Friday, July 27, 2012

Food fight: Colleges still a hot spot for eating disorders

Psychologist Linda Craighead, second from right, with graduate students in the Eating and Weight Concerns Center at Emory, with a "hunger meter" chart. Photo by Todd Deveau.
By Mary Loftus, Emory Magazine

Eating disorders are paradoxical: they are about control more than food, yet thoughts of food pervade almost every waking moment. The substance being abused can’t simply be avoided like drugs or alcohol.

The intent is often to achieve “the perfect body,” but the disorders actually harm, disfigure, even kill. And this all takes place within a culture that simultaneously glorifies eating well and being thin.

No wonder, then, that hot spots for eating disorders include universities, high-level performance sports, and the entertainment industry.

“Southern private schools do have a slightly higher rate, but all universities have more than we would like,” says Emory psychologist Linda Craighead, who specializes in eating disorders and weight concerns and is the author of The Appetite Awareness Workbook: How to Listen to Your Body and Overcome Binge Eating, Overeating and Obsession with Food. “Eating disorders cut across socioeconomic levels and all ethnicities.”

The most severe are anorexia and bulimia—the National Eating Disorder Association estimates that 10 million women and 1 million men in the U.S. struggle with one of these disorders—while millions more engage in binge eating or compulsive overeating. “At Emory’s counseling center, we see a lot of students, even medical students, with eating disorders,” Craighead says.

A person with anorexia typically falls below a certain weight—for adults, a body mass index of 18.5. Their diet is usually very restricted and often vegetarian, Craighead says.

“In many cases,” she says, “people who start with anorexia move on to binging and purging because the biological pressure to eat is so strong it breaks through now and then.”

Bulimia traditionally involves binging followed by a “maladaptive compensatory behavior”— mostly vomiting, but this can also take the form of laxatives, over-exercising, or fasting. “Most bulimics are close to normal weight, since purging is actually one of the least effective ways to compensate—about half the food stays in the body. So we try to teach bulimics in recovery to learn to be satisfied with just eating half the amount.”

Assistant Professor of Family and Preventive Medicine Teresa Beck treats patients with eating disorders and trains residents with a personal perspective. “I developed an eating disorder during medical school and hid it from my family for six years,” she says. “Mine started, just like most, with dieting to lose a few pounds. I use my experiences to help many of my patients with their own problems related to compulsive or emotional eating, obesity, poor body image, perfectionism, and all that goes along with that.”

Often, there’s a migration between all three disorders—anorexia, bulimia, and binging. “The contagion effect is huge,” says Craighead, which explains how eating disorders can run rampant through dorms and sororities. And dangerous new influences exist, like “pro-ana” groups on social media sites that glorify and offer tips about anorexia.

Health problems may not show up until middle age, and the main, irreversible consequence is bone loss. “You only have a window of time, twelve to twenty-three, to lay down all the bone that you’re going to get,” Craighead says. “You have to eat real food and have enough weight on. If your bones are fragile when you’re older, there’s no way to fix it.”

Nadine Kaslow, a professor of psychiatry at Emory and also the psychologist for the Atlanta Ballet, says eating disorders are prevalent among ballerinas. Kaslow has been involved in ballet since she was three, and says the dance culture has always supported extreme thinness.

“We used to have to wear our ideal weight and actual weight pinned to our leotards,” she says. “You weighed in once a week, and if you weren’t thin enough, you were publicly humiliated.”

It’s gotten better, says Kaslow, but “you are still reinforced for being thin, that’s just the normative expectation. A cultural shift is needed.”

Extreme beauty: Former Miss America discusses anorexia
Psychologist takes on ballet's special demons 

Mirror image:

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Compassion training benefits foster children

By Kathi Baker, Woodruff Health Sciences Center

Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT) appears to improve the mental and physical health of adolescents in foster care, a new study shows. CBCT is a therapeutic intervention that uses meditation and other strategies geared to help people develop more compassionate attitudes toward themselves and others.

It is well documented that children in foster care have a high prevalence of trauma in their lives. For many, circumstances that bring them into the foster care system are formidable — sexual abuse, parental neglect, family violence, homelessness and exposure to drugs. In addition, they are separated from biological family and some are regularly moved around from one place to another.

