Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Fractal Brains: Fractal Thoughts

Researchers from the University of Cambridge took a big step forward this year in understanding how our brains work. It seems that the brain has a fractal organization. This likely gives us much of what we consider human. And at a deeper level these findings may help to connect us in a very fundamental way to the rest of the natural world. The research team of Kitzbichler, Smith, Christensen, and Bullmore published their results in an article called "Broadband Criticality of Human Brain Network Synchronization," which is available on-line for free. I've had the article for about six months and had been meaning to post something on it. So at the outset I'd like to thank "Neel" for getting me going to actually re-read the article and post something with an interesting question he posed about neurological complexity and intelligence to the Chaotic Life blog at Psychology Today last month. I'd also like to thank my friend and colleague from NY, Grant Brenner for alerting me to the article when it first came out. The design, results and context for this study are very sophisticated, and the implications are quite abstract. So I'm going to do my best to be clear. First the context: Many natural systems exhibit fractal organization and behavior. A fractal is a branchlike structure. Think of a tree: (1) Trees have many more small branches than large ones. This characteristic is also sometimes called a "power-law" or "inverse power law" or a "1/f" organization. Each of these terms means that there are exponentially more small branches compared to big ones. (2) Trees are "self-similar," meaning that small branching patterns resemble larger ones. This characteristic is also sometimes called "scale invariance" or "scale free" because no matter the size you are looking at, the general branching shape is the same. (3) The complexity of tree branching patterns can be quantified. Fractals are called "fractals" because they exist in fractional dimensions. A line fits perfectly in one-dimension. A plane (like a piece of paper) fits in two-dimensions. Fractals fit in between a line and a plane (or in the real world between two and three dimensions). More simply, because they are so complex, with huge numbers of tini tiny branches, trees never quite reach three dimensions. If you put them in a box, there will always be some space left over. You may quickly recognize that many other natural structures besides trees are fractals: Neurons, rivers, the respiratory system, the circulatory system, geological fault lines, snow-flakes, and so on. Natural systems also produce fractal behavior over time or in dynamics. Earthquakes are a common example. There are many more small earthquakes than large ones (which is nice by the way). Other examples include the size of extinction events in animal species, numbers of academic publications (a few researchers do huge amounts of work and the rest of us do just a little), numbers of hits to web-sites, wait times in stop-and-go traffic, and word usage in literature (i.e., zipf's law). Why do systems do this? There are many reasons. Essentially, fractal systems have many opportunities for growth, change and re-organization. Yet they also are very robust. They maintain their coherence; they hold together well, even under tough circumstances. They are balanced in this respect, between order and chaos. They are simple, yet also very complex. This balance is often referred to as "criticality," thus the title of the article: "Broadband Criticality." And the term "self-organized" is often added because systems tend to become fractal on their own, simply by putting a lot of system components together and allowing them to exchange information. Think of a party. All you need to do is come up with enough people at the same place and time and they will start to form complex patterns of connection with one another. Self-organizing critical systems are also very good at connecting, both internally and also to other surrounding systems. The branches of a tree are connected in a very lovely way. If you shake one branch, you'll see broad shaking across the tree. Fractal structures hang together nicely. Yet they branches may be trimmed without affecting the overall structure. Indeed, if you trim them far enough out (above the growth bud, "post-traumatic growth" or "whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger") they will often grow even stronger, with more complex connections in the outer branches. Finally, branchlike patterns easily connect to other systems - a literal web of life. A tree with many fractal branches (and also roots) can better connect to the sun (and soil) to gather and exchange life sustaining nutrients. In the past 10 to 20 years, researchers in psychology have been finding increasing examples of fractal patterns across each of the domains of psychology: Including intentional behaviors, visual search, and speech patterns. In my own lab within the past few years we have found that interpersonal relationships are organized as fractals and most recently that the self-concept is a fractal, with complexity being associated with health in both the psychological and social domains. Furthermore, it appears that fractal complexity (or rigidity) is routinely exchanged among biological, psychological and social processes. Fractal personality structure helps us to grow and connect, as do fractal relationships, and each likely has direct influences on physical health by encouraging integration and flexibility among circulatory, respiratory, and immune systems. The study by Kitzbichler et al (2008) has added to much prior research suggesting that the brain exhibits fractal behavior. This makes a necessary link between the physical processes of the brain and each of the larger scale fractals we see in broader personality and social relationships. It is clear that biological, psychological and social dynamics are highly interlinked across scales, each impacting the other over time in myriad ways. With fractal organization at each of these scales, one may propose that they in some respects they are all part of the same fractal tree so to speak. Kitzbichler et al (2008) used two measures of synchronization across brain systems: (1) the "phase-lock interval" and the "lability of global synchronization." The phase-lock interval is the amount of time that different brain regions are doing the same thing together - the amount of time in which they are synchronized. Essentially, this is a time-based measure of brain system coordination. The other measure, "lability of global synchronization" is a space-based measure. This measure tells you how global are the shifts in brain system synchronization, how broad are they, how far reaching. Leaving out the many wonderful technical details of their analyses, they found that both measures showed clear-cut fractal patterning. This means that the amount of time that different brain regions spend in sync is branchlike - with many short linkage times and fewer long ones. And the spread of these linkages across brain regions was branchlike too, with many small spreads and few large ones. These results, along with the evidence that has come before them, provide a much truer picture of how the brain is organized and how it works. Such is the core of basic research. The applications of these results may be considered to be virtually unlimited, and will over time impact every branch of applied neuroscience - intelligence, consciousness, empathy, body-mind medicine, psychiatry and psychotherapy. What I would prefer to speculate upon instead would be the broader implications. Indeed what these robust results within the brain suggest is a possible mechanism for the "Broadband Connectivity" we share with the rest of the natural world. Inasmuch as fractal dynamics in broadband synchronization exist at every scale of measurable reality - from quantum to cosmic, perhaps human consciousness is both simply and profoundly a portal through which such fractal connectivity flows. Perhaps the linkages that so effect our growth and integration at the biopsychosocial scales extend much deeper into the roots of matter, and much farther into the cosmos than modernist science has ever imagined. Science appears to be nearing a period of neo-vitalism, with scientifically grounded ways of exploring the attractive worldview of our root-civilizations - that everything in life is connected and that all of the universe is alive within these connections. Sure - some connections are more proximal than others. Kitzbichler et al. found that functionally connected brain regions were more likely to find and stay in sync with one another for longer periods of time, yielding fractal complexity measures that were less flexible than the connections among more distant regions. Similarly, one's life-partner will be more likely to drive you crazy than the moon. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see if certain systemic states encourage coherence, magnifying the connections among apparently separate systems. For example, the human stress response is a likely candidate for increasing the short-term coherence among biological, psychological and social processes. When you are stressed, your bodily systems band together, your psychological systems become clear and focused, and your social dynamics become coherent as well as you band together and form strict leadership hierarchies. Does human stress have broader impacts? Can their effect be measured even as far as the quantum realm? Conversely, can quantum systems become "stressed" leading them to reach into our macro world? Maybe so, maybe not. One thing is for sure, this blog is already way to long and abstract to fully consider these possibilities. Perhaps another day..? Source:

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Little Mind Benders

T. gondii parasites hunkered down in a brain cyst (shown in a mouse) can keep an infection alive. Credit: Jitender P. Dubey, CDC ________________________________________________________________________________ Imagining tiny creatures infiltrating human brains is creepy enough. But Marion Vittecoq knows she has been invaded. Her inner companions may be just hanging out — or they may be subtly changing her personality, manipulating her behavior or altering her risk of disease. Yet she doesn’t sound particularly upset. Not once in the course of a phone conversation and many e-mails did Vittecoq recommend wearing tinfoil hats or mention mind control by the CIA, the United Nations or little green men beaming rays from the moons of Uranus. She studies the ecology of parasites, especially the one-celled Toxoplasma gondii, which coincidentally is the creature that has invaded her brain. She doesn’t see it as an extra-ordinary intrusion. The parasite has wormed its way into an estimated one-third of people on the planet. In France, where Vittecoq works at both a CNRS national research lab in Montpellier and the Tour du Valat research center in Arles, nearly one-third to about one-half of adults carry hitchhiking T. gondii. CNRS research colleague Frédéric Thomas is also infected, and also doesn’t fret about it. In the United States, almost one in four residents over the age of 12 has the infection. In other parts of the world, rates are as high as 95 percent. An unlucky minority of these infected people become quite ill. Most, however, don’t even know that their muscles and brains carry the parasite. What exactly T. gondii is doing while it lurks in so many people is an important question for public health. It’s also an alluringly spooky question. “Where science meets science fiction” is how Michael Dickinson of the University of Washington in Seattle describes studies of parasites that hack into their hosts’ nervous systems. The Journal of Experimental Biology, where Dickinson serves as an editor, dedicated its Jan. 1 issue to this emerging field, dubbed “neuroparasitology.” In those pages and elsewhere, clues to T. gondii’s bizarre biology are emerging. And growing evidence suggests that the hidden parasite may have visible effects. Studies comparing the infected and the noninfected raise the possibility that the parasite tweaks a person’s personality or ups the risk of suicide attempts, brain cancer and schizophrenia. Studies in people even report links between T. gondii and traffic accidents, greater odds of having sons than daughters, extra height and unusual opinions about the smell of urine. If so much of what people do turns out to have a touch of parasite about it, then the notion of normal human behavior may have to change. What is “routine” for people might need to encompass not just the activities of a Homo sapiens by itself, but also the doings of Homo sapiens as a walking ecosystem where microbes and mammal intermingle. Meet the parasite Ending up in this walking ecosystem is a bit of bad luck for T. gondii. ENLARGE Before retreating into cysts, the parasites exist in a banana-shaped form (shown). DPDx, Laboratory Identification of Parasites of Public Health Concern/CDC The organism is a cat parasite and can have sex only within cells in the gut of some kind of feline. Matings there produce offspring protected in toughened structures called oocysts, which the cat excretes into soil and water, and which ready themselves within a few days to start a new generation. Oocysts, like space capsules, protect the cells tucked within for months. To flourish, though, parasites need the temperature-controlled, safe, nutrient-rich paradise of a live warm-blooded vertebrate. If a cat swallows one of the infectious T. gondii oocysts, hurray for the parasite. The sexual phase can repeat. But if, say, a person takes in an oocyst, from contaminated food or from a flawed litter box–cleaning technique, T. gondii can still cope. It changes into a form that repeatedly clones itself, known as a tachy-zoite. “It’s a lovely banana-shaped organism, and it glides,” says parasitologist Christopher Hunter of the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Tachyzoites and other invading T. gondii can bring a human several weeks of low-grade, achy, flulike discomfort, as well as eye infections that can scar the retina. New infections in mothers-to-be can raise the risk of miscarriages as well as of developmental damage to the baby. People with suppressed immune systems are especially vulnerable and can die from untreated infections. A healthy human immune system doesn’t necessarily eliminate the banana-clone army but typically drives it to retreat. Under full attack, the parasite wraps itself in tiny bomb-shelter cysts, mostly in the muscle and brain tissues of its host. (Not many parasites can safecrack their way into the well-protected brain, but once there, they enjoy a respite from the full strength of the host immune system.) Inside these cysts, T. gondii keep the cloning, and