Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Thoughts On: Body Farms, Autopsies and Anatomy Museums

This one has been swirling around in my head for a while, but it also just so happens to be an appropriate topic for Halloween, don’t you think?

This is one of those cases in which for a long time I had to think to death why I felt the way I feel about a certain thing. So here’s the deal: I am not opposed to art exhibits or museums which display human bodies, I was brought to an anatomy museum as a freshman in high school, and while it was a little disturbing for a 13-14 year old (particularly the severely malformed fetuses and the poster book of a sliced pregnant woman), I do not oppose their existence. Of course I am also fully aware that body farms and autopsies performed for medical training are invaluable to our society and even if I were opposed to the former, the latter is undeniably essential. Here’s my one caveat though: the people who are used have to have consented to this while they were alive. I am firm in this, and I did not go to one of the exhibits in Dublin because I was told that the majority of the bodies used were unclaimed as opposed to voluntarily donated. Why, though, do I feel this way?

I obviously am not religious or superstitious in any way. I do not believe that the “souls” of those people will “know” what is being done to their bodies and upset them. I do not believe that they will become angry ghosts for the way that their bodies are being treated. I do not believe that any of them will be denied access to heaven because they were not buried in a certain way. Why, then, am I so adamant about consent, when they would never know any better anyway?

The answer came to me when I was talking to a friend of mine who is considering visiting the Human Body Exhibition in Milan. She has never been to one of these before nor has she ever seen an autopsy, so while she is very curious she is unsure how she will react. Discussing it, she said that she would probably be very sad, because she will be thinking about how these bodies were real live people once. To which I responded that that would not make me sad in the slightest, so long as I knew that those people had wanted their bodies to be displayed in such a way. And that is when it clicked.

Respecting their last wishes is my way of preserving their humanity. I will always remember that those bodies were people, I cannot disassociate what they are now with what they were. However, knowing that this is what they wanted for themselves and their bodies would make me happy to participate, not sad. I do not fear death the way that many others do and I accept it, however I feel that respecting someone’s wishes is respecting their humanity. I would find it incredibly sad if I knew that the exhibit was filled with unclaimed bodies, that just because those people had outlived their family or perhaps died in the wrong place at the wrong time that somehow made them less human, less worthy of respect, less deserving of choosing the fate of their bodies. I would feel for those people, I would wonder what their lives were like, what they would have wanted, why they died alone and unwanted. On the other hand, to know that the last wish of the person I am looking at was to be looked at by me and the thousands of others that walk through the exhibit makes me feel happy to oblige. I would not think on their past life with sadness but with curiosity and a smile on my face. Finally, I feel that there is an inherent hypocrisy in giving some people the right to do with their body as they choose but deny that right to others.

I may not have really explained myself that clearly, so feel free to ask or bring up another tangent. I am also aware that this is very subjective, so what are your thoughts on the subject?

Have you ever been, or would you ever go to a body exhibit or a human anatomy museum?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Journal Club: No Smoking Allowed

We haven’t done a journal club in a while, so I figured I couldn’t resist delving into the science behind another one of those scientific newspaper articles that love tohype it up. It all started with one of those articles that people share on Facebook, the title of which translates to:

Peptidediscovered to stop smoking definitively and without relapse!” Wow, that’s some discovery! This article linked me to a statement released from the Center for Addiction and Mental Health, which of course actually had a far more toned down title: “CAMH discovery may lead to new treatment to prevent smoking relapse”. O.K., we’re digging down past the layers of hype.

Of course both of these articles committed my worst pet peeve ever: they didn’t cite the actual article, and it took me forever to find it. It’s not on Science Direct or Google Scholar yet, PubMed only has the abstract, I finally managed to find it on the webiste of the Journal of Experimental Biology, also because the actual title they landed on was:

Yeesh, good thing they accompanied this article with a press release, cause that’s a pretty specific and boring title that would not have led me to open that article and read on, nor does it make it easy to find in a search engine. Anyway, this is the part where I read the actual article and digest it into easier morsels for you, like a mother bird barfing up her dinner. So let’s see, what did they actually conclusively find?