Emory researchers conducted the study in collaboration with the Georgia Department of Human Services and the Division of Family and Child Services. The study was recently published online in the journals Psychoneuroendocrinology and Child and Family Studies.

"Children with early life adversity tend to have elevated levels of inflammation across their lifespan," explains Thaddeus Pace, lead author on the paper in Psychoneuroendocrinology, and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory.

"Inflammation is known to play a fundamental role in the development of a number of chronic illnesses, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia, cancer and depression."

The study finds that adolescents who practiced CBCT showed reductions in the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein (CRP), reduced anxiety and increased feelings of hopefulness. The more the study participants practiced, the greater the improvement observed in these measures.

"The beneficial effects of CBCT on anxiety and feelings of hopelessness suggest that this intervention may provide immediate benefit to foster children," says Charles Raison, a co-author of the study, now at the University of Arizona. "We are even more encouraged by the finding that CBCT reduced levels of inflammation. Our hope is that CBCT may help contribute to the long-term health and well being of foster care children, not only during childhood, but also as they move into their adult years."

Additionally, an article recently published in the journal Pediatrics reported that a high proportion of children in foster care programs across the United States are on psychiatric medications, perhaps inappropriately.

"In light of the increasing concern that we may be over-medicating children in state custody, our findings that CBCT can help with behavioral and physical health issues may be especially timely," says Linda Craighead, senior author for the paper published in Child and Family Studies, and professor of psychology at Emory.

CBCT is a multi-week program developed at Emory by Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, one of the study's co-authors. Although derived from Tibetan Buddhist teachings on compassion, the CBCT program has been designed to be completely secular in nature.

The Georgia Department of Human Services and the Division of Family and Child Services identified 71 adolescents between the ages of 13 and 19 as eligible for study participation. All of the children lived in the greater metropolitan Atlanta area, and were in foster care at the time of the study.

The participants were randomized to six weeks of Cognitvely-Based Compassion Training, or to a wait list control group. Before and after these interventions the adolescents were assessed on various measures of anxiety and hope about the future. They also provided saliva samples for the measurement of C-reactive protein.

The researchers found that within the CBCT group, participation in practice sessions during the study correlated with reduced CRP from baseline to the six-week assessment. The researchers emphasize that further studies will be needed to determine if there are long-term benefits with CBCT.


Are hugs the new drugs?
Elementary thoughts on love and kindness
Can meditation calm your kids?
Lesson No. 1: Learn to relax 

Batman and the psychology of trauma

Some people cope with trauma and devastating loss by becoming a stronger person, working through their pain and using their experiences to help society. But some people who endure severe trauma turn inward, crumple into depression or, even worse, go on to inflict pain onto others.

What is it about the human psyche that sets individuals down such different paths? That question drives everything from modern-day neuroscience to the plots of great literature and comic book super heroes.

In “The Dark Knight Rises,” the third and final installment in a Batman film triology, Bruce Wayne finally confronts the pain of loss that he has kept masked by fighting criminals.

In the above video, taped before the tragic real-life shooting at the film’s opening in Aurora, Colorado, Emory psychologist Jared DeFife discusses the dark themes of pain, anger and fear that shaped the character of Bruce Wayne.

“You can’t really understand Bruce Wayne without understanding the childhood trauma of seeing his parents murdered in front of him,” DeFife says.

On the one hand, Wayne turned his pain into a force for good, by battling for justice for others, Defife says. But in order to fight crime, Bruce Wayne created the alter ego of Batman.

“A split-off identity comes at great cost,” DeFife says, noting that it also happens sometimes in real life. “After a traumatic experience, whether it be combat trauma, motor vehicle accidents or crimes that occur, people can begin to split off aspects of themselves even more so than other people. Because dealing with those events, trying to make sense of those events, can lead people to disassociate. They sort of withdraw from the stimuli going on in the world.”

Virtual reality helps Marine fight PTSD

Friday, July 20, 2012

Pastoralism key to Horn of Africa's future

The livestock trade generates an estimated $1 billion a year in exports for the Horn of Africa.