thus the infection, going in slow motion for years, ready to jump to any new host if given a chance. These cysts are the T. gondii form accused of mind control and other mind-jacking stunts in affected humans. People are far from the only noncats where T. gondii can make do. The parasite can infect grizzly bears, bison, chinchillas, elephants, domestic goats and sheep, koalas, New World monkeys, barred owls, pigeons, pronghorn, sea lions, wombats and many more species. Such a vast range of immune systems to evade shows the virtuosity of the parasites. “How do they do that?” Hunter marvels. Part of the answer, he says, is a Swiss army knife approach to breaking through vertebrate immune defenses. T. gondii has accumulated plenty of molecular tools, such as proteins to inject into host cells, Hunter noted in November in Nature Reviews Microbiology. Regardless of what bird or mammal swallows a parasite, T. gondii probably has something in its repertoire that will help it make a new home. “If I eat a pig, I get infected,” Hunter says. “If the pig eats me, the pig gets infected.” Masters of lurking Whether Toxoplasma cysts manipulate pigs or parasitologists is still an open question. But research on the possibility was inspired in part by the very odd things that lurking cysts do to rats. ENLARGE PEE APPEAL Early research found that T. gondii–infected rats spent more time around cat urine (but not other urine) than noninfected rats. Ongoing work suggests that the parasite makes the typically fear-inducing scent appealing. M. Berdoy, J.P. Webster, D.W. Macdonald/Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 2000 Biologists first discovered T. gondii in the early 1900s, but for decades researchers largely dismissed the parasite’s stealthy cysts as inactive, irrelevant grit in the brain. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that several lines of research took off exploring how slow-going infections might be very relevant. Joanne P. Webster, now at Imperial College London, and her colleagues have since built a case that rats with a brainful of supposedly harmless cysts behave almost as if trying to become cat food. A pounce and gulp from a cat is about the best thing that can happen to a parasite, but cat horror runs deep in rats. Even lab rats whose ancestors have not encountered cats for hundreds of generations normally avoid a catty scent. When infected with T. gondii, however, rats became more active, a risk factor in itself for encountering a predator. They largely lost their reluctance to venture into test areas reeking of cat urine, and some of the infected rats actually spent more time in these urine-perfumed areas than in untainted refuges, Webster and colleagues reported in 2000. The parasite may possess an evolutionary trick that turns fear into a fatal attraction. This upside-down behavior doesn’t come from a general interest in excretions. Urine from rabbits, as useless a species for parasite sex as rats themselves, doesn’t hold noticeable allure. Nor does urine from mink and dogs, other rat predators of limited benefit to the parasite. What’s more, rat brains don’t malfunction in these ways when infected with just any brain parasite. Rats dosed with Leptospira, which doesn’t need cat innards for sex, aren’t driven to reckless activity by a whiff of cat. Toxoplasma cysts do something fairly specific, says Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University. Rats infected with T. gondii still learn to avoid scary things, such as lab-generated electric shocks to the feet, he and his colleagues have found. And in 2011 in PLOS ONE, the team reported that, at the scent of a cat, the activity in the cyst-riddled brain of a male rat partially shifts from a nerve pathway that typically responds to scary scents to a chain of nerves that often sizzles at the scent of a female. The parasites seem to be rewiring “oh no!” into “oh, honey!” Sapolsky wonders, too, about infected females, who also show interest in cat odors. “My bet,” he says, “is that Toxo knows how to make cat odors smell like babies to females.” Neurochemical work is yielding clues to how a one-celled parasite creates such subtle effects. In parasite-manipulation studies, Webster discovered that infected rodents were less likely to get stupid about cats if dosed with a drug called haloperidol. The drug blocks a portion of brain cells’ molecular docking stations for the chemical messenger dopamine. T. gondii, Webster hypothesized, may be brainwashing rats with excess dopamine. Unexpected evidence for this hypothesis turned up in 2009, as researchers reveled in the recently described genome of T. gondii. Though not thinking about brain messenger chemicals at the time (Toxo doesn’t have a brain), molecular parasitologist Glenn McConkey of the University of Leeds in England and his colleagues discovered genetic instructions for the manufacture of an enzyme that animals use to make dopamine. ENLARGE TOXIC CYCLE Cats are special hosts for T. gondii because only felines facilitate parasite sex. Infected cats excrete parasites as oocysts, which can infect