Hello, and welcome to this month’s Science Links and Discussion Thingy. Today, in honor of Romero’s latest Zombie movie, we are going to be exploring the Soggy Recesses of the Human Brain.
The brain, that most important, mysterious and delicious organ in the human body, has been the subject of much scientific research in the past century. What we are looking at today are some of the news stories of the last month relating to this squishy organ, once thought to be completely superfluous. These are not by far the only science articles of the last month available, so I encourage you to browse their host websites.
It seems that the phenomenon of Autism has been in the news a lot lately, as things ranging from pollution to vaccinations have been blamed for this mental disorder; basically, if it’s something that someone disapproves of, it has been blamed for autism.
Researchers at Johns Hopkin’s have put forward the idea that autism is actually caused during pregnancy by the mother’s own immune system attacking the developing fetus’ brain.
They stress that this is not the only possible cause, but one of many contributing factors. For now, it’s just one more thing for expecting mothers to worry about.
This development is even more interesting in light of research into ‘autistic savants.’ Formerly and more rudely known as ‘idiot savants,’ these are people with a severe form of autism, with the additional characteristic of great skill at one or more things.
The idea is that the portions of the brain that serves as an ‘information filter,’ in this case, certain proteins that link synapses, are damaged, causing accelerated learning, but poor long term retention of information.
And as one final look at autism and its implications, here is an interesting article that compares the thought processes of the autistic savants with those of normal animals.
This is not to say that autistic minds are ‘regressive’ or ‘animal-like’, but only that they share the characteristics of great perceptive powers, that is to say noticing stimuli that ordinary people would not notice or register, and a sort of strong focus on certain mental tasks, at the cost of other mental abilities. I find this article interesting in light of the previous article, and its discussion of synapse connecting proteins.
Another, also related article shows that humans and chimpanzees use the same part of the brain, known as ‘Broca’s Area’ for communication. This leads to two possible conclusions: one is that chimpanzees have a brain that has already adapted for communication, or that chimps raised in captivity (as were the chimps in the study) and taught how to communicate, have growth and activity in their Broca’s area induced by their environment. Judge for yourself.
Here is a link to a cute story about a dog that adopted a kid goat:
Awwww…Why do I post this? It’s a rather awkward segue from the theme of animal and human brain interactions to the next topic which relates to how the brains of adults are programmed to respond to infants.
It turns out that adults subconsciously recognize the fact that a face they are shown is an infant, and react to related stimuli faster than they do when shown an adult face. This phenomenon is linked to heightened activity in the ‘medial orbitofrontal cortex’ of the brain. Sadly, it is not revealed whether the dog in the previous article had suffered any damage to his medial orbitofrontal cortex.
And of course, what phenomenon is most associated with parenting? You’ve got it! Stress Related Alcoholism! (no, not really, but these segues are hard). However, there’s hope for that too. Scientists have discovered a key molecule in the brain’s faculty for perceiving stress; the molecule known as ‘neurokinin 1’ which is an important carrier of stress related brain signals. In a study of alcoholic mice, those mice that had their neurokinin 1 receptors suppressed consumed less alcohol than normal alcoholic mice. The article does not discuss the effectiveness of 12 step programs for mice.
Here’s another article which describes how scientists have managed to observe the workings of the most primitive part of the brain of all: the brain stem.
Similar to the previous article, this one focuses on messenger chemicals that dictate feelings of reward in the brain function. Since the pleasure derived from eating and drinking are some of the most basic instincts of all, it makes sense that they are housed in the most primitive part of the brain.
And lastly, this week’s dose of pseudoscience: ‘muscle memory, and quantum memory’:
Most people associate the term ‘muscle memory’ with two very real phenomena: the fact that muscle, once built up, then allowed to waste away, will build up to its previous level faster the second time than it had the first. This phenomenon is well known to bodybuilders and the intermittently athletic. The second is the function of the cerebellum that stores information relating to repetitive motion, such that one can perform such actions, such as walking, without thinking about it.
If you follow the above link, however, you will see a long, rambling article where someone makes the claim that not only do other tissues of the human body store information, such that muscles literally remember, but also that there exists ‘quantum memory’ in the so-called ‘feedback mechanisms’ of individual atoms, and that this somehow affects the body.
All in all, I see this article as yet another attempt by mind-body dualists to assert that there is a ghost in the shell; an attempt to slap pseudoscientific terms on outdated ideas. It seemed particularly absurd after reading the other articles that you see here. Sadly I don’t have the time or space to mock it further. I leave that in your most capable hands.
Filed under: Sciences | Tagged: brains |