Mark Tran writes in the Guardian's Poverty Matters blog about a new book, "Pastoralism and Development in Africa: Dynamic Change at the Margins." Following is an excerpt, referencing a chapter by Emory anthropologist Peter Little:

 "...Peter Little argues that despite its many challenges, mobile pastoralism will continue throughout the Horn for the simple reason that a more viable, alternative land-use system for these areas has not been found. But he predicts that the nature of pastoralism in 2030 will be very different from today.

"Although it will remain the economic foundation of the region, pastoralism will not be practiced by many. Little sees former pastoralists investing in local fodder farms, urban-based markets and services that serve the livestock sector, educating their children and engaging in small-scale trading and other self-employed enterprises. Many would also work for livestock producers as hired herders. Ideally, fattening operations for export animals and meat-processing facilities would be located nearer to pastoral production areas, generating additional employment for local non-pastoralists.

"'In this scenario, the normal occurrence of drought would no longer result in widespread food shortages and hunger as makrets would function effectively and local incomes would be sufficient to purchase needed foods,' writes Little."

Read the whole article on the Guardian web site.

What we can learn from African pastoralists
Climate change, from the hooves up


Thursday, July 19, 2012

Playing for time: Music lessons boost brain, slow aging

By Kerry Ludlam, Woodruff Health Sciences Center

It turns out mom was right. Music lessons are good for you, and those benefits may last a lifetime.

A recent study conducted by Brenda Hanna-Pladdy, a clinical neuropsychologist in Emory's School of Medicine, offers additional evidence that musical instrumental training, when compared to other activities, may reduce the effects of memory decline and cognitive aging.

This is the second study published by Hanna-Pladdy, which confirms and refines findings from an original study published in Neuropsychology in 2011 that revealed that musicians with at least 10 years of instrumental musical training remained cognitively sharp in advanced age. The new findings were published in the July issue of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

“The study confirms that musical activity preserves cognition as we age, by comparing variability in cognitive outcomes of older adults active in musical instrumental and other leisure activities,” says Hanna-Pladdy. “A range of cognitive benefits, including memory, was sustained for musicians between the ages of 60-80 if they played for at least 10 years throughout their life, confirming that maintenance of advantages is not reliant on continued activity. In other words, you don’t use it or lose it. Nonetheless, the study highlighted the critical importance of the timing of musical activity, which may optimize cognitive benefits.”

The cognitive enhancements in older musicians included a range of verbal and nonverbal functions, as well as memory, which is the hallmark of Alzhemier’s pathology. The study evaluated the timing of musical engagement to determine whether there is a critical period of musical training for optimal cognitive advantages in advanced age. While years of playing music were the best indication of enhanced cognition in advanced age, the results revealed different sensitive periods for cognitive development across the lifespan. Early age of acquisition, before age nine, predicted verbal working memory functions such as remembering and reorganizing digits in your head, consistent with early sensitive periods in brain development. Sustained musical activity in advanced age predicted other non-verbal abilities involving visuospatial judgment, suggesting it is never too late to be musically active.

Continued musical activity in advanced age also appeared to buffer lower educational levels.

“This is an exciting finding in light of recent evidence suggesting that high educational levels are likely to yield cognitive reserve that may potentially delay the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms or cognitive decline,” says Hanna-Pladdy. “This also highlights the promising role of musical activity as a form of cognitive enrichment across the lifespan, and it raises the question of whether musical training should eventually be considered an alternative form of educational training.”

According to Hanna-Pladdy, to obtain optimal results, individuals should start musical training before age nine, play at least 10 years or more and if possible, keep playing for as long as possible over the age of 60.

Rock of ages: Music helps keep brain young
Teen brain predicts pop song success
Notes on the musical brain


The placebo effect and psychogenic illnesses

In the above video, Karen Rommelfanger talks about the emerging field of neuroethics, and why neuroscience and technology are affecting both health-care policy and the legal system.  

Karen Rommelfanger, director of the Neuroethics Program at the Emory Center for Ethics, wrote about the placebo effect and psychogenic movement disorders as a guest blogger for’s Soapbox Science. Below is an excerpt:

“’It’s not all in my head.’

