in terms of causative alleles I might not have published my genotype. As it is, we don’t. So I didn’t see much of a downside. I would also add that in my case It wasn’t possible to have genuine consent in the first place. My mother isn’t much into science, and we don’t share a common first language. There’s really no way that I could have gotten substantive consent, insofar as my mother understood what I was doing.

I've previously raised a starker version of this ethical question in a post about whether an identical twin should be able to publish their genetic testing results without permission of the other twin. In that case a discussion between the twins would likely be from a similar level of understanding of the consequences (twins being likely to have same spoken language, similar cognitive abilities, a great deal of shared experiences and context). Plus, the potential impact on the other twin is greater because it basically amounts to publishing that other twin's full genetic sequence without consent. Are twins ever going to sue each other over the making of their sequence public?

Razib raises an interesting question about informed consent. The early adopters of genetic testing and genetic sequencing understand it better than the larger public on average. When full genome sequencing costs fall to the few hundred dollar level and full scale genetic sequencing becomes commonplace most people won't understand the detailed consequences of full disclosure. Of course, people do things all the time which have consequences that they are unaware of. Should we treat this any differently? I doubt it.

Razib and Larry Moran debate the issue in the comments of Razib's post. We learn, among other things, that Razib speaks Bengali at the level of a 5 year old. I figure he's being modest and is at least at the 7 year old level.

The debate in the thread is focused on the extent of our social responsibility to family members and whether we are all autonomous beings without obligations that come as a result of who we are related to. But I think other obligations and benefits are more important. In the discussion thread "LIttle bit" explains her reasons as the mother of an autistic child for publishing her own genetic testing results publicly: help research into autism.

As someone who published their 23andme v2 results publicly, I’ll weigh in on the subject: Should I have consulted with my family? Perhaps, I was remiss in not doing so. Truthfully, they would have either not understood the implications or cared one way or another. I don’t think my results are pertinent to my family members without phasing, and any suspected anomalies can be errors in processing or de novo.

So why did I do it? There was an undercurrent of paranoia at 23andme about sharing, and a push by the FDA to ban DTC tests – I was vocal in my opposition to both. I felt that disclosing my results publicly was important to show I was genuine in my stances. I am also the mother of an autistic child, and felt that having my results out there (just maybe) could help someone with a suspicion, but not the data set to observe. Yes, it may be a pipe-dream, but you never know.

Crowd sourcing genetic data, health history, dietary choices, adverse drug reactions, food sensitivities, physical attributes (e.g. height, hair color, weight, eye color, facial shape, finger length ratios), cognitive attributes (e.g. online IQ test results, educational attainment), and other personal information has the potential to greatly speed up the rate of discovery of disease causes, the meaning of many genetic variants, and other areas of understanding of human health and human nature. In my view the people brave enough to publish their genetic results (whether under their own name or with their name hidden from researchers) and other information about themselves are doing us all a great favor. They are enabling "bottom up" biological science which is going to accelerate the rate of biomedical advances. We need to consider the future lifesaving treatments that will come from this research when discussing genetic privacy questions.

By Randall Parker 2011 October 16 10:35 AM  Bioethics Privacy
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2011 October 12 Wednesday
Distant Ancestors Had 6th Sense

Not all (or perhaps any) 6th senses are supernatural.

ITHACA, N.Y. — People experience the world through five senses but sharks, paddlefishes and certain other aquatic vertebrates have a sixth sense: They can detect weak electrical fields in the water and use this information to detect prey, communicate and orient themselves.

A study in the Oct. 11 issue of Nature Communications that caps more than 25 years of work finds that the vast majority of vertebrates – some 30,000 species of land animals (including humans) and a roughly equal number of ray-finned fishes – descended from a common ancestor that had a well-developed electroreceptive system.

This ancestor was probably a predatory marine fish with good eyesight, jaws and teeth and a lateral line system for detecting water movements, visible as a stripe along the flank of most fishes. It lived around 500 million years ago. The vast majority of the approximately 65,000 living vertebrate species are its descendants.

