Search This Blog

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Mental practice

From the book "The Brain That Changes Itself" is this story about Alvaro Pascual-Leone, who is a neuroscientist at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. He conducted an imagining experiment in his lab.  He taught two groups of people, who had never studied piano, a sequence of notes.  He showed them which fingers to move and let them hear the notes as they were played.  Then one group sat in front of an electric piano keyboard for two hours a day for five days and imagined playing the sequence and hearing it played.  The other group actually played the music two hours a day for five days.

Then the groups were asked to play as a computer measured their accuracy.  Both groups learned the sequence, and both showed similar brain changes.  By the end of the fifth day, the changes in motor signals to the muscles were the same in both groups. And on this  fifth day, the players who had imagined were as accurate playing the notes as the actual players had been on their third day.  All it took was one session lasting 2 hours to make them as accurate as the playing group.

Clearly, mental practice has merit. 
One of the most advanced forms of mental practice is "mental chess," played without a board or pieces. The players imagine the board and the play, keeping track of the positions.

Anatoly Sharansky, a Soviet human rights activist, spent nine years in prison.  Four hundred days of this time was spent in solitary confinement in freezing, darkened 5X6 foot punishment cells.  Prisoners in isolation often fall apart mentally because the use-it-or-lose-it brain needs external stimulation. During this extended period of solitary, Sharansky played mental chess for months on end, playing both black and white, from opposite perspectives.  He once said, half joking, that he kept at chess thinking he might as well use the opportunity to become the world champion.

After he was released, he became a cabinet minister in Israel.  When the world champion, Garry Kasparov, played against the prime minister and leaders of the cabinet, he beat all of them except Sharansky.

Now you have heard something interesting.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Phantom limbs

The Sherlock Holmes of modern neurology is a man from India named V. S. Ramachandran.  He believes that individual cases in medicine have much to contribute to science.  He says, "Imagine I were to present a pig to a skeptical scientist, insisting it could speak English, then waved my hand, and the pig spoke English.  Would it really make sense for the skeptic to argue 'But that is just one pig, Ramachandran.  Show me another, and I might believe you!' "

This next amazing story is another from the book "The Brain That Changes Itself" by Norman Doidge, M.D. 

The book explains how scientists can map our brain and tell what part of the brain is driving different body functions.  It has been proven that "use it or lose it" rules the brain.  That is why when a skill in music or a second language, for instance, is not used, the brain does not sit idle in that part of the brain map, but assigns it to something else.Another example is when someone loses their sight and their other senses become stronger and sharper.  It is because that part of the brain that used to be used for sight is now assigned to help with the other senses.

But there is a downside, too.  It is called "phantom pain."

Lord Nelson, the British admiral, lost his right arm in 1797. Soon afterward, he vividly began to experience the presence of his arm, a phantom limb that he could feel but not see.  "Nelson concluded that its presence was 'direct evidence for the existence of the soul,' reasoning that if an arm can exist after being removed, so then might the whole person exist after the annihilation of the body."

Phantom limbs are troubling because they can have chronic "phantom pain."  How do you remove a pain in a limb that isn't there?

Ramachandran showed how.  Philip, an amputee, came to him for help.  He had been in a motorcycle accident a decade before.  He had been traveling at forty-five miles per hour and in the accident all the nerves leading from his left hand and arm to his spine were torn out.  Though his arm was still attached to his body, it was worse than useless to him.  Eventually it was amputated.  He had terrible phantom pain in his phantom elbow, and he felt that if he could move it, the pain would be relieved.  But it was "frozen."

Ramachandran constructed a box with a mirror in the middle, splitting the box into two compartments.  He had Philip put his good arm into the box and told him to imagine putting his phantom arm into the other side.  By looking into the mirror and watching his good hand move, he began to "see" in the mirror his "phantom" hand move as well.  He was able to "stretch" his arm and relieve the pain.  He took the box home, and used it for ten minutes a day.

After four weeks, his brain had rewired and not only was his phantom arm permanently unfrozen, but it was gone.

