The Neuroscience of Juggling

Over the past few years a slew of news outlets have been singing the cognitive benefits of learning to juggle. If one is to believe the hype, this ancient circus activity will increase your brain powermake your brain bigger (permanently, no less), and may even prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Dang.

Can there be any truth to these heady claims, or is it another case of the media committing that most egregious of sins: distorting science for the sake of a catchy headline? Here we plunge into the literature and investigate what has actually been shown experimentally.  Continue reading

Advertisements

GMOs Pt 1: Just What is Genetic Modification?

Disclaimer: Trading Atoms has no interests, financial or otherwise, in any biotechnology or related company.

The development of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) is clearly one of the more controversial issues of our time, with a wellspring of strongly held opinions issuing forth, particularly from the political left. With such widespread distrust and uncertainty amongst concerned citizens, the topic is well and truly ripe for some informed discussion. Riper than a GM Flavr Savr tomato, some might even suggest.

In this first instalment on GMOs, we’ll be going through the basics of just what genetic modification means. Stay tuned for Part 2 where we’ll walk you through a simple guide on how to make your very own GMO, then in Part 3 we’ll address the more sobering question of whether the technology is even safe, and possibly have you regretting that spider-shark you’ve unleashed upon the world.

A Quick Review of Genetics

As you would surely have heard at some time, all living creatures have DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) in them. If you’d like to get a bit spiritual-sciencey (as we sometimes do), you can legitimately think of DNA as the mystical life force that vibrates through and connects all living creatures on the planet. It is the real-world midichlorians. This particular molecule is present in every single life form, from the elegantly simple bacteria, to the towering trees, to the most majestic of animals.

Capture

Pretty much everything you need to remember about DNA is contained in the following three sentences. DNA is an incredibly long spiral ladder, with four types of rung. These rungs are organised into genes. Each gene is a blueprint to make a certain protein.

When the word ‘protein’ gets mentioned, most people think of that new diet they’re trying, or how sigh, they really should be making better use of that gym membership. While it’s true that muscles are largely made up of two particular types of proteins, there are many, many more types. It’s actually best to think of proteins as tiny machines that swim around in your cells, controlling every single thing you ever do. They are like the little cogs whirring away driving the immense living robot that is your body.

So to recap:

DNA –> is organised into –> Genes –> are blueprints for –> Proteins –> are tiny machines that control everything you do

A protein-machine grabbing onto pink DNA

A protein-machine grabbing onto pink DNA

How Many Genes are There?

Humans are intricately complex beings, with a huge array of different cell types and processes going on. Before the Human Genome Project, scientists speculated about how many different types of genes and proteins we must have to sustain all this complexity. Guesses ranged from over 6 million genes back in the ’60s, down to 100,000 genes by the National Institute of Health in 1990, to a post-genome estimate of 22,000. Recent evidence suggests the number is probably actually around 19,000 to 20,000.

Whatever the exact figure, it’s still very large, especially considering that those sweet guns you’ve been working on are mostly made up of just two proteins. Out of the thousands of others, only a small handful are well understood, and many remain outright mysterious.

How many Genes are there in Other Branches of Life?
kerrydarlington.co.uk

kerrydarlington.co.uk

Bearing in mind that it’s very hard to say exactly how many genes any species has, geneticists have found some interesting results:

Humans – 20,000

Dog/cat – 19,000/20,000

Mouse – 25,000

E. coli4,200

T. vaginalis60,000

HIV – 9    (Note: RNA not DNA)

Brewing yeast – 6,000

Fruit fly – 14,000

Frog – 20,000-21,000

Rice – 46,000-55,000

Wheat – 94,000-96,000

So if you thought that humans were a superior species genetically, think again. While we do have very impressive brains, our gene sets are not so different from a whole bunch of everyday animals. If you’ve ever been unlucky enough to suffer a bout of vaginitis, you may have Trichomonas vaginalis to thank – a single-celled parasite with three times as many genes as you.

Plants in particular can have staggeringly large gene sets. This is often the result of accidental DNA duplications that occur during evolution, which are then chosen by selective breeding (more on that below).

