11/6/14

Crazy Cats and Brain Parasites


Brain parasitesIt reads like a script for a scary movie: an alien parasite invading our brains, taking control of our minds, changing our behaviour silently, secretly; making us do what it wants. And it’s happening now, in homes across Canada and the USA. Alien puppet masters over-running the nation, one household at a time.

But it’s not fiction, although my scenario is a trifle exaggerated.

They’re not some right-wing aliens from outer space subverting our natural goodness and compassion; not some cyber-bullying bloggers dripping political poison into the gullible minds of their readers.They are microscopic, found worldwide, on land and in water – including saltwater – and may be infecting people you know this very minute. Or even you. They’re Toxoplasma gondii; an amoebic parasite pretty much capable of infecting any warm-blooded creature.

Where they breed, however, is in your cat, and are then excreted in their feces:

Although T. gondii can infect, be transmitted by, and asexually reproduce within humans and virtually all other warm-blooded animals, the parasite can sexually reproduce only within the intestines of members of the cat family (felids). Felids are therefore defined as the definitive hosts of T. gondii, with all other hosts defined as intermediate hosts.

As an owner of four cats and having had cats most of my life, this is troubling. But not entirely new. Back in 2012, in an article in The Atlantic, titled, “How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy,” Kathleen MacAuliffe wrote:

The parasite, which is excreted by cats in their feces, is called Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii or Toxo for short) and is the microbe that causes toxoplasmosis—the reason pregnant women are told to avoid cats’ litter boxes. Since the 1920s, doctors have recognized that a woman who becomes infected during pregnancy can transmit the disease to the fetus, in some cases resulting in severe brain damage or death. T. gondii is also a major threat to people with weakened immunity: in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, before good antiretroviral drugs were developed, it was to blame for the dementia that afflicted many patients at the disease’s end stage. Healthy children and adults, however, usually experience nothing worse than brief flu-like symptoms before quickly fighting off the protozoan, which thereafter lies dormant inside brain cells—or at least that’s the standard medical wisdom.

But if Flegr is right, the “latent” parasite may be quietly tweaking the connections between our neurons, changing our response to frightening situations, our trust in others, how outgoing we are, and even our preference for certain scents. And that’s not all. He also believes that the organism contributes to car crashes, suicides, and mental disorders such as schizophrenia. When you add up all the different ways it can harm us, says Flegr, “Toxoplasma might even kill as many people as malaria, or at least a million people a year.”

To be fair to cats, the parasites live in soil, too, so they’re hard to avoid. Plus they’re also found in undercooked meat. You like your steak blue? Or bloody rare? You may be inviting this parasite into your brain. And also if you drink contaminated water or eat uncooked or undercooked shellfish. Those raw oysters you love? Parasite havens. Yum.
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11/3/14

Timothy Leary Was Right. Maybe.


This is your brain on drugs
This is your brain on drugs. Or rather, the right-hand image is your brain on psilocybin. The other side is your brain on a non-psychedelic drug. Researchers recently discovered some amazing facts about how our brains work on some chemicals. And some psychedelic drugs prove to have pretty amazing effects. But don’t try this at home… stick to building toy rockets and drones for your science experiments…

Apparently Timothy Leary was right: psychedelic drugs change the way users think. For a long time, possibly forever. In his pioneering work, The Psychedelic Experience (1964), Leary wrote

A psychedelic experience is a journey to new realms of consciousness. The scope and content of the experience is limitless, but its characteristic features are the transcendence of verbal concepts, of space-time dimensions, and of the ego or identity. Such experiences of enlarged consciousness can occur in a variety of ways: sensory deprivation, yoga exercises, disciplined meditation, religious or aesthetic ecstasies, or spontaneously. Most recently they have become available to anyone through the ingestion of psychedelic drugs such as LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, DMT, etc. Of course, the drug does not produce the transcendent experience. It merely acts as a chemical key — it opens the mind, frees the nervous system of its ordinary patterns and structures.

