News:

NOTICE: Posting schedule is irregular. I hope to get back to a regular schedule as the day-job allows.


Friday, December 23, 2011

Happy HOLYdays!

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Well, folks, it's been a bit rough trying to keep up this fall.  Frankly, I couldn't.

I've been working on resuming the final sections of The Lab Rats' Guide to the Brain and will be back in the new year with new content. 

I'm also going to do a bit more commentary on Science in the news, as well as SF/F convention reports on panels and topics of scientific interest.  The posting schedule may not get back to a daily or even every-other-day schedule... yet... but I will try to have several blogs of new content up each week.

Thanks for hanging in there with me this fall and I hope to see you all in the New Year.

In the spirit of the season, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Joyous Solstice, etc.  - in other words, Happy Holydays and best wishes to all!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Poking fun at myself...

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There is a bit of fun going around internet and Facebook this week, regarding how a noted Science Fiction author might order pizza. [http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=635193 for the link impaired.]

As I write to educate about the brain, and particularly how to incorporate brain science in SF, I also read about the skills that writers must develop.  A particular weakness of beginning writers is the tendency to "infodump" and put too much background information into the writing (often in the opening of the novel.)

David Weber is a master at the "As you know, Bob..." method of inserting small background descriptions into his stories, hence the humor in the above link.

Another board has been playing around with the idea, poking fun at SF authros and their writing styles.  If I can get permission, I will post links as they go up.  One that I created for Novelist Stephanie Osborn is here.  [http://www.sff.net/people/steph-osborn/AlienChangeling.html] (To understand the humor in the post, it helps to know that Steph was a NASA payload specialist and spent many shifts in Mission Control.  The style and lingo sneak out in her books.]


Then it occurred to me that I might be setting myself up to be parodied in the manner. 

Well, far be it from me to resist, in fact, I'll do it myself.  So sit back, have a breadstick, and read:


How Speaker to Lab Animals orders pizza... 

"First let's look at how speech patterns are generated. Just as important as Broca's area in the left frontal lobe of the brain is Wernicke's area which is located at the junction of the temporal and parietal lobes - in fact it is directly in the path of projections from hearing and vision centers, which is logical since Wernicke's area mainly processes language that we see and hear. The proximity to the temporal lobe memory processing regions is also important since the brain must match sight and sound against memory to determine what is real language vs. nonsense syllables... 

"... vocal processing involves many different muscular systems. The actual pitch and tone of speech comes from loosening or tightening neck muscles. The 'vagus nerve' (also known as Tenth Cranial Nerve) controls the throat or internal muscles, while the 'accessory nerve' (Eleventh Cranial) controls external neck muscles. The tongue is controlled by a complex of nerves including the 'glossopharyngeal' (Ninth Cranial), vagus, and 'hypoglossal' (Twelfth Cranial) nerves... 

"...thus the mechanism for mouth movements is directly controlled by cranial nerves and does not require much of the spinal cord and conventional motor cortex. This is one reason why 'locked-in' quadriplegic patients learn to use neck, tongue and facial muscles for control of wheelchair and computer. Of course, speech still requires enough airflow to cause the vocal cords to vibrate. Without sufficient spinal cord activity to take a deep breath and let it out slowly, it is not possible to speak... 

"...Broca's area is the brain region most associated with speech, and as with many of the specialized brain processing areas, is closely located next to the face and neck areas of the motor cortex. In addition, it sits directly over the arcuate fasciculus, a subsurface bundle of nerve projections from the sensory association areas (including Wernicke's area) to the frontal cortex... 
"Extra-large original crust. Extra pepperoni, extra cheese.

"No breadsticks."

(pause)

"Thirty-five minutes? Thanks."

(click) 
"The sense of time passing is intriguing, for while there is no specific 'timer' in the brain such as in computers, there are many oscillatory rhythms which may fulfill a similar function..."

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

This just in... again...

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So, this week, media reports once again discovered the influenza virus research by the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam that I commented on here.  Note that this research was originally reported at a scientific meeting in September of this year, so it isn't really  urgent, breaking news.  What is news is that the U.S. Government is asking the journal Nature to censor the research report.  

Once again I have been asked a number of questions about the ethics and the practicalities of the work.  The language of those condemning the research and public release of the information usually protrays the scientists as "educated idiots" and "dolts" to meddle in something as dangerous as influenza.  

Such vitriol does a great disservice to the scientists, hence my vigorous defense of the field.

So, here is a brief mailbag entry from Nate:  


S2LA,

Not saying the research should not have been done, just have issues with the apparent handling of it.

Do these universities have the needed controls and security to protect against accidental release? I know that here in the States the physical security varies incredibly.

What level of sophistication would be needed to do this type of forced mutations? Is it something that can be fired up in a community college level laboratory or a midsized state U or would it take a specialized research lab?

Is it something like nuclear weapons and most other technology? If you know it is possible to do it is much easier to reproduce?

What are the steps from where they are at to get to a useful vaccine?

Thanks, Nate
Very good questions, Nate, so let's look at them step by step:

Likelihood of release: 

If this is a viral research lab, it really doesn't matter which country the lab is in, they have to take precautions to not infect themselves, so there really is no difference between the lab in Rotterdam and one at say, Emory or Stanford.  It's probably a level 3 biocontainment lab.  There *is* a difference between that and a CDC Level 4 or 5 lab but still, the chances of release are low.