What this brings up: The idea of enhancing us to have additional senses. Also, existing senses can have ranges and sensitivities extended. Imagine being able to hear much higher frequency sounds. Those who could do this could even work out ways to talk to each other without being heard by the rest of us. Imagine vocal implants for generating higher frequency sounds.

What's more appealing? Seeing a wider range of colors, hearing a wider range of sounds, or perhaps sensing magnetic fields? Or do you have some other type of sensory capability you'd like to have? A wider range of visual focus? Sound filtering built into your ears to hear conversations in noisy areas?

By Randall Parker 2011 October 12 09:53 PM  Transhumans Upgrades
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Natural Selection Sped Up French Canadian Reproduction

Greg Cochran points out new research showing that freed from the Malthusian Trap French Canadians underwent natural selection that selected for genes for earlier reproduction.

French Canadian researchers have shown that natural selection has noticeably sped up reproduction among the inhabitants of Île aux Coudres, an island in the St. Lawrence River – in less than 150 years. Between 1799 and 1940, the age at which women had their first child dropped from 26 to 22, and analysis shows this is due to genetic change.

This has to be the case for French Canada generally. There were about 5,000 permanent settlers, including 1600 women: they account for about 90% of the ancestry of the 7 million Francophones in Quebec (along with a substantial number in New England). During that rapid expansion, genes that favored fast reproduction surely increased in frequency. Today the French of Quebec must differ significantly (in those genes that influence this trait) from people in France, which has had relatively slow population growth. Slower reproduction must be favored – lead to greater fitness – in a more Malthusian society.

The Amish population is currently doubling at a 14 year rate. Any small population that can maintain a high rate of doubling will eventually become a very large population. If the very high fertility groups (ethnies?) in developed countries maintain their high fertility rates for the next couple hundred years they'll swamp the rest of the populations of these countries.

The power of natural selection makes me skeptical that industrialized countries will remain outside the Malthusian Trap.

By Randall Parker 2011 October 12 09:53 PM  Trends, Human Evolution
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Extreme Optimists Only Learn From Good News

The most optimistic have frontal lobes that want nothing to do with bad news.

For some people, the glass is always half full. Even when a football fan's team has lost ten matches in a row, he might still be convinced his team can reverse its run of bad luck. So why, in the face of clear evidence to suggest to the contrary, do some people remain so optimistic about the future?

In a study published today in Nature Neuroscience, researchers at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL (University College London) show that people who are very optimistic about the outcome of events tend to learn only from information that reinforces their rose-tinted view of the world. This is related to 'faulty' function of their frontal lobes.

People's predictions of the future are often unrealistically optimistic. A problem that has puzzled scientists for decades is why human optimism is so pervasive, when reality continuously confronts us with information that challenges these biased beliefs.

"Seeing the glass as half full rather than half empty can be a positive thing – it can lower stress and anxiety and be good for our health and well-being," explains Dr Tali Sharot. "But it can also mean that we are less likely to take precautionary action, such as practising safe sex or saving for retirement. So why don't we learn from cautionary information?"

I hear Eric Idle singing "always look on the bright side of life".

Human brains have assorted biases built into how they work that limit their ability to understand the world accurately. This is about more than just intelligence. However, I suspect genetic outliers exist who have fewer biases. If the outliers also have sufficient intelligence they make good stock market traders and good scientists.

By Randall Parker 2011 October 12 06:59 AM  Brain Cognitive Flaws
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2011 October 11 Tuesday
Chocolate Safer Than Vitamins?

The study found that women who had the highest consumption of chocolate -- about two candy bars a week -- had a 20 percent reduced risk of stroke.

This is consistent with other findings.

Another study finds in women several different vitamins taken as supplements are associated with higher risk of dying.

Multivitamins, folic acid, vitamin B6, magnesium, zinc, copper and iron in particular appeared to increase mortality risk.

Calcium might be protective. But the researchers aren't confident about that finding.

Conversely, calcium supplements appeared to reduce death risk.

More here. No mention of vitamin D.

In a similar vein vitamin E supplements are associated with a higher risk of prostate cancer.

CHICAGO -- In a trial that included about 35,000 men, those who were randomized to receive daily supplementation with vitamin E had a significantly increased risk of prostate cancer, according to a study in the October 12 issue of JAMA.