Let’s start with what we know: we know that there are receptors in our brains called nicotine acetylcholine receptors, or nAChRs. These receptors are activated by nicotine, which in turn cause the yummy feelings in our brains, which is what makes smoking additive and hard to give up, especially over long periods of time (don’t I know it). What remains fuzzy is exactly what these receptors do on a molecular level after they receive the nicotine fix, therefore the molecular source of what exactly makes smoking so hard to give up.

Here, they found that one particular receptor of the nAChR family, called α7nAChR, forms a complex with another kind of receptor called NMDAR, under chronic exposure to nicotine. This means that the formation of this complex could be a key component to understanding what makes it hard to quit. Therefore, theoretically, if you stop this complex from forming, you could prevent the downstream warm-and-fuzzy effects on the brain that this complex induces, and thus making it easier to give up the cigs. With me so far?

In order to test this hypothesis, the researchers got rats addicted to nicotine, teaching them that if they pressed down on a lever, they got a shot of nicotine. Once they were well addicted and their self-administration of nicotine became relatively stable, they were given a shot of a peptide that the researchers showed interferes with the formation of this complex. After this shot, the rats no longer looked to self-administer nicotine. They also made sure that this was not because the peptide simply made the rats loopy, therefore making them less likely to press down on the nicotine bar for different reasons, but they demonstrated that the rats injected with the peptide moved around just as much as normal rats.

This sounds quite promising, so what are the ups and the downs?

One big problem I have with this paper is the lack of focus on the aspect that they focused on in their press release. I understand that the molecular part of the paper is extremely labor-intensive and important, the fact that they conclusively demonstrated the protein complex formation (which is not easy) and found a peptide that inhibits it is a paper all on its own. However, rightly so, they knew that the part of this experiment that would get the most attention is the part about actually testing this peptide to see if it works. However, despite being the only focus of the press release, they completely gloss over it in the paper. There is not a single graph, not a single statistical analysis of the behaviour of the rats.

ICV injection of 12 or 40 nmol TAT- α 7pep2[L336-M345] blocked reinstatement of nicotine seeking, they say. OK, completely? Significantly? That’s it, that’s all the information I get?

TAT- α 7pep2[L336-M345] peptide did not affect locomotor activity (not depicted) why is it not depicted? Did you not run a statistical analysis to demonstrate that the locomotor activity was not affected? If you did, let’s see it! If you’re not going to pay any attention to the behavioural aspect of the experiment then just don’t do it, and you definitely don’t get to make it the sole focus of your press release.

Putting aside my wariness about the nicotine-seeking results of the rats, it is a promising experiment and certainly the first of its kind. Of course there is a very long way to go in applying it to humans: seeing if this complex also forms in humans (tough to do, since in this case they demonstrated it by taking neurons from the rats), and definitely doing a very in-depth analysis of this peptide to make sure that it doesn’t interfere with anything else in the body which is important.

It is a good start, but I still give them a tut tut for their handling of some of the data.

Happy Birthday To Me...

Yay, whoopee, today I turn a quarter of a century. Happy birthday to me....

Think I can get one of the most boring coworkers on the planet to come out for a drink after work? Are we taking bets? 5 more hours to go!

Anyway, I'll make up for my lack of fun today with a Halloween concert that I hope will be cool tomorrow in Rome, and as I'll be away for 5 days the updating of the blog may be inconsistent (and when is it not you might retort....).

To Hell with superstition, I still ascertain that being born on mischief night is a good part of the reason why I am this cool :p

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Book Review: Fifty Shades of Grey

This is something that I had heard referenced over and over again on tv and the internet, "this that or the other is like fifty shades of grey", and I actually had to look it up to find out what the Hell it was. Kind of like with Ayn Rand I was the very last to the party, and by the time I had found out what everyone was talking about it had already had a huge success. I see it costs next to nothing on amazon, so I figured why not? Lets tack it onto the list and see what its like. All I can say is.... shmieh.

