Sunday, March 18, 2007

What about me?

I don't normally talk about me personally, but this time, I'm gonna.

I have always been fascinated by the mind. It's a terrible thing, you know. I mean it's a terrible thing to waste (hee hee). In particular I've been captivated by the study of consciousness. Scientists do a pretty good job of pretending to be objective, but when it comes to studying consciousness, objectivity starts getting muddy (read 'impossible'). And when you get into it, you start to realize that "objectivity" is just a farce. No one is objective. Everyone has an opinion about everything. It's the soft science version of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. The part about the observer influencing what is observed.

When you start to get into consciousness, you invariably start to ask questions like "Why do I think the way I do?" and "Who am 'I' anyway?" - Classic philosophy. About 13 years ago, I did the Landmark Forum, and to paraphrase Douglas Adams - it illustrated that everything I had held to be true, ain't necessarily so. For the first time in my life, I was able to effectively mold that "me" that I was so sure was already established. And I could create that "me" in any way I saw fit. I have been leading seminars for Landmark Education for several years to that very end - I figured why keep that kind of thing to myself, everyone should have it.

In the not too distant past, I was dead set on the academic track - I was going to use my Ph.D. to study the kind of brain plasticity involved in altering really set pattens, like who you know yourself to be. It then occurred to me, who cares?. Knowing how that happens will make absolutely no difference, even in the small scheme of things. What would make a difference, however, is actually altering those patterns of thinking for large numbers of people.

So I've altered the course of my life. I am now working full-time on altering - fundamentally altering - the experience of being for human beings. I love science. I will continue to talk about things from the viewpoint of a scientist, and I will continue to have people critically think about the world around them, but my day job is ensuring that people who register into the Landmark Forum in the Seattle area - powerfully complete the course.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Just say no to (prescription) drugs.

You know you are seriously messing with brain chemistry when they say that the drug you are taking takes several weeks...several weeks... to take effect. That should make us take a step back to really reconsider what this drug is doing to our brains. There are some drugs that have immediate effects - like opiates or painkillers - that inhibit pain reception; you take the drug, it binds to specific receptor that interrupts the painful signal. The biology is pretty straightforward here.

However, there are some drugs that we don't know how they work... I've taken a statement directly from the package insert of an antidepressant...

Although the exact mechanisms of the antidepressant and central pain inhibitory action of xxxxxxxx in humans are unknown, the antidepressant and pain inhibitory actions are believed to be related to its potentiation of serotonergic and noradrenergic activity in the CNS.

This in itself isn't bad, (although using the word "believe" in scientific speak always sets my teeth on edge) I just find this kind of scary. Mind you, we didn't know how aspirin worked for decades and we still used it to GREAT benefit. Now that we know how it works, we have tweaked it so that it doesn't cause other adverse effects (like ulcers).

Here is my BIG disclaimer, for conditions that are really debilitating, like depression you really should do whatever you need to, to take care of your well-being. I still think that you should carefully consider what is going on with your brain while you are on the drugs.

I think where I take the most offense however, is at the ads on TV that suggest that if you have this or that (sometimes unheard of) condition, you should talk to your doctor about {outrageously expensive but very effective} drug for {your unusual condition}.

Now I don't personally have restless legs, so I don't know how debilitating this syndrome is but apparently if you take a new class of drugs designed to treat this condition, you could turn into a pathologic gambler. This drug apparently interacts with the dopaminergic system (read: reward pathways, Parkinson’s disease). Big brain areas.

I'm just saying...

Sunday, February 11, 2007

It's not a cure to Mad Cow Disease... yet.

We've all heard of Mad Cow Disease... no not the one that has cows retaliating for the whole cow tipping phenomenon, the one that has everyone scared that if they eat a cow, they are going to go crazy. In case you haven't heard or if you don't know much behind the biology of it, I'll give you a little primer.

Prions are proteins that in their natural state are responsible for... well, we don't know really. A recent Nature article says that we are narrowing down their role...

There is now increasing, albeit patchy, evidence that the process of prion infection might have a vital role in a large number of biological processes—not only in single-celled organisms but also in higher eukaryotes—ranging from adaptation to new environments to the establishment of long-term memory.

...Ok, so it's not narrowed down much.

But anyway the interesting point about these proteins is that when they are folded in the "prion" conformation, they are almost impossible to degrade. Which means they don't go away. Ever. Which is bad in the brain. Even heating to very high temperatures doesn't harm these proteins.

Here is the next really cool thing about prions, well morbidly cool anyway... when a prion protein comes into contact with a native form of the prion protein, the native protein changes conformation and becomes highly stable as well. So not only do prions stick around, but they make others just like them.

And the scary thing about this kind of protein is that a lot of animals have them. Sheep have them, the disease they cause is scrapies. Cows have them, that disease is actually called bovine spongiform encephalitis (BSE). And humans get it, one form of it is called Crutzfeld-Jacob disease. The worst part about it is if we were to eat a cow that had BSE, those prion proteins could start interacting with our normal proteins and give us the human form of the disease.

Recently, a group has produced genetically engineered cows - over a dozen of them - that don't have the message for this protein (December's Nature Biotechnology). Which means they can't get the disease. These cows are almost 2 years old now and... At over 20 months of age, the cattle are clinically, physiologically, histopathologically, immunologically and reproductively normal.

So, I'm left with a nagging question... What the heck is this protein for?