Silly Science, Head Cheese, and the Hairless Vulpes of Carolina

Filed as Features on March 6, 2007 3:31 pm

This edition of science blogging is going to look at some scientific tidbits about brains… and minds, as those seem to come attached to brains. There has been quite a lot on the subjects these past couple of weeks, thus lots of meaty stuff (apologies to those who gag at the thought of head cheese) to learn from.

On the subject of food, Berkeley professor of psychology Seth Roberts offers two blog posts about Brain Food, from the Scientific Blogging site. In Part 1, he talks about omega-3 fatty acids taken as supplements to improve sleep. His sources include walnut oil, flax oil capsules and salmon. His informal research on himself and from reports on nutrition forums indicate increased intake of omega-3s also helps symptoms of mood disorders, and in other studies has shown decreased susceptibility to Alzheimer’s. Which looks to be a pretty good reason to put omega-3s into one’s diet even if you sleep like a baby!

In Brain Food (part 2) Roberts examines omega-3s from walnut and flaxseed oils to improve brain function generally. He seems a big fan, and promises to keep us updated on further studies. Now that we know what kind of nourishment brains need to function at their peak, we get into the meat of the matter of what brains are made of over on Omni Brain, with What glial cells do and what Einstein’s brain has to do with it. Steve Higgins tells us that glial brain cells, as opposed to the complicated and multi-connected neurons that overlie them, serve to glue neurons together, dispense the food to those neurons, clean up waste products and such, making them the “nanny cells” of our thinking machines.

So… what does Einstein’s brain have to do with it? Seems that when his brain was found – it was lost for decades after he died – it turned out that the major difference between his brain and other people’s brains is that he had more glial cells. Given that animal brain studies have demonstrated that as intelligence increases so does the ratio of glial cells to neurons, we might well expect one of the most intelligent humans who ever lived to display just this sort of oddity. Presuming that selecting matching socks, maintaining a reasonable hairdo and remembering to eat don’t require intelligence as much as they require attention. Einstein was rather notorious for neglecting such attentional details. Higgins tells us that from these studies, reported in the British newspaper The Guardian, neuroscientists now recognize that glial cells also supply energy to neurons as well as help to establish connections.

Now that we’re clear on the superior intelligence of scientific researchers – at least, some of them – let’s look at some of the fun things that these brilliant people find out by using their brainpower. Neurontic tells us in her blog post Silly Science Sunday that sometimes even scientists get silly. There’s a link to one AP Psychology student’s re-make of a Britney Spears video for YouTube that has her singing a ballad about the brain’s occipital lobe. Who would ever have thought Justin Timberlake’s ex was such an accomplished anatomist? No wonder they didn’t make it!

This blog also informs us about a publicly funded radiologist in Britain who discovered that sword swallowers have a higher risk of injury to themselves when they become “distracted” during their feats of derring-do, and can even be injured just by adding some performance-oriented embellishments to the act! I for one would like to know how much of the public’s money he got for the purpose of this research, because I’ve got a terrific idea for research on the risks of injury to fire jugglers. I have a friend who is somewhat of an inventor, who thought he’d add some oomph to his juggling act with a set of wooden balls, onto which he stapled some lamp wick. Everybody can juggle flaming torches, but who have you seen juggle flaming balls?

I keep the original set on the mantle just for its humor value, for when he tried them out for the first time (none of the other jugglers I know would do it, for good reason) it was one of the funniest performances I’ve ever seen in my life. It only took a few weeks for his hands to heal, so was definitely worth it just for the value to basic brain research on how the heck the obvious consequences managed to be overlooked while he was putting these things together! Perhaps his glial cells needed more omega-3s… Anyway, now he’s a bartender instead. Probably a good career move, all things considered.

While it’s somewhat funny to read about the kind of silly science that gets funding from the public coffers (or not), Higgins also turns us on to another glial glitch in the science racket with Academic Fraud – Screwing it up for the rest of us. Fraud is of course a more serious subject than sword swallowers and fire jugglers. Given academic frauds like cold fusion and some stem cell researches, Higgins tells us about some scientists from the University Laval’s Department of Medicine who claimed to have produced neurons in vitro from adult skin cells. Steve’s not buying it, even though this research is to be published in the Journal of Cellular Physiology. I’m going to wait on the gatekeepers to figure it out, since I’m not a cell biologist or a neuroscientist. So all I’ve got to go on are blog reactions like this to those everyday press releases that automatically get published sans commentary at places like ScienceDaily and Eureka Alert.

Meanwhile, my vowel-less local sci-blogger James Hrynyshyn reports on Witchful thinking: water on the brain, about a dowsing convention in beautiful Asheville, North Carolina, New New Age Capital of the New South (was that redundancy over the top? …I can never tell). Anyway, the dowsers claim they can not only find water with their twirly-sticks, but ancestral graves for the local Cherokee as well! Of course, those graves are on a little island in Fontana Lake, which was created by a hydropower dam built by the TVA in the 1940s. So maybe it makes some sort of woo sense that dowsers could find graves in the middle of the lake.

So much for pseudoscience, weird science and brain food (no, I’m not going to talk about Zombies again…). Since I’m talking about North Carolina attractions, there’s one other story that deserves recognition from scientists. Because it’s truly strange, in a semi-evolutionary sort of way. Our Serbian friend Coturnix reports about the Hairless Grey Foxes in North Carolina. While linking to a report that states these odd critters have been showing up in South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Alaska and Colorado. Is this an evolutionary adaptation to global warming? And how did the very same mutation show up in such widely disparate places? Very, very strange, but you can always trust a fox to outfox scientists. You’ve really got to click on this one, if only for the photo. What the heck IS that thing!

That’s it for brain exercise as we start to see sure signs of spring, intrepid ones! See you next time…

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  1. By steve posted on March 6, 2007 at 5:10 pm
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    I actually didn’t say I didn’t buy the stem cell research. I said it’s hard to buy since a decent amount of scientific fraud has focused around that same topic. I would actually give them the benefit of the doubt :)

  2. By jhay posted on March 7, 2007 at 12:53 am
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    Come on, anyone who puts something long, sharp and of steel construction down his throat has 90% chance of getting injured. A wrong move, even a twitch could be disastrous.

  3. By Jed Rothwell posted on March 7, 2007 at 3:37 pm
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    Cold fusion was NOT academic fraud.

    Despite claims in the major newspapers, Nature and Scientific American, the cold fusion effect was replicated at high signal to noise ratios by researchers at the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division at China Lake, Amoco, SRI, Texas A&M, Los Alamos, Mitsubishi Res. Center, BARC Bombay, Tsinghua U. and over a hundred other world-class laboratories. By September 12, 1990, 92 groups in major laboratories reported replications. See: Will, F.G., Groups Reporting Cold Fusion Evidence. 1990, National Cold Fusion Institute: Salt Lake City, UT., http://lenr-canr.org/acrobat/WillFGgroupsrepo.pdf Hundreds of positive, peer-reviewed papers on cold fusion were subsequently published in mainstream journals.

    You can find over 500 full text reprints of scientific papers from all of the institutions listed above, and many others, at our web site, http://lenr-canr.org/

    Sincerely,

    Jed Rothwell
    Librarian
    http://lenr-canr.org/