Site update

Since I have been really terrible at updating the blog (but pretty good at keeping up with the facebook blog posts) I've added the widget below so that facebook cross posts to the blog.

You shouldn't need to join facebook but can just click on the links in the widget to access the articles. If you have any problems or comments please mail me at arandjel 'AT'

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Journal of Universal Rejection

About the Journal

The founding principle of the Journal of Universal Rejection (JofUR) is rejection. Universal rejection. That is to say, all submissions, regardless of quality, will be rejected. Despite that apparent drawback, here are a number of reasons you may choose to submit to the JofUR:

  • You can send your manuscript here without suffering waves of anxiety regarding the eventual fate of your submission. You know with 100% certainty that it will not be accepted for publication.
  • There are no page-fees.
  • You may claim to have submitted to the most prestigious journal (judged by acceptance rate).
  • The JofUR is one-of-a-kind. Merely submitting work to it may be considered a badge of honor.
  • You retain complete rights to your work, and are free to resubmit to other journals even before our review process is complete.
  • Decisions are often (though not always) rendered within hours of submission.
  • Read more at the journal's website

    Thanks to Damien C for the link!

    Chinese citizen caught smuggling ivory from the Republic of Congo

    Ivory pieces confiscated by Republic of Congo authorities in Saturday's bust.
    Photo by: Naftali Honig (PALF).


    A Chinese national was caught attempting to smuggle 22 pounds (10 kilos) of ivory out of the Republic of Congo on Saturday, according to the AFP. Officials confiscated five elephant tusks, 80 ivory chopsticks, 3 ivory carvings, and a number of smaller ivory-made items.

    The suspect was taken into custody at the Maya-Maya airport in the Republic of Congo's capital, Brazzaville.

    "We vowed to help the government of Congo send a zero tolerance message to ivory traffickers, and as you can see this message is in action," Naftali Honig, head of the Project to Apply the Law on Fauna (PALF), told the AFP. A Brazzaville-based NGO, PALF is working to build the capacity of Congolese authorities to enforce wildlife laws, which have long gone ignored in the central African nation.

    PALF has been involved in a number of seizures, including catching illegal wildlife traders dealing in leopard skins, ivory, and living chimpanzees and gorillas for the illegal pet trade. The chimpanzee dealer became the first individual sentenced for wildlife trafficking in the Republic of Congo. He was sentenced to a year in prison.

    "We work with investigators and local authorities to catch criminals in the act and then follow the legal proceedings to ensure that they don't use a phone call, a bribe, or anything of that nature to illegitimately get themselves off the hook," Honig explained to in an interview last February.

    In its first year, PALF conducted 17 investigations resulting in the arrests of 19 alleged traffickers. The program was developed by the Aspinall Foundation and Wildlife Conservation Society.

    Sunday, January 23, 2011

    Zheng Lab - Bad Project (Lady Gaga parody)

    Genetic differentiation and the evolution of cooperation in chimpanzees and humans

    Langergraber K, Schunert G, Rowney C, Wrangham R, Zommers Z, Vigilant L (2011) Genetic differentiation and the evolution of cooperation in chimpanzees and humans. Proceddings of the Royal Society Series B doi: 10.1098/rspb.2010.2592

    It has been proposed that human cooperation is unique among animals for its scale and complexity, its altruistic nature and its occurrence among large groups of individuals that are not closely related or are even strangers. One potential solution to this puzzle is that the unique aspects of human cooperation evolved as a result of high levels of lethal competition (i.e. warfare) between genetically differentiated groups. Although between-group migration would seem to make this scenario unlikely, the plausibility of the between-group competition model has recently been supported by analyses using estimates of genetic differentiation derived from contemporary human groups hypothesized to be representative of those that existed during the time period when human cooperation evolved. Here, we examine levels of between-group genetic differentiation in a large sample of contemporary human groups selected to overcome some of the problems with earlier estimates, and compare them with those of chimpanzees. We find that our estimates of between-group genetic differentiation in contemporary humans are lower than those used in previous tests, and not higher than those of chimpanzees. Because levels of between-group competition in contemporary humans and chimpanzees are also similar, these findings suggest that the identification of other factors that differ between chimpanzees and humans may be needed to provide a compelling explanation of why humans, but not chimpanzees, display the unique features of human cooperation.

