Your Eyes are Lovely, but they Startle my Amygdala…

Eye-contact for most people is a normal part of everyday life; something which is not given conscious thought, something which usually elicits connection between people. However, for people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, eye-contact can mark the beginning of a destructive neurological and emotional process.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, is an often severe and debilitating mental illness triggered by a traumatic life event (eg. witnessing death, having a near death experience, being violently assaulted or sexually abused). Symptoms include; intrusive and disturbing flashbacks (and thoughts), nightmares, anxiety, trouble sleeping, suicidal ideation, dramatically increased and sensitive fear responses, having an abnormally increased resting heart and breathing rate.

People with PTSD often avoid and have difficulty with establishing and maintaining eye contact with people. I, the author of this blog, have been diagnosed with PTSD and have often been accused of being rude or uninterested, or showing a lack of respect when, instead of holding eye contact when talking with someone, I look at the ground or into the distance or notice my eyes are darting around the room at a million miles an hour looking at everything in the space apart from the other person’s eyes. But I can tell you now that those of us with PTSD are not rude or uninterested or disrespectful. Why believe me? Well, now I can prove it with hard biological evidence. Yay for science!

A study was undertaken last year (2014) which measured functional brain activity during direct eye contact. This was measured through neuroimaging. Women with PTSD were compared to women without the mental illness. Both groups were shown several manipulations of faces and eyes. The way the faces were positioned, the emotion they were exhibiting and whether they were holding a direct gaze or not, were all manipulated.
photo for sandpaw

A clear difference was found between the brains in both groups of participants. In fact, several areas of the human brain reacted far differently in the PTSD brains, compared to the ‘healthy’ brains. For the brains with PTSD, the study showed that during (perceived) direct eye-contact there was an increased activation of brain regions involved in emotion processing. This was specifically associated with the fast subcortical pathway. One of the emotion regulation areas of the brain shown to be activated by eye-contact is called the Amygdala. The Amygdala is the fear centre of the brain. It deals with switching on our ‘fight or flight’ responses in an emergency situation, which also directly relates to the arousal of our sympathetic nervous system.

In short, this study concluded that PTSD brains perceive direct eye-contact as a threat which begins a neurological and emotional fear response, causing people with PTSD to avoid eye-contact. For people without PTSD, direct eye contact elicits the opposite; positive emotional connection.

Interesting, huh?
So next time someone avoids eye contact with you, please remember there may be a heck of lot more happening behind their eyes than you think.

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I, for one, welcome our new cyborg overlords

The time is coming for us to make a choice, and we need to make this choice before it is too late.

An international team of scientists has, for the first time, successfully created a brain to brain interface, allowing humans to communicate with each other using nothing more than their thoughts. The experiment involved successfully transmitting the words “hola” and “ciao” from a person in India to another in France, with neither of them needing to move a muscle. One participant wore a device which measures brain activity, known as an EEG. They imagined performing an action, and the brain activity associated with this thought was picked up by the EEG and sent to a computer. The participant translated the alphabet into binary code, using either zeros or ones, and had a specific thought represent each value. The computer ‘heard’ these thoughts, and sent the values via email to another user. This person interpreted these zeros and ones as flashes of light, but instead of the signal arriving in the brain from the eyes, they used another device to plant the signal directly into their brain via magnetic stimulation.

The experimental set-up. Source: PLOS One.

The experimental set-up.
Source: PLOS One.

This may seem like a horribly inefficient process, it would be much easier to pull out your phone and type the message. But it’s the first big step down a troublesome path. No more will we suffer attempting conversation with someone glued to their smartphone. Soon, they will be able to instantly message someone without ever taking their eyes off you.

But the issues get much more serious than an inattentive conversation partner. These technologies open a whole new world of possibility, allowing those with access to the technology to be able to access a wealth of information, directly into their brains. This technology will allow those who are wealthy enough, or privileged enough, to become ‘plugged in’ cyborgs, able to store memories, send and receive massive amounts of information, and augment their thoughts. Those who resist these technologies, those who cannot afford them, or those who aren’t chosen to receive them will be left behind. People will be divided, the augmented will gain intelligence, become people with the highest employment prospect, allowing them more access to these technologies, driving the wedge deeper into the divide between the augmented, and those who remain unplugged.