This discussion of gene sets is actually quite facetious, because what has become clear over time is that the number of genes doesn’t really matter. Merely witness the devastation that HIV is able to wreak with its measly nine genes. The important thing to remember is that most species have thousands of genes, and we generally have very little idea what they do.

What Is Genetic Modification?

Time to get serious. Here’s the legal definition:

“Any living organism that possesses a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology.”

This is basically saying that an organism is considered to be a GMO if it has had its DNA changed by scientists. There are a few possible kinds of changes:

  • inserting a gene from another species
  • editing (mutating) an existing gene
  • deleting an existing gene
  • changing how much protein a particular gene makes (regulatory changes)

Overwhelmingly, the GMOs created to date have had one or a few genes added to them from other species to create new functionality. A few examples of this include:

Contrary to the raft of hysterical images circulating online about GM food in particular, GMOs are NOT injected with mysterious chemicals, they do not gain explosive or radioactive properties, and they do not spontaneously develop circulatory systems.

Rather:

GMOs have a tiny difference in the proteins they make

To illustrate this point, let’s say that scientists make a drought-resistant strain of wheat by adding two genes.

The gene sets of the two strains would look like this:

  • Original wheat: 95,000 genes, making 95,000 proteins
  • GM wheat: 95,002 genes, making 95,002 proteins

Your body doesn’t know what any of the original 95,000 proteins are, and we’re not specially adapted to be able to deal with them. Rather, imagine a conveyor belt manned by thousands of eager unsupervised 5-year olds, with intricate Lego creations travelling along it. It’s going to be an orgy of joyful destruction.

Our digestive systems are much like this. Whatever shape or function a protein has, this becomes irrelevant once it enters the stomach. Gastric juices and enzymes will tear apart everything. The two extra wheat proteins will be broken down just like all the others.

It is possible that, while still in the wheat, the drought resistance proteins could make a chemical that is relevant to human health, such as bacteria that produce insulin. For this reason not all GMOs are equal, and the functions of introduced proteins have to be well understood. In most cases though, the only difference between GMOs and “wild” strains will be one or two extra proteins. We’ll explore health risks of GMOs further in Part 3.

What isn’t Genetic Modification?

An organism can be considered GM if even a single rung in its DNA ladder is changed – even if that rung does absolutely nothing. Let’s return to our legal definition:

“Any living organism that possesses a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology.”

The important clause is “through the use of modern biotechnology.” What this means is that the DNA has to be altered in a specific fashion for it to count as genetic modification. Otherwise – bizarrely – any changes are considered natural.

There are several ways that DNA can be altered without the use of modern biotechnology. As we shall see, these “non-GM” methods generally result in far more significant and unpredictable changes.

carrotmuseum.co.uk

carrotmuseum.co.uk

The oldest way that humans have been modifying DNA is through the 10,000 year-old practice of selective breeding. An example of this is cultivating crops with duplicated sets of genes. These plants typically have larger fruit and tens of thousands of newly evolving genes. Humans have also both accidentally and intentionally created hybrid species, throwing together thousands of unfamiliar genes from two species. Modern staple crops, like maize, wheat, rice and fruit trees, are all human-created mutants which differ wildly from their natural ancestors.

A far more rapid process is that of random mutagenesis. If adding one gene using biotechnology was like carefully painting a single dot on a piece of canvas, random mutagenesis is Jackson Pollock. It involves splattering random and sometimes catastrophic changes all throughout a species’ DNA, potentially affecting hundreds of genes at once. This can be achieved chemically with a substance like EMS, but another method frequently used by farmers, “radiation breeding”, simply involves shining a little X-ray or gamma radiation on seeds before planting them. China has even sent seeds to space to give them a nice gamma ray bath.

Predictably enough, random mutagenesis is massively destructive to most of the seeds exposed. However, sometimes a few will mutate in just the right way to gain new functionality such as faster growth or better yield, and these are what farmers are after.

Unlike GM strains created with modern biotechnology – which have to be extensively characterised and regulated – randomly mutagenised seeds are rarely (if ever) characterised, let alone disclosed to consumers as being mutants. Almost no country except Canada has any regulatory restrictions or requirements around the practice, nor does random mutagenesis violate any country’s organic standards.