He also said in a 1966 CBS documentary about his work,

We always have urged people: Don’t take LSD unless you are very well prepared, unless you are specifically prepared to go out of your mind. Don’t take it unless you have someone that’s very experienced with you to guide you through it. And don’t take it unless you are ready to have your perspective on yourself and your life radically changed, because you’re gonna be a different person, and you should be ready to face this possibility.

A story in Wired Magazine about this new research described the image above:

A representation of that is seen in the image above. Each circle depicts relationships between networks—the dots and colors correspond not to brain regions, but to especially connection-rich networks—with normal-state brains at left, and psilocybin-influenced brains at right…
In mathematical terms, said Petri (study co-author Giovanni Petri, a mathematician at Italy’s Institute for Scientific Interchange), normal brains have a well-ordered correlation state. There’s not much cross-linking between networks. That changes after the psilocybin dose. Suddenly the networks are cross-linking like crazy, but not in random ways. New types of order emerge…
Petri notes that the network depiction above is still a simplified abstraction, with the analysis mapped onto a circular, two-dimensional scaffold. A truer way of visualizing it, he said, would be in three dimensions, with connections between networks forming a sponge-like topography.

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11/2/14

Debunking Homeopathy. Again.


Homeopathy. It’s absoHomeopathic cartoonlute bunk. But you already know that. All those forms of ‘magic medicine* are bunk, of course, but homeopathy has a special place reserved for it in the kingdom of codswallop.

Codswallop is dangerous to the mind, and often to your wallet, but homeopathy compounds that by being dangerous to your health, too, even fatal, as Penelope Dingle discovered. Yes, homeopathy can kill you, if you take it’s fake cures instead of actual medicine or treatment.**

But, you ask, if a placebo works (in some cases), what’s wrong with it? As Joel Gottsegen wrote in the Stanford Daily last week, it’s the pseudoscience baggage that attends its use that is equally dangerous:

Helping people with chronic pain via the placebo effect is nice, but there are many ways to achieve this effect that create less collateral damage. Giving someone a sugar pill is relatively simple. Creating an enormous ideological framework that clouds people’s judgements about mainstream medicine is not. The biggest problem with practitioners of alternative medicine is that they often deny the soundness of scientific studies as a measurement of the efficacy of a treatment. This is a dangerous sentiment. If Deepak Chopra were to discover a new form of medical treatment that helped sick people, it should be possible to test that the treatment is actually working. By denying the validity of the scientific method, alternative healers free themselves from any kind of accountability.

The Atlantic Magazine quoted Steven Salzberg, a prominent biology researcher at the University of Maryland at College Park, saying homeopathy is a…

…cleverly marketed, dangerous quackery. These clinics throw together a little homeopathy, a little meditation, a little voodoo, and then they add in a little accepted medicine and call it integrative medicine, so there’s less criticism. There’s only one type of medicine, and that’s medicine whose treatments have been proven to work. When something works, it’s not all that hard to prove it. These people have been trying to prove their alternative treatments work for years, and they can’t do it. But they won’t admit it and move on. Of course they won’t. They’re making too much money on it.

I got back onto this old horse of an argument recently when a Facebook poster responded to my posts urging residents to get a flu vaccine by saying, “If you care for your health, take a homeopathic alternative with no added toxins.” No added anything, really, since homeopathic “remedies” are simply placebos and what you get in those little pills is a little sugar and nothing else.

Taking nothing does just that: nothing. If you care about your health – and that of others – you’ve already had your flu shot. Homeopathic “remedies” will not prevent the flu from spreading or infecting anyone. In fact they’re actually helping spread disease.

In short: homeopathy is bunk, and dangerous, unhealthy bunk at that. It’s taken off these days because of the internet-driven conspiracy-theory gullibility that pervades our culture. Terms like “Big Pharma” are used to scare people who are already deeply suspicious of government, corporations, developers, Liberals, contrails, medicine, vaccinations and science. Ooh, scary…

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10/30/14

Words, Your Brain and Sex


Naked readingOne of the reasons I’m a dedicated librocubularist* can be found in a story on IFL Science that is headlined, “Learning New Words Activates The Same Brain Regions As Sex And Drugs.” It opens:

While it doesn’t get much better than sex and drugs for many out there, new research has found that simply learning a new word can spark up the same reward circuits in the brain that are activated during pleasurable activities such as these. No wonder there are so many bookworms and scrabble addicts out there.

