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Monday, 3 August 2020

Isolation and the Brain


As babies, we are all born with vastly more neural connections than we need[1], and these connections get 'pruned' as we go through life, cutting out the unused ones, strengthening most the ones we use daily[2].

As social animals, we learn best and develop neural connections by interacting with others. So what happens when our brains are isolated – when we don't see or interact with other people for... months?

© TWDK

One BBC Horizon experiment subjected volunteers to 48 hours isolation in complete darkness: devoid of external sensory stimulti, they started to hallucinate. In the equivalent on Channel 5 (In Solitary: The Anti-Social Experiment), participants took in three items to distract themselves and fuel their resolve. Some people took in personal items that carried meaning – but quickly found these intensified feelings of desperation and homesickness; others took in activities to keep them physically or mentally stimulated, and it was these that were found to be most effective. Scientists think this is an essential coping mechanism for staying mentally healthy in isolation. In the longest isolation experiment, undertaken by Stefania Follini, who spent 130 days underground, the interior designer occupied herself with martial arts and decorating her cave.

Friday, 26 June 2020

Baby Tastes (Things We Don’t Know about Pregnancy Series #22)

Do your baby’s tastes depend on what you ate when they were in the womb?

Apparently, you can taste foods in amniotic fluid and breast milk – certain distinct flavours such as carrot, vanilla, mint and garlic, anyway. These flavours can be detected in breastmilk as little as half an hour after eating, and adults can even smell and identify them.

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Coronavirus 101

It’s devastating us now. But where did it come from, where is is going, and what is it anyway?

The disease COVID-19, caused by the virus commonly known as coronavirus, was thought to originate from the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, China, where wild animals, including marmots, birds, rabbits, bats and snakes, are traded illegally. However, recent work has demonstrated that the market is only one possible origin of the disease. Potential patient zeroes – the first human to contract coronavirus – have found to have no link to the market.

Sunday, 14 June 2020

Superfetation (Things We Don’t Know about Pregnancy Series #21)

As one literature report begins,
“Here we review the scant and at times ancient literature on this poorly understood topic.”[1]

European hare. By Jean-Jacques Boujot via Wikipedia Commons.
The topic is superfetation – the phenomenon of becoming pregnant whilst already pregnant. It happens in humans (we think). And hares[2]. It’s been documented in badgers, mink, panthers, buffalo, wallaby, rats, mice, rabbits, horses, sheep, kangaroos, sugar gliders and cats. But much of the evidence is dubious, and remains controversial. The only agreed incidents seem to be documented in fish that carry their young – the poecilid and zenarchopterid.

Superfetation shouldn’t happen. Once conception has occurred, hormones are released that prevent further ovulation, and a mucus plug blocks up the womb.

But does it happen from time to time anyway?

Friday, 5 June 2020

Gender and Pain

Have you ever considered how your identity could influence how you feel pain? How your pain is perceived by others? Or how much of your pain experience is understood by the scientific and clinical communities?

Is it safe to assume that most of you haven’t?

Amongst many other contributing factors, our sex and gender may have a profound impact on pain and our pain experience. While we may have a better understanding of sex differences in pain perception, how gender ties into this is not fully understood. However, researchers are now beginning to understand that gender does impact our pain experience, and may play a significant role in how pain is differentially assessed and treated between men and women. This phenomenon has been deemed the ‘gender pain gap’: a gap in our understanding of women’s health issues which has lead to the inappropriate pharmaceutical treatment of men and women, and not taking women's health seriously.

The Gender Unicorn by TSER.

Saturday, 30 May 2020

Cryptic Pregnancies (Things We Don’t Know about Pregnancy Series #20)

Some pregnancies are planned, and some pregnancies are unplanned, but few pregnancies go unnoticed. Not so cryptic (or “stealth”) pregnancies, which describe what happens when a woman goes through the bulk (or even all!) of a pregnancy without suspecting.

How does that even happen?


Pregnant woman via Pixabay.
Psychological factors
Cryptic pregnancies have been linked to psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia, depression or personality disorder, but only in a small number of cases, and the evidence isn’t strong enough to prove these have anything to do with it. They have been more strongly linked with past traumas, especially child sexual abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence, and with fear of pregnancy, which appears in the majority of reported cases.

Sociological factors
In many examples of cryptic pregnancy, the women involved did at some point think they might be pregnant, but their circumstances were so unsuitable that they denied the possibility. Correspondingly, cryptic pregnancies often happen to soldiers or women with perilous home lives. This is known as somatic denial.

Biological factors
However, many scientists think that cryptic pregnancy is biological rather than psychological or sociological.

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Categorising Things is “Evil”

We label things every day: that man is tall, this book a thriller, leaves are green. How tall? How thrilling? What shade of green? We take the relative and make it absolute, categorising the life out of it to streamline communication. Labels are the oil on a squeaky gate, and most people never question them.

When I was a child, I hated labels: they didn't make sense to me. Was a tall child tall, or short because they were a child? What if my eye colour wasn't an option on the list? Why did we need to classify books anyway, and where did one genre end and another begin? Wasn't it easier to just describe them? ...Surely that's what blurbs were for.

Categories lead to bad writing. If you learn that everybody can be described as a tall, frizzy-haired bossy woman, you always tell – and never show. Telling is boring. It loses the magic and the mystery of the woman who peers down between dark, raggedy fronds with a floating look and says tartly, "I told you to put the other end on first!"

I resisted for a long time. Declined to answer; drew an extra box on the multiple choice question. But eventually I was indoctrinated. How? Why?