Thinking about this for a second, we reach an absurd yet true conclusion. It’s completely possible that:

a) A specific mutation could be created in a lab using modern biotechnology. Meanwhile at a farm, completely by chance, the same mutation could be created using random mutagenesis. The resulting two organisms would be identical, but only one of them would ever be characterised, labelled or regulated.
b) An organic company that was fervently against “GMOs” could employ random mutagenesis in their crops. In fact, have you ever bought an organic Rio red grapefruit?

The practice of radiation breeding is on the rise, and possibly far more prevalent than anyone realises. Furthermore, there are solid arguments that conventional GMOs pose less threat than randomly mutagenised seeds. As a result, the current regulatory situation is, to put it politely, extremely strange.

The development of GMOs is an important issue for us to collectively address as we move into the future. Until the science is understood by people like you and me, no informed policy decisions can be made, and we’ll be stuck with the kinds of illogical regulations that currently exist. So if you’ve made it this far, congratulations! You’re a part of the solution, and next time you hear the term “GMO” you can think, “Aha. That means a protein has probably been added.”

Interested for more? Read on with GMOs Pt 2: How to Make Your Very Own!

In the Machine

20140227_145932

Back in the control room I find my friend waiting for me, all smiles as usual. She must have arrived while I was strapped in the machine.

“Hi!” she greets enthusiastically. “I just saw your brain.”

I suppose this shouldn’t be a surprise, given the situation. Yet I’m caught off guard. How do you respond to something like that? It feels awkwardly personal, like a housemate admitting that they heard you having sex. Is this more or less weird? I wonder.

On one hand, it’s just bits of lumpy grey matter. We all have them, and they don’t look like much. But on the other, it’s a part of you that no one normally gets to see, and it defines absolutely everything about your personality. Also my friend is a neuroscientist, so who knows what she might have been able to read into it. Was she judging me on the size of my hippocampus? Wait, does size even matter, or is it just how you use it?

She’s been watching my face, and maybe she can read my thoughts after all. “Well, only a bit of it,” she clarifies, sounding a little apologetic. “The prefrontal cortex. It was very… handsome.”

What’s going on? I’m at a Biomedical Imaging Research Centre, and I’ve just had a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan. But let me start from the beginning.

The head researcher, Paul* the PhD student, was waiting for me at reception when I arrived. I didn’t have a medical condition or any real reason to get my brain scanned. I volunteered for the study simply because how freaking cool is it to see your own brain? Pretty damn cool, if you ask me.

We went through the consent and medical forms. No history of epilepsy: check. No metallic implants or bits of shrapnel in my body: check. This last one is very important because fMRI machines create powerful magnetic fields. I assume that if you had, say metal pins in your skull, the machine would suck them right out through your face.

I followed Paul through to the control room, where I met Dave* the imaging technician. He was pleasantly spoken, and my gaydar gave a faint uncertain reading. He invited me to help myself to a platter of sandwiches and make myself comfortable. I did so. Dave returned to working away at three large computer monitors, preparing the scanning software.

Through a wide blue-tinted panel of glass I could spy the fMRI machine, looking like a giant upright donut. It was smooth and white, and very much resembled something you might find in the game Portal, or perhaps Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

How does MRI work? Well to begin with, the machine has to create an extremely powerful and uniform magnetic field. The strength of this field is typically about 1.5 tesla. For perspective, this is about five times the intensity of an average solar sunspot.

To achieve this, the machine is fitted with superconducting magnets which are cooled by liquid helium. The resulting magnetic field excites hydrogen atoms present in water molecules in your brain, causing them to emit a radio frequency signal. This signal is detected, and an image is assembled.

Dave asked me to remove any metal items from my person and follow him into the scanning room. We passed though a reinforced door which read “MAGNETUM” in imposing capitals. Black and yellow triangles on either side warned of “MR- Magnetic Field” and “High Frequency Field”. Yep, watch out for fields.

A series of panels on the ceiling were illuminated to show a beautiful image of blue sky, wispy clouds and tree leaves in the foreground, as if you were lying in a park looking up. “It’s to help people with claustrophobia,” Dave later explained to me, when I was back in the control room watching my friend’s brain materialise on the screen.