But if you can’t afford to gain access to this technology, never fear. There will be corporations looking to profit, so why not get the free model, with pay-to-remove advertisements subliminally pushed straight into your mind? But at what risk? When companies are able to place information directly in your mind, they will do it cleverly, subtly, so you don’t even realise that you are being manipulated. What is to stop governments demanding access to your thoughts, to surveil all connected to the network for ‘security’ reasons? When we can’t even effectively protect our computers from hackers, we would be connecting our brains to the same networks, where the risks are far more severe.

Is this the world we want, the path we wish to tread down? A divided world, where the privileged become augmented, at the cost of their own thoughts, while those that resist giving up their freedom of mind be left behind as unemployable, slow, uninformed. The technology may currently be in its infant stages, but we need to move, and stop it taking the wrong direction, before it’s too late.

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Climate Change, 365 Sunny Days a Year

Before you see the words climate change, heave a heavy sigh and scroll onward ask yourself, aside from all the political hype and doomsday prophesies you’ve heard, what do you actually know about global warming?Well, the world’s definitely getting warmer (Duh, it’s in the name) and you probably know something about the sea level’s rising, but what else do you actually know?

The answer’s probably not much, and that’s understandable. It’s because you’re bored of hearing it, right? In that case, let me try and educate you on some of the effects climate change will have on our weather and try to give you a slightly different perspective on global warming.Hopefully you won’t be as bored by my post on climate change than the hundreds you’ve already scrolled past.

In the tropics,where I come, we only have two seasons, the dry and the wet, where throughout the wet we have torrential rains along with storms and cyclones. But what people have noticed is the severe storms and cyclones that affect us every year are becoming far less frequent, and the length of our wet season is decreasing. So why is that? Just some statistical fluke? Well actually, no. Almost every credible climate model (with the effects of climate change thrown in) predicts this, storms and cyclones are becoming fewer and fewer! But hang on, isn’t this a good thing? Fewer cyclones,they’re bad aren’t they? Well,yes and no.ImageCyclones, yes,are phenomenal displays of nature’s strength and can be devastating, but on the other hand our ecosystems depend on and have adapted to them.Cyclone’s clear out forests,change river courses and irrigate the land. So the occasional cyclone is necessary, but we’re not just talking about cyclones, these trends hold true for rainfall and the length of our wet seasons.

But cyclones are no longer the same big issue they were 30 years ago,trends show over these years damages due to cyclones, even freakishly severe ones, is decreasing due to huge improvements in our infrastructure and preparation.The real concern lies in whether future cyclones will become far worse than any we’ve seen before.

The truth is, no one really knows whether cyclones will become worse.Almost every climate model disagrees, some predict storms to decrease in their intensity by up to 95%, while others predict the same increase.This is a scary thought, we don’t even understand this potentially catastrophic issue enough to know whether we need to prepare for storms of Hollywood proportions or prepare to say goodbye to our wet season.

So we do know storms are becoming fewer (not good) and the severity of storms is becoming wildly unpredictable(also, not good), however, these aren’t doomsday prophecies. I’m not here to tell you some inspirational message, to sell your car and grow a veggie garden, but what I am telling you is climate change is effecting our world in all sorts of mysterious ways.If we don’t take any action now, then we may need to prepare to adapt rapidly to the new world we’re creating.

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The Mother of my robot.


RepRap
  a company founded in 2005 released its first 3D printer named Darwin in 2007 followed by the second Mendel in 2009 and Prusa Mendel and Huxley in 2010.

As you may have noticed they all are named after famous evolutionary biologists, this is due to the printers philosophy for creation: “the point of RepRap is replication and evolution”.

This means as reprap was released totally open source, anyone, anywhere can change it creating different kinds printers based on the original design resulting in “evolutions” of the same printer.

Furthermore the printer is to be able to copy itself by printing its own parts anytime and anywhere in the world from antarctica to africa, a machine that can create itself.