Ramachandran, the neurological illusionist, had become the first physician to perform a seemingly impossible operation: the successful amputation of a phantom limb.

Now you've heard something interesting.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Sea mammals and fresh water

Have you ever wondered if sea mammals drink sea water from the ocean?  Or do they require fresh water to survive?

According to Dr. Sara Iverson, an expert in marine physiology and a Professor of Biology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, they do require fresh water, but they get it in a different way than we do.  

There are basically three ways to obtain water.  Drink it directly, get it from the water content in the food one eats, or the body produces it as food is metabolized (broken apart).  Marine mammals rely mostly on these last two ways to get their water.

Piscivores, those who live on eating fish, can acquire all of their water needs through their food, since fish have a high water content.  When they swallow fish as they eat, they do swallow some sea water.  Their kidneys are much more complex than the kidneys of a human, and they are able to expel these high amounts of salt and keep a correct chemical balance.

Some mammals, like the grey seal, go through periods of expected fasting.  When they give birth, it is in a place where they cannot eat or drink.  To get ready for this event, they bulk up.  While they are giving birth and then nursing for about 16 days, their bodies metabolize this stored fat.  During metabolism, the conversion of one gram of fat produces 1.07 grams of water!

To listen to this story, go here. It is the fourth story of the bunch.
In a related story, black bears hibernate for four months.  During this time, it does not eat or drink, nor does it urinate nor defecate.  The bears get enough water to remain healthy as they metabolize their fat. And then it emerges four months later with its blood chemicals balanced and without losing any protein.

In preparation for this hibernation, they start gorging in the summer on carbohydrate-rich foods and can gain 30 pounds a week.

Other hibernating animals wake every few days to eat and pass wastes, but black bears don't rouse the entire time they are hibernating unless disturbed.

This next bit is a little off topic, but while I was double checking the story above, I ran across this funny, true story.

"The heart rate, which is usually between 40 and 50 beats per minute while asleep during the summer, drops to around 8 beats per minute while hibernating.
"Black bears keep their heads and torsos warm enough that they can wake if disturbed, though some may take awhile to do so. In a 1981 article in Natural History, Rogers told of the time he accidentally fell onto a six-year-old female in her den. Even though her cub bawled, she didn't wake up for at least eight minutes. On the other hand, some individuals can revive disconcertingly quickly. Rogers again:
"On January 8, 1972, I tried to hear the heartbeat of a soundly sleeping five-year-old female by pressing my ear against her chest. I could hear nothing. Either the heart was beating so weakly that I could not hear it, or it was beating so slowly I didn't recognize it. After about two minutes, though, I suddenly heard a strong, rapid heartbeat. The bear was waking up. Within a few seconds she lifted her head as I tried to squeeze backward through the den entrance. Outside, I could still hear the heartbeat, which I timed (after checking to make sure it wasn't my own) at approximately 175 beats per minute."
Now you've heard something interesting.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Ready, aim, fire!

In the 1960's, Jos Van Bedoff was in the Dutch army.  He noticed that someone had put small red dots in the barracks urinals, and that it had dramatically cut back on "misdirected flow."

Two decades later he was working in the Amsterdam airport as a maintenance man.  He thought back to those red dots and came up with an idea.  He recommended to the board of directors that each urinal get an image of a fly etched into it near the drain. It turns out that when there is something to look at, or aim at, men are better able to focus on the task, and there are less accidents.  It worked!  Spillage rates dropped by 80 percent.  That translates into major savings in maintenance costs.

Apparently there are many urinals in public places around the world with decals or etchings of different things.  Flies and bees seem to be the most common.. A few branch out into other areas, like dolphins or an American soccer goal.  There is a company named that sells decals.  They can be used in toilets, too. Some of them are glow-in-the-dark so that there is a target in the middle of the night without having to turn on a light.

The use of bees as targets in urinals is a pun: the Latin for bees is apis.

I have heard of little boys being trained with a target like Cheerios or a piece of toilet paper that they are supposed to "cut in half," but this is the first time I have heard of a target for men.  If it works, more power to the maintenance crew.