So nothing like a good, brisk read through the Compact English to get in the mood, eh? Get all purfled from the effort of learning new words. While you groak your snoutfair mate and suggest she festinate her reading while she tells you to be testudineous while she deliciates her words…

The actual article this story draws from doesn’t exactly say that learning new words is the same as sex or drugs. What it says is that learning them lights up the regions of the brain that kicks into play when it wants to reward you. At least it works on people who were being studied under MRIs, not necessary those in libraries or bookstores. Don’t go ecstasiated over it, yet.

It does the same thing for gambling, although I have to admit for this unrepentant mumpsimus, my own reward-centre connection for learning kicks a much more powerful punch than that for gambling. It’s a burden I bajulate well, though.

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10/29/14

Larry & Jerry’s Inferno


InfernoI had forgotten about this book until recently when I came across a reprint. I read it originally in the late 1970s when I was reading a lot more sci-fi than I do today. (Many years ago, I ran a Toronto computer convention where I invited the authors to be the keynote speakers. I got to spend many hours and a memorable dinner with them.) I finished the reprint only a few days ago and started the sequel, Escape From Hell, shortly after.

I was researching Dante of late for something I’ve been slogging at for the past couple of years, when I came across the novel again. I’m always looking for something to sharpen my understanding of Dante, and sometimes a perspective like this can help.

Dante’s Inferno, the first of the Divine Comedy trilogy, has always fascinated me for its complex subject matter; its politics, theology, human drama and vision. I have numerous translations of it on my bookshelves. Some I keep just for the introduction and notes – the poetry is almost unintelligible without a guide (which is amusing; you need a second Virgil to guide you through Dante’s references and make sense of them in modern terms).

Dante is tough, but not for his words. Those are easy to read, but the poems are full of historical and literary references that make little sense to the average (non-academic) modern reader. Some of those references were contemporary to Dante, others are classical. Archaic politics have little resonance today.

He also had a rather ornate, medieval theology that furnished his view of Hell (apparently influenced by the writings of Thomas Aquinas (who I have not read but may some day tackle the 3,500-page Summa Theologica if i can work up the nerve). Without having some background knowledge or at least an edition with good notes, the words themselves often don’t tell you as much as you need to know.

Pinsky’s version was my favourite, although Kirkpatrick’s translation made it a close second last year. I recently started reading Mary Jo Bang’s colloquial version and it so far intrigues me, although it seems to have annoyed some critics for her modern (and not literate) interpretations. I also have the Ciardi, Wordsworth and Musa translations. Musa’s notes are worth the book alone.

Since its first translation into English, in 1782, the Inferno has been the subject of much literary discussion and the merits of each translation heavily debated. Ciardi’s version seems to have garnered the most accolades before Pinsky. I am somewhat iffy about versions that attempt to replicate Dante’s three-line rhyming scheme – it can seem rather strained – and tend to like blank verse versions better.

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10/15/14

Earth’s magnetic field could flip within a human lifetime


An intriguing possibility was reported on Science Daily this morning:

Earth’s last magnetic reversal took place 786,000 years ago and happened very quickly, in less than 100 years — roughly a human lifetime. The rapid flip, much faster than the thousands of years most geologists thought, comes as new measurements show the planet’s magnetic field is weakening 10 times faster than normal and could drop to zero in a few thousand years.

Why would this matter? The article continues:

And since Earth’s magnetic field protects life from energetic particles from the sun and cosmic rays, both of which can cause genetic mutations, a weakening or temporary loss of the field before a permanent reversal could increase cancer rates. The danger to life would be even greater if flips were preceded by long periods of unstable magnetic behavior.

When will this happen? That’s the big question behind the headline. Soon, warn geologists. But their “soon” in geological time doesn’t mean the same as “your breakfast will arrive soon” in a restaurant. It seems overdue for a flip, but no one is sure when that might happen. A 2002 story in The Guardian warned that it was imminent – in geological terms:

“Some experts have stuck their necks out to predict that we can expect the next reversal some time in the next 2,000 years.”