just about any warm-blooded vertebrate. When they make their way into cat prey, the parasites may quickly return to a cat. In a less favorable scenario for T. gondii and human health, the parasites can end up in a person, who acquires the infection via contaminated meat, unclean produce or poor litter box technique. Source: CDC; Image by E. Feliciano; Sheep and pig: Pinare/Shutterstock Before the discovery, no one had imagined that a single-celled creature might have such a genetic tool. But the gene fits the scenario of T. gondii changing the brain’s usual supply of transmitter compounds. McConkey, Webster and colleagues reported more evidence for the hypothesis in 2011. Brain tissue in infected rodents abounds in dopamine, as do parasite cysts growing in lab dishes full of rodent nerve cells. Brain changer If T. gondii cysts can manipulate rats so deftly, biologists wonder what the parasites might do inside a human brain. Longtime T. gondii researcher Jaroslav Flegr of Charles University in Prague has gone so far as to test whether cysts can make people more favorably inclined toward the odor of domestic cat urine. For men: yes, a bit, he and his colleagues reported in 2011. For infected women, the researchers discerned the opposite effect: a greater distaste. (In the tests, Flegr diluted the urine so none of the student volunteers could guess what they were sniffing.) It would be a stretch to suggest that evolution might have favored parasite adaptations that do no more than make infected people like cat urine. Such a shift probably would not help the parasite find a preferred host, as it would not greatly increase the chances of cats dining on people. More likely, any voodoo that T. gondii exercises in the human brain is a side effect of capacities that benefit the parasite in other hosts. Arguably, the eeriest of such effects in humans, if it proves real, is personality change caused by cysts that settle in for life and then seep chemicals like dopamine into the brain. Flegr, who has been administering personality tests to infected people for almost two decades, first became curious about the possibility when he discovered that T. gondii lurks in him. He devised his first questionnaire on parasite-induced trends by reflecting on what puzzled him about his own personality. To keep people from gaming his Toxoplasma questions, Flegr melded them with a personality test widely used at the time. The questions he made up didn’t produce any interesting results, but the supposed distracter questions did. Since those first surveys, he has turned to a commonly used questionnaire that evaluates five broad traits. The new tests, he says, suggest that infected people tend to be more extroverted but less conscientious than people without the lurkers. “It’s a small effect,” Flegr says. T. gondii infection explains only a tiny portion of the personality differences he has measured among people. A much stronger and more worrying connection concerns a person’s risk for traffic accidents. Infected people have more than double the accident risk of noninfected people, he says. Parasite infection appears to slow reaction time. Over the years, Flegr has also tested for links between T. gondii and lack of diplomacy, attitudes toward hypnosis, reduced fear of snakes and big spiders, and inclination to (metaphorically) stir up hornets’ nests. In all his testing, he attends to any small leanings he may find. Like any evolutionary biologist, Flegr knows that slight differences can eventually have noticeable effects. Sapolsky notes that so far Flegr and his collaborators have pushed forward this type of personality research largely on their own. “Flegr’s findings are fascinating, immensely provocative,” Sapolsky says. “In general, the effects seem quite subtle, which means it is particularly important for them to be replicated.” Recently, Teodor Postolache of the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore and his colleagues have been following up with a version of the work. Postolache won’t be ready to discuss his results until at least the spring, he says. But he will say that his investigations add an important step: screening out potential study volunteers with mental troubles such as depression or personality disorders. Parasite perils Postolache and others suspect T. gondii parasites may cause changes more serious than subtle personality shifts, possibly undermining health in sneaky, long-term ways. Infected women have a higher risk of self-directed violence, including attempted and completed suicide, than do women without the parasite, Postolache’s team reported in November in JAMA Psychiatry. Postolache’s earlier studies had suggested a boosted risk with infection, but this new analysis of nearly 46,000 women in Denmark had the unusual strength of establishing which women were infected before the violence occurred. When Postolache isolated the records for women with no previous history of mental health problems, the link got even stronger. He is careful to offer a reminder, though, that finding a link is not the same as identifying a cause. Schizophrenia