I lay down on a special table, with my head at one end of the donut hole. Dave stuffed earplugs into my auditory canals. You see, rapid changes in the magnetic field of the fMRI machine cause the magnets to vibrate, which creates a loud hammering sound. Foam cushioning was then crammed around my head, and a Velcro strap placed across my forehead to hold it in place. It was a bit of pressure and not overwhelmingly comfortable, but it was definitely not as restricting as I had been anticipating. Capillaries and neurons are pretty tiny, so I had assumed my head would have had to be fully immobilised to get an accurate reading. As it was, I could still move a bit.

A plastic visor was clicked into place above my eyes. It held a mirror which redirected my vision toward a monitor at the far end the donut. Wherever he was, Dave manipulated some controls and the table rose up and slid my head into the donut.

Paul came over to see how I was going. Just fine. He placed a controller with a large button into my left hand, explaining that I had to push the button whenever I saw the same image twice in a row. This was to be the experiment. In my right hand he placed a squeezy bulb, which I could use if I ever got claustrophobic and wanted to stop the experiment. Pssh, claustrophobia. I was actually feeling pretty excited and eager to start.

Everyone else left the room, and the quietness was soon replaced with Dave’s soothing voice over the intercom. He informed me that there would be a few scans of varying lengths. The first was to be a mere ten seconds, and would sound a little strange.

A harsh distorted electronic tone burst forth, like a synth from some Daft Punk song. I was glad for the earplugs. It held for a moment, rose in pitch, held for another second or two, and I anticipated the tone rising again – the sacred melody of neuroscience being revealed to me. It dropped back to the first tone instead. Then, quiet.

Dave’s voice dropped in again over the intercom, asking me how that was. He informed me that the next scan would take about four minutes. Ok.

Brand new electronic tones clicked and whirred. At some point the notes settled into regular monotonous pulses, and my thoughts drifted. Is this what life feels like for a photocopier? Stuck in one place, doomed to a single view, hearing the repetitive hum of page after page being scanned and printed. Or I felt like a person still plugged in to the Matrix in a little isolated pod, oblivious to the rest of the world out there.

I closed my eyes and started to feel warm and sleepy. The experimental explanatory statement reads:

“The radiofrequency waves we use to create the MR scans can cause your head and body to warm up slightly. This is not a problem, and you usually won’t notice it at all, as your blood flow will increase slightly to take the heat away.”

Maybe I noticed it.

My mind started to recite the “To be or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet. Haha brain, “whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer”, aren’t you clever? Then I started to worry that maybe I was causing the language centres of my brain to light up, giving a misleading reading. Quick, think about maths! No wait, probably I should just think about nothing. But I don’t seem to be able to! Argh!

Finally I decided that if it was going to be a problem, they would’ve warned me in advance not to think about anything. Surely they were just checking my neural structure now anyway.

ERRRK, ERRRK, ERRRK went the machine. Then it fell silent once more.

Dave gave me one more preliminary scan, this time lasting a minute. A softer, more constant buzz hummed for the duration of this one. I imagined the magnetic fields raging and swirling around me, like some divine battle, whipping up the water molecules in my brain and battering them one way then the other. Surely that’s got to do something to one’s perception? I focused inwardly and tried to decide whether I could feel anything. Possibly something subtle… but it could easily by placebo effect. No, probably nothing.

Finally it was time for the experiment proper.

A stream of pictures flashed by on the screen: faces, flowers, buildings, abstract tessellated patterns – repeating and repeating, faster and faster. My finger twitched nervously on the button; I cursed silently when I pressed it accidentally, but grinned with pride when I matched the abstract tessellated patterns. I started seriously doubting my skills of facial recognition.

The second task involved watching coloured dots move across the screen and involved more button-pressing. I found myself feeling strangely exhausted and having to close my eyes between rounds.  At some point I remembered that they were using infrared lasers to track my eye movement, then I worried that maybe I was screwing up the experiment by closing my eyes so often.

I’m so sorry dear science.