“This is the sentiment resonating among the 18 teenage girls in Le Roy, New York, who had sudden onset of mysterious symptoms of intrusive and involuntary tics and body movements. …

“Ultimately, the girls were diagnosed with Conversion disorder or mass psychogenic illness, conditions wherein psychological stressors versus ‘organic’ pathology are thought to be literally converted to physical manifestations of symptoms (some more dramatic than others, ranging from paralysis and tics, to blindness and seizure-like movements). …

“Conversion disorder and psychogenic movement disorders (terminology which is often used interchangeably amongst physicians) are paradigmatic of 'medically unexplained illnesses,' estimated to cost the U.S. healthcare system upwards of $100 billion annually.

“However, many of the girls from Le Roy seemed to prefer the diagnosis advanced by pediatric neurologist Dr. Rosario Trifiletti, who suggested the patients were afflicted with PANDAS (Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcus). …

“In re-considering the diagnosis of PANDAS, Dr. Rosario admitted that it would be hard to tell whether some of his patients’ recovery was from the antibiotics he prescribed or a belief in getting better – the ‘placebo effect.’ In the case of the girls from Le Roy, perhaps receiving ‘real medicine’ like antibiotics provided relief because it was consistent with the belief that they had a ‘real’ illness like PANDAS.”

Read the whole article at Soapbox Science.

The ethics surrounding placebo effects

Neuroscience and a whale of a legal case

Brandom Keim writes in Wired Science about a movement by some animal advocates to give legal rights to whales and dolphins, collectively known as cetaceans. An excerpt from the article:

 “’We have all the evidence to show that there is an egregious mismatch between who cetaceans are and how they are perceived and still treated by our species,’ said evolutionary neurobiologist Lori Marino of Emory University during a February meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“’These characteristics make it ethically inconsistent to deny the basic rights of cetaceans.’ “The discussion at which Marino spoke was titled ‘Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans: Ethical and Policy Implications of Intelligence,’ and its presence at the AAAS annual meeting, a sort of all-star game for science, signifies a sea-level change in how cetaceans are understood.

“Just a few decades ago, cetacean rights would have been considered a purely sentimental rather than scientifically supportable idea. But scientifically if not yet legally, evidence is overwhelming that cetaceans are special.

“At a purely neuroanatomical level, their brains are as complex as our own. Their brains are also big — and not simply because cetaceans are large. Dolphins and whales have brains that are exceptional for their size, second only to modern humans in being larger than one would expect. They also possess neurological structures that, in humans, are linked to high-level social and intellectual function."

Read the whole article in Wired Science.

Should killer whales be captive?
Do dolphins deserve special status?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Emory's starvine: A rare plant clings to campus

The American starvine typically must grow for several years before sprouting flowers. Photos, above and below, by Kyra C. Wu.
By Kimber Williams, Emory Report

Within a sun-dappled forest on the Emory campus, field biologist Carl Brown is engaged in an ecological scavenger hunt, searching for a plant so rare that its future is in question.

Scanning dead leaves and pine duff, he recites the clues like a botanical recipe: Favors locations near water and tree gaps; often found beneath maple trees; prefers filtered sunlight on a well-drained slope; frequently near a deadfall…

Then it appears — the native starvine, a modest, green-leafed vine, both sturdy and elegant, that tenderly stretches in aerial ascent toward low-hanging tree branches. The sparse clusters of American starvine (also called "bay starvine") tumbling down a remote hillside represent a virtual refuge for the obscure plant — one of several protected locations Brown has mapped around campus where the species has a toehold.

Studying the starvine's meandering course, Brown smiles: "This could be one of the best sites in existence — the center of American starvine in the world — here at Emory, in an old growth urban forest."

Once found throughout America's southeastern woodlands, Schisandra glabra is now an unusual sight, classified as endangered or threatened across the region. In Georgia it is found in only a dozen counties, mostly within the Atlanta metro region. Rarely studied, little is known about this ancient woody vine that may, in fact, harbor untapped medicinal potential. In China, its cousin is a popular medicinal agent.

But an unusual alliance between Emory's department of environmental studies and the Wesley Woods Hospital horticultural therapy program is giving new life to starvine, teaming to propagate, cultivate and study the elusive species. And if all goes well with the project, the partners may attempt to expand the presence of the vanishing plant into Emory's urban forest.

