Your grandparents were right. Rock and roll will rot your brain. (And if they know what trance music was, they'd be scared shitless.)
For years scientists have debated whether using ecstasy causes brain damage. (With no small amount of drama, thanks to the likes of George Ricaurte and his bobbled bottle debacle, the Hwang Woo-Suk-tastophe of the ecstasy wars.) But stimulant studies regularly rely on mice and monkeys distanced from human habits of use. Who sits in a silent cage and pops pills for fun?
To address the issue, Michelangelo Iannone and a team of scientists in Italy threw a rave for their rats. Well, with a few differences. Instead of music, there was loud static, and instead of scalp massages, there were holes in the scull and electrodes on the brain. The goal was to test if acoustic stimulation would affect the neurotoxicity of MDMA (ecstasy.)
The results? Yes. Blasting white noise at the maximum volume Italian nightclubs allow (95 dB) decreased neural activity in rats dosed with E. Depending on dosage, the brain blotto lasted from several hours to several days. You can download the report, published last week, here, or read about it here.
In the paper, the authors admit, "it is very difficult to indicate the mechanism underlying these effects." So I wondered whether the form the auditory stimuli took mattered. Listening to static at 95 dB can give anyone a headache, but I know subjectively (from taking E at raves as a teenager) that music can greatly enhance the experience of a trip. And I know objectively (from programming neural networks on computers) that random input like static can destroy the organization of a system. A high noise-to-signal ratio washes out meaningful relationships between neurons.
I asked Iannone if using input with some structure, such as actual music, instead of white noise would make a difference. He replied: "We made a lot of preliminary (and unpublished) experiments to assess if there is a difference between the two stimuli, using a brief 'techno music' brain. And I can say that there is no difference (in our hands) between discomusic and loud noise, in terms of effects." Oh well. Actually, it shouldn't be surprising that there's no difference. At the level of the effects that they're measuring, the brain wouldn't pay much mind to the informational complexity of the input. It's all noise to the neurons.
Fortunately, the brain works at many levels. Under the right circumstances the benefits of E and other drugs can far outweigh the risks. Ecstasy was widely used in psychotherapy until it was outlawed in 1985, and today, researchers such as John Halpern at Harvard are fighting to bring it back. Click here to read about the attempts of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) to make ecstasy an FDA-approved prescription medicine.
In the Italian study, the authors report: "One of the questions which need addressing by research is how other factors typical of the 'rave scene', such as sensorial auditory (techno music) stimuli, can affect higher neural functions..." Now that they've tackled music, expect future studies to involve tripping rats subjected to candy necklaces and glow sticks.
Harry Whittington had this to say today about getting shot in the face by Dick Cheney: "My family and I are deeply sorry for all that Vice President Cheney and his family have had to go through this past week."
In related news, Johnny Weir apologized to the fishing net that delayed his arrival to warmups last night and may have held him back from winning the first ever Winter Olympic gold medal for the lost city of Atlantis.
friend: woo hoo only 4 more days me: YES friend: do you have plans? me: actually, now that i know what you're talking about, replace that YES with a meh [definition] friend: you do not know what i'm talking about friend: whatever you think i'm talking about, this is more important me: presidents day friend: oh wow, i didn't even realize they coincided me: yes all the presidents coincide on that one special day me: it makes the tides extra high friend: even president neap? me: is that real? friend: since you asked... friend: only four days friend: until friend: the dvd friend: release of friend: RENT friend: we can watch it whenever! me: replace my meh with a feh[definition] friend: how do you spell that? friend: with an "eh"? me: yes me: both etymologically distinct from teh[definition] friend: indo european roots friend: ? me: teh has haxor rOOts friend: you do me: nah
Intelligent Design is great fodder for satire among the science set. In the new March issue of the The Atlantic Monthly, Bruce McCall riffs on the ID worldview with a short piece called "Not Conspicuously Intelligent Design." The designs that are not conspicuously intelligent include Minneapolis-St.Paul ("Only two big cities in a state of 80,009 square miles, yet less than half a mile apart") and sock static ("Wastes electricity"). I would have added Grape Nuts. No grapes... no nuts... What's the deal? McCall's gags hit closer to home with these biological examples:
THE NOSE • Placement in exact center of face compels unsightly public discharge of liquid waste from head
DEATH • Crimps planning • Totally one-sided decision leaves a bad taste • After x-million years, exact function still debated
My favorite attacks on ID are of the "Why do men have nipples?" type. If there's an omnipotent designer, what's with all the useless doodads and embarrassing/deadly oddities we find in the biological world? The geologist Don Wise pushes the idea of incompetent design ("the other ID") in an interview for Seed. He says, "No self-respecting engineering student would make the kinds of dumb mistakes that are built into us," and goes on to list several of the examples: We have too many teeth, our pelvises aren't straight, we have appendices and tonsils, our retinal receptors are facing the wrong way... And he quotes a man who wrote to him, "I would write more, but I have to go pee in Morse code, because some idiot designed my aging prostate."