So, what if it *is* released – one to 5 people in a typical lab would be exposed to the virus – however, what form is it in?  To infect a human, H5N1 has to enter the lungs in aerosolized form.  What that means is that the virus needs to be in small fluid droplets with a certain amount of live or newly dead animal tissue in the droplets to keep the virus alive.  Sanitary precautions such as alcohol sanitizer and wipes, disinfectant containing bleach or iodine would kill it.  Then there is the fact that one virus particle alone is not enough to infect a healthy human, nor is one human enough to start an epidemic or pandemic.  Accidental release is unlikely to start a pandemic (although deliberate release might – so we'll discuss that later) it *may* result in a few people getting sick.

How bad is this flu?



From The Independent's story"The fear is that if you create something this deadly and it goes into a global pandemic, the mortality and cost to the world could be massive," a senior scientific adviser to the US Government told The Independent, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"The worst-case scenario here is worse than anything you can imagine."
This is fear-mongering, pure and simple.  No one talked to a physician about how the flu is spread, no one talked to a scientist.  They sat around and said "OH WOW, We think this is BAD" and published it.  I am so absolutely livid about this sort of thing that it is hard to type the response.



It is true that the H5N1 influenza has had a mortaility rate of about 60%, but there have been about 500 cases worldwide – EVER!  Only 500.  All of those cases were transmitted from chickens to humans, so the humans did *not* contract a human influenza, they contracted the actual avian version of the virus.  This virus infects the lower respiratory tract – the lungs – and causes pneumonia.  The persons who died, did so from pneumonia, not the flu itself.




But what about human transmission?  To answer this, I have to lecture a bit on how virus transmission works.  First, a human has to come in contact with the virus contained in a medium in which the virus will grow.  Viruses are not alive, they can't be grown in petri dishes or a test tube – at least not without living cells.  Viruses enter living cells, than take over the normal cell growth and replication mechanism by inserting their DNA/RNA in place of the cells' own.  The cell is forced to make new copies of the viruses, which then rupture the cell and spread.  Without cell material, a virus is inert.  When the environment dries out, many viruses become incapable of infecting cells.  Treatment with heat, soap, iodine, bleach, ammonia, etc.  will break down the protein coat of a virus making it "dead."
 
SO a virus has to be *in* a cell in order to make copies to infect more cells.  Note that mutations in the virus are likely to occur with each new type of cell entered – but more on that later.

Spreading the influenza virus:


Following the fate of one "golden virus" particle in Patient Zero (P0):  P0 handles poultry in Thailand, he beheads, cleans and plucks hundreds of chickens a day.  One chicken is infected with H5N1.  On beheading, the blood sprays everywhere forming a spatter and mist, some of which lands on P0's face, and some is breathed into his lungs.  Unlike H1N1, the virus landing in nose and mouth does not cause infection, however the mist is breathed deep into the lungs.  The ciliated cells of the nasal (nose) and pharyngeal (throat) mucosa do a pretty good job of catching and filtering out the aerosol droplets.    So do the ciliated cells of the trachea (airway) – unless P0 is a smoker, since nicotine paralyzes cilia.  

Nevertheless, 99.99% of the droplets are caught before entering the lower lungs.  H5N1 enters cells in the alveoli (air sacs) of the lungs.  One virus entering a weaker cell can produce between 100 and 1000 copies of itself.  Once the cell fills with virus particles, it dies, ruptures, and releases the virus.  However, not all cells are susceptible to entry by the virus.  Macrophages (immune cells) in the blood, lymph and lung tissue consume dead and dying cells, and the virus may not get a chance to spread.  


With repeated low exposure, P0 develops antibodies to the virus and it never gets a chance to spread, but let's suppose P0 gets a large virus exposure and has low resistance to viral infection.  More lung cells are infected, rupture, and the lungs start to inflame and fill with fluid.  This takes about 5-7 days.  Once there is fluid build-up, P0 starts to cough.  Now he is infectious to others, because when he coughs, he sprays a mist of fluid, dead and dying cells and virus into his environment.  Note that with a "dry cough" (smoker's cough, asthma or emphysema) there is little to no moisture to support the virus.  With a "wet cough" (bronchitis, allergy and pneumonia) the fluid in the airway sprays out with each cough.


A person breathing in the aerosol from P0's cough (5-7 days after his infection) can catch H5N1, right?  Um, no.  Not so far.  Once again, viruses tend to mutate when they enter new types of cells.  The avian influenza virus mostly has its effect by causing pneumonia – swelling and fluid accumulation in the extremely nutrient, oxygen and fluid-rich environment of the lungs.  It has mutated, and the version sprayed out in each cough does *not* have the ability to survive in dry air or infect other humans.
Yes, P0 has a 60% chance of dying of pneumonia, as of one year ago, there were 510 reported H5N1 infections and 303 deaths, but no proven, ubiquitous human-to-human transmission.
Again, from The Independent:  "For the first time the researchers have been able to mutate the H5N1 strain of avian influenza so that it can be transmitted easily through the air in coughs and sneezes. Until now, it was thought that H5N1 bird flu could only be transmitted between humans via very close physical contact."
Researchers in Rotterdam made five point mutations to the H5N1 virus that *PRESUMABLY* make it susceptible to human-to-human transmission.  They don't know it for fact, it wasn't tested on humans, so it is not completely proven.s, P0 has a 60% chance of dying of pneumonia, as of one year ago, there were 510 reported H5N1 infections and 303 deaths, but no proven, ubiquitous human-to-human transmission.
The Independent:  Dutch scientists carried out the controversial research to discover how easy it was to genetically mutate H5N1 into a highly infectious "airborne" strain of human flu. They believe that the knowledge gained will be vital for the development of new vaccines and drugs.


The discovery has prompted fears within the US Government that the knowledge will fall into the hands of terrorists wanting to use it as a bio-weapon of mass destruction. Some scientists are questioning whether the research should ever have been undertaken in a university laboratory, instead of at a military facility.