Here's the thing with sexy novels, you have to actually like the characters. While the female character is alright, albeit extremely judgmental, slut-shame-y and sex-negative (though through my irritation I could forgive it seeing as she's extremely inexperienced), the male character turned me off from the start.

I need to preface this by saying that I have no involvement in the BDSM community and know little about it, it's just really not my scene. Despite this, I still feel like it was really poorly represented in this novel. I feel like for a healthy Dom/Sub relationship, it starts from a place of mutual respect. This guy is a fucking condescending prick. Saying that if one of "his" made the mistake of getting sick on their first time being drunk he'd beat them so badly they couldn't sit for a week? Yea, fuck yourself asshole. 

While I'm not personally into BDSM, I get the allure of the Dom/Sub relationship in the bedroom. The relinquishing of control can be hot in the right context. However, this book is representing the 24/7 Dom/Sub relationship as if it were the norm for the community, when it is a very small extreme. It's one thing to take control in the bedroom, tie up your partner etc, it's entirely another to say that any straying from this extreme set of rules, like snacking between meals or making a mistake, will result in a beating. Sometimes I can be into the whole game, and other times I feel sick and unsexy and I want to curl up on the couch with a pint of ice cream and watch bad tv, and for that I have to be scared I'm going to get beat up?! It brings what is a normal, healthy aspect of sexuality to something bordering dangerously on the makeup of an abusive relationship. What's worse, the psyche of the male character is set up like he's "like this" because he was abused, and is continuing the cycle of abuse by becoming a Dominant and not being able to change. This isn't to say that you can't have a fucked up character in your novel, but I feel like they're unfairly shitting all over the entire BDSM community with the way they marry his fucked-up-ness with his Dominant sexuality. Please feel free to call me out on my utter naivete if you're in the BDSM community and feel that this criticism is unfair.

I kept reading sex scene after sex scene, realizing that I was getting very close to the end and the story wasn't developing in the slightest. There were plenty of excuses to go back to yet another sex scene, but nothing was actually happening. When I reached the end I saw that somehow they had managed to turn this masturbatory aid into a trilogy, no wonder the story wasn't going anywhere.

Will I read the other two? I really don't know if they're worth my time. The thing is I didn't like the male character for the majority of the book, so the sex scenes really didn't do it for me. Without those, this book is worth nothing. I have no idea if the characters will actually develop in the other two books, but unless someone convinces me that they get better I doubt I'll get around to reading them.

Friday, October 26, 2012

How. Fucking. Embarrassing

Good job Italy. Now you’ve got the whole world talking about how badly you’ve just fucked this one up. The most scientifically illiterate court ruling since Galileo, people are rightly calling it, and I could not be more embarrassed for my country.

As you may have heard, my country has sentenced six scientists for manslaughter on the grounds that they did not accurately predict the 2009 earthquake in Aquila that killed over 300 people. This has people all over the world astounded, for as they obviously point out no scientist can accurately predict such an earthquake, and the one in question was also extremely out of the ordinary. This has everyone comparing the Italian court system to the likes of creationists in the US and Turkey, and Mithras do I wish it was that simple. Ignorance and illiteracy can be educated and corrected, willful corruption can not. 

I may sound a little conspiratorial here, but unfortunately this is something that we see often in this country. The fact is, there was someone who could have been to blame for all of those deaths, but it sure as shit wasn't the scientists. 

What happened to the reports that had uncovered that the buildings that collapsed were not built properly as per the laws of that time, and that reports of cracks in the masonry from the earlier shocks were ignored and the buildings were not evacuated?  