    Oh Snap! Welcome, Nature. Seriosuly

    From the facebook page
    On January 6, 2011, Nature announced a new Open Access (OA) publication called Scientific Reports. Nature’s news underscores the growing acceptance of OA, as reflected in recent OA journal launches from other traditional publishers such as the BMJ, Sage, AIP (American Institute of Physics) and APS (American Physical Society). Please spread the word either via this blog post or download this PDF.

    Thursday, January 13, 2011

    Thursday LOL

    Old-growth forest is what giant pandas really need

    Thanks to Carol D for the link!

    Zhang Z, Swaisgood RR, Zhang S, Nordstrom LA, Wang H, Gu X, Hu J, Wei F (2011) Old-growth forest is what giant pandas really need. Biology Letters doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2010.1081

    Giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) are an iconic conservation species, but despite significant research effort, do we understand what they really need? Estimating and mapping suitable habitat play a critical role in conservation planning and policy. But if assumptions about ecological needs are wrong, maps with misidentified suitable habitat will misguide conservation action. Here, we use an information-theoretic approach to analyse the largest, landscape-level dataset on panda habitat use to date, and challenge the prevailing wisdom about panda habitat needs. We show that pandas are associated with old-growth forest more than with any ecological variable other than bamboo. Other factors traditionally used in panda habitat models, such as topographic slope, are less important. We suggest that our findings are disparate from previous research in part because our research was conducted over a larger ecological scale than previous research conducted over more circumscribed areas within individual reserves. Thus, extrapolating from habitat studies on small scales to conservation planning on large scales may entail some risk. As the Chinese government is considering the renewal of its logging ban, it should take heed of the panda's dependency on old growth.

    Monday, January 10, 2011

    Save the Huemul!

    Here is a video from one of my most favorite websites, hyperbole and a half, made for her friends that work in Patagonia. To donate or read more about huemuls, go here:

    Big Babies Helped Shape Early Human Societies

    From NPR
    Big Babies Helped Shape Early Human Societies
    by JOE PALCA

    Newborn babies may be a bundle of joy, but they are a heavy bundle of joy. Scientists say human babies weigh proportionally more at birth than the babies of any other primate species.

    Now an anthropologist in Boston has shown that our earliest human ancestors probably had big babies, too — something that may have influenced the development of modern human societies.

    "Humans are strange, in all sorts of ways," says Jeremy DeSilva, an anthropologist at Boston University. We walk upright on two legs and our newborns are helpless.

    "Our babies are unusually large," he says. "They have unusually large heads; they have unusually large bodies compared to other primates."

    A newborn ape typically weighs about 3 percent of what its mother weighs. For humans, that jumps to 6 percent. DeSilva wondered if this were true for a species like Australopithecus that came millions of years before modern humans.

    But there's a fundamental difficulty answering that question: "We don't have fossilized remains of newborns," he says.

    Sizing Up Skulls
    A human baby typically weighs about 6 percent of what its mother weighs. Large, helpless infants required more care from adults and may have contributed to the creation of stable communities. This baby, seen on a beach in Costa Rica, crawls next to an olive ridley sea turtle.
    Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images

    A human baby typically weighs about 6 percent of what its mother weighs. This baby, seen on a beach in Costa Rica, crawls next to an olive ridley sea turtle.

    DeSilva came up with a clever way around that problem. It's a two-step process: First, you use adult skulls to estimate the newborn's skull size. That can be done very accurately for all primates, and DeSilva was able to analyze a dozen Australopithecus skulls.

    "So once you have the size of the head, there is what researchers have called 'the 12 percent rule,'" he says. The 12 percent rule says that the brain represents 12 percent of the total body weight. "It's not exactly 12 percent; in fact in the apes it tends to be more like 10 percent."

    Even with that margin of error, DeSilva says, it was clear that the birth weight of Australopithecus infants was much closer to the 6 percent of modern humans than the 3 percent of apes. He's published these results in the journal, PNAS.

    This change in relative birth size was a critical development as DeSilva believes birthing large babies probably influenced human culture.