What does it take to perform the forced mutations?

OK, now we get back to Nathan's question about what it takes to do this sort of mutation and virology, can it be done at community college level?  Or does it take a specialized lab.  Offhand I would say that this sort of work requires a dedicated virology lab.  First, you need knowledge of culturing viruses, it's not easy, but can be readily learned.  Performing the actual mutations, though, requires gene sequencing equipment and a means to ensure that the appropriate sequences are maintained in the virus.


Is this like making nukes?  Once you know it is possible, it's easy to reproduce?

No, Johnny Jihadi is *NOT* going to be doing this in his bathtub.  The truth is that any lab *capable* of doing the mutations probably already has the knowledge and ability to do so.  Has anyone noticed how many med school and grad school students are foreign nationals?  At one point, my department was 1/4 Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern students.  Many departments are even higher.  Does anyone *seriously* think that terrorist organizations and adversarial nations don't recruit highly educated people and supply them with what they need? 

The mutations are likely very easy to introduce.  Why?  Because viruses mutate naturally.

Let me say this again: Viruses mutate naturally.

OK, now I'm going to shout it:  VIRUSES MUTATE NATURALLY!  

The Influenza A virus which is the root of the "H" strain viruses is highly susceptible to mutation.  I mentioned this before and promised a discussion later – every time a virus enters a new host or new type of cell, it mutates.  Every year we need a new seasonal flu vaccine due to the mutations from the previous year.  One natural consequence is that most influenza epidemics burn themselves out because the second, third and fourth generation of the same virus has mutated to a *less* virulent form. 

In fact, Tom Kratman and I had to work quite a bit to come up with a scenario for a Smallpox virus that would become *more* not *less* virulent for Caliphate.  Frankly, being (presumably) human transmissible, the virus cooked up in Rotterdam isn't exactly H5N1 anymore, and we don't really know how it will react in the human population. 

Influenza is also contagious at the same time that the patient shows symptoms.  The very coughs and sneezes that are symptoms of the flu are the transmission vector, so the flu virus that the first generation patients could possibly catch from P0 is already mutated.
One blogger* wrote the following "Some dopes in a Dutch lab have made the threat a lot more real.  By mutating H5N1 into a more human threat, these scientists have given would-be bio terrorists something to salivate over. They say they did it because it could help them develop more effective vaccines in the future, but to me this falls into the category of things you just shouldn't mess with, no matter how pure your intentions."  [*Please note, the blogger is an IT security type, not a biologist, although I am not at all certain that should excuse his language.]
OK, so which "Dopes" would the blogger rather have – ones who performed the mutations to determine how easily it could happen naturally (which it really can!) and then be able to quickly produce vaccines – or ones who ignored the issue until Nature, or someone with less benign intentions, does it for them. 

IGNORANCE *IS* THE PROBLEM. 

The real issue in all of this research is that the mutations could very well happen naturally, and virologists have been expecting it since 2003. 

The unasked question...

Now, should it be classified?  HELL NO!

Yes, once it is known that there are only 5 mutations required, it may become easier for others to do so.  On the flip side, once the knowledge is disseminated and the articles published, it becomes common knowledge, and much harder to hide illicit virus or biological weapon production.  We can also have ready-made stocks of vaccines on hand to shut down a pandemic before it starts.  The true scare is *not* what if a terror lab produces the virus – but what if it occurs naturally?

But does this mean it should be done in a military lab instead of a college/university?  Not necessarily.  First, military labs and military funding are for research with military priorities.  It is na├»ve to think that research into weaponization of H5N1 isn't being done, but developing vaccines for civilian populations would not necessarily have as high a priority.  Research into influenza mechanisms for the sake of pure medical research is also probably not a high priority for a military lab. 

I'm not going to speak about the pros and cons of "entrusting" H5N1 to military labs, but rather look a bit more objectively at the issues with restricting such knowledge to closed intellectual compartments.  Classified and restricted information requires clearances and special treatment.  If an H5N1 outbreak occurs due to natural or belligerent causes, do we *really* want the knowledge of how to deal with it tied up waiting for bureaucratic clearances? 

It really boils down to the concept that folks who might have the will to use H5N1 as a bioterror weapon either don't have the technology to do so, or if they have the skills and technology, they probably have the knowledge of what and how to do through other sources – as I said, influenza viruses mutate, it's what they do, and anyone who studies them knows it. 

What are the steps to get a useful vaccine?

As far as making a useful vaccine – until we know a hell of a lot more about making human cells resistant to viruses – the first thing you need is the actual virus... in the form which infects humans. 

In other words, you need the virus produced in the Dutch labs.  

Again, thanks to Nate for his insightful questions and the opportunity to answer them here.   I am sorry that posting has been so irregular this fall, I will do my best to get back on a more regular schedule with the new year, and remember, you can always ask questions and I see what I can do to give reasonable, science-based answers that y'all can understand!


-Speaker

Monday, November 28, 2011

On Research Ethics

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I'm going to take a small step away from neuroscience for this post.  In a startlingly real case of life (i.e. my day job) imitating art (i.e. my online presence), I was asked about the following article on the exact same day I find myself having to think like a microbiologist/immunologist again at work.