risks may also increase with infection, says Robert Yolken of Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore. He suspects that multiple pathogens can push a beleaguered brain toward the disorder. Like the virus herpes simplex type 1, brain invader T. gondii fits the profile of a potential contributor. T. gondii spends years among brain cells. And Yolken says, “it’s not totally latent — it’s doing things.” The cysts may boost dopamine in unnatural ways; the haloperidol used in Webster’s rat experiment, after all, is prescribed in people for schizophrenia. Or, Yolken says, inflammation caused by cysts in the brain could disrupt behavior. Whatever the mechanism, the link between parasite infection and schizophrenia looks moderately strong based on 38 studies, Yolken and his colleagues concluded last May in Schizophrenia Bulletin. One of the earliest studies reviewed by Yolken, as well as E. Fuller Torrey of the Stanley Medical Research Institute in Chevy Chase, Md., and another colleague, dates from 1956. That era’s swell of interest in pathogens and mental illness later waned as researchers looked instead to human genetics for the main cause of schizophrenia. But now that recent studies have turned up only weak links between particular genes and schizophrenia, Yolken says interest in nongenetic risks is rising again. Human genes do matter, he says, but there must be other menaces at work. T. gondii infection is also in the parade of menaces linked to brain cancer — though feline companionship, not the infection itself, receives most of the attention. Rates of T. gondii infection tracked with higher overall rates of brain cancer across 37 countries, Thomas and colleagues reported last February in Biology Letters. Looking just within France, a similar pattern shows up, Vittecoq, Thomas and their team reported the next month in Infection, Genetics and Evolution. Both papers were intended to encourage a deeper look at the question of parasites and disease, the researchers say. Neither paper blamed cats. But together, the publications raised concern among cat owners. Though infectious oocysts can’t push through unbroken human skin, parasitologists advise people to wear gloves and wash their hands thoroughly when cleaning litter boxes. The wave of fur-related anxiety prompted Cancer Research UK’s blog to emphasize that there is no evidence that the presence of cats causes brain cancer. An August 2012 comment in Biology Letters looked at data from 626,454 women in the United Kingdom, average age 64, to see whether cat ownership — Toxo infection aside — matched brain cancer risk. It didn’t, Vicky Benson and her colleagues at the University of Oxford concluded. Eighteen percent of the women in the study owned at least one cat, but there was no sign that the cats by themselves brought an extra risk for brain cancer. The study apparently touched a nerve; headlines rejoiced: “Cats not linked to brain cancer after all” and “Good News: Cats aren’t really polluting your brain with poop parasites.” What didn’t get as much attention was a clarification from Vittecoq and her colleagues. In a response, they cited studies from some populations showing that cat ownership isn’t even a reliable predictor of T. gondii infection. Eating undercooked meat presents a bigger threat. The point of the original studies, Vittecoq emphasizes, is that, regardless of how someone gets a parasite, the infection itself might be linked to brain cancer. Now researchers need to take a more detailed look at the possible associations. Even though her own paper helped raise the specter of brain cancer, Vittecoq seems to be at peace with her parasite. Trying to separate a human from all its microbes is not possible, she says. Researchers have calculated that the microbial cells in a human body outnumber the Homo sapiens cells 10 to 1. “We have to learn to live with parasites in a healthy way,” Vittecoq says. As for the sci-fi possibility that the parasite is changing her personality, she accepts the idea but doesn’t find it worth worrying about. “One influence among many,” she says. What is worth worrying about doesn’t get the press it should, grumbles Hunter, the parasitologist who studies T. gondii’s powers for evading immune systems. Alien mind control and crazy cat ladies make it into far more headlines than plain old public health concerns. Pregnant women get warned away from unwashed lettuce and messy litter boxes not because of the potential for personality changes but because an infected mom occasionally passes the infection to the fetus, with uncommon but possibly devastating consequences. Even less widely discussed, T. gondii ranks fourth among causes of hospitalization from foodborne illness and second among causes of food poisoning deaths in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Forget about mind control. The big message may be take care when cooking and when cleaning up after cats, Hunter says. “The best microbiological health tip ever: Wash your hands.” _______________________________________________________________________________ Source:

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Monday, January 14, 2013

Link Between Creativity and Mental Illness Confirmed in Large-Scale Swedish Study

People in creative professions are treated more often for mental illness than the general population, according to a large-scale Swedish study. (Credit: © Jan Matoska / Fotolia) Oct. 16, 2012 — People in creative professions are treated more often for mental illness than the general population, there being a particularly salient connection between writing and schizophrenia. This according to researchers at Karolinska Institutet, whose large-scale Swedish registry study is the most comprehensive ever in its field. Last year, the team showed that artists and scientists were more common amongst families where bipolar disorder and schizophrenia is present, compared to the population at large. They subsequently expanded their study to many more psychiatric diagnoses -- such as schizoaffective disorder, depression, anxiety syndrome, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, autism, ADHD, anorexia nervosa and suicide -- and to include people in outpatient care rather than exclusively hospital patients. The present study tracked almost 1.2 million patients and their relatives, identified down to second-cousin level. Since all were matched with healthy controls, the study incorporated much of the Swedish population from the most recent decades. All data was anonymized and cannot be linked to any individuals. The results confirmed those of their previous study, that certain mental illness -- bipolar disorder -- is more prevalent in the entire group of people with artistic or scientific professions, such as dancers, researchers, photographers and authors. Authors also specifically were more common among most of the other psychiatric diseases (including schizophrenia, depression, anxiety syndrome and substance abuse) and were almost 50 per cent more likely to commit suicide than the general population. Further, the researchers observed that creative professions were more common in the relatives of patients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anorexia nervosa and, to some extent, autism. According to Simon Kyaga, Consultant in psychiatry and Doctoral Student at the Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, the results give cause to reconsider approaches to mental illness. "If one takes the view that certain phenomena associated with the patient's illness are beneficial, it opens the way for a new approach to treatment," he says. "In that case, the doctor and patient must come to an agreement on what is to be treated, and at what cost. In psychiatry and medicine generally there has been a tradition to see the disease in black-and-white terms and to endeavour to treat the patient by removing everything regarded as morbid." The study was financed with grants from the Swedish Research Council, the Swedish Psychiatry Foundation, the Bror Gadelius Foundation, the Stockholm Centre for Psychiatric Research and the Swedish Council for Working Life and Social Research.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Discover Interview: The Math Behind the Physics Behind the Universe

Shing-Tung Yau is a force of nature. He is best known for conceiving the math behind string theory—which holds that, at the deepest level of reality, our universe is built out of 10-dimensional, subatomic vibrating strings. But Yau’s genius runs much deeper and wider: He has also spawned the modern synergy between geometry and physics, championed unprecedented teamwork in mathematics, and helped foster an intellectual rebirth in China.

Despite growing up in grinding poverty on a Hong Kong farm, Yau made his way to the University of California at Berkeley, where he studied with Chinese geometer Shiing-Shen Chern and the master of nonlinear equations, Charles Morrey. Then at age 29 Yau proved the Calabi conjecture, which posits that six-dimensional spaces lie hidden beneath the reality we perceive. These unseen dimensions lend rigor to string theory by supplementing the four dimensions—three of space and one of time—described in Einstein’s general relativity.