    "The whole expression that it takes a village is in part rooted in the fact that we have really big infants that are pretty helpless," he says. "If we wanted to get anything done, we have to hand them off."

    So stable communities developed where some took care of babies while others hunted or did the taxes.

    Down From The Trees
    Life was changing in other ways for Australopithecus. Two and a half million years ago, they began swapping a life in trees for one on solid ground.

    "One of the things I think that goes along with the switch to terrestriality is a switch to a more substantive infant that has a higher chance of survival," says Owen Lovejoy, an anthropologist at Kent State University in Ohio.

    Today's human brain is about 10 percent smaller than the Cro-Magnon brain from more than 20,000 years ago.

    If the trend to proportionally larger babies was nearly complete 2.5 million years ago when the Australopithecus showed up, when did it begin? Anthropologist Robert Martin of the Field Museum in Chicago thinks the answer is an even older human relative called Sahelanthropus.

    "I did some quick calculations after you sent me the paper, and it looks as though Sahelanthropus was intermediate between the great apes and Australopithecus," he says. "So it looks as though Sahelanthropus had already started along that pathway 7 million years ago."

    Martin says there's only one Sahelanthropus skull discovered so far, so that conclusion is preliminary. But it appears that big babies are something humans and our ancestors have been dealing with for a long time.

    Friday, January 7, 2011

    hostile words can cause enduring psychiatric risks for young adults

    Thanks to Vaness VanD for the link!

    From the Huffington Post
    Rudeness Is a Neurotoxin
    by Dr. Douglas Fields (Chief of the Nervous System Development and Plasticity Section, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development)

    Americans are rude. I say this not to preach, which is neither my right nor my intention, but as a scientist, a developmental neuroscientist. My concern about American rudeness relates to my scientific research and knowledge about the development of the human brain. My conclusion comes from a recent trip to Japan, and from a reminder of times past, the death of actress Barbara Billingsley, who died Oct. 16, 2010.

    Billingsley portrayed June Cleaver, the sympathetic and iconic, nurturing mother on the popular 1950s sitcom "Leave It to Beaver." Remember her signature line? "Ward, I'm worried about the Beaver." She confided her concern earnestly to her husband whenever their young son seemed the slightest bit distressed. The latest scientific research backs up with detailed molecular and cellular mechanisms what June Cleaver (and we) always knew intuitively, that through adolescence, the human brain is molded by the social environment in which a child is reared. A disrespectful, stressful social environment is a neurotoxin for the brain and psyche, and the scars are permanent.

    One can debate how accurately television entertainment reflects reality, but there is no doubt that it represents the ideals of the time. Commercial art and entertainment always reflect and reinforce a society's values, as the public buy it (literally) because they value it. There is no doubt that American society has changed dramatically with respect to manners and social discourse in a generation. The "Leave It to Beaver" model of American polite society in the 1950s and early 1960s is gone. Those black-and-white sitcoms have been supplanted today by garish reality television programs that showcase domestic and social interactions driven by narcissism, factionalism, competition and selfishness.

    The contrast between the brash, comparatively disrespectful behavior of Americans today and the courtesy, formal manners, civil discourse, polite behavior and respect for others regardless of social status that is evident in Japanese society is striking. The contrast hits an American like a splash of cold water upon disembarking the airplane in Japan, because it clashes so starkly with our behavior. For an American, Japanese manners and courtesy must be experienced.

    American children today are raised in an environment that is far more hostile than the environment that nurtured today's adults. Children today are exposed to behaviors, profane language, hostilities and stress from which we adults, raised a generation ago, were carefully shielded. When I was a boy, there were no metal detectors at the entrance to my school. The idea was inconceivable, and there was indeed no need for them. Not so today. I wonder: how does this different environment affect brain development?

    First it is helpful to consider, from a biological perspective, what "rudeness" is, so that we can consider what is lost when formal polite behaviors are cast away. People (and animals) living together in large numbers must develop strict formalized behaviors governing interactions between all individuals in the group, or there will be strife and chaos. In the natural world, as in the civilized world, it is stressful for individuals (people or animals) to interact with strangers, and also with other members of a working group and family members. As the size of the group increases, so do the number of interactions between individuals, thus raising the level of stress if not controlled by formal, stereotyped behavior, which in human society is called "manners." The formal "Yes, Sir, Yes, Ma'am," is not a showy embellishment in the military; strict respect and formal polite discourse are the hub of the wheel in any effective and cohesive social structure. True, many chafe under a system of behavior that is overly rigid, as do many young Japanese, but my point is that these polite and formalized behaviors reduce stress in a stressful situation that arises from being an individual in a complex society. Stress is a neurotoxin, especially during development of a child's brain.