On no, but that would be complicated. That would involve looking into who gave the go ahead on the buildings, did the engineers and architects knowingly OK the unlawful structures, did they receive permission to do so in a back room deal with the mayor at the time, did the building inspectors get a payoff to look the other way, were the inspectors never sent at all out of negligence? Who, when are you ever going to get to the center of that tootsie pop?! Forget it, hey if the scientists had accurately predicted it they would have evacuated the entire area (yeah right) and hundreds of lives would have been saved, go to the source, convict the scientists, shut up the people that are crying for justice.

The scientists are appealing though, and the amount of global backlash to this decision has, I hope against hope, taken them aback. Everyone is watching, and they better listen to reason. 

We need no other encouragement to be more disillusioned with our country right now.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Another Dude That Rocks

You may or may not have heard that Ann Coulter was being her usual nasty trolling self on twitter, something that happens far too often for anyone to make a decent argument in favor of giving her the slightest bit of attention. I would never have mentioned it or cared in the slightest, if it wasn't for John Franklin Stephens and this amazing response he posted as an open letter to her:

Dear Ann Coulter,
Come on Ms. Coulter, you aren’t dumb and you aren’t shallow.  So why are you continually using a word like the R-word as an insult?
I’m a 30 year old man with Down syndrome who has struggled with the public’s perception that an intellectual disability means that I am dumb and shallow.  I am not either of those things, but I do process information more slowly than the rest of you.  In fact it has taken me all day to figure out how to respond to your use of the R-word last night.
I thought first of asking whether you meant to describe the President as someone who was bullied as a child by people like you, but rose above it to find a way to succeed in life as many of my fellow Special Olympians have.
Then I wondered if you meant to describe him as someone who has to struggle to be thoughtful about everything he says, as everyone else races from one snarkey sound bite to the next.
Finally, I wondered if you meant to degrade him as someone who is likely to receive bad health care, live in low grade housing with very little income and still manages to see life as a wonderful gift.
Because, Ms. Coulter, that is who we are – and much, much more.
After I saw your tweet, I realized you just wanted to belittle the President by linking him to people like me.  You assumed that people would understand and accept that being linked to someone like me is an insult and you assumed you could get away with it and still appear on TV.
I have to wonder if you considered other hateful words but recoiled from the backlash.
Well, Ms. Coulter, you, and society, need to learn that being compared to people like me should be considered a badge of honor.
No one overcomes more than we do and still loves life so much.
Come join us someday at Special Olympics.  See if you can walk away with your heart unchanged.
A friend you haven’t made yet,
John Franklin Stephens
Global Messenger
Special Olympics Virginia
I'm sorry to say that I highly doubt that anything could change Ann Coulter's mind or heart, but I greatly admire this man for being so very civil to someone that deserves anything but his civility. It takes an enormous strength of character and eloquence that I don't think I would have had. 

John Franklin Stephens, you are our boss of the week. And I say that with the utmost respect.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

I May Have Gotten A Little Overexcited...

Pharyngula has done it again, and led me to a truly fantastic discovery. Despite the weird decision on Minnesota's part to ban this site, I think they may have just Streisand-ed Coursera, at least I for one would never have found out about it if it weren't for this story.

It is, in my opinion, one of the coolest initiatives that I have come across so far. It is based on the principle that everyone should have access to education, regardless of background. Thus, Professors from top Universities all over the world are offering free online courses for a variety of different subjects, complete with exams and a certificate of completion. That just might be the best idea ever.

So I may have gotten a little overexcited. I signed up for 5, at least two of which overlap significantly, while being a PhD student with deadlines, an English tutor, a regular gym-goer, a by myself-liver, a twice a month Rome-traveller and a would-be writer. Yeesh, like I'm not busy enough!

My first course hasn't started yet, but I will let you know if they are as awesome as I think they're going to be. In the meantime, do check out the Biology section, I actually had to be very very conservative with myself or I would have signed up for three times as many courses by now!

Agh if only my boyfriend spoke better English, the Science of Gastronomy course has his name written all over it...