Way back in the dim mists of time... as a Master's student, I studied Biology, with a strong emphasis on Aquatic Biology.  However, to pay the bills, I taught labs and graded papers... in Microbiology.  It's a skill I picked up in the course of my undergraduate studies in Biology and Chemistry, and it contributes to the fact that I am a rather well-rounded scientist, with background knowledge of Biology, Chemistry, Geology, Physics and Medicine in addition to my primary (doctoral) skills in Physiology, Pharmacology and Neuroscience.  Under the circumstances that I like to use this forum for Q&A and discussions of research ethics, I thought it would be a good diversion to address the following headline:

Man-made flu virus with potential to wipe out many millions if it ever escaped is created in research lab

One version of the story that is making its way around the internet is here:

http://tinyurl.com/6p2xa5w The picture at right is from the Daily Mail article, and purports to show the new virulent H5N1 virus. I can't verify the accuracy of the photo, but I will tell you that it certainly looks like the glycoprotein coat of a virus - note, that this is not the active part of the virus itself, it is only the outer shell.  The "infectious" part of a virus is the DNA or RNA on the inside.

H5N1 is bird flu.  It has the potential to be every bit as nasty as the Influenza pandemic which killed between 50 and 100 million people between 1918 and 1920.  It should be noted that the so-called "Spanish Flu" was the influenza viral strain H1N1 - more recent known as "Swine Flu" which was responsible for the influenza pandemic of 2009.  H5N1 is not yet in the dangerous state because it is not easily transferred between individual humans except through exchange of bodily fluids - and even then it is not terribly virulent in what would be termed the F1 or F2 generation. 

In the article, however, it is revealed that scientists have mutated the H5N1 virus to a more virulent form that is transmissible, and they did so in 5 relatively easy mutations.  There is much discussion about whether scientists should be "allowed" to perform such dangerous research, and even then if it should be published.  I was asked what I thought about (A) the dangers of this flu, (B) whether it should be published, and (C) the ethics of this research.  This is particularly apt because a few years back, and SF author friend of mine proposed an H5N1 pandemic as part of the plot line of his book, and asked me to consult on the medical science.  For the interested, that book is "The Last Centurion" by John Ringo, and it is available in eBook form here:   http://www.webscription.net/p-770-the-last-centurion.aspx and in hardcopy from Amazon or Uncle Hugo's SF Bookstore.

So, under the circumstances, how could I refuse?

Dangerous Research Ahead...

In response to the questions about "should scientists do dangerous research?"  My answer is a qualified "Yes."  The qualification is that I feel appropriate safety should be taken to prevent release.  In my work as a neuroscientist, we have to work with many chemicals that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have declared as "Select Agents" meaning that these are essentially dangerous chemicals.  Note that these are not synthetics, they are plant and animal toxins that are collected, concentrated and purified.  Botulism, cholera and typhus are terrible diseases, and the toxins are deadly, but from research into these toxins we know how they work and how to prevent and treat the disease.  Puffer fish (fugu) and cone snail toxins are deadly, yet they are also essential pharmacologic tools to the neuroscientist to better understand neuron/brain cell function both in normal and disease states.

Therefore, the danger of the subject of study alone is not sufficient cause to stop or prevent the research.  Yes, precautions *must* be taken, yet still - viruses mutate on their own!  The likelihood that such a virulent strain of H5N1 could develop on its own is NOT unlikely.  When it does, you'd better believe that our doctors and scientists NEED to know how it behaves and how to treat it (as well as preventing the spread).

Publish or (and) Perish!

There is fear that publishing the results of the scientific experiments would provide a "cookbook recipe" to terrorists or even disgruntled citizens to duplicate the result and create a terror weapon.  Basically this comes down to "once we know, shouldn't we keep it a secret?"  To this, I say "No," once we have the information, we should publish it.  Again, this is the best way to ensure that scientists and doctors have ALL of the tools they need to treat disease.  I'm afraid my answer to the fear that terrorists might get hold of the "recipe" and recreate their own "Superbug" will not be entirely reassuring.  In the first place, creating super influenza viruses is not something to cook up in the bathtub.  It is not within reach of the casual kitchen sink experimenter.  It will require specialized lab equipment and materials - viruses do not grow like mold on bread, they must be specifically cultured in living cells (human cells, if it is to target humans).  On the other hand - there is no guarantee that the enemies of civilization do not already have the scientists and equipment working on "weaponizing" H5N1.  Choosing to suppress publication is not going to stop them.  In fact, refusing to publish may rob our medical researchers of the very knowledge they need to develop effective treatments!

A Question of Ethics

So - is it ethical to perform such dangerous research that could be turned into weapons against civilized peoples?  In many cases... Yes.  In fact, I would argue that we as scientists have an obligation to research the greatest dangers that face our society.  Research into the smallpox and polio have virtually wiped out these diseases from Western society - yet the microorganisms themselves could have devastating consequences if released from a lab.  Research into botulinum toxin has resulted in not just a cosmetic treatment, but an important cure for intractable migraines.  research into plant and animal toxins results in improved drugs and treatments for neurological diseases.  Research with corrosive chemicals led to development of rocket fuels and the space program, with the end results of improved telecommunications, compact electronics, lightweight/high strength materials and improved medical diagnostics.   Research with radioactive materials has led to energy production, medical imaging, treatments and food preparation and safety.

Each field of study has its dangers and its detractors.  Denying research and publications because "it's dangerous" is short-sided at best, criminally ignorant at worst. 

Yes, we need to proceed with caution...

Yes, we need to proceed with safety controls in place...

Yes, we need to proceed with public disclosure and monitoring ...

...but we need to proceed!


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

An Open Letter to U.S. Retailers

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 An Open Letter to U.S. Retailers:

You wouldn't allow your employees to be intoxicated at work.


Why are you encouraging them to work while sleep-deprived?