Check out the close up video of a reprap in action.

Taking this a step further scientists from the university of Denmark and Trento have customized a reprap to print liquids, then giving it computer vision and a artificial intelligence program it is the first machine of its kind that can be used to create, control and nurture chemical life without any human interaction.

In order to print liquids the printers plastic printing device known as a extruder is replaced with a cartridge with 6 computer controlled syringes and pipettes, these can move up and down interacting with a platform bed that sits below them typically holding a petri dish with a experiment on it.

Under the bed sits a camera that can watch the behaviors (velocity, ) of chemicals printed on the bed, using the data gathered from the camera a self organising map a method to sort big amounts of data  organises it into different categories.

The learning program can make decisions like whether to add more droplets or to divide, remove or inject more chemicals based on the information.

By using an approach that uses machines instead of humans, research time and cost are significantly decreased which means faster and better data to other fields that rely on this information like genetics and cancer research.

“In theory, any kind of system from the very big, to the very small can be created and used with these kind of methods”

With further improvements researchers state it would be interesting to see what would happen if the created chemical life and the 3D printer “co-evolved” adapting as a result of a change in the other..

In the future the team hopes that the printer can create lifelike systems like the formation of cancer fighting proteins much more quickly and efficiently than current methods, opening many new pathways for products that rely the chemical reactions that can be produced.

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Social media and the Fear of Missing Out: Why are you reading this? Shouldn’t you be doing something cool?

We’re all aware of the existence of the black sorcery that is social media.
We all use it and we’ve all read the disparaging articles, heard the misinformed talking heads going on about its corruptive influence and then seen it all replayed again on TV – so it’s to our credit that we’re unaffected by this supposedly insidious force.

Mostly.

The thing is that whilst most forms of social media do not directly harm anyone, its extensive use has been seen to correlate with a high dissatisfaction of several fundamental psychological needs – the result of which is the phenomenon referred to as “The Fear of Missing Out”, or FoMO for short.

A psychological research study conducted by Andrew K. Przybylski, Kou Marayama, Cody R. DeHaan and Valerie Gladwell in 2013 defined the term and aimed to discover it’s social, mental and emotional correlates amongst those most heavily affected by it – social media users. The results of the study were predictable for those of you that have gleaned the onus of this blog post already; amongst users of social media, those individuals who felt they were lacking in autonomy (self-authorship), relatedness (closeness with others) and competence (ability to affect the world) were extremely likely to exhibit FoMO, defined in the study as: “the uneasy or sometimes all-consuming feeling that you’re missing out – that your peers are doing, in the know about, or in the possession of more or something better than you”.

Now ignoring how much of a pain in the ass that definition is to say, this has dire implications that users of social media should be aware of. The first of which is its potential impact on those individuals already suffering from depression or other depressive mental illnesses. For those fitting the above criteria for dissatisfaction of basic psychological needs (well over half of social media users, according to Przybylski et al.), use of social media can feel like you’re looking through a two way mirror: you can see everyone else getting on with their lives, seemingly unaffected by need-deprivation and un-afflicted with the all-too-common Fear of Missing Out, whilst you’re stuck on the other side, unable to be seen or interacted with. For an individual in a depressive state this could be damaging, and according to the study, FoMO is heavily correlated with pre-existing negative mental states.

Unfortunately, there is no foolproof way this can be combatted. The purpose of this post is to bring awareness of the phenomenon, and awareness of the fact that someone close to you is likely affected by it – on its own FoMO is unlikely to provoke any negative mental effects that aren’t already there, but hey, nothing bad ever came from caring for your fellow man.

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Abortion: A public battleground???

Did you know that the Catholic Church wasn’t always pro-life like it is now? Until 1869, the Catholic Church considered the fetus to have a soul at around 19 weeks, and supported legal abortion until that time.

The legal status of abortion has always turned on this weird notion of whether and at what point a fetus becomes person, but science has never been able to truly quantify this point. Some think it’s when the fetus has a heartbeat: others think it’s when the sperm and egg form the unique DNA that a future baby will have for life.

