Tuesday, February 06, 2007

In The News

Some things in the news I've been thinking about

Tibetan Brain Science

I heard a radio interview with a science reporter from the Wall Street Journal, talking about recent experiments in neuroscience. Various bits reeked of bogosity to me, but I thought I'd post to see if somebody could actually confirm or deny this suspician.

Apparently there have been a lot of studies of brain plasticity. That is (according to the radio interview), the question of whether physical actions can affect the size, growth, activity of the brain. In one example, the reporter claimed that violinists who practice for hours actually cause a certain sector of their brain to get larger. My apologies for not getting the details. See Zen and the Art of Neuroscience.

The "Zen" part of the story is that the reporter claims that a certain form of Tibetan Meditation (first august alarm: Zen is very, very different from Tibetan Buddhism), in which the monks contemplate compassion, can lead a different part of the brain to expand, and this chunk is supposedly associated with a sense of happiness and well-being (second august alarm: the key to wisdom is found in the Orient!). How they control for meditation as opposed to vegetarian diet, various monkly activities, or living as refugees away from the threat of genocide is but one of many possible questions.

But I know zilch about neuroscience. So feel free to enlighten me.

Italian Soccer

Italian soccer clubs have long had a symbiotic relationship with the more frightening segment of their fan base, the "ultra" -- fanatic groups who sell merchandise and riot outside (or sometimes inside) football stadiums. Recently, one of these groups surrounded and threw a bomb a policeman's car, killing the cop inside.

As of right now, the consequence has been cancellation of Serie A (the equivalent of Premier or Major League) for the weekend.

In fact, the entire season should be cancelled. It will take that long to refurbish Italian stadiums for better safety and security, to ensure that football clubs have severed their relations with ultra groups, and for the nation as a whole to discover life without football. This comes in the wake of a match fixing scandal last season. It's a mess, and anything less than loss of the season will mean that the powers that be are not interested in fixing the problem.

Friendly Fire

I hate the war. The latest in a series of scandals is a tape of an incident in which two U.S. pilots bombed a British tank in 2003. The tape was played on the BBC this morning. If anything, it confirms that the incident was a horrible mistake -- the U.S. pilots radioed to make sure that there were no allied forces in the area, and when they later found out that had killed a British soldier, they show immediate and deep remorse.

The problem is that the U.S. refused to release the tape to the British soldier's widow, and in fact both the U.S. and Great Britain denied that such a tape existed, a denial now hard to swallow in view of the fact that a transcript appeared in the tabloid Sun and played on the Beeb.

Our government seems determined to exascerbate the situation for our troops, to spit on our allies, to lie about the measures necessary to prosecute the war, and to mislead the American public about what constitutes national security and what constitutes ass-covering. The administration has so many asses, that may be all they are doing anymore.


Southern Gal said...

Hi August,

I'm not sure if it's true what this report says about neuroscience and whether parts of the brain will expand or grow. I'm not nearly as interested in that than I am in the strides neuroscience has made in the rewiring of the brain after a brain injury.

They've discovered that if a person has a stroke they can do certain exercises which will rewire that part of the brain that has been damaged by the stroke.

Neuroscience has found that people who have had a stroke ten years ago can still rewire the damaged part of the brain, thereby enabling the patient to once again use the side of the body that has been effected by the stroke. Sometimes with a 90% recovery rate.

The brain is an amazing organ and there is no telling what it is capable of.

TenaciousK said...

Uhm, did somebody say my name?

August, I wish I had more time to respond to this - I'm on the road. I did write a recent comment that touches one the subject.

When I was taking classes, neural plasticity was all about new connections / retasking - that there were no new neurons being created was sort of neuroscience gospel. Now, it's looking like we spoke too soon, though the extent of new cell growth appears (at this stage, anyway) to be fairly limited (though perhaps limited to a particularly important set of structures).

But not looking at the issue of new cell growth, size and activity are certainly impacted by physical actions. There was a lovely dateline story years ago about a little girl who had a hemispherectomy, due to otherwise untreatable epilepsy. With years of physical therapy, she regained partial use of the post-operatively paralyzed side of her body, and can even walk. A pet scan of her brain while she was using that side of her body showed an immense amount of activity among the neurons all along the face of the remaining hemisphere. 30 years ago, they would've called that impossible.

But people are speculating now that the impact of, say, antidepressants may be due to new neuron growth, rather than due exclusively to changes in neural architecture. Who knows? It's certainly provocative stuff.

twiffer said...

friendly fire is part of war. people realize that mistakes happen, with often horrible consequences. but people realize it is the result of a mistake. moreover, people are, for the most part, forgiving when mistakes are owned up to right away. it's when you try to hide them that they become scandals. if this tape was released when the incident occurred, there would be no scandal. another horror of war, yes. but not a scandal.

it strikes me that tossing bombs in the name of a soccer team is just as reasonable as tossing bombs in the name of a religion.