For the story on NPR, go here.

Now you've heard something interesting.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


I just finished the book Polio: An American Story by David M. Oshinsky.  I really enjoyed learning more about this devastating disease. Since I was born after the vaccine for polio was developed, I didn't live through the fear that surrounded this dreaded disease. 

There were many small steps forward in the understanding of polio and how it affected the body.  For a while, it was thought that the virus entered the nose and went straight to the nervous system.  Then there was an epidemic in a certain county and they decided to take blood samples of every person who ended up in the hospital with it.  One hundred and eleven samples were taken, and only one showed any polio!  That was such a surprise.  After more investigation, it was discovered that the one sample was from a girl who was in the beginning stages of the disease, and was only in the hospital because of the epidemic.  The body makes antibodies to polio quite quickly and moves on to other areas of the body.  So, a vaccine would be useful as the polio did go through the blood.

Then there was the big debate whether or not to use a killed-virus or live-virus vaccine.  The two opposing sides were led by Jonas Salk (killed-virus) and Albert Sabin (live-virus).  Jonas Salk was the first to develop the vaccine, and its field trial was the biggest ever in the nation.  It is administered by injection.  The year was 1955 and more than 1.8 million children were involved.  It took a year to compile the data, and it was then deemed a success.

Famous Salk quote: When he was asked in a televised interview who owned the patent to the vaccine, Salk replied: "There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?"

Sabin was publicly hostile towards Salk and the killed-virus vaccine.  After a few years, and through various events, mostly political, Albert Sabin was able to test a live-virus in the USSR and then get it licensed in the United States.  It is an oral vaccine.  This has been the one used ever since.  It is very effective, though a small percentage of people who get the vaccination go on to get the disease from it.  In fact, polio has basically been wiped out in the US, except for these few people.

One tidbit of interesting trivia.  Jonas Salk divorced his wife, Donna, in 1968.  In 1970, he married Fran├žoise Gilot, the former mistress of Pablo Picasso.

Now you've heard something interesting.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Royal Jelly and healthy living

Do you know much about honey bees?  Here is a quick lesson.  Only one bee in the hive lays eggs.  That's the queen.  Her lifespan is around 5 years, as compared with the lifespan of all the other bees, which is measured in weeks.  Not only does the queen live longer, but she is also bigger.  Her only job is to lay eggs, which at the height of the season can be around 2,000 per day.

Though both the worker and the queen are quite different, they start out the same.  The young queen larva develops differently because it is more heavily fed royal jelly, a protein-rich secretion from glands on the heads of young workers. All honey bee larvae are fed some royal jelly for the first few days after hatching but only queen larvae are fed on it exclusively. As a result of the difference in diet, the queen will develop into a sexually mature female, unlike the worker bees.

In 2008, Professor Ryszard Maleszka and his colleagues from the Australian National University worked out how royal jelly turns a regular egg into a queen bee.  It turns out that it changes how the body reads the DNA.  It's as simple as that.  For more depth on the story, here's the link.
Go here.

 So let's look at prostate cancer, and the effect of a healthy lifestyle on human DNA.
The prostate is a gland that in men is wrapped around the urethra. It used to be thought that only some men got cancer of the prostate.  But today, science thinks that virtually all the men that reach their 80s will have some kind of prostate cancer. But, in the vast majority of cases, the cancer will not bother them, and will not shorten their lives. Something else will get them.

One study showed that a healthy lifestyle could act on the DNA in the prostate cancer and trigger genetic changes. In other words, information could flow from outside the cell (good diet and exercise) and modify the DNA to slow down the prostate cancer.

This small study followed 30 men with low-risk prostate cancer. There was no need for them to have any medical treatment such as surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy.  These men then underwent major lifestyle changes. They started eating a diet rich in healthy foods, such as fruit, vegetables, legumes, soy products, whole grains and so on.  They also started spending half an hour each day doing moderate exercise. And finally, they spent as much as an hour each day on stress management methods such as meditation.

After three months, there were obvious changes. They lost weight, had lower blood pressure, felt better, had more energy and so on.