Monday, October 22, 2012

Book Review: The Angel of Grozny

I first discovered Åsne Seierstad's work with The Bookseller of Kabul, a book that I found incredibly powerful, interesting and very informative on a region in the world that I knew very little about. This book, while written in a much more journalistic rather than novelistic style, was even more so.

First of all, it is 100% confirmed that Asne Seierstad has balls of steel. She brazenly enters one of the scariest places in the world, repeatedly, without the permission let alone the support and protection of the Russian government, in order to report first hand what life is really like in Chechnya once you rip off the blinds of propaganda. Believe me, she takes no prisoners with this one, delving into the real, complicated mess that is the Caucasus.

I know that it is easy to laugh at Putin for all of the ridiculous stunts he pulls, trying to portray himself as a badass that no one wants to mess with. Trust me, I wouldn't want to mess with Putin either, but for entirely different reasons. He is far, far more sneaky than he wants to come off, a weasel trying to convince his people he's a bear, and after reading this book it is incredibly hard to just laugh him off as pathetic. You laugh at people that are essentially harmless, and this man is anything but.

There are parts of this book that are very hard to read, and there are things that happened that are fucking inexcusable. It made me angry, sad, guilty that I didn't know or care about this before, and plain depressed that humanity can even go there. 

Iznaur disappeared in 2000 and returned in 2007. He is marked for life.
They pounded a nail into one of his shoulders. All the way in. With a hammer.
They drove a pencil into his chest. The lead is still there.
They pulled flesh from his chest with tongs. Deep hollows remain.
 "The Russians. To get me to talk," says Iznaur. 

In cases like this it is very easy to slip into a narrative that is based around a simple dicotomy. Chechens=martyrs, Russians=evil tyrants. Asne Seierstad is very good at steering clear of this, and no one comes off 100% perfect in this book. Chechnya has become rife with Islamist extremism and honor killings are rampant. Chechens have been pitted against other Chechens and often can be the most sadistic of them all. These are all consequences of ignorance, high mortality and power struggles that one can come to expect after years of oppression (after all, look what happened in Afghanistan), but it goes to show that reality is so much more complicated that good v. evil. It's poor v. poorer, Islam v. Atheism v. Christianity, working class Russian v. Chechen children, Chechen v. Chechen, ignorance v. power, and for what? Hundreds of thousands of lives murdered, maimed and manipulated by the hands of a few sadists and narcissistic sociopaths at the very top.  

Everyone, even the racist bullying Nazi sympatheisers that finally get caught in their hate crimes are difficult to be angry at, or hate. Is it their fault that they were raised in a country rife with ignorance and propaganda against certain people? Do they deserve to be sent to a prison which bleeds their family dry by extorting money from them, a prison with twice as many inmates as beds, where prisoners constantly die of infectious diseases? 

Can you hate the Russian soldier, after you realize that he signed up so that he can finally help his mother financially, but gets his pay stolen by other officers, gte severely wounded and then unceremoniously dumped by his government which doesn't want to pay him his pension or any of the money he is owed for being "voluntarily coerced" into service?

The Chechens are evil on the inside. They are evil in their souls. They're like wolves, and live according to the laws of that beast. [...] "They have hot blood, you see, [...] Red-hot. War seethes in them right from birth".

Oh, how easy life would be if it were really that simple. Reading this part, it made me think about another thing that the major religions really need to answer for. The creation of the Devil, this us vs. them mentality, as if life could be distilled into something as easy as that. "Evil" still exists in this world, but not because the Devil is alive and well. It "exists" because this shit is a vicious cycle, breeding more hate and violence as it goes along, by keeping a people in ignorance and refusing to understand their own history. It makes me scream in frustration because it never ends, and it just gets worse every time it goes around.

It's a tough one to read, but it is so very very worth it. It is another that I would highly recommend, if for no other reason than it is something that has been dismissed for far too long.