The frank truth is that lack of sleep produces many of the same mental effects as being drunk or high, and Black Friday will be staffed by employees operating on too little sleep.  The busiest retail day of the year is also the day when clerks and shoppers both are at the greatest risk of making serious judgmental errors at potentially high costs.

The factors that could lead to serious lapses in judgment include:
  1. Sudden shift from working during the day to working during normal sleep hours.
  2. Long work hours
  3. Difficulty in sleeping during the day
Many stores are opening at very early hours on the Friday after Thanksgiving.  Shops which normally open at 8, 9 or 10 AM will open at Midnight, 3 or 4 AM.  The employees will have to report to work 5-8 hrs early than normal, in fact, they will start work during the times of the day when they are usually asleep and all bodily functions are at a minimum.  It is as if they had suddenly traveled from the U.S. to Europe, with all of the symptoms of jet lag, without the elapsed time.

To make matters worse, many of your employees will attempt to go to sleep in the afternoon or early evening so that they get a decent amount of sleep before getting up and going to work.  The human body's daily cycles and rhythms involve 6-10 hours of sleep, followed by 16-18 hrs awake.  Most people find it difficult to sleep when they have been awake for less than 12 hours, thus even if the employee *tries* to go to sleep at 6 PM (to be up at midnight and at work at 2 AM) they will spend a lot of time *trying* to sleep, but not succeeding.  It is a well known factor of "swing-shift" workers that it takes about a week for a worker to adjust their sleep schedules from day to night shifts (or vice-versa) [Kolla and Auger, Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine, October 2011, volume 78, number 10, pages 675-684].

So now your employees have disrupted sleep cycles, are working during the time of night when their body is conditioned to be asleep, and they are sleep-deprived. What does that mean for their ability to function at their job?  Sleep deprivation slows reaction times, impairs memory and alters judgment.  A study in primates a few years ago demonstrated that following a single night of lost sleep, critical brain areas showed reduced activity, while other brain ares have to work harder to compensate [Porrino et al., Public Library of Science - Biology, September 2005, volume 3, number 9, page e299].  When sleep deprived, it is difficult to form and use short term memory - such as ringing sales and making change.  It is also difficult to make critical decisions, such as identifying shoplifters or when to allow exceptions to sale terms.

Essentially, people who are sleep deprived show many of the same impairments of a person with a legally impaired blood alcohol level even though they do not show the same physical effects [Citek at al., Journal of Forensic Science, September 2011, volume 56, number 5, pages 1170-1179].  While factories, shops and offices that normally operate evening and night shifts have employees who are accustomed to working in the dark hours of the morning, most retail employees (and shoppers) are not.  Thus, not only are your employees *working* impaired, your customers are *shopping* and driving while impaired.  The increase in traffic incidents and police responses on Black Friday is commonly attributed to the size of the crowds, however, the increasing trend of early opening and sleep-deprived public has to be be compounding the problem. 

Finally, the trend of increasingly early opening is robbing your employees of the very holiday and family time that is provided by closing businesses on Thanksgiving day.  In order to *attempt* the sleep necessary to be at work at midnight or 4 AM, your employees have to shut their families out and attempt to sleep or nap during the afternoon or early evening hours.  As described above, they may make the effort, but the likelihood of success is low.

It is a nice sentiment to close your business to allow employees to be at home with their families, but it all rings hollow when you steal the time back in order to be the first store open the next day - particularly with employees who are working while impaired..

UPDATE:

This is not a rant against retail or capitalism.  For many years I shopped on Black Friday because it was the only time to shop *for* the kids, *without* the kids.  I understand that retailers are depending on increased volume of sales at discounted prices in these economic times.  From personal experience I know that Black Friday crowds mean that most shoppers will be able to visit only one or two store, thus early opening is an incentive to get shoppers in your store *first*.  

My wife works in retail - operations support - and will be busy from 1:30 AM onward fixing the problems that are guaranteed to occur on Black Friday.  Thus, I *will* be out in the early hours of Black Friday driving my wife to work to ensure that she arrives safely - but then, I have already adjusted my sleep schedule to be able to function appropriately after midnight, a luxury not afforded to employees working day-light shifts on any other day.  

Please understand that this is a reasoned appeal, backed by scientific evidence, to reverse a trend that *encourages* Americans to work, shop, drive and make decisions under conditions that impair all of those functions.  We may *not* be able to reverse the trend, but at the very least I hope that by understanding these effects we will be better informed if/when incidents occur due to sleep deprivation. 

Monday, October 24, 2011

Monday Funnies

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I'm back!

Sorry, but *someone* seems to have broken the blog.  I can only log in from home, and not from any of my computers that also do work-related material.  I have narrowed the problem down to virus/malware filtering which seems to think the site may have content problems.  In the next few days I will be trimming content and comments to see if I can find the problems and get back to regular posting.

Enough of that!  This is Monday!  It's supposed to be Funny!

Today's lab-related humor comes from Brant Parker Johnny Hart's The Wizard of Id.


I frankly had forgotten the lab-type humor that Parker and Hart (and later Brant Parker's son Jeff) often injected into the strip.  The Wizard is cast in the role of scientist, with often bizarre lab subjects, such as Ratso, above.

The Wizard of Id is also the source of one of my favorite explanations of the discrepancy between athlete and academic salaries: "No one ever bought a ticket to see a scientist!"

Go search the comic out, find the books, search through old newspapers and archives.  It is worth the effort.

Enjoy!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Monday Stuff

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Guest Blogging Courtesy of K. Mata - the Goddess of Lab Rats!

