Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Science on Tap October 2006

Last night Marja Brandon, the Head of School of the Seattle Girls School spoke to us about Women in Science. A lot of people know or have heard that girls love science up to about 5th grade and unless they are encouraged many do not make it past middle school with that love of science (math included) intact. Marja has taken a really exciting approach to attacking that problem, and the cool thing is what she has come up with doesn't effect only girls.

The fact that I have two girls entering this time of life concerns me, but I also have kids in the Seattle Public Schools and if you have seen the news at all over the last couple years, you know that there are reasons to be concerned with our children's education here in Seattle. School closures are not the solution to a criminal act that caused a fiscal shortfall. Teaching to the WASL doesn't work. Buying down the class size in the public school system borders on illegal. But mostly we have an antiquated system that isn't forwarding a society that is ready to take on the challenges of the future.

Marja feels that we should be taught in a manner that works for our brains. Novel idea. That means incorporating all those important topics (i.e. reading, writing, math, critical thinking, art, public speaking etc.) at the same time. You don't go to work and think... I'll start with my english, do math a little later on and leave the critical thinking part until after I've had my coffee...

Of course, anyone who incorporates brain science into teaching styles is my hero... but she does this in a section of Seattle known for it's lower income constituents, and the school isn't filled with smart white girls. Her intention is that anyone who wants a stellar education gets it. She shared with us that a girl called up the school and asked "I can only afford $90 a month, can I come?" Yes, this is a private school, but only because the public school system isn't up to taking on this teaching style.

Some of the novel approaches:
Teachers teach all subjects.
Invention Convention: students design, mock up, develop and present novel inventions to "mock" investors.
Grand Rounds: students learn a medical field and community physicians have them present to large groups what ailment the mock patient is suffering from.

I've probably butchered what actually goes on, but I would have loved learning this way as a kid. We've got to drop a big chunk of cash on this woman so that the rest of our kids (girls and boys alike) can benefit from an education that will make a difference and literally leave no child behind.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

I knew nature vs. nurture was too simplistic

I learned something new today!

I love it when that happens! Too often I think I know it all and even when I know I don't know it all, I might know a little something of it, which - of course - makes me think I know it all.

I found out there is a field of study that I have never even heard about. I read about it in Discover, one of my favorite magazines (I am all about making science accessible and this magazine does that). Anyway, the field is Epigenetics, which has nothing to do with Eugenics (a black mark in the history of science that you should at least be aware of).

You've all heard of "Genetics" (the study of genes and heredity) and the Human Genome Project, which sequenced the entire human genome. That project was expected in some quarters to be the panacea - we could now develop designer drugs, or designer babies - and instead left us (as new discoveries are often wont to do) with a whole new set of questions. Like "How is it that humans only have about 50% more genes than a roundworm?" and "Wow, do you suppose 'junk DNA' might actually do something?... 'cause there's an awful lot of it".

Anyone who has ever thought seriously about DNA, has at one point wondered "If every cell has all the information in it to create every protein imaginable, how does a liver cell know not to make a brain protein?" Well it turns out that the protein environment that the DNA is in (chromosomes are only 50% DNA) makes some protein's information accessible and others not so much or not at all. What has mostly been assumed up until this point, is that only the DNA is passed down from parent to child; that the protein environment is a slate wiped clean once an egg or sperm is created.

Here is a shocking bit of news from the field of Epigenetics (epi - 'upon, near to, in addition' Greek Origin), the protein environment that the DNA is in, is also inherited from our parents (which is logical once you think about it, we inherit chromosomes from our parents, not just DNA). Even more shocking, the epigenetics may last several generations. Daphnia water fleas when exposed to predators, grow defensive spines that are heritable for several generations.

The Discover story starts off describing that a well-studied genetic defect in mice (causes mice to be obese and susceptible to life threatening diseases) can be completely erased with nothing more than a change in the mother's diet. When you consider that the epigenetic environment can be altered by diet or by social circumstances (war, famine, stress, love, joy), you start to get that how you see yourself really matters. In case I lost you with that last train of thought... how you see yourself determines what you do, and if you think that what you do only affects you, you may be way off.

The article in November's issue is really great, I highly recommend shelling out the twenty bucks it costs to subscribe to Discover (see link in sidebar).

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The hygiene hypothesis

No, this doesn't have anything to do with washing any part of you, not directly anyway.

Have you ever wondered about asthma? Or hay fever? I mean, what is up with those afflictions? It seems in these cases our immune systems has run amok. There is a hypothesis that our bodies have a specific immune response to parasitic infection, and in environments that lack parasites, that immune response can get activated in the presence of otherwise innocuous substances (i.e. pollen, dust, etc.).

One of the observations that led to this hypothesis was that populations that have a high incidence of parasites, have a very low incidence of asthma and vice versa. This evidence is only correlational, however. In other words, just because asthma and parasites don't show up together, doesn't mean that the root cause is the same. Other factors may be at play, especially given that the major difference between the two populations is how developed the country is. Given that major difference - hygiene, vaccination and the use of antibiotics in more developed countries may also be factors. But let's say there is a correlation.