Even today, the UK and USA have questionable abortion laws. The UK hasn’t seen any abortion reform since way back in 1967. In America the abortion situation is a little more crazy: recently, pro-lifers bombed a Planned Parenthood clinic in Wisconsin. Violent anti-abortion rhetoric is endangering both the rights of women and the physical safety of citizens.

This kind of anti-abortion activism is easy to spot. However, the more enduring kind is the sort that flies under the radar: abortion rights are being stifled in other ways.

An interactive map of the world abortion laws can be found at: http://worldabortionlaws.com/map/

In Nepal, all abortions were illegal until 2002 and women found to have undergone abortion were jailed for infanticide. The abortion pill is legal in Nepal, but the process is highly supervised, which can be kind of confronting given the history of abortion in Nepal. However, a recent study in Nepal has conclusively proven you can take the pill at home. 98.4 and 97.8% of providers and recipients involved recommended the choice to take the pill at home.

So why haven’t women already been given this option? I think it is reflective of something greater. Laws require women to jump through hoops to get an abortion so that women are reminded their right to abortion isn’t really theirs.

The abortion pill induces a miscarriage. Until invention of this pill, pregnant women had to wait until approx 8 weeks after conception to get an abortion. This pill reduces the rate of late term abortions, yet the pro-life opinion on the pill is still summed up with this quote: “Approving chemical abortion will further numb our consciences to the violence of abortion and the taking of innocent human life.”

…WTF?!

But lets take it back to the beginning for a moment: Abortion is a matter of a woman’s personal choice and her own body. When the very basis of the abortion debate is so clearly down to personal opinion, why is it so hard to leave women free to make their own decisions?

 

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Think a Parasite that Kills Bees Doesn’t Affect you? Think Again.

Varroa Mites on a Bee Larvae

Varroa Mites on a Bee Larvae

Bees are a fantastic source of delicious golden honey. That wonderful sweet syrup that brightens up your tea and livens up your oatmeal. And that’s about all they’re good for…right?

Well no. Bees actually provide us with an extremely important service that has a massive impact on all Australians. They may just be the insect that has the most significant effect on our lives.

So what is so special about bees? In short, they pollinate plants.

Doesn’t sound that important? Many Australian fruit, nut and oil industries depend on bee pollination for most of their production.

Need more info? The pollination provided by bees is estimated to account for $1.7 billion worth of crop yield in Australia per year.

Still not convinced? Let’s put it this way. Approximately one in every three mouthfuls of food consumed in this country comes from the aid of pollination by bees.

A Bee Helping to Pollinate a Flower

A Bee Helping to Pollinate a Flower

Yet this vital insect that plays such an important role in agriculture is under serious threat. Since its discovery in the 1950s in Asia, a parasite known as the Varroa Destructor has been devastating beehives as it has spread to nearly every continent. The parasite attaches itself to bees, impairing their cognitive abilities, while making them more susceptible to diseases and ultimately shortening their lifespan.

Although the Varroa has not yet arrived on Australian shores, it seems only a matter of time (the parasite has appeared in Papua New Guinea and New Zealand in the last 10 years). A solution to the Varroa problem would not only provide a safeguard to Australia’s many industries that rely on the pollination provided by bees, but also to the other countries that are already affected by this troublesome parasite.

There have been many attempts to deal with the Varroa Destructor through the use of chemicals, beehive devices and even genetic engineering. But none have been particularly effective in the long-term battle against it. However, new research done by a team of Canadian and Israeli scientists may provide an effective method of destroying the Destructor!

In the study, the parasites were exposed to various chemical compounds and their behaviours monitored. Some of these chemicals showed promising results as they caused the Varroa to be much less likely to attach themselves to bees. One compound in particular caused the parasite to totally reverse its behaviour from preferring nurse bees (those that look after the larvae) to forager bees (those that go out and search for pollen). This is quite significant as forager bees are much more able to effectively deal with the Varroa.

This research provides an exciting new possibility of solving the worldwide threat of the Varroa Destructor. It is important that new studies like these be taken notice of and funded in order to protect our bees and their vital role in providing many of the world’s food products.