This blog has commented before about medical marijuana and medicinal cannabinoids.  Here's an article about what it's creator calls "A Good Drug Gone Bad." The link is to a story in the LA Times about the creator of JWH compounds, major ingredients of 'spice' and other synthetic marijuana products sold until recently in gas stations as incense.   It should be stressed that the scientist creator did not distribute this drug.  The formula was lifted from the lab and form publications.  It is manufactured and sold from China as "plant food."

I've included the first few paragraphs below...
  
http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-killer-weed-20110928,0,2646834.story

Scientist's research produces a dangerous high

John W. Huffman created synthetic marijuana for tests on lab animals. His formulas ended up in the hands of head shops, which have created substances that can lead to seizures, hallucinations and convulsions.

September 28, 2011, 3:46 p.m.
Reporting from Sylva, N.C.—


John W. Huffman is a bearded, elfin man, a professor of organic chemistry who runs model trains in his basement and tinkers with antique cars. At 79, he walks a bit unsteadily after a couple of nasty falls.

Relaxing on his back porch in the Nantahala National Forest, watching hummingbirds flit across his rose beds, Huffman looks every bit the wise, venerable academic in repose.

But this courtly scientist unwittingly contributed to the spread of "designer marijuana" so potent that the Drug Enforcement Administration has declared some of what he created illegal.

Huffman's years of scientific research at Clemson University on the interaction between drugs and brain receptors led to so-called fake marijuana with effects far more powerful — and dangerous — than garden-variety marijuana. "Spice," "K-2," "Skunk" and similar products made using the chemical compounds he formulated have surged in popularity in recent years.

That prompted the Drug Enforcement Administration in March to temporarily list "stealth marijuana" products containing three cannabinoid compounds invented by Huffman as Schedule 1 drugs illegal to sell or possess.

Some interviewers and critics have blamed Huffman for turning an entire generation onto "monster weed."

"It's become a royal pain in the rear end," Huffman said the other day, reflecting on the unwelcome attention his research has received. "I had a TV station in Moscow accuse me of trying to poison America's youth."

In that interview, live on Russian radio, he said, his responses seemed slow because of a satellite delay — so slow that the questioner accused him of smoking his own creations.

In a separate conversation, a BBC interviewer "basically asked me when I stopped beating my wife," he said. "They accused me of creating all these horrible drugs."

But Huffman laughs as he describes emails assuming he has created a super form of medical marijuana or has profited by designing lucrative marijuana substitutes. "We were not. It was all just basic science," he said. To counter misinformation, he and Clemson have devised a boilerplate statement describing his research and warning against consuming synthetic marijuana.

That hasn't stopped alert entrepreneurs from using Huffman's formulas, published in scientific journals. Their products, often sold as "herbal incense" and smoked like traditional marijuana, can produce seizures, hallucinations, tremors, paranoia, convulsions, high blood pressure and rapid heart rate, say emergency room doctors.

Poison control centers have received 4,500 calls over the last two years from people using fake marijuana, according to the American Assn. of Poison Control Centers.

Read more at: 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Value of Repetition...

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In my guest Blog for Sarah Hoyt last Thursday (Oct. 6 - ) I discussed the value of looking toward the future as a Lab Rat - knowing that as long as conditions remain the same, repeating our past actions is valuable - but the moment conditions change, too much "memory" in the form of repeating past actions, can be detrimental. 

I stated:
"A popular saying among some groups such as the Baen Barflies is that insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.  Likewise, insanity is doing different things and expecting the same results.  Yet sometimes we have to change strategies in order to get a better result, as in the transformation from traditional to indie publishing.  I’m not an “insider” to this phenomenon, but I certainly  recognize the signs and symptoms from behavioral psychology."

There were many good follow-up comments to the blog, and I wish I had been able to engage in the responses and replies.  Unfortunately, most took place while I was at work, and it was a particularly busy day.  However, one comment merits a response here.

"David"  
quote: Likewise, insanity is doing different things and expecting the same results

I take issue with this, there are frequently many different ways to get to one result. some ways may be more efficient than others, and it’s usually true that if you are picky enough the results are not ‘identical’ (after all, the process you go through has side effects), but if you are looking for ‘equivalent’ results there are frequently many ways to get to the result.
David and I have had some give and take on other issues in other forums, but that is immaterial.  However, I take issue with David's comment.  Granted, equivalent results can be obtained, but the same results never are.  Most importantly, how we learn and behave is significantly altered by the approach we take to obtain a result.

I will forever remember the example taught in my first lab psychology/animal behavior course:

A rat is placed in a cage with a levers.  If the animal pressed the lever, it heard a tone and received a food or liquid reward.  My professor, as a student, was training his rats and had one that would never purposely press the reward lever.  The rat would bump up against it, rear up and sniff the cage top and lean against the lever, latch onto the cage top and fall on the lever, but never reach and press the lever.  Now this is normally a very easy behavior to train to the rat.  The instructor for that course suggested a barrier be placed in the cage, such that the lever was at the end of a corridor, and the rat could not "accidentally" bump the lever. Rats are naturally curious and will usually explore under those conditions.  Unfortunately the animal chose to climb over the barrier, stepping on the lever on its way down.  If the barrier was removed, the rat would not press the lever.  My professor told us he tried for weeks to teach the rat the appropriate response - his other rats learned it in 5 days, but this rat could not learn it in 5 weeks.

So, why did that happen, and what's the "punch-line" for this column?  Well, to teach a rat, you need consistent conditions so that there can be an association between the action and the outcome.  In this case, the rat obtained an equivalent result - the food reward - but it never learned to associate deliberately pressing the lever with the outcome.  To that rat, it was the act of climbing over the barrier that resulted in reward - it obtained food mysteriously whenever it explored, but never learned that it could produce a reward as a consequence of its own actions.