    Studies have shown that children exposed to serious psychological trauma during childhood are at risk of suffering increased psychiatric disorders, including depression, anger, hostility, drug abuse, suicidal ideation, loneliness and even psychosis as adults. Using modern brain imaging, the physical damage to these children's brain development can be seen as clearly as a bone fracture on an X-ray. Early-childhood sexual abuse, physical abuse and witnessing domestic violence undermine the normal wiring of brain circuits, especially those circuits connecting the left and right sides of the brain through a massive bundle of connections called the corpus callosum. Impairment in integrating information between right and left hemispheres is associated with increased risk of craving, drug abuse and dependence, and a weakened ability to make moral judgments. (See my post "Of Two Minds on Morality" for new research on the corpus callosum and the ability to make moral judgments.)

    A series of studies by a group of psychiatrists and brain imaging scientists lead by Martin Teicher, of Harvard Medical School, shows that even hostile words in the form of verbal abuse can cause these brain changes and enduring psychiatric risks for young adults. In a study published in 2006, the researchers showed that parental verbal abuse was more strongly associated with these detrimental effects on brain development than was parental physical abuse. In a new study published in the July issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, they report that exposure to verbal abuse from peers is associated with elevated psychiatric symptoms and corpus callosum abnormalities. The main causes are stress hormones, changes in inhibitory neurotransmitters, and environmental experience affecting the formation of myelin electrical insulation on nerve fibers. The most sensitive period for verbal abuse from peers in impairing brain development was exposure during the middle school years. Why? Because this is the period of life when these connections are developing in the human brain, and wiring of the human brain is greatly influenced by environmental experience.

    Unlike the brains of most animals, which are cast at birth, the human brain develops largely after we are born. The brain of a human infant is so feeble that human babies are helpless. Human infants cannot walk, visual perception is rudimentary, and cognitive abilities, likes and dislikes, talents and skills, and the ability to communicate by speech or through reading and writing do not develop fully until the completion of adolescence. Our brains are the product of the environment in which we are nurtured through the first two decades of life. Whether you are Mormon or Muslim or speak Spanish or French depends primarily on where you were born and raised. Our experience during childhood and adolescence determines the wiring of our brain so powerfully that even processing of sensory information is determined by our childhood environment. Whether or not we can hear eight notes in a musical scale or 12, or whether we find symmetry in art beautiful or boring, or whether we can hear the difference in sound of the English letter "R" vs. "L", depends entirely upon whether our brains wired up during childhood in Western culture or Asian culture. The neural circuitry underlying those sensory perceptions is directed by what we experienced in early life, and these circuits cannot be rewired easily in the adult brain.

    One can view the effects of environment on brain development with fatalism or with optimism. It is, however, the reason for human success on this planet. The fact that our brains develop after we are born rather than in the womb allows humans to adapt to changing environments. Biologically speaking, this increases the likelihood of success in reproducing in the environment we find ourselves rather than in the cave-man past coded through natural selection in our genes.

    There were many other sitcoms of the 1950s and 1960s that portrayed politeness and manners as paramount in social and family interactions: "Ozzie and Harriet," "Father Knows Best," "The Donna Reed Show." These are largely forgotten, but "Leave it to Beaver" thrived. It did so not as a commercial success for the ABC television network during its run from 1957 to 1963, but because of its enormous popularity in syndication, where it ran for decades in the late afternoon, watched with devotion by an audience of school children.

    FYI - Linda Vigilant's genetics lab now has a fb page!

    The Vigilant lab at the MPI-EVA (Where I've been doing my Ph.D.) now has a facebook presence!