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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Catastrophic Flooding

You know what the difference is between someone who accepts climate change and someone who doesn’t? Well if you look at their behaviour from day to day, nothing at all. A difference of opinion, that’s as far as it goes.

Why is that?

If the majority of us think that another hundred years of industry will bring on catastrophic weather, stagnation of the oceans and the toxification of the air, why are we all still driving cars to work and using gas heaters in the Autumn?

It could be that we simply didn’t evolve to consider threats outside of our immediate future. To us, climate change is this hazy mirage of doom, way off in the distance, out of focus. Now, if climate change were a big grizzly bear, in ready mawing stance, about to de-spleen us, perhaps we’d act differently. But it isn’t. So we won’t.

You may think this is defeatist, that I’m saying the cause for climate change activism is hopeless and we should just pack up our picket signs and go home. Maybe I don’t think the issue is that serious. But I do. I think it’s so serious, that we shouldn’t be relying on people’s willingness to act on it.

SUPPORT

Sad as it may be, any solution to climate change has to work around our innate, short-sighted behaviour. Humans are clever, we’ve come up with many ingenious ways to overcome our biology, but let’s not forget that any time a new form of media has been invented, it’s taken almost no time at all for us to start utilising it for sex. We’re primates first, smart people second.

What would be ideal is if there were a method of combating climate change, without having to drastically change our lifestyle. Fortunately, there is (at least) one. I’m referring to what’s known as passive cooling.

Passive cooling is essentially a design strategy. You can save a bunch on heating and air conditioning if you design your house in such a way that you can control how much heat it absorbs and how much it loses. And saving a bunch on heating and air conditioning means a whole lot less CO2 emissions.

A recent promising innovation in passive cooling is a material called Fan, a compound of silicon and quartz, with a silver base, which reflects 97% of light from the sun. It also emits most of the heat it absorbs, in a specific band of infrared, that doesn’t interact with the atmosphere, and so, passes right through it. So when applied to the roof of a building, it take the heat from within, and ejects it into space.

And remember, this is all done passively. No electricity. Virtually no upkeep. No one had to trade their car in for a bicycle for it to work.

Will this save us? Not likely. But it’s through this line of thinking, (like that of Elon Musk’s solar battery project), that the only foreseeable not-so-doomed future lies. Rely on the human tendency to resist change and favour convenience. If there are ways to curb CO2 emissions that do not require our minds and habits to change, they are what will make the difference.

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Height, Heart Disease and Keeping Perspective

A study published by the University of Leicester last month gained a lot of media attention when it linked genetically short adult height to coronary artery disease. The results prompted some to ask questions of the medical field, and what doctors are doing to help their short statured patients preserve their health.

This request sounds reasonable in theory – the public should be aware of potential health risks regardless of who is affected. But unless there is a sense of perspective used in communicating the findings, there is potential for over exaggeration and misinterpretation. In particular I am referring to the simple and unavoidable fact that being short is not a disease in itself, and to treat it as one is insulting and unproductive. The issue is how medicine and society in general address the health of shorter individuals, without pigeonholing people unnecessarily.

Let’s start from the beginning. Why are some people shorter than others? Well, there are a variety of answers to that, each with varying degrees of complexity. The first is the genetic component to adult height. In very very general terms, if two short people from two short statured families have a child, there is a high likelihood that that kid will also be short. Adult height, unlike a lot of other physical attributes, is strongly (up to 80%) determined by ones genes.

The second is environment. Children who have poor nutrition, poor health and who live in low socioeconomic conditions will, on average, grow up to be shorter than those who were better off. This is primarily due to the quality and quantity of food that the child eats over the course of their development, combined with genetic factors.

But why does this matter?

Well, the study that inspired this article concluded that the shorter you are, the higher your risk of developing coronary artery disease. Specifically, for every 6.5cm decrease in height, there is a 13.5% higher chance of disease development. This information is fascinating and has potential for clinical advancement on the issue, but it poses some interesting ethical questions for how to approach disease prevention and risk communication.