When everything was finished, the lovely Dave burnt me a disc containing the map of my brain.  It’s really quite fascinating and gross scrolling through from one hemisphere to the other, watching the cortex burst forth, swirl and evolve as it reaches the midbrain and the medulla and corpus callosum appear, then warp and recede away as you pass out the other side.

I imagine I will treasure this map until the day that my brain shrivels up from some neurodegenerative disease, and ironically I can no longer fathom what I’m looking at. But I suppose it won’t matter by that point. The pictures wouldn’t be of me anyway.

* Name in this article have been changed.

A Completely Unscientific, Not Even Singly-Blind Case Study on the Effects of Daily Vitamin & Mineral Supplement on Perceived Health and Well-Being

ImageBackground

Subject was a healthy 25-year old Caucasian male. Subject maintained a predominantly vegequarian diet consisting of cereal, dairy, copious quantities of white rice, various Asian vegetables and fruits, seafood and, rarely, insects or creepy miscellaneous meat. Subject was a non-smoker, and alcohol intake was hearty and regular.

During a routine clean-out of the communal refrigerator, subject discovered a box of Vitamin & Mineral Supplements (“Vitacap”, Mega Lifesciences (Australia) Pty. Ltd.), presumably left behind by a former volunteer. Subject decided to commence a course of these pills a) to see whether they would provide any health benefits, b) because they were free, and c) because they looked kind of fancy and tasted slightly like chocolate.

Material and Methods

Nutritional content of each pill was as follows:

Vitamin A (Palmitate)                                  5000 IU
Vitamin B1 (Thiamine Mononitrate)            5 MG
Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)                               5 MG
Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine HCl)                        2 MG
Vitamin B12 (Cyanocobalamin)                  5 MCG
Vitamin C                                                   75 MG
Vitamin D3 (Cholecalciferol)                      400 IU
Vitamin E (di-alpha Tocopheryl Acetate)   15 MG
Nicotinamide                                              45 MG
D-Panthenol                                              45 MG
Folic Acid                                                  1000 MCG
Ferrous Fumarate                                      50 MG
Dibasic Calcium Phosphate                        70 MG
Copper Sulphate                                       0.1 MG
Manganese Sulphate                                  0.01 MG
Zinc Sulphate Dried                                  50 MG
Potassium Iodide                                      0.025 MG
Magnesium Oxide                                      0.5 MG

One pill was consumed daily between 7.30am and 12.30pm, typically with fruit juice or failing that, water or beer. Course of vitamin & mineral supplements was carried out for approximately 3 months.

Results

1.   Morning vivaciousness

Prior to, during and following the course of vitamin and mineral supplements, subject typically woke up feeling uniformly like a hung-over bag of trash.

2.   Energy levels during the day
Throughout the course of treatment there was no improvement in subject’s tendency to feel “over it” and sleepy by lunch time.

3.   Resistance to disease
During the period of vitamin and mineral supplementation, subject experienced one pinkeye scare (which luckily turned out just to be tiredness) and two minor bouts of cold. This was not an improvement over general health prior to supplementation.

4.   Swallowing aptitude
Subject did experience a marked improvement in his ability to swallow these rather unpleasantly large pills without them hitting his epiglottis.

Discussion

The results from this study do not support the hypothesis that any health benefits are gained from randomly taking vitamin and mineral supplements of unknown origin that were found in a box in a fridge.

In hindsight, even the scantiest of internet searches would’ve shown that this endeavour was doomed to failure from the outset. As explained by the Victorian Government-funded Better Health Channel [1]:

“Vitamins play an important role in keeping the body healthy. However, taking large doses of certain vitamins can actually be harmful. For most people, it is best to get the vitamins our bodies need from eating a variety of healthy, unprocessed foods, rather than by taking supplements.

Vitamin supplements are frequently misused and taken without professional advice. High-dose supplements should not be taken unless recommended under medical advice.”

Oops.

The one unexpected benefit from this study was the increase in swallowing proficiency. Whether this will have broader applicability beyond the scope of consuming non-beneficial dietary supplements remains to be seen.

The author did not receive any funding from or have any links to vested interests or bodies related to this “study”.

References

[1] http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Vitamins_common_misconceptions