    Mitochondrial Genome Sequences Effectively Reveal the Phylogeny of Hylobates Gibbons

    Chan Y-C, Roos C, Inoue-Murayama M, Inoue E, Shih C-C, et al. (2010) Mitochondrial Genome Sequences Effectively Reveal the Phylogeny of Hylobates Gibbons. PLoS ONE 5(12): e14419. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0014419

    Uniquely among hominoids, gibbons exist as multiple geographically contiguous taxa exhibiting distinctive behavioral, morphological, and karyotypic characteristics. However, our understanding of the evolutionary relationships of the various gibbons, especially among Hylobates species, is still limited because previous studies used limited taxon sampling or short mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequences. Here we use mtDNA genome sequences to reconstruct gibbon phylogenetic relationships and reveal the pattern and timing of divergence events in gibbon evolutionary history.

    Methodology/Principal Findings
    We sequenced the mitochondrial genomes of 51 individuals representing 11 species belonging to three genera (Hylobates, Nomascus and Symphalangus) using the high-throughput 454 sequencing system with the parallel tagged sequencing approach. Three phylogenetic analyses (maximum likelihood, Bayesian analysis and neighbor-joining) depicted the gibbon phylogenetic relationships congruently and with strong support values. Most notably, we recover a well-supported phylogeny of the Hylobates gibbons. The estimation of divergence times using Bayesian analysis with relaxed clock model suggests a much more rapid speciation process in Hylobates than in Nomascus.


    Use of more than 15 kb sequences of the mitochondrial genome provided more informative and robust data than previous studies of short mitochondrial segments (e.g., control region or cytochrome b) as shown by the reliable reconstruction of divergence patterns among Hylobates gibbons. Moreover, molecular dating of the mitogenomic divergence times implied that biogeographic change during the last five million years may be a factor promoting the speciation of Sundaland animals, including Hylobates species.

    Wednesday, January 5, 2011

    Report Linking Vaccine to Autism 'Fraudulent,' Says British Medical Journal

    From ABC news
    Report Linking Vaccine to Autism 'Fraudulent,' Says British Medical Journal

    Editorial Suggests Dr. Andrew Wakefield, Who Linked Vaccine to Autism, Falsified Data

    Evidence published a decade ago, giving birth to the belief of a connection between vaccines and autism, has been deemed outright "fraudulent," according to an editorial published Wednesday in the British Medical Journal.

    Dr. Andrew Wakefield, a former British surgeon, published research in 1998 that seemed to establish a link between vaccines and autism. But authors of the editorial confirmed previous suggestions that Wakefield skewed patients' medical records to support his hypothesis that the widely-used measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) combination vaccine was causing autism and irritable bowel disease.

    The autism-vaccine link was one of the major medical controversies of the last decade.

    "Clear evidence of falsification of data should now close the door on this damaging vaccine scare," the authors wrote in the editorial.

    According to the editorial, Wakefield stood to gain financially from his purported findings because of his involvement in a lawsuit against manufacturers of the MMR vaccine. British news reports said Wakefield was hired as a consultant by lawyers trying to sue the vaccine's manufacturers. His compensation, they said, was about $750,000.

    Wakefield's representatives would not offer an on-the-record comment today.

    The editorial may not be enough to dissuade many people who believe Wakefield's claims, no matter how compelling the scientific evidence, according to Dr. Paul Offit, chief of the Section of Infectious Diseases at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia.

    "It's unfair for the BMJ to call him a fraud, because as a fraud you have to have mal intent," said Offit. "But if you give Wakefield a lie detector test and ask him if he thinks MMR causes autism, he'd say yes. And he would probably pass, because he holds to it as one holds to a religious belief."

    Science Lost in Personal Stories
    Wakefield's claim, first published in The Lancet, has since been roundly discredited. But though the paper was retracted from the journal in February 2010, it is still cited by some doctors and many parents of children with autism.

    Colleen McGrath, 42, of San Diego, Cali, heard Wakefield speak at a local autism conference in July 2010 and said she knew she was doing the right thing by selectively choosing which vaccines would be best for her two children.

    McGrath's children do not have autism. But as preschool teacher, she said she and her colleagues began wondering whether there was a connection between some of the children who were vaccinated and their subsequent diagnoses of developmental disorders.

    So at the time, McGrath held off on giving her son, now age 9, the second of the two doses that make up the MMR vaccine. And now she says she does not plan to vaccinate either of her children against whooping cough.