"Lifetime risk of prostate cancer in the United States is currently estimated to be 16 percent. Although most cases are found at an early, curable stage, treatment is costly and urinary, sexual, and bowel-related adverse effects are common," according to background information in the article. There has been considerable preclinical and epidemiological evidence that selenium and vitamin E may reduce prostate cancer risk. "The initial report [published December 2008] of the Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial (SELECT) found no reduction in risk of prostate cancer with either selenium or vitamin E supplements but a statistically nonsignificant increase in prostate cancer risk with vitamin E. Longer follow-up and more prostate cancer events provide further insight into the relationship of vitamin E and prostate cancer."

More here.

So what to eat aside from chocolate? Less cooked broccoli is better than taking phytochemicals from broccoli in a pill. Activity of an enzyme called myrosinase in the broccoli makes several times more of glucosinolates chemicals get absorbed. So eat raw vegetables. Really.

CORVALLIS, Ore. -- New research has found that if you want some of the many health benefits associated with eating broccoli or other cruciferous vegetables, you need to eat the real thing – a key phytochemical in these vegetables is poorly absorbed and of far less value if taken as a supplement.

The study, published by scientists in the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University, is one of the first of its type to determine whether some of the healthy compounds found in cruciferous vegetables can be just as easily obtained through supplements.

The answer is no.

And not only do you need to eat the whole foods, you have to go easy on cooking them.

I'm a big cauliflower and a big chocolate eater. I do take vitamin D though and sometimes vitamin K.

By Randall Parker 2011 October 11 09:14 PM  Aging Diet Studies
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2011 October 10 Monday
Brain Stimulation Will Reduce Anti-Social Behavior?

Another chapter in the research on altruistic punishment.

In collaboration with Professor Ernst Fehr, Dr. Thomas Baumgartner and Professor Daria Knoch reveal the neuronal networks behind self-control in an article recently published in Nature Neuroscience. For the purposes of their study, they combined the transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) method with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Fehr has done a lot of work on the brain mechanisms that cause humans to engage in altruistic punishment. That is where most of the benefit from the punishment flows to other people. This latest report is a continuation of that vein of research.

Interaction between two frontal brain regions

The results of the study show that people only punish norm violations at their own expense if the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – an important area for control located at the front of the brain – is activated. This control entity must also interact with another frontal region, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, for punishment to occur.

The communication between these two frontal regions of the brain is also interesting in light of earlier fMRI studies, which showed that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex encodes the subjective value of consumer goods and normative behavior. As neuroscientist Thomas Baumgartner explains, it seems plausible that this brain region might also encode the subjective value of a sanction. This value increases through the communication with the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

Sounds like they use TMS to suppress the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. As a result they suppressed the motivation to dole out punishment.

"Using brain stimulation, we were able to demonstrate that the communication between the two brain regions becomes more difficult if the activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is reduced. This in turn makes punishing norm violations at your own expense significantly more difficult."

In the movie Brazil the lead character was able to get away from the highly controlling state by escaping into fantasy. But in real life the technologies will likely some day exist to modify the brains of those deemed anti-social. Mind you, some people really are dangerous and a threat to the rest of us. Is it better to lock them up or turn them into fluffy puppies?

The results could be important in the therapeutic use of the non-invasive brain-stimulation method in psychiatric and forensic patients. Patients who exhibit strong anti-social behavior also frequently display reduced activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. This region of the brain, however, is not directly accessible for non-invasive brain stimulation, as its location is too deep inside the brain. The results of the current study suggest that the activity in this region of the brain could be increased if the activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex were increased with the aid of brain stimulation. «This indirectly induced increase in the activity of the frontal brain regions could help improve prosocial and fair behavior in these patients,» concludes Daria Knoch.

Also see some of my previous related posts including ones by some of the same University of Zurich researchers: Emotions Overrule Logic To Cause Us To Punish, Brain Rewards For Carrying Out Altruistic Punishment, Men Feel More Pleasure Than Women Watching Punishment, and Altruistic Punishment Seen As Explanation For Mass Political Behaviors.