Since then Yau has held positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, Stanford University, and Harvard (where he currently chairs the math department), training two generations of grad students and embarking on far-flung collaborations that address topics ranging from the nature of dark matter to the formation of black holes. He has won the Fields Medal, a MacArthur Fellowship, and the Wolf Prize.

Through it all, Yau has remained bluntly outspoken. In China he has called for the resignation of academia’s old guard so new talent can rise. In the United States he has critiqued what he sees as rampant errors in mathematical proofs by young academics. Yau has also strived to speak directly to the public; his book The Shape of Inner Space, coauthored with Steve Nadis, is scheduled for publication this fall. He reflected on his life and work with DISCOVER senior editor Pamela Weintraub at his Harvard office over four days in February.

You’ve described your father as an enormous intellectual influence on you. Can you tell me about him?
He went to Japan to study economics, but he came back to help the Chinese defend themselves before the Japanese invaded in 1937. By the end of the war he was distributing food and clothes to the poor for the U.N. After the revolution in 1949, he worried about getting in trouble with the Communists, so he brought the whole family to Hong Kong. We were very poor—at first we were almost starving—but my father had a large group of students constantly at home to talk about philosophy and literature. I was 10, 11, 12 years old, and I grew accustomed to abstract reasoning. My father made us memorize long essays and poems. At the time I didn’t understand what they meant, but I remembered them and later made use of it.

Did part of you ever rebel?
I read most of the Kung Fu novels in secret. I quit school for more than half a year. I’d wake up and say I was going, but I’d spend the whole day exploring the mountains and then come back—but I did the homework that my father assigned to me at home.

I heard you led a gang at one point.
I had a group of friends under me. I’d go around, and sometimes we ended up in fistfights with some other groups. So?

How did you go from that rough-and-tumble young man to the focused person you are now?
In the early 1960s my father was chairman of the department of literature and philosophy at Hong Kong College. The college president wanted to make a deal with the Taiwanese government to send in spies. My father refused to go along and resigned. That created a big money problem because he had eight children by then. My father had to run around among different, distant colleges to support the family. Back in China he’d lent a friend some money, and after the Communists took over, the friend moved to Macau, a city near Hong Kong, and ran his own schools. So he told my father, “I cannot return your money, but your daughter can come to my school, and I’ll give her free room and board and free tuition.” So my older sister went to Macau to study and got some flu, some funny disease, we never knew exactly what. She came back and she was treated, but she died in 1962. Then my elder brother got a brain disease; at the time we didn’t know what it was. My father had all kinds of burdens on his shoulders and then he got a disease, which I believe was cancer, but we didn’t know much in those days. My mother was running around trying to get funding to help my father. Finally we raised some money, but it was too late. He died after two months in the hospital in 1963, in the middle of my studies in the ninth grade. We could no longer afford our apartment, so we were kicked out. That’s when I realized I would have to make decisions for myself.

What did you do then?
After a while the government leased us some land, and we built a small house thanks to money from friends, but it was in a village far from school. The other kids looked down on us for being poor, and I had to ask the school president to allow me to pay tuition at the end of the year, when my government fellowship came through. It was humiliating. But I studied hard and did very well, especially in math. Then a former student of my father started a primary school in a town closer to school. He said I could help teach math and stay there at night. I had to take care of myself, I had to wash things and all of that, but I learned how to survive.

What happened once you made your way to college?
I had fallen in love with math early on, but at the Chinese University of Hong Kong I realized that mathematics was built on standard actions and logic. Soon I had arranged to take tests for the required math courses without actually attending while sitting in on more advanced classes, and no one seemed to mind. In my second year, Stephen Salaff, a young mathematician from U.C. Berkeley, came to teach in Hong Kong. He liked to talk to the students in the American way: He gave lectures and then he asked students questions. In many cases it turned out I could help him more than he helped me, because there were problems he couldn’t solve during class. Salaff suggested I apply to graduate school early. I was admitted to Berkeley and even got a fellowship. I borrowed some money from friends and flew to San Francisco in September 1969.

What did you think of California when you arrived?
The first thing that impressed me was the air. In Hong Kong it’s humid, hot, but in California it was cool and clear. I thought it was like heaven. A friend of Salaff’s came to the airport to pick me up and took me to the YMCA, where I shared a big room with four or five people. I noticed that everybody was watching baseball on TV. We didn’t have a TV at home. My neighbor who was sleeping there was a huge black man. He was talking in a language I had never heard before. He said, “Man, where the hell you come from?” It was fun, but I had to look for an apartment. I was walking around the street when I met another Chinese student from Hong Kong and we decided to share, but we couldn’t afford a place. We looked around and found another Chinese student, from Taiwan, so there’s three of us and it’s still not enough. Then we found an Alaskan also studying math, also on the street. So four of us went in together and the rent for each was $60 a month. My fellowship gave me $300 a month, and I sent half of it home.