    "I don't know if I did right or wrong, or whether vaccinating them would make a difference," said McGrath. "But I'm taking precautions because of what I've researched and seen and heard from friends, teachers, and other parents."

    McGrath said "I felt sick to my stomach" when she heard that Wakefield's paper included skewed data. But she says she still believes the purported connection.

    "Some of these kids [I saw] have been profoundly affected," she said. "He was presenting sick kids that were getting better. He was healing these kids and I don't understand why he was doing the wrong thing."
    Wakefield Culprit Public Health Outbreaks, Many Experts Say
    Although Wakefield's 1998 paper only suggested a connection between autism and the MMR vaccine, public suspicion spread to nearly all other routine vaccines.

    "People are far more compelled by fear than reason," said Offit.

    Over 90 percent of school-aged children are vaccinated against MMR in most schools nationwide, according to a 2010 report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Still, mumps cases are the second highest reported disease among all of the vaccine preventable diseases, according to the CDC.

    Many experts said many parents more often question whether their children should receive other vaccines such as pertussis or whooping cough, or varicella, known as chicken pox.

    "There is no doubt that the unsubstantiated concern regarding the MMR vaccine caused by Dr. Wakefield has resulted in many cases of vaccine preventable diseases," said Dr. Gary Freed, director of the division of pediatrics at the University of Michigan Health System.

    For some families concern over one vaccine spiraled into fears of others, said Freed.

    "The damage that occurred over those years as a result of these concerns--outbreaks of vaccine preventable diseases and in some cases, deaths-- cannot be reversed," said Dr. Ari Brown, a pediatrician in Austin, TX, and author of the "Expecting 411" book series.

    While many experts trace the steps of vaccine scare back to Wakefield's initial report, it is now time to let science move all further research, said Offit.

    "He made an extraordinary claim with no extraordinary evidence," said Offit, adding that the belief is so ingrained among many, including Wakefield himself. "The only way for this issue to be put to rest is when we have a clear cause of autism," said Offit.

    David Amaral, Beneto Foundation chair and research director of The M.I.N.D. Institute at the University of California, Davis, agreed, adding that many in the scientific community have already let the paper go. The public should do the same, he said.

    "What is most destructive in an episode such as this is the undermining of the public's confidence in the integrity of science," said Amaral. "Without replication, fraud and poorly conducted research will not stand the test of time."

    Monday, January 3, 2011

    Did President Obama Play Secret Santa to the Alamogordo chimpanzees?

    NB: "The 200 chimpanzees living at Alamogordo ... should not be confused with the 266 chimpanzees STC [save the chimps] rescued in 2002 from The Coulston Foundation. The STC chimps are safe and will never be returned to biomedical research. However, Save the Chimps believes that the APF chimps, who have not been used in biomedical research for nearly ten years, deserve permanent retirement.
    [STC's Statement on the APF's Chimpanzees - July 2010]
    previous DNApes post can be found HERE

    From the Huffington Post
    Did President Obama Play Secret Santa?

    As Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico packed his bags and prepared to relinquish his office, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) gave him a beautiful going-away present. It was something that the governor had journeyed to Washington back in August to ask the NIH to do: call a halt to the federal government's absurd and cruel plan to take 202 chimpanzees -- who had once involuntarily served as research subjects for the U.S. Air Force and were now supposed to be "retired" -- and subject them once again to years of experiments. I wondered on this very blog if President Obama would step in to save the chimpanzees, and perhaps now he has.

    The "Alamogordo chimpanzees," as they are known, had been in limbo for years, left to languish alone at Holloman Air Force base, isolated from each other and locked in barren cells, with only a cement slab to sleep on and with nothing to see or do -- certainly sheer torture for a thinking, feeling being of any species, let alone the species closest to our own. Then, some years ago, the process of rehabilitation and socialization had begun, some 200 chimpanzees having been released to sanctuary, until, that is, the NIH put the kibosh on it. The chimpanzees had finally been given blankets, which they wrapped around themselves at night and used to cover their heads; they had started to hold hands with fellow chimpanzees through holes knocked in the walls; and they were given objects to handle and rattle and puzzle over. Plans were made to bring them to lush plots of land in Florida, surrounded by moats, where they could become themselves again, forming troupes and tribes. You can see "the ones that got away" before the NIH's foul decision here. You can even sponsor one of them, like Gromek, who was captured as a baby in Africa in 1962, wrenched away from his mother for use in the U.S. Air Force space program. Gromek spent more than 40 years in a cell and makes it clear, by turning his back, that he wants nothing to do with human beings anymore.