By Randall Parker 2011 October 10 06:22 AM  Brain Altruism
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More Easily Embarrassed More Trusted

Beware of people who only feign embarrassment.

BERKELEY — If tripping in public or mistaking an overweight woman for a mother-to-be leaves you red-faced, don’t feel bad. A new study from the University of California, Berkeley, suggests that people who are easily embarrassed are also more trustworthy, and more generous.

In short, embarrassment can be a good thing.

This makes sense: People with a greater fear of embarrassment will refrain from doing things that less easily embarrassed people won't hesitate to do. The fear of embarrassment can be counted on to constrain some forms of anti-social behavior. So a person more prone to embarrassment engages in fewer acts that would make others morally outraged.

The more easily embarrassed both behaved more altruistically and were perceived as more trustworthy.

The college students also participated in the “Dictator Game,” which is used in economics research to measure altruism. For example, each was given 10 raffle tickets and asked to keep a share of the tickets and give the remainder to a partner. Results showed that those who showed greater levels of embarrassment tended to give away more of their raffle tickets, indicating greater generosity.

Researchers also surveyed 38 Americans whom they recruited through Craigslist. Survey participants were asked how often they feel embarrassed. They were also gauged for their general cooperativeness and generosity through such exercises as the aforementioned dictator game.

In another experiment, participants watched a trained actor being told he received a perfect score on a test. The actor responded with either embarrassment or pride. They then played games with the actor that measured their trust in him based on whether he had shown pride or embarrassment.

Time and again, the results showed that embarrassment signals people’s tendency to be pro-social, Feinberg said. “You want to affiliate with them more,” he said, “you feel comfortable trusting them.”

What I want to know: When it becomes possible to genetically engineer offspring for greater or lesser tendency toward embarrassment will parents choose to make their kids more or less easily embarrassed than they are? The answer to that question will probably determine the level of trust in future human societies and the level of corruption as well.

What I also want to know: How highly correlated are shyness and the tendency toward embarrassment?

By Randall Parker 2011 October 10 05:53 AM  Brain Innate
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2011 October 06 Thursday
Working Memory Capacity Separates Good From Great?

So then did Steve Jobs have a large working memory capacity?

EAST LANSING, Mich. — What makes people great? Popular theorists such as the New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell and the New York Times’ David Brooks argue that intelligence plays a role – but only up to a point. Beyond that, they say, it’s practice, practice, practice.

Zach Hambrick agrees with the practice argument – imagine where Bill Gates would be if he hadn’t honed his programming skills, after all – but the Michigan State University scientist takes exception to the view that intelligence plays no role in determining excellence.

In a provocative new paper, Hambrick suggests working memory capacity – which is closely related to general intelligence – may sometimes be the deciding factor between good and great.

In a series of studies, Hambrick and colleagues found that people with higher levels of working memory capacity outperformed those with lower levels – and even in individuals with extensive experience and knowledge of the task at hand. The studies analyzed complex tasks such as piano sight reading.

“While the specialized knowledge that accumulates through practice is the most important ingredient to reach a very high level of skill, it’s not always sufficient,” said Hambrick, associate professor of psychology. “Working memory capacity can still predict performance in complex domains such as music, chess, science, and maybe even in sports that have a substantial mental component such as golf.”

Imagine you could think very fast but couldn't hold enough different pieces in your working memory to process all that much data. You might be good at reacting to a fast-changing environment that presents a series of smaller sized problems to solve but not so good at dealing with a single larger sized problem. Just like with computers human memory capacity is just as important as brain processing speed.

A couple of Michigan State University researchers go at differences in intellectual ability from another perspective: People differ in their ability to form longer term memories when sleeping. So someone could process lots of information rapidly but forget most of the conclusions by the next day.

In the study of more than 250 people, Fenn and Zach Hambrick, associate professor of psychology, suggest people derive vastly different effects from this "sleep memory" ability, with some memories improving dramatically and others not at all. This ability is a new, previously undefined form of memory.

"You and I could go to bed at the same time and get the same amount of sleep," Fenn said, "but while your memory may increase substantially, there may be no change in mine." She added that most people showed improvement.