A corollary to this example is something I see quite often when teaching students:  They train a rat to perform appropriately when the time delay between action and reward is negligible, but as soon as the delay is increased, the animal performance deteriorates.  To fix this, the student decreases the delay, then makes the trial easier by eliminating one or more choices, then they try adding cues, then changing the reward - often all at once or on successive days.  What this means to the rat is that it never has a stable context in which to learn the appropriate responses.  We can teach animals and humans to do many things as long as there is a stable context - Action A results in B - during the learning phase.  We can even teach them to be flexible and learn new mazes, as long as we introduce consistency in the learning/relearning phase.

Alvin Toffler called it "Future Shock" - the inability to cope with rapid change.  Deprived of enough stability to learn the rules, some people never learn how to deal with change.  What distinguishes the lab rats - and people! - who can cope with change is that they have in fact learned  a few basic rules of how to respond to changing context.  Most importantly, they learn just how important those "picky" differences are.

So, I argue that there are in fact a few ways to get equivalent results.  However, each different method teaches different rules - and if we keep changing the rules, nothing can be learned.  Its one reason why rote recitation used to be taught in school - and still is in professional schools.  Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say "... insanity is: constantly changing the rules, but nevertheless expecting the same results."  On the other hand, I stand by my original statement.

We can learn a lot form Lab Rats.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Guest Blog on "According to Hoyt"

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My friend Sarah A. Hoyt has been blogging about the craft of writing as well as changes to the traditional models of publishing that are on the horizon.  Yesterday she wrote "In the Future we're all Ducks" (http://accordingtohoyt.com/2011/10/05/in-the-future-we%E2%80%99re-all-ducks/) referring to the manner in which Disney's Donald Duck character seems to go from job to job in each episode - one time he's a beautician, next time he's a janitor in Uncle Scrooge's bank.  The fact that Donald seems to switch between jobs doesn't seem to matter to him. [By the way, Sarah, my wife reminds me that despite this seeming lack of care, Donald is never truly satisfied!]

Sarah goes on to talk about how we can learn from Donald and improve our skill set by learning things we would not previously consider.  For myself, I always thought I'd be a scientist or a surgeon (or a jet pilot, but I was asthmatic and didn't have the eyesight).  Computers other than the huge government behemoths didn't exist, but as they were developed, I considered that I might be a programmer.  Little did I think I would become all three - I am a scientist who performs surgical procedures in the lab as needed, and I program most of my own analyses.  I never really thought that much about being a writer, but here I am working on both nonfiction and fiction for the SF market.

But back to Sarah's post, I argued that we are not Ducks, but Lab Rats.  I started to lay out my logic, and Sarah said I should just write it all down and guest-blog it for her.  Incidentally it also gives her a bit of a breather since she has been out of town for two weeks and needs to get some things done before getting back to writing.

So head on over at According to Hoyt, and read my guest blog - Not Ducks, but Lab Rats (http://accordingtohoyt.com/2011/10/06/not-ducks-but-lab-rats/).  It's a story of behavior and flexibility, and the sad consequences of lacking behavioral flexibility.

Enjoy!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Monday Funny

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Blatant Plug.

One of my new favorite webcomics is Ninja Nun (http://www.robertahoyt.com/Comic92.html).  Click on the crossed rulers below the comic and start from the beginning.  No, it's not science based, but I happen to know that artist has a respectable pedigree in science - Robert Anson Hoyt is a published science fiction author, and named for the SF author Robert A. Heinlein (R.A. Hoyt having been born on R.A. Heinlein's birthday).  He comes from a family of SF writers and is himself a pre-med student.  In fact, he has even been known to refer to himself as a "lab rat"!

If there is any doubt that Robert A. Hoyt has a wicked sense of humor, check out the comics immediately following and preceding the one linked above, then check out this highly appropriate bonus comic (http://www.robertahoyt.com/Bonus3.html).  Yes, Robert loves ties.  No, we couldn't get him to stop wearing them even in the lab, cleaning rat cages.  He'll make a fine surgeon someday with his attention to detail and cutting wit.

So sharpen your ruler, sit back and enjoy the adventures of Sister Agnus Day, the "Ninja Nun."

Friday, September 23, 2011

Reading minds?

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Hat Tip to Andrew who brought the following to my attention:
http://gizmodo.com/5843117/scientists-reconstruct-video-clips-from-brain-activity

All I can say is WOW!  Wow to the technology.  Wow to the science, and Ouch, to the poor subjects who spent 3 hours in the MRI scanners.

To the journalist/publicity department... yeah, not so much.

This is really neat stuff.  The scientists at UC Berkeley used magnetic resonance imaging to map brain activity as their subjects viewed a number of video scenes.  Most of the readers to this blog probably know that MRI is used to take pictures of the inner structure of the brain and soft tissues of the body.  Chemists and physicists may remember that the basis of MRI is nuclear magnetic resonance - in a strong magnetic field, hydrogen bonds orient and spin in the same direction.  A radio signal causes them to flip orientation, and the resulting energy release can be detected.  Water molecules have plenty of hydrogen bonds, brain and soft tissues have plenty of water, thus MRI is used to map the density of water in the brain.  MRI can also work with oxygen, and blood contains both water and oxygen.

Functional MRI (fMRI), as used in this study, goes one step further, it maps changes in brain activity on based on the blood flow to active brain areas.  The apparatus is a bit cumbersome, and it's not exactly "real-time" but fMRI can tell a lot about overall brain activity.

What this study shows is that the scientists were able to build a database of brain activity in response to video.  Then when an image was shown to the subjects, the computer was able to determine which image was shown to the subjects.  Essentially what the experiment did was to reconstruct the brain's code for visual scenes.