    As recently as two months ago, NIH had stubbornly refused to listen to Mr. Richardson or anyone else appealing for mercy for the chimpanzees. But, over the months, hundreds of thousands of people have come forward to join the governor, including retired astronauts; the world's leading authority on chimpanzees, Dr. Jane Goodall; and, or so it seemed, almost everyone who has ever watched a National Geographic special or read anything about chimpanzees in the wild or in captivity. Chimpanzees are known for their ability to use tools, which they have sometimes secreted away until their zookeepers have left and then used to undo locks and escape their cages. They are known for their fierce defense of their families, their dances of great abandon in the rain and under waterfalls, and their perhaps less attractive but very "human" traits, like the propensity to lie, cheat, steal, and be craftily unfaithful to their mates.

    In the end, the weight of public and professional opinion won for the apes, or was it that President Obama, who is known for taking the more diplomatic route over the swift kick up the backside that I would have favored, had a quiet word in the secretary's ear?

    It has been almost 30 years since chimpanzee experimenter Dr. Alfred Prince appealed to his colleagues, gathered at an NIH symposium in Washington, to join him in recognizing chimpanzees as the intelligent, social animals they are and urged the NIH to adopt a "Chimpanzee Bill of Rights." Over the holidays, the NIH said, in announcing the cancelation of the transfer plans, that it has simply "put on hold" the plan to ship the chimpanzees to Texas -- to be treated as living test tubes, to be infected with viruses, and to have their organs biopsied -- while it studies the situation for a couple of years. But let us hope that, in reality, this announcement of a halt to the plan means that the moment has arrived when the chimpanzees' right to live unharmed and as individuals, rather than as test tubes, will be accepted as part of our evolving understanding of other forms of life.

    Regrettably, 14 chimpanzees had already been trucked out of Alamogordo and into laboratory cages when the call came. They were not lucky enough to scrape by under the wire. The NIH must be asked to return them to Alamogordo and allow them to resume their long-awaited rehabilitation.

    Autism and Oxytocin

    If you are a long time reader you know I am a bit obsessed with oxytocin, this report came from the NPR today but I am a little confused because excessive oxytocin has also been linked with autism depending on which sideo of the brain the receptors are expressed in, see here: -MA

    From NPR
    Scientists Test 'Trust Hormone' For Autism Fight

    For decades, parents of children with autism have been searching for a drug or diet to treat the disorder. People with autism have impaired feelings of trust and empathy, and early studies show that the hormone oxytocin could help.

    Their latest hope is the hormone oxytocin. It's often called the trust hormone or the cuddle hormone. And just to be clear, it has nothing to do with the narcotic oxycontin.

    But some children with autism are already being treated with oxytocin, even though it's not approved for this purpose.

    The Trust Hormone
    It's no wonder parents of children with autism have high hopes for oxytocin. So do a lot of researchers, like Jennifer Bartz at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

    "I think it definitely has promise ... and that's why we're studying it," Bartz says.

    The body releases oxytocin to produce contractions during labor and lactation in nursing mothers. Doctors also give it to help with childbirth. A few years ago, researchers realized that oxytocin also affects the brain.

    Bartz says a dose given in a nasal spray seems to promote feelings of trust and empathy and bonding in both men and women. Those same feelings are often impaired in people with autism.

    "Autism is associated with deficits in social cognition and social functioning," Bartz says. "People have thought, 'Well, perhaps oxytocin might be a good treatment for those deficits in autism.'"

    So Bartz and others have been testing this idea. One study in her lab looked at people's ability to recognize emotions in others. She says people with autistic traits usually aren't as good at this as other people.

    "But on oxytocin, their performance was indistinguishable," she says. "So we were really excited about this because it really suggests that it might be especially helpful for this population."