Someone who has a large memory working set but a poor ability to retain info across sleep cycles could still do things like juggle schedules of taxis, do air traffic controller work, or wait tables in a restaurant. These occupations all involve manipulating a lot of information with a short shelf life.

Someone with large working memory working set but a lower ability to form long term memories might still be able to learn a complex field by just studying for a much longer period of time. But such a willingness to persist shouldn't be applied toward mastery of a field where the basic knowledge guiding practitioners changes rapidly.

Imagine a set of aptitude tests that measure processing time, working memory, and capacity to form longer term memories. The results of such a series of tests could help steer people in career directions that map better to their strengths.

By Randall Parker 2011 October 06 10:23 PM  Brain Performance
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2011 October 04 Tuesday
Why Live In Small Habitat On Mars?

A story in Technology Review about habitats for Moon and Mars colonies and an accompanying slide show of NASA tests of inflatable space habitats brings to mind a rarely discussed issue on long term Moon and Mars missions: Why subject yourself to years of living in very close quarters? Imagine living in a small home with the ability to go out for relatively short periods of time and then only in a space suit. Well, that's too frustrating a scenario for me to subject myself to it as a volunteer.

Such confined spaces and stresses of Mars life demand a very mentally stable and low stressing crew. If NASA ever sends a crew to Mars (or even the Moon) for a long mission then the latest brain genetics research and neuroscience ought to be employed to screen potential crew members. Who is least likely to crack? Who is most likely to stay unstressed, happy, and productive? Surely many genes that contribute to cognitive function and also to stress responses will be identified in the next 10 years.

To prepare for an eventual long term space mission (and also find genetic discoveries useful to the rest of us) an organized effort should be made to gather DNA samples from many people who suffer emotional breakdowns, depression that shows up only in mid-life under stress, and other mental diseases that do not first manifest at younger ages. DNA sequencing, brain scans, and other screening of those who hit serious mental problems in mid-life could provide clues for genetic variants and brain attributes to avoid when staffing for a Mars mission.

Another point: A picture in the slide show with lettuce being grown brings up the question of relevance. Growing plants enough to make a substantial impact on diet requires a lot of space. Unless it is possible to deliver large inflatable hot houses the growth of food at a Mars base will at best deliver a bit of extra flavoring and variety. Also, how to power hot houses to supply enough light and heat? Nuclear power plants seem the only viable option since solar panels will weigh too much to send in quantity.

A question: How much Mars soil would need to be processed to extract a meaningful amount of oxygen? Suppose inflatable habitats spring leaks. How to make more oxygen to inflate them after they get patched? Is concentration of oxygen from the thin Mars atmosphere a viable option? Would it be necessary to put a Mars base near water at a pole to extract the oxygen from water?

Update: Even worse, no dogs. How big would a Mars habitat have to get before dogs would be brought in? How long after humans first set up a permanent Mars base until dogs are introduced? A habitat unfriendly to dogs is really a habitat unfriendly to humans. We've got a lot of shared interests with our canine companions. They enjoy fields and trails into hills as much as we do.

Since Mars mission of just a few years duration would obviously not create permanently inhabitable facility my reaction is why bother? What is the point of building something on Mars that can't develop into a dog-friendly community with excellent parks for running the dogs? We should not spend tens or hundreds of billions of dollars to put a habitat on Mars until such a habitat could stay continuously inhabited and grow to a size sufficient to support a substantial dog population and grassy parks. It is not worth the trouble to just go visit Mars. We visited the Moon over 40 years ago and haven't been back for a few decades. The experience was that unsatisfying. Another stunt trip, this time to Mars, is a waste of time and resources.

By Randall Parker 2011 October 04 09:52 PM  Space Colonization
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Utilitarianism Embraced By Psychopaths, Rational Empaths?

If your empathy and desire to minimize suffering brings you to the same conclusions as a psychopaths should you be alarmed? Or should psychopaths feel vindicated?

NEW YORK – September 30, 2011 – A study conducted by Daniel Bartels, Columbia Business School, Marketing, and David Pizarro, Cornell University, Psychology found that people who endorse actions consistent with an ethic of utilitarianism—the view that what is the morally right thing to do is whatever produces the best overall consequences—tend to possess psychopathic and Machiavellian personality traits.