...If you get told something often enough, again and again and again, it starts to sink in. Perhaps you don't understand the categories, but you can pick from them (even if you pick wrong). My teachers needed me to say that my character was bossy so they could prove I understood what adjectives were. Friends had to like the same genre of music. The NHS wanted to classify my growth rate. So I shut up and categorised for an easy life.

Science uses categories all the time. Species separate from species (did you know the only taxonomic difference between moths and butterflies is that butterflies are prettier?). This is incredibly useful for explaining the patterns and rules in science, but it's also limiting. As we discover more science, we have to revise our categories as they no longer make sense: such as the advent of DNA, which gives us new insights into how animals are related, or the discovery that electricity was the flow of negatively charged electrons, which revealed that our "conventional current" arrow went in the wrong direction!

In learning institutions, even the science subjects are carved up and divided: physics, chemistry, biology, maths… Perhaps, then, it should come as little surprise that so many of the unanswered questions in science take place at the intersection of these fields. To answer them, we need people who are experts in different fields talking and working together, but we actually need more than that: we need polymaths, people who are computational biologists, physical chemists, scientific philosophers, and so on…

I had a quick look at the Things We Don’t Know database, and picked out just a few very fascinating things that cross over scientific fields, from biology to physics to chemistry to computer science to geology to engineering to psychology… and so on ad infinitum. These are they:

Could robots soon have 'human-like' vision? 
Research has been carried out into replicating the muscle motion of the human eye using soft materials and pressure-sensitive piezoelectrics. This could allow robots to "perceive" the world in a way we find more intuitive, and may even help us learn about human visual processing.

Could we capture and store our waste carbon dioxide? 
Scientists think that up to 90% of carbon dioxide emissions could, instead of being released, be captured and stored underground or underwater, where, at great depths, high pressure cause it to liquefy. In the ocean, it shows “negative buoyancy”, sinking to the sea floor, whilst in rocks it can be drained into tiny natural pores in rocks: this is called geological sequestration. Scientists are still exploring where this could take place and how long the carbon dioxide could be stored.

Could we treat mental health problems with birdsong? 
Humans may get psychological benefits from listening to bird calls, including boosts to mood, attention and creativity. This “biophilia” – the idea that being amongst nature makes you happier and healthier – is sufficiently established that Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool play birdsong in their corridors, as does an airport lounge in Amsterdam! It’s even been applied as a form of dementia treatment. New work led by the National Trust aims to explore how human brains are affected by birdsong.

How can we measure uncertainty? 
Entropy is a measure commonly used thermodynamics to assess the disorder of a system. However, computer scientists and cryptographers now talk about information entropy. The greater the uncertainty about something, the more information is needed to describe it – so the more entropy or disorder. How did photochirogenesis evolve? Photochirogenesis – the development of handedness in biological molecules (where all natural molecules are either left or right hand mirror images of asymmetric molecules), may have developed because of polarised light in meteorites. If this is true, the origin of life could be in stars.

Is time in our minds? 
Is time an illusion? How can we tell? And, if it’s just in our minds, why is it used in classical mechanics equations? Does time really only go in one direction, or is this an illusion of human perspective? Our current direction through time is always forwards by definition, but on what grounds do we define it like this? Underpinning this could help us understand the concept of time travel and the science behind what we really mean by it.

And on that philosophical note… If you or someone you know is working on one of these topics, we’d love to hear from you. Perhaps you can tell us more about how your research is going, or some of the challenges in the field!

I was inspired to write this post after hearing a talk by Dr Julia Shaw on the label “evil”. 'Evil' throws up all kinds of problems not only because it's a highly subjective category (like most), but also because it sticks. Once labelled evil, you are evil forever. You can live a good life, behave well, be compassionate, but screw up once and you are evil. Your misdeed will be carried with you forever and you can never shake off its label. Evil is immortal.

Monday, 11 May 2020

The Causes of SIDS (Things We Don’t Know about Pregnancy Series #19)

What causes SIDS, and why mention it with pregnancy?


Sudden Unexplained Infant Deaths (SUIDs) of infants under a year old occur unpredictably and don’t have an obvious cause. Of around 200 such deaths in the UK every year, around 80% are classified as SIDS – Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (also know as cot death). These are the deaths that can’t later be explained by suffocation, infections, or genetic disorders, even after autopsy.

Baby by Beth [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

But what does this have to do with pregnancy?

Because SIDS happens to very little babies, many of the risk factors are linked to their mother’s health and what happens before and when they’re born.

Not all of them, of course.

The most commonly cited risk is sleeping position: babies on their backs are less likely to suffer stress complications, like restricted breathing or bedding entanglement, than babies placed on their fronts, sides, or co-sleeping.

There could also be a seasonal component, since more SIDS deaths occur in winter. However, this could instead be because parents use more bedding or babies are more likely to get sick.

And there are genetic factors. For example, boys are more likely to suffer from SIDS; one study cited a 50% male excess in SIDS per 1000 live births of each sex[1]. There may be a racial component too (although it’s not clear from the literature whether this has been disentangled from socioeconomic components). Or inherited defects could play a part, such as in channelopathies, ion channels related to the contraction of the heart, which may explain 10-20% of SIDS[2].

During pregnancy, maternal health is a key indicator for SIDS risk. Mums younger than 20, who smoke or take drugs, or get poor prenatal care are more likely to have babies that suffer from SIDS[3]. They’re also more likely to have babies born prematurely (increasing their risk x 4) or underweight (increasing their risk by x 5.7 for 1000–1499 g babies versus 3500–3999 g babies)[4]. An elevated risk is even seen in full term babies born before 39 weeks.