The science writer Jim Holt took a more somber tone last year in an essay for the NYT Magazine titled "Unintelligent Design." He reminds us that nearly every species ever "designed" is now extinct. He mentions dying cancer patients who must suffer although the corporal status updates that physical pain provides are no longer required. And he notes that most pregnancies end prematurely. That last fact, combined with two common beliefs--that the soul originates at conception, and that one is a sinner unworthy of salvation until baptism--should lead to quite the quandary for many Christians. "Owing to faulty reproductive design," he writes, "it would seem that the population of limbo must be at least twice that of heaven and hell combined." Awwwwwk-ward...
Call it what you want: "Incompetent Design," "Unintelligent Design," "Design By Numbers--The Dyscalculic Deity Edition"... It reminds me of an engineering joke. Three engineers were arguing over what type of engineer God would be. The mechanical engineer said God had to be an ME because of our sophisticated skeletons. The electrical engineer claimed God as an EE because the human brain is the best damn computer around. But the civil engineer had the last word. "God would have to be a civil engineer. I mean, who else would run a sewage system through a major recreational area?"
For a few years there has been a recipe on the Internet that describes how to cook an egg using two mobile phones. Here it is. Basically, you place two phones on a table, place an egg between their antennae, and call one phone from the other. Assuming a power output of two watts, the egg should be cooked in three minutes. Oh, you're also supposed to play a radio in the background at "a comfortable volume."
As far as comedy goes, this piece is pretty dry. I can see people missing the joke completely. (Especially those suspicious that cell phones cause cancer or harm chakras.) Well, it has been making the rounds again, and I was surprised this week to find that a couple of my favorite bloggers who happen to write professionally about science and technology are among those who missed the joke. (I will not name names, as they have already been shamed by their readers.)
Okay, without doing any research whatsoever, here are three easy ways to use your own common sense to debunk the hoax.
1.) If mobile phone antennae can cook an egg, why don't you feel the slightest heat from them on your ear after using them for even an hour? You're better off using heat from the battery.
2.) Microwave ovens have several HUNDRED watts, and THEY take several minutes to cook an egg. How could a phone cook one in the same time with two watts?
3.) Have you heard of cell phone towers? Cell phones communicate with them. Cell phones do not communicate directly with each other. That's what walkie-talkies do. (Bonus, not as obvious: Cell phones don't send data solely in a straight line to cell towers either. Do RAZRs have homing devices that know where the towers are and aim transmission straight to them as you bumble about? No, they emit signals in all directions.)
If you do a little Googling, you'll find more technicalreasons why the gag won't work, but any one of the above three should be sufficient.
So before you go fiddling with the radio stations on your hifi, wondering why your egg is still cold (would smooth jazz work better?), please recognize that not everything you read on the Internets is true. And if you're really worried about brain tumors, forget phone phobia and stay the hell away from any radio playing Beyoncé's new single, "Check On It". That shit is toxic.
Good science writing for a popular audience needs to be (at least) two things: entertaining and informative. Starting your article with a catchy headline and a snappy opening is always good, as long as they're not misleading. Yesterday I encountered a prime example of snap over substance.
It's an article in Wired News about an emerging treatment for depression.
The hed: "Shock Therapy, Version 2.0"
The lede: "Shock treatment for depression is making a comeback, and it no longer resembles a scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."
Here's the thing: The article is NOT ABOUT SHOCK TREATMENT.
It's about repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, or rTMS. In rTMS, a device that causes a focused magnetic field is held against the head.
Shock treatment is electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT. In ECT, an electric current is briefly applied to the head to induce a seizure. (The therapeutic aspect actually results from the seizure, which lasts 30 seconds, not the jolt of current that triggers it, which lasts half a second. Originally, from 1933-1938, the seizures were induced by injecting chemicals.)
The article says rTMS and shock treatment are "based on the same therapeutic principle." But they are very different. rTMS: magnets. Shock treatment: seizures. rTMS is not the "comeback" of shock treatment. It is a replacement for shock treatment.
I might also note that shock treatment has already had a comeback--the comeback began in the 1970's, and ECT is still in wide use. To boot, it has not resembled the scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest since the early 1950's. Patients are now given an IV carrying an anesthetic and a muscle relaxant, so they're not awake, and their bodies don't shake.
Now, why would rTMS replace ECT? Both are safe and effective. In the short term they're even better than Prozac. But ECT has this nasty side effect of memory loss and confusion.
My mom had several sessions of rTMS in 1999 (with Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, the leading American researcher in the field), and I could sit in the room and talk with her during her appointments. Shock treatment, on the other hand, fucks you up. Between 1997 and 1999 my mom had 28 ECT sessions. In 1997, she had six sessions after doing her Christmas shopping for the year. Christmas morning, we would open gifts from her and she would say, with genuine surprise, "What a great gift! Who gave you that?" We could only grin and say, "You did, Mom. Thanks."