What about your math studies?
There were many holes in my knowledge so I’d wake up early and start class at 8 a.m. I took three classes for credit, and the rest I audited. I brought my own lunch so even at lunchtime I was in class. I was especially excited about topology because I thought it could help reveal the structure of space. Einstein used geometry in his equation to give us the local picture: how space curved around our solar system or a galaxy. But the Einstein equation didn’t give the overall picture, the global structure of the whole universe. That’s where topology came in.

What is topology? Is it like geometry?
Geometry is specific and topology is general. Topologists study larger patterns and categories of shapes. For example, in geometry, a cube and a sphere are distinct. But in topology they are the same because you can deform one into the other without cutting through the surface. The torus, a sphere with a hole in the middle, is a different form. It is clearly distinct from the sphere because you cannot deform a torus into a sphere no matter how you twist it.

Does that mean geometry and topology are really two perspectives on the same thing?
Yes. It is like Chinese literature. A poem might describe a farewell between lovers. But in the language of the poem, instead of a man and woman, there is a willow tree, where the leaves are soft and hanging down. The way the branch is hanging down is like the feeling of the man and the woman wanting to be together. Geometry gives us a structure of that willow tree that is solid and extensive. Topology describes the overall shape of the tree without the details—but without the tree to start with, we would have nothing.

It has always amazed me to observe how different groups of people look at the same subject. My friends in physics look at space-time purely from the perspective of real physics, yet the general theory of relativity describes space-time in terms of geometry, because that’s how Einstein looked at the problem.


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Eco House Agent – Encouraging the Utilization of Eco-Friendly Homes

The Eco House Agent ( is an online resource providing information about the implementation of “eco-friendly” devices in homes. The main goal of Eco House Agent is to help people make their house eco-friendly, reduce the use of carbon fuels, and become carbon neutral. While the vast majority of people perceive becoming carbon neutral as a lifestyle-altering commitment requiring a great deal of dedication, it is a process that when done effectively, will not drastically reduce the convenience of their daily lives.

Eco House Agent provides simple tips for homeowners such as walking instead of driving to local shopping centers, turning off lights, washing clothes at low temperatures, taking showers instead of baths, and turning appliances off instead of on standby. Eco House Agent also suggests resources that can be installed and implemented in your house, including solar power, photovoltaics, wind power, rainwater harvesting, insulation, and going “off the grid”.

According to Eco House Agent, based on the growing number of governmental incentives for reducing your carbon footprint, the time to implement these new strategies is now. “Soon we will be forced to reduce our Carbon footprint The government is looking to introduce environmental policies to encourage people to be more “Carbon Neutral”. The Carbon Credit Scheme will attempt to reduce the amount of carbon households produce. A Carbon Credit will be given for units of energy The government will reward those who use less Carbon, penalising less energy efficient households.”

The Eco House Agent teaches readers how to install new eco-friendly sources of energy, such as solar power, Photovoltaics, wind and rain power; harvest rainwater; and how glazing, installing insulation, and damp treatment can be beneficial for your money and the environment.

The website also offers a forum where users can “post all your green thoughts on Solar Power, Photovoltaics, Insulation, Wind Power & Rainwater Harvesting and energy saving, carbon neutral house ideas, helping us all to reduce our carbon footprint and have eco friendly houses.

The following topics are touched upon in detail on the Eco house Agent website:

Solar power energy: Explaining the importance and usefulness of harnessing light from the sun, Eco House Agent also talks about solar hot water heaters and how they are an ideal alternative to ordinary oil and gas hot water heaters. Also, solar power can be used to charge batteries in laptops, cell phones, iPods, and rechargable batteries.

Recycling: The recycling section supplies the importance of recycling and what methods and situations recycling can come in handy and be beneficial for you and the environment. The Salvo recycling centre is mentioned as an excellent source of materials that can be reused, such as doors, tiles, radiators, windows, timber, and furniture.

Finally, another notable section of Echo House Agent explains the benefits of having an “organic baby”. According to the website, “The decision to have children is arguably the most life-changing decision you may ever make, not only to yourself but also to the planet. You only have to look at some of the statistics associated with having children and the overpopulation of the planet to also make it one of the most guilt inducing decisions you’ve made.”