In the study, Bartels and Pizarro gave participants a set of moral dilemmas widely used by behavioral scientists who study morality, like the following: "A runaway trolley is about to run over and kill five people, and you are standing on a footbridge next to a large stranger; your body is too light to stop the train, but if you push the stranger onto the tracks, killing him, you will save the five people. Would you push the man?" Participants also completed a set of three personality scales: one for assessing psychopathic traits in a non-clinical sample, one that assessed Machiavellian traits, and one that assessed whether participants believed that life was meaningful. Bartels and Pizarro found a strong link between utilitarian responses to these dilemmas (e.g., approving the killing of an innocent person to save the others) and personality styles that were psychopathic, Machiavellian or tended to view life as meaningless.

Anyone familiar with how a Machiavellian differs from a psychopath?

Do rational empaths end up reaching the same conclusions as psychopaths but due to different emotional motivations?

These results (which recently appeared in the journal Cognition) raise questions for psychological theories of moral judgment that equate utilitarian responses with optimal morality, and treat non-utilitarian responses as moral "mistakes". The issue, for these theories, is that these results would lead to the counterintuitive conclusion that those who are "optimal" moral decision makers (i.e., who are likely to favor utilitarian solutions) are also those who possess a set of traits that many would consider prototypically immoral (e.g., the emotional callousness and manipulative nature of psychopathy and Machiavellianism).

While some might be tempted to conclude that these findings undermine utilitarianism as an ethical theory, Prof. Bartels explained that he and his co-author have a different interpretation: "Although the study does not resolve the ethical debate, it points to a flaw in the widely-adopted use of sacrificial dilemmas to identify optimal moral judgment. These methods fail to distinguish between people who endorse utilitarian moral choices because of underlying emotional deficits (like those captured by our measures of psychopathy and Machiavellianism) and those who endorse them out of genuine concern for the welfare of others." In short, if scientists' methods cannot identify a difference between the morality of a utilitarian philosopher who sacrifices her own interest for the sake of others, and a manipulative con artist who cares little about the feelings and welfare of anyone but himself, then perhaps better methods are needed.

This raises an important question: Are economists Machiavellians hiding as rational empaths? Or psychopaths who like to manipulate the minds of undergrads?

By Randall Parker 2011 October 04 06:09 AM  Brain Economics
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2011 October 02 Sunday
Stem Cells For Myelin Made In Quantity

Myelin is insulation around nerves and is essential for the conduction of impulses along nerves. The ability to grow pure populations of cells that make myelin brings us closer to effective treatments for multiple sclerosis and other diseases characterized by the loss of myelin.

Scientists at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine found a way to rapidly produce pure populations of cells that grow into the protective myelin coating on nerves in mice. Their process opens a door to research and potential treatments for multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy and other demyelinating diseases afflicting millions of people worldwide.

The findings will be published in the online issue of Nature Methods, Sunday, Sept. 25, at 1 p.m. EST.

"The mouse cells that we utilized, which are pluripotent epiblast stem cells, can make any cell type in body," Paul Tesar, an assistant professor of genetics at Case Western Reserve and senior author of the study, explained. "So our goal was to devise precise methods to specifically turn them into pure populations of myelinating cells, called oligodendrocyte progenitor cells, or OPCs."

These results matter to us all. Why? We all suffer from a demyelinating disease called aging. One of the reason older folks have harder times with memory recall, coordination, and other mental tasks is that myelin deteriorates with age. The ability to restore myelin is an essential rejuvenation therapy. Therefore the pursuit of effective treatments for MS and other demyelinating diseases will yield useful therapies for brain rejuvenation.

Just about any therapy aimed at repairing damage caused by a specific disease will also be useful for rejuvenation. Aging causes very diffuse damage to all the tissues in the body. When enough of that damage accumulates in a single organ or structural element disease emanating from a specific location emerges. But the localized disease is really just part of a bigger pattern of damage accumulation. So therapies aimed at repair of specific locations in the body will have a great deal of overlap with therapies aimed at full body rejuvenation.

By Randall Parker 2011 October 02 10:41 PM  Biotech Stem Cells
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