Last fall, Brown, an adjunct instructor in environmental studies who regularly explores Emory's woodlands, and Kirk Hines, a certified horticultural therapist who founded and directs the horticultural therapy program at Wesley Woods, joined forces to help preserve the plant.

With starvine runners gingerly collected by Brown, a group of about 20 patients in the Wesley Woods program rooted and potted a handful of new plant starts. Today, those starts are thriving; some plants are already over two feet tall and climbing. Standing near the Wesley Woods Hospital greenhouse, Hines inspects a glossy specimen, discussing the therapeutic rewards for patients: "We worked on everything from direction following to standing, range of motion and gross motor skills. You see [them] brighten, a bit more engagement — they don't feel quite so much like they're in a hospital.

"And they loved taking part in that conservation effort, doing something meaningful," he adds. "It's work no one else was really doing, and now (the starvine) is rooted, and transplanted and growing."

The result? New starvine starts with a survival rate of over 50 percent. "It's not bad, considering there isn't a lot of literature out there to lead the way," says Hines, who runs one of the state's only horticultural therapy programs.

While East Asia is home to about 25 species of Schisandra, only one — Schisandra glabra — is native to North America. In China, the Asian version of the plant is considered a traditional medicinal staple on par with ginseng. Cultivated on plantations and found growing wild, it has been used as a tonic to promote overall health for thousands of years.

Though little research suggests the woodlands Indians who once populated Druid Hills cultivated American starvine as a traditional medicinal agent, Brown believes it's very likely. "The ethnobotany of the Piedmont is largely missing from Georgia and Alabama, because the Creek were at war with the U.S. when early botanists would have been coming through," he says.

When Brown began studying local starvine six years ago, he emailed botanists around the country seeking more information. He found little. "They all wrote back within an hour because many hadn't seen it growing — very few ethnobotanists had ever seen it in the wild, with flowers and berries, due to its restricted habitat," he recalls.

"It's true," concurs retired USDA botanist James Duke. "Though Schisandra is very well-researched in China, we Americans tend to study other people's plants more than we study our own."

Three years ago, Duke, who runs the Green Farmacy Garden, a teaching garden with more than 300 medicinal plants in Fulton, Maryland, asked if Brown could spare a few starvine samples, intent on planting the American species alongside its Chinese cousin. It is a species, he believes, that is ripe for further study. "I'm sure there are good-hearted people everywhere in the Southeast who would like to help out an endangered species, but that would be more likely if we could prove its medical potential," Duke says. "What knowledge we have, we can thank Carl for," he adds.

For now, Emory's protected woodlands will continue to serve as a rare laboratory for the American starvine, a plant that has become a common campus placename, attached to a road, bridge and parking deck.

Brown continues to monitor existing starvine patches, while tracking the ongoing cultivation being done by Hines and his patients, as they break new botanical ground with their plant starts. Hines hopes the relationship can expand, and is considering other native plants that patients can help propagate. In the project, he sees a holistic symmetry.

"It's the knowledge that we've had native American tribes living right (along Clifton Road) who may have used this for healing, and knowing that now this is one of the chief medical corridors in the Southeast," Hines muses. "I think it just fits," he adds.

Windstorm reshapes Atlanta forests

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Study of psychosis risk and brain to track effects of Omega-3 pills

The study will use a specific combination of omega-3 fatty acids in its supplements, unlike over-the-counter fish oil pills, which are unregulated.

By Carol Clark

The first major study on the biological effects of omega-3 fatty acids on the human brain is focusing on the role that this natural substance, primarily found in fish oil, may play in fighting psychosis.

Emory University recently launched the first phase of the double-blind, clinical trial of a specific combination of omega-3 fatty acid supplements, which will ultimately involve about 160 participants, and researchers from eight universities.

“This will be the first study to conduct an extensive assessment of changes in the brain associated with omega-3 fatty acids,” says lead investigator Elaine Walker, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Emory. “We are most interested in the question of how to potentially prevent the onset of psychosis.”

Non-invasive techniques will be used to record both the density of different regions of the brain, and the robustness of neural connectivity, to compare the effects of a placebo and omega-3 fatty acids on teens and young adults who may be at risk for psychosis.