This is neat stuff! 

Understanding the brain's internal coding scheme is a major accomplishment, and this experiment goes a long way to demonstrating exactly that.

But reading dreams?  I'm sorry, but that's way too much of a stretch for this experiment. 

(1) The fMRIs were taken as the subjects were viewing various scenes.  They were not taking while "imagining" scenes, from recollections, or from dreams.

(2) Vision activates multiple areas of the brain that are not active during imagining or dreaming.  The primary visual cortex and input pathways are not active unless the images are actually present to be viewed.  On the other hand, the sensory association cortex and memory systems are active during both vision and recollection.

So in short, a reconstruction of dreams or memory is missing half of the data that would be present when the subject is viewing scenes, images and video as in the current experiment. 

While extremely important and exciting, the UC Berkeley findings are not mind reading or even dream reading (ala "Brainstorm").  Can the technology tell us a lot more about how the brain encodes information?  Yes.  Is it mind reading?  Well, not exactly, and certainly not in "real-time."

However - Go Berkeley!  Keep up the Neat Stuff!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The unfortunate truth...

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Well, this is something I hoped not to have to do.

No, I am not stopping this blog, but I need to adopt an irregular update schedule - in fact, it should be fairly obvious that I already have.

There is an unfortunate truth about blogging... if you do it right, it's a job.  The unfortunate part is that it is quite often a second, third or fourth job on top of other duties.  I started this blog as a way to talk about Science and provide structure and feedback for writing The Lab Rats' Guide to the Brain.  It has been successful.  I appreciate the readers and great questions.  They have assisted me in writing and refining what I have written for the Guide.

However, I do have a day job.  As medical school research-and-teaching faculty, my employer figures that it is a 55-60 hr/week job.  That includes time at home working on writing up scientific results and set-up for teaching lectures.  Reviewing scientific manuscripts, and grants, and writing my own grant applications is extra.  Preparing teaching materials (for those of us with more than 80% research commitment) is extra.  Committee work (essential for promotion) is extra.  Putting in the additional effort to be promoted... is extra.

So the Day Job is job number one.  The ancillary teaching, reviews and extra work that will assist in my promotion and tenure prospects next year is Job 1.5.  Family is Job 2, my fiction writing has been Job 3 and I had hoped that the blog would fit in nicely as Job 4. 

It hasn't worked that way.  I tried an every-other-day schedule and a three-nights-a-week schedule, and this Blog became Job 2, and nearly Job 1.5.  I suppose I write too much in each blog, it takes me 1-2 hrs for each Guide post because I am researching details, searching out illustrations (public domain if possible) and comparing results with existing websites.  There have been times I could take an hour out of the day job and write part or all of a blog - usually while eating lunch or waiting on a computerized analysis to complete - but those opportunities have become fewer and further apart. 

But the most unfortunate truth of blogging is the effect on creativity.  I have written before about the fact that I can write science or I can write fiction, but cannot intermingle the two.  I have to clear my head of the professional work in order to write the recreational stuff.  The Guide has been beneficial, in that it *is* science, and I do not have to completely shift gears from my work in order to write.

But it has nevertheless impaired my writing ability.  I have three writing commitments due this fall, and have not been able to work on any of them in three months.  I must make time to complete the projects... at a time when I find myself having to do more grant and manuscript writing at work.  "Something's gotta give," and I am afraid that it is regular blog posts.

I will still continue to blog.  I will post the final sections of the Guide, comment on new and interesting Science, and continue to answer questions.

I appreciate all of my followers and occasional readers, and encourage you to sign up to follow this blog either via Blogger or Facebook (NetworkedBlogs).  I will continue to email the blog to Sarah's Diner in Baen's Bar, whatever form that forum eventually takes.  Sign up, and you will be notified or emailed the blog when it posts. 

Again, I am not discontinuing, just moving to a less regular posting schedule.  I will continue blogs at least weekly, and will try to continue Monday Funnies as long as I have material.

Thanks for your understanding...
-Speaker

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

If it's Wednesday...

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...it probably means I'm trying to figure out what to blog!

Before returning to the mailbag posts, I want to take the time to post some links to recent video projects. The flip-side to Teddy's Rat Lab is the TR Productions home page which features photos and videos from various science fiction panels.  Some of the earlier work can be found at http://teddroberts.com, complete with downloads in multiple file formats.  I tried hard to work out a streaming video service for the website, and need to get some of the more recent videos linked on-site.


All of the more recent work can be found at my YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/TeddRoberts once the length and size restrictions were eased.  Particular features of the channel include the recent Dragon*Con videos.  At the upper left is the "Air Shark" swimming through the lobby of the Atlanta Hyatt Regency.  Below left is the flash mob tribute to 2011 Campbell Award nominee, NY Times bestselling author Larry Correia and his Monster Hunter International series.

Several of the videos are short subjects, promotions, teasers, and music ("filk") - some are much longer full panels and skits from various SF conventions.  For Music, check out "Monster Hunter Ballad" written and sung by Gray Rinehart (by the way, there's more coming from Gray as soon as I can get the video processed).  For pure zombie-hunting fun, watch "Killing the Undead" a pro-writer panel from last year's LibertyCon - but for absolute zaniness, there's "The Making of Ghost: The Movie" in several versions, the YouTube HD release of the Dragon*Con 2008 version, and the download version of the LibertyCon preview skit available on the website.

There are many panels uploaded, and more to come.  Keep watching for new releases.  Like, subscribe or friend the channel, share the videos, comment, and rate them.

Enjoy!