But the DNA in their prostate cancer had also been changed!

The environment external to the prostate gland (that is, what they ate, how they handled stress and their new exercise regime) changed how the DNA in their cancer was now being read.

So today we know that it's not just the DNA that you got from your parents that controls what happens to you. It's also about you, and how you interact with your environment.

Charles Swindoll said: "Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it"

Here is the rest of that story.

Now you've heard something interesting.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Language and music

In my opinion, one of the best podcasts is WYNC Radiolab. On April 21, 2006, their episode "Musical Language" was released.  Diana Deutsch, a Professor of Music Psychology at USCD, was interviewed.  Among other things, she discussed absolute pitch, more commonly known as perfect pitch.   It is the ability to recognize or sing a particular pitch without a reference note.  It is estimated that less than 1 in 10,000 have this ability.

She tells about tone languages, such as Mandarin and Vietnamese, which rely on pitch to convey the meaning of a word. She studied children who start musical training at the age of four and five. In those whose primary language is a tone language, like Chinese, she found 74% had perfect pitch  Those whose language was intonation, or non-tone, like English, only 14% had it.  She maintains it is because the children who speak a tone language have to learn the "musical" sounds in that language.  Those of us who speak English do not.

To listen to the 20 minute segment, go here:


There are other experiments that Professor Deutsch has performed which can be found on her web site.  In one of them, she discovers that when the same tone is played over headphones, but in different octaves, we can usually hear which ear is getting the higher pitch.  And when we switch the headphones around the opposite way, it usually doesn't change. Most righthanders hear the high tone on the right and the low tone on the left, regardless of how the earphones are positioned. Lefthanders and ambidextrous people are more varied in terms of where the high and low tone appear to be coming from.  They are also more likely to hear complex sounds, such as three different tones that often seem to change their locations in space.

Here is the site to try this out for yourself.

This one made me laugh.  Listen to the two very short sound files in order. Then listen to the first again.

Now you've heard something interesting.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Life is interesting

Life is interesting. There is so much to read, learn, see, do, and experience. Regardless of when I die, there will not be enough time to check everything off my want-to-do list. Especially my want-to-read list. It seems to grow exponentially year by year. As I learn, my enthusiasm to share spills out and people in my sphere will be greeted with, "Wanna hear something interesting?"

There is no planned schedule of posts for this blog. But when something interesting comes my way, you can bet it will find its way here.

Where to start? This is like standing in the middle of a buffet with an empty, grumbling stomach.


In the book, "The Brain That Changes Itself" by Norman Doidge, M.D., I learned about another sense - one that was not listed among the original five that Aristotle described. It is the sense of balance.

It is technically called the vestibular apparatus, but most of us know it by our inner ear. It works with the brain to sense, maintain, and regain balance and a sense of where the body is positioned in space.

There is a story in the book about a lady whose vestibular apparatus is permanently damaged (with only 2% function left) when she was given too many antibiotics after a surgery. Because of it, she falls very easily, and has to hold onto a wall to walk. Sometimes, even after she has fallen, she still feels like she is falling. Once when the lights went out, she immediately fell to the floor because she couldn't use her eyes as a crutch to tell her she was upright. Even zigzags in a carpet can make her topple over because her brain tells her she is standing crooked when she's not.

She went to see a biophysicist who puts a construction worker's hat on her head. Inside is an accelerometer that can tell the position of her head. It is hooked up to a plastic device that goes in her mouth. As she tilts her head forward, the front of her tongue feels like champagne bubbles are popping. As she tilts backwards, the "bubbles" pop on the back of her tongue. With this device, her brain is reprogrammed to learn balance in other ways.

The first time she tried the hat, she wore it for only a minute. After removing it, there was a residual effect of 20 seconds that she experienced no dizziness. The second time, on for 2 minutes, the residual effect lasted 40 seconds. The third time, with it on for 20 minutes, the residual effect lasted one hour! Over a period of several months, she was able to wean off of it and lead a normal life.

Now you've heard something interesting.