Omega-3 fatty acids cannot be made by the human body, but are necessary for normal metabolism. Common sources include fish oils, algae and flaxseed oil.

The omega-3 study, expected to last at least a year, is part of a larger, comprehensive, project to investigate the origins and prevention of psychosis, headed by Walker at Emory and funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH).

Watch a 2010 video, below, of Elaine Walker explaining the facts, and myths, of schizophrenia:

Schizophrenia, the most extreme psychosis, affects about 1 percent of the population. The typical onset of schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders is about 21 years of age, with warning signs beginning, on average, around age 17. Studies have shown that about 30 to 40 percent of teenagers showing warning signs will develop schizophrenia or another psychotic disorder. Another 25 percent of these at-risk teens continue to experience mild symptoms without getting worse, while the remaining 35 percent get better as they enter adulthood.

While anti-psychotic drugs can be effective, they also have side effects, so physicians are hesitant to recommend them until someone enters the clinical stages of the illness.

The causes of psychosis are unclear, but one of the dominant theories is that changes in the brain adversely affect the connections among neurons as psychosis is emerging.

Animal studies have demonstrated that omega-3 has a protective effect on these connections. And some people with schizophrenia tend to have low levels of omega-3 fatty acids. These factors led the University of Vienna, Austria, to conduct a behavioral study for the effects of an omega-3 formulation on teenagers at risk for psychosis. The results, published in 2010, found that 11 out of 40 high-risk teens who had taken a placebo for 12 weeks developed clinical psychosis within a year, but only two out of 41 high-risk teens who took omega 3 succumbed to the disorder.

“The magnitude of the effect they reported, 22.6 percent, was surprising,” Walker says. “And given the devastating impact of this illness, anything that shows that kind of promise is worth pursuing.”

The supplements used in the NIMH study will contain 1,100 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acid, about the same amount in four ounces of wild salmon.

The NIMH study will combine behavioral and cognitive measurements of participants, along with the biological measurements. Half of the participants will take a placebo, while the other half will take omega-3 pills containing 1,100 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acid, about the same amount in four ounces of wild salmon.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) will be used to record before-and-after images of the brain. The resulting data will allow the researchers to compare any changes in density in different brain regions.

In addition, diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) will record the activity of the connections between the various brain regions, to compare any changes in the robustness of this circuitry.

Participants in the study will also receive psychological counseling. “Young people showing these risk signs are typically in distress,” Walker says. “This study is an opportunity to get some support and, potentially, preventive intervention.”

Walker, who has studied psychosis for more than 30 years, cautions that, no matter what the results of the study, no panacea is in the offing. “Psychosis is a class of disorders,” she explains. “As is the case with cancer, not all medicines and treatments work for all persons and types of cancer. Treatments have to be tailored.”

The NIMH has made learning the neural mechanisms involved in psychosis a priority, due to the terrible economic and social toll of the illness. “Most psychotic disorders end up becoming chronic illnesses,” Walker says. “If we could prevent 20 percent of the cases, that would be great. If we could prevent 50 percent, that would be an amazing achievement.”


Daily pot smoking may hasten psychosis onset
Schizophrenia: What we know now
Study tracks teens at risk for psychosis

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The physics of mass, charge and media spin

The Higgs boson should not be called "the God particle," says Marc Merlin, director of Atlanta Science Tavern. "A better name for it might be 'the peace particle.' It's really a testament to international cooperation that transcends politics." Image: CERN.

By Carol Clark

It’s too early to know for sure whether a newly discovered subatomic particle is the long sought-after Higgs boson, but one thing is clear: A lot of people outside of particle physics are interested.

CERN, a multinational research center in Geneva, generated worldwide buzz July 4 by announcing its Large Hadron Collider had produced data showing the existence of a “Higgs-like” particle.

“People are fascinated by the big questions of the universe,” says Marc Merlin, director of Atlanta Science Tavern, an informal group of science enthusiasts.

The Large Hadron Collider, a 38,000-ton underground device that accelerates and collides protons, is “like a time machine,” Merlin says. “Not only can it tell you the nature of the microscopic world now, it also reveals the universe as it was when it was just getting started,” a fraction of a second after the Big Bang.

