The benefits of magic mushrooms

A study of the effects of psychedelic mushrooms is being hailed as revealing positive benefits.  What interests me is what the scientists and the media consider to be beneficial.  The active ingredient in the mushrooms makes people more emotional, puts them in a continual dream-like state, turns down their higher cognitive abilities (that is, makes them less rational), and dissolves their ego, making them less “narrow-minded.”  Note that  in our postmodern culture, such assaults on the mind are all considered good things! [Read more...]

Consciousness in “a vegetative state”

Don’t call people in a coma “vegetables.”  That’s a dehumanizing figure of speech.  And, as researchers have recently discovered, it isn’t necessarily an accurate description:

All the patients had the same terrible diagnosis: brain damage that marooned them in a “vegetative state” — alive but without any sense of awareness of themselves or the world around them.

But then an international team of scientists tried an ambitious experiment: By measuring electrical activity in the patients’ brains with a relatively simple technique, the researchers attempted to discern whether, in fact, they were conscious and able to communicate.

In most of the cases, there was nothing — no signs that any sentience lingered. But then one man, and another, and, surprisingly, a third repeatedly generated brain activity identical to that of healthy volunteers when they were asked to imagine two simple things: clenching a fist and wiggling their toes.

The findings, reported online Wednesday by the journal the Lancet, provide startling — and in some ways disturbing — new evidence confirming previous indications that a significant proportion of patients diagnosed as being vegetative may in fact be aware.

But, most important, the widely available, portable technology used in the research offers what could be the first practical way for doctors to identify and finally communicate with perhaps thousands of patients who may be languishing unnecessarily in isolation. Doctors could, for example, find out whether patients are in pain.

“You spend a week with one of these patients and at no point does it seem at all they know what you are saying when you are talking to them. Then you do this experiment and find it’s the exact opposite — they do know what’s going on,” said Damian Cruse, a postdoctoral neuroscientist at the University of Western Ontario in Canada who helped conduct the research. “That’s quite a profound feeling.”

The results and similar findings could also provide crucial insights into human consciousness — one of the most perplexing scientific puzzles — and lead to ways to better provide diagnoses and possibly rehabilitate brain-injury patients, the researchers said.

“Can you imagine spending years without being able to interact with anyone around you?” Cruse said. “We can ask them what it’s like to be in this condition. Do they know where they are? Do they know who is around them? What do they need?’ This will lead to very profound implications.”

Other experts, while praising the research, cautioned that much more work is needed to confirm the findings and refine the technology.

via New technique spots patients misdiagnosed as being in ‘vegetative state’ – The Washington Post.

Microbes that control your mind

A mash-up of weird biology and invasion of the body-snatchers:

Last month, three insect and plant disease researchers in the University of California system reported a discovery about the tomato spotted wilt virus. As its name suggests, this virus infects and damages tomato plants. It’s harmless to people.

To jump from plant to plant, the virus relies on insects known as thrips. A thrip feeds by sticking its oral probe into a plant’s cells and sucking out the contents. If a cell happens to contain the virus, the thrip sucks it up, too.

Scientists already knew that virus-infected tomato plants are more appealing to thrips than uninfected plants. The California researchers discovered something else: Once a thrip consumes the virus, its behavior changes. It spends more time feeding, and it licks more plant cells in the process, coating the next tomato plant with the virus.

The virus’s goal (if viruses had goals) isn’t to mess with the thrip. It only manipulates the insect to get to the next plant. By doing so, the virus is taking away some measure of the thrip’s self-determination. It’s like a fleeing bank robber who commandeers and then abandons a bystander’s vehicle. Car theft wasn’t the criminal’s objective, but the bystander is still deprived.

Scientists have also discovered infections that alter behavior in mammals, including humans. For example, the deadly hantavirus, a distant relative of the tomato spotted wilt virus, causes infected rats to become more aggressive. Rabies, meanwhile, renders its victims crazed and unable to swallow. So rabid bats and canines are more likely to bite and spread the saliva-transmitted virus. In fact, rabies may have provided inspiration for legends of vampires and werewolves. Rabies-infected people don’t tend to bite, but they may foam at the mouth and act belligerently in the infection’s terminal stages.

Not all microbes are so obvious about influencing our behavior. If the effect is subtle, it could be hard to tell whether a behavior is coming from the person or from the thing inside them. Cold viruses, for instance, were recently found to make people friendlier, especially during the period before symptoms appear but when the soon-to-be-sick person is highly infectious to others. Evolutionarily, that helps the virus survive, because a gregarious host is a host who’s likely to spread the illness. Advanced syphilis has been reported to sometimes trigger behavioral changes including an exaggerated desire for sex.

The freakiest of the behavior-warping microbes may be Toxoplasma gondii , the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis. It can live in cats, rodents, people, livestock and other warm-blooded animals, but it reproduces only inside the feline intestinal tract. So the parasite manipulates infected rats, making them attracted to the scent of cat urine when normally they would be repulsed and terrified by it, and causing them to run toward cats instead of away from them. End of rodent. New beginning for parasite.

In some countries, up to about three-quarters of the human population carries toxoplasmosis, which can be acquired by touching cat feces or contaminated soil or by consuming undercooked meat. Normally, only pregnant women and immune-suppressed people get sick. Others develop lifelong “latent” infections, which are symptom-free. Or so it was once thought.

Research in recent years has identified several personality traits that appear to be associated with latent toxoplasmosis. Infected men are more willing to disregard social norms, for example, and are more jealous and dogmatic. Infected women are more conscientious, warm, easygoing and attentive to others. Both sexes, when infected, are more apprehensive and insecure.

One prominent researcher speculated that toxoplasmosis indirectly kills a million drivers and pedestrians a year worldwide.

Another researcher summed up the personality patterns by saying that infected men are alley cats — in other words, loners and scrappy fighters — and infected women are sex kittens. A third scientist has hypothesized that the high prevalence of toxoplasmosis in certain countries, including France and Brazil, may influence cultural stereotypes about those nations.

via The bacteria (or virus or parasite) made me do it – The Washington Post.

 

 

The universe is big; the mind is bigger

A baby’s mind is bigger!  So says David Brooks, citing a Caltech scientist,  at the conclusion of a long, discursive essay in the New Yorker:

We have a hundred billion neurons in the brain; infants create as many as 1.8 million neural connections per second; a mere sixty neurons are capable of making ten to the eighty-first possible connections, which is a number ten times as large as the number of particles in the observable universe;

via What the science of human nature can teach us : The New Yorker.

HT: Martin Marty


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