As people learn about this research, and the results inevitably become blurred by journalists and bloggers, I can easily foresee some misinterpretation. I fear that if this is the case, short people will be viewed as less healthy than taller people – giving rise to discrimination and judgement against them. This would not be the first time shorter people have experienced discrimination either. Or the second time

The shorter you are, the higher your risk of coronary artery disease

The shorter you are, the higher your risk of coronary artery disease

. Eventually, short people will be seen inherently as victims, a title that is neither correct, nor beneficial to them. We must stop this before it starts.

As a community, science and science communicators in particular must emphasise that being short alone is not a statement about one’s health. The risk factors associated with short stature must be addressed, of course, but with a sensitive and realistic sense of what the health impacts actually are.

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To bee, or not to bee: What everybody needs to know about Varroa destructor.

A European honey bee with a Varroa Destructor mite: https://beesandchicks.files.wordpress.com/2010/04/mite2.jpg

A European honey bee with a Varroa destructor mite: https://beesandchicks.files.wordpress.com/2010/04/mite2.jpg

Varroa destructor is a small creature causing big problems. But what exactly is Varroa destructor, and why should you care?

What is Varroa destructor?

Varroa destructor is a species of mite. They have eight legs, are 1-2mm in length and width and are a red-brown colour. They are a parasite that attack honey bees, attaching to them and sucking their hemolymph (the circulatory fluid in arthropods, analogous to blood in vertebrates). This parasitic behaviour causes bees to have reduced weight, reduced lifespans and weakened immune systems. In addition, mites often transmit deadly viruses to bees. Varroa destructor infestation leads to reduced honey production and often causes bee colonies to collapse. As well as affecting the apiculture industry, this has serious consequences for agricultural industries that rely on honey bees for pollination.

A female Varroa destructor on the head of a bee nymph: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/57/Female_Varroa_destructor_on_the_head_of_a_bee_nymph_(5048727154).jpg

Varroa destructor on the head of a bee nymph: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/57/Female_Varroa_destructor_on_the_head_of_a_bee_nymph_(5048727154).jpg

What areas are affected?

Varroa destructor originated in Asia, where its natural host is the Asian honey bee (Apis cerena). The Asian honey bee evolved various natural defences against the mite. However, the mite spread to the European honey bee (Apis mellifera), who did not have any natural defences. As a result the mites quickly multiplied and spread through European honey bee populations across the world. Untreated colonies (including wild hives) typically collapsed within 3 years of being infected. Today the mite is a major problem in every major beekeeping region in the world, with the exception of Australia.

Varroa Destructor Distribution, 2010: http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/misc/bees/varroa_mite01.jpg

How can we control it?

Scientists and beekeepers in affected regions have developed various chemical, physical and genetic engineering methods to try to control Varroa destructor. These methods are not totally effective and have various downsides, such as being expensive, labour intensive and potentially harmful to bees and humans. Progress is being made, particularly regarding genetic engineering methods, but much more research is still needed.

Australian efforts to control Varroa destructor are primarily focused on the short-term solution of preventing the mite from reaching Australian shores. This approach is working so far, but it is important that we also invest in long-term solutions to deal with the mite if it does arrive.

Why should I care?

If Varroa destructor arrived in Australia it would affect all Australians in some way. It would almost definitely lead to a significant decrease in the overall honey bee population, especially wild hives. This would be most heavily felt by the agricultural industry, who rely on honey bees for pollination of many crops. Less pollination would lead to lower crop yields, which would ultimately lead to an increase in the price and a decrease in the availability of most fresh fruit and vegetables in the supermarket. If you don’t want to have to pay more for your food, then you should care about Varroa destructor!

This is what your grocery store looks like without bees: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-epbuY7scRqs/UkmUPvq1sAI/AAAAAAAAG3A/lSkvsdXC9ng/s1600/Bees1.jpg

This is what your grocery store looks like without bees: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-epbuY7scRqs/UkmUPvq1sAI/AAAAAAAAG3A/lSkvsdXC9ng/s1600/Bees1.jpg

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