Merlin graduated from Emory with a degree in physics. After going on to earn a masters in the subject at the University of Pennsylvania, he became a computer programmer, but remains passionate about physics.

Amid growing hints that CERN was closing in on the elusive particle, Merlin gave an Atlanta Science Tavern talk on the Higgs boson in May that filled a private room at Java Vino coffee shop. An encore of the talk was scheduled in June for a much larger room at Manuel’s Tavern, and the waiting list quickly grew to 140. That led to scheduling a third Higgs boson talk, for Saturday, July 21.

The Higgs boson explains only part of the mass of a proton, which also involves the action of quarks and gluons. Image: Fermilab.

“Maybe the third one will be the charm,” Merlin says. He readily admits that he is not an expert in particle physics. “I’ve got a big challenge, because I’m going to have to go over all the information from the CERN news conference and update my presentation.” Merlin has already posted "Checking the Higgs Arithmetic" on his blog.

The Higgs boson is the last missing particle from the Standard Model of physics. According to the model, the Higgs boson plays a role in giving mass to everything. “That’s incredibly fundamental,” says Emory physicist Sidney Perkowitz. “It’s part of the story of how protons, neutrons and quarks came together and made us.”

Whether the particle is the Higgs boson, or something entirely new and unexpected, the find is momentous, Merlin agrees. “It’s one of the most important discoveries for physics in the past 50 years.”

Neither Perkowitz or Merlin, however, believes that the Higgs boson deserves the title “key to the universe,” as many headlines have proclaimed.

“That’s a bit of hype,” Perkowitz says.

The Higgs boson completes the picture of the Standard Model, but the Standard Model is far from comprehensive, lacking explanations for gravity, dark matter and dark energy, Merlin notes. He’s especially irked by the Higgs boson nickname “the God particle.”

Marc Merlin sees CERN as a kind of sandbox for learning international cooperation on a mammoth scale. Image: CERN.

“It’s misleading, and it sounds too mysterious,” he says. “I’m committed to the demystification of the Higgs boson. A better name for it might be ‘the peace particle.’ It’s really a testament to international cooperation over several generations to develop knowledge that transcends politics.”

Ironically, it was the atomic bombs of World War II that brought big science to the fore in ways it never had been before, Merlin says. CERN formed shortly after the war ended. “Since the 1950s, we’ve had these trans-national collaborations slowly but surely developing theories and models and experiments for particle physics. More than 100 nations are involved with CERN, and that’s a remarkable thing in a world fraught with divisions of religion, ethnicity and politics.”

The benefit of such cooperation extends far beyond particle physics, Merlin says.

“One of the triumphs of the search for the Higgs boson is an international computer grid, involving physicist programmers from all over the world, who have come together to do the number crunching involved,” he says.

Merlin thinks of CERN as a kind of sandbox for learning international cooperation on a mammoth scale. “It shows what we can do when we put our hearts and minds together, and it could serve as a prototype for addressing the dislocations that are going to occur with global warming.”

Fantastic light: From science fiction to fact

Monday, July 9, 2012

Is a dog your baby's new best friend?

Daniel DeNoon writes about a new study involving pets and babies for WebMD Health News. An excerpt:

"Babies in homes with dogs have fewer colds, fewer ear infections, and need fewer antibiotics in their first year of life than babies raised in pet-free homes, Finnish researchers find. Homes with cats are healthier for babies, too, but not to the same extent as those with dogs, note researchers Eija Bergroth, MD, of Finland's Kuopio University Hospital, and colleagues.

"'The strongest effect was seen with dog contacts. We do not know why it was stronger than with cat contacts,' Bergroth tells WebMD. 'It might have something to do with dirt brought inside by the dogs, especially since the strongest protective effect was seen with children living in houses where dogs spent a lot of time outside.'...

"A time-honored theory, the hygiene hypothesis, suggests that children's immune systems mature best when infants are exposed to germs in just the right amount. Too many germs are unhealthy, but so is a sterile, germ-free home.

"That theory is now giving way to the 'microbiome hypothesis,' says Karen DeMuth, assistant professor of pediatrics at Atlanta's Emory University.

"'The microbiome hypothesis is that early-life exposure to wide varieties of microbes lets them mix with the microbes in the gut and helps them keep the immune system from reacting against itself and causing autoimmune disease, or from reacting against stuff you should ignore and causing allergy,' she says."