One interesting biological note, you can have a chronic parasitic infection... meaning that your immune system doesn't go haywire on you, and you and your bugs can live quite a while together (maybe not happily, but you get the picture). Prolonged asthma attacks; however, can send you to the emergency room. If this is the same biological response what is different that you can survive a parasitic infection and not asthma? Let's delve into the immunology behind this a little...

One of the kinds of antibodies floating around in your system, IgE, can bind to a type of cell that releases loads of sneezy, itchy chemicals... histamine is one of them, I'm sure you've seen the commercials. For that to happen; however, two IgE's to the same substance - let's say juniper pollen - have to be immediately next to each other on the cell. You'd have to flood your system with that particular IgE and sometimes it takes years for that to happen. That is a simple explanation for why allergies take a couple of years to show up. But when they do, you are a itchy red ball of mucous, or your lungs fill up with fluid, or your airways disappear.

Although IgE is also involved in a parasitic infection, you notice that the infection person's immune system doesn't go into overdrive. Hypothesis: It may be that the production of another antibody, IgG4, may inhibit the allergic response. Observation:IgG4 isn't present in asthma or hay fever like afflictions, although it is in parasitic infections. Since hearing about this problem in graduate school, I've thought that if I could develop something that would induce the production of IgG4, I'd be rich. Turns out for really bad allergies, people can undergo a form of immunotherapy where they get allergy shots every few weeks for 3-5 years. This kind of treatment in itself would suck, however, if you manage to stick with it, it does seem to induce the production of IgG4.

Well, there are scientists out there that are looking for ways to treat our over-active immune systems, and not just the symptoms either. A search of Peter Creticos' research over the last two decades culminating in a report that a 6-week inoculation protects the allergy sufferer for 2 hay-fever seasons (so far) demonstrates he is looking down this road for allergy and asthma sufferers. I'm hoping he gets rich from this.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Power of LSD

Whatever your personal beliefs/preferences regarding the use of drugs might be, it is becoming alarmingly clear that a lot of our attitudes towards drugs aren't based in science, but in good ol' human fear and stupidity. The movie, Reefer Madness is an example of the kind of fear tactics used to rile up a population to fight a cause. Some call that propaganda, well actually the dictionary does too.

I'd like to draw your attention to a Canadian scientist, Erika Dyck, who has been digging into the history of psychedelic drug research and has unearthed a study from the 50's and 60's that indicates a single dose of LSD could effectively treat alcoholism. Now when I say "treat", I mean 65% of the alcoholic participants didn't touch a drop of the stuff for the remainder of the study, or 1.5 years. Given that 25% quit after group therapy and 12% quit after private psychotherapy, 65% is a stunning result.

So, you might actually be wondering "why 40-50 years later am I just now being informed of this?!"

There is this thing called credibility in the scientific world. Which basically means you have to know what you are doing. Apparently having a Ph.D. goes a long way in granting credibility. However, being popular also has it's merits (yes, even in the scientific world), and a more "credible" group tried to replicate the results with less than favorable results, and the study was buried.

Let me give you a bit on the background of this study.

The hypothesis that LSD may be a valid treatment for alcoholism came about because researchers observed that alcoholics described the DT's (hitting bottom) as similar to some LSD experiences. However, the DT's can kill you. They thought that maybe they could induce the DT's (often the turning point in a recovering alcoholics life) without the detrimental physical effects by giving alcoholics a dose of LSD - here is the important part - in a nurturing environment. Why? Good question. Because we are simulating the DT's, a BAD trip, not one of the good trips that keep psychedelic drug users coming back.

So, now we have a "more credible" group trying to replicate this amazing result. They felt that they should determine the effects of LSD on the alcoholics in isolation, so they blind-folded or tied up their participants before giving them the drug. They found in these cases that it had no effect on treating alcoholism.

Oh Come On... How could this possibly be considered a valid control?!

Do you have to know people who have tripped to understand that restraining someone on LSD is NEVER a good idea? If you are the kind of person who would never think of taking such drugs personally, can you even responsibly ask such questions?

If you didn't read the article I linked to, take a few minutes to go back and read it, it is an historical account and remarkably easy to read (for a scientific paper). And you may be interested to know that researchers at Harvard (read: credible) have been given approval to start experimenting with LSD. Maybe this study could make a real-life difference, even if a little late.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

I'm still here

The Science on Tap event post Seattle Times article was a huge success, and a huge breakdown. We had over a hundred people crowded into our little pub, standing room only. Apparently as many people couldn't even make it in the door. We are working out getting the video of the talk on-line so people can at least see that portion of the event.

It was an extraordinary evening. If the crowds keep up; however, we may have to find a bigger venue. I love the Ravenna 3rd place bookstore for this event so the thought of leaving makes me sad.