I think we can have that cup of tea while we wait. It may not happen in our lifetimes. But, the article has that shock effect nonetheless:

The Earth could be about to turn upside down. The planet’s magnetic field is showing signs of wanting to make a gigantic somersault, so that magnetic north heads towards Antarctica, and magnetic south goes north. Compasses will point the wrong way, and migrating birds, fish and turtles are going to be very confused.
Just when this will happen, how long it will take and what the consequences will be, is difficult to fathom. What is not in doubt, though, is that it will happen. About every half a million years or so, the Earth’s magnetic field flips upside down.

And that’s the worry: every half-a-million years is a lot less time than the 786,000 years since the last flip-over. This summer, Scientific American warned it could happen sooner rather than later:

Earth’s magnetic field, which protects the planet from huge blasts of deadly solar radiation, has been weakening over the past six months, according to data collected by a European Space Agency (ESA) satellite array called Swarm.
The biggest weak spots in the magnetic field — which extends 370,000 miles (600,000 kilometers) above the planet’s surface — have sprung up over the Western Hemisphere, while the field has strengthened over areas like the southern Indian Ocean, according to the magnetometers onboard the Swarm satellites — three separate satellites floating in tandem.
The scientists who conducted the study are still unsure why the magnetic field is weakening, but one likely reason is that Earth’s magnetic poles are getting ready to flip, said Rune Floberghagen, the ESA’s Swarm mission manager. In fact, the data suggest magnetic north is moving toward Siberia.

So we wait, unable to do anything about it. Have another cuppa, if you must. Yes, you have time.

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09/18/14

Is the Internet making us stupid? Or just shallow?


Click the first
In my never-ending search for some bit of knowledge one day, during a mix-and-match of search engine terms while looking for classical writers’ views on death and dying, I stumbled onto what might have been an off-kilter New Age site, OM Times, or more likely, a parody of the genre. On the page titled “8 Things You Didn’t Know About Death,” I read,

“… light rays have qualities like wisdom, kindness, compassion and intelligence. This light makes visible what is invisible on earth, the Divine nature of all things….”

Loud guffaws broke the cool silence of the house and startled the cats sleeping on the dining room table nearby. Light rays have wisdom? Intelligence? I almost snorted tea through my nose I laughed so hard. It had to be a parody.

Codswallop almost always makes me laugh. At first. Then, as I perused the site more, I got worried at how much of it there was. A lot of effort put into a parody, it seemed. Do people actually believe this stuff? Or are all the New Age websites really satirical, like the Onion, making fun of popular beliefs, superstitions and fears?

Surely some of them must be poking us in the metaphorical ribs with a wink and a nudge. It’s hard to believe they’re serious when you check the other stories on this site. With articles headlined by lines like:

  • Are Your Loved Ones Sending You A Message From Beyond?
  • 10 Signs That You Were Born a Mystic
  • Top 10 Traits to Identify an Indigo
  • Numerology: September Forecast
  • The Science of Miracles
  • The 7 Most Common Messages from Spirits
  • My Life As an Earth Angel
  • Crystals For Reiki

You have to think they’re pulling your leg. And pulling it hard. None of this stuff is real; it’s all piffle; no one can take this malarkey seriously. Miracles? Numerology? Crystals? Just look at the opening of the story titled, “Travelling to the New Earth:”

There is a place beyond the Fifth Dimension where a new vision is taking shape, where mankind is getting a proverbial ‘do-over.’ This place is called ‘the New Earth.’ It exists in a dimensional space above the fifth dimension somewhere in the sixth and seventh dimensional areas accessible by meditation and through ‘stargates’ some of which are physical and some of which are energetic. Thus, many are able to visit the New Earth in meditation.
The New Earth is a high vibrational area where we all hope to live one day. It is free of fear and conflict. I am told it is the highest expression of Heaven on Earth or Shamballa.

I know, I know. I nearly laughed myself into a fit when I read that. There must be an app for creating winky New Age stories out there that lets you mix all the buzz words and goofy ideas together and come out with something that can be published here. This stuff makes Harry Potter read like a documentary.

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