Read the whole article in WebMD Health News.

Are depressed people too clean?
An evolutionary view of depression
What aphids can teach us about immunity


The math of 'The Amazing Spider-Man'

Spider silk, the protein fiber spun by spiders, has the tensile strength of high-grade steel. But how much spider silk would you need to stop a train?

In the above video, Emory mathematician Skip Garibaldi considers this question and others raised by “The Amazing Spider-Man,” the latest in the series of films inspired by the beloved Marvel Comic super hero.

And if you decide to build your own web shooter, click on the sketch, above, that was released to promote the film.

How culture shaped a mathematician
The math of rock climbing
The physics of super heroes

Friday, July 6, 2012

The ethics surrounding placebo effects

Karen Rommelfanger, assistant director of the neuroethics program at the Emory Center for Ethics, wrote about the placebo effect in the Huffington Post. An excerpt:

“Placebos are generally inert substances, like sugar pills, thought to relieve patient symptoms through an expectation of getting better. It seems that, in some reported cases, simply the act of taking medicine or believing that medicine might work can impact patient outcomes. Because of this, placebo effects have historically been discounted as effects that aren't medically ‘real.’

“But what if placebos and their effects were not as ‘inert’ as we once thought, that they might really provide therapeutic benefit? This raises a new ethical question: Are we harming patients by withholding treatments like placebo therapy that might actually help them? …

“Indeed, while placebos are generally defined as having no inherent effectiveness in physically curing illnesses, a growing body of neuroscientific evidence challenges this assumption. Accumulating data suggest that placebos have measurable effects on the brain as well as objective (physicians can measure improvement in patients) and subjective (patients report feeling better) benefits for patients. …

“Some have called placebo effects ‘the endogenous (or your body's own) healthcare system.’”

Read the whole article in the Huffington Post.

The placebo effect and psychogenic illnesses


Monday, July 2, 2012

Now we're cooking: Ovens for a hot, crowded world

The recent record hot day in Atlanta, 106 degrees, inspired an Emory staffer to bake chocolate chip cookies on his dashboard. Photo by Stephen Beehler.

As a heat wave bakes the eastern United States, nearly 2.4 million people who are accustomed to pressing a button to alter the air around them have been left without power. It’s a good time to think about all the people who live their whole lives without modern-day appliances, and how the burgeoning human population, climate change and declining resources are converging into a recipe for disaster.

Every branch of science will be needed to solve this simmering stew of problems, says Emory physicist Sidney Perkowitz. For a recent issue of Physics World, he writes about the history of stoves and ovens, and how physics is tackling some of the environmental and resource usage issues associated with cooking.

“Despite the rapid development of cooking technology and its gastronomic application since 1800,” Perkowitz writes, “two to three billion people worldwide, mostly in developing countries, still eat food prepared by the ancient method of cooking over open fires or in rudimentary stoves fed by solid fuel – wood, agricultural residue, animal dung and sometimes coal.

“Cooking over open fires or on primitive stoves presents a series of costs. Most sobering is the health cost, in the form of some two million annual deaths caused by respiratory illnesses arising from indoor smoke. Our climate also suffers, with these cooking methods increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide by about 3 percent per year and producing black carbon (a main component of soot) and other emissions caused by inefficient burning. Also, the heavy consumption of biomass at up to two tons per family per year, often in a non-sustainable form, leads to deforestation.”

Perkowitz describes several stove designs aimed at helping solve the global cooking issue:

The rocket stove is a simple device based on convective flow of heated air.

The Oorja stove, developed for Indian households by First Energy and the Indian Institute of Science, uses a combustion process, powered by rechargeable batteries, to lower fuel use and emissions.

The Stove for Cooking, Refrigeration and Electricity (SCORE), developed at the University of Nottingham in the UK, actually uses sound waves to generate electricity along with heat for cooking.

It remains to be seen if these designs will prove successful in the developing world, where many people struggle to afford food, much less something to cook it on.

Meanwhile, if you're an American planning to cook out this 4th of July, you may want to consider using the dashboard of your SUV.

Crime may rise along with Earth's temperatures

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