    Too Early To Tell
    But so far there are only a few small studies, and none with young children. Sue Carter, a biologist at the Brain-Body Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says that's not much to go on.

    "If I had an autistic child, I would not try this because I wouldn't want my child to be one who we later discovered had been harmed in some way," she says.

    Oxytocin affects the part of the nervous system that controls functions like heart rate, breathing and digestion. Prescription versions carry warnings about side effects, including bleeding and seizures.

    Carter says that's just from short-term treatment with the hormone.

    "The big problem here is that there isn't any research to speak of at all on the long-term effects of oxytocin, the effects of repeated treatments, at least in children," she says.

    Carter says it's possible that long-term treatment could cause a child's body to produce less oxytocin of its own or become less responsive to the hormone.

    New Study In Younger Children
    Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer for the advocacy group Autism Speaks and a researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says there's a pressing need for rigorous scientific studies of the hormone.

    "Some physicians are already administering oxytocin to children sometimes as young as 2 years of age," she says. "So it's very important that we good science behind that. Is it really effective? Which children is it most effective for? And importantly, are there any adverse effects?"

    So Autism Speaks is funding a new study in which autistic children as young as 3 will receive oxytocin. But results are many months off.

    NPE side note:
    Treating Autism?— by Eliza Barclay

    Long before oxytocin became the "cure du jour," parents and doctors began experimenting with a variety of treatments for children with autism. While some behavior and communication approaches have been thoroughly studied and are approved by the American Academy of Pediatrics, many other popular treatments are not.

    According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to a third of parents of children with autism have tried complementary or alternative medicine for their kids. And while researchers are beginning to study some of these speculative treatments in controlled trials, many remain controversial and a few are potentially dangerous.

    Some of the most popular, but untested autism treatments:

    * Vitamin supplements
    * Probiotic supplements
    * Gluten-free (or wheat free) diet
    * Casesin-free (or milk protein free) diet
    * Yeast-free diet
    * Chelation (a procedure that removes heavy metals like lead from the body)
    * Hormones, like secretin, which controls digestion

    While the CDC and other health agencies caution against unproven treatments, there are opportunities to participate in medical research trials for treating autism. Parents interested in learning more about clinical trials for experimental treatments can contact the Autism Treatment Network, which connects families with researchers.

    Sunday, January 2, 2011

    For the last 20,000 years human brains have ben getting smaller

    From NPR
    Our Brains Are Shrinking. Are We Getting Dumber?

    When it comes to brain size, bigger doesn't always mean better. As humans continue to evolve, scientists say our brains are actually getting smaller.

    The downsizing of human brains is an evolutionary fact that took science writer Kathleen McAuliffe by surprise.

    "I said, 'What? I thought it was getting bigger!'" she tells NPR's Jacki Lyden. That was the story up to 20,000 years ago, she learned. Then, the brains of our ancestors reversed course and started getting smaller — and they've been shrinking ever since.

    Cro-Magnon man, who lived in Europe 20,000 to 30,000 years ago, had the biggest brains of any human species. In comparison, today's human brain is about 10 percent smaller. It's a chunk of brain matter "roughly equivalent to a tennis ball in size," McAuliffe says.

    The experts aren't sure about the implications of this evolutionary trend. Some think it might be a dumbing-down process. One cognitive scientist, David Geary, argues that as human society grows increasingly complex, individuals don't need to be as intelligent in order to survive and reproduce.

    But not all researchers are so pessimistic. Brian Hare, an anthropologist at the Duke University Institute for Brain Sciences, thinks the decrease in brain size is actually an evolutionary advantage.

    The Domesticated Brain

    "A smaller brain is the signature of selection against aggression," Hare tells Lyden. "Another way to say that is an increase in tolerance."

    Hare says when a population selects against aggression, they can be considered to be domesticated. And for a variety of domesticated animals like apes, dogs or turkeys, you can see certain physical characteristics emerge. Among these traits are a lighter and more slender skeleton, a flattened forehead — and decreased brain size.

    Hare's studies focus on chimpanzees and bonobos. In evolutionary terms, they are much like humans, but are physically quite different from one another. Bonobos have smaller brains than chimpanzees — and are also much less aggressive.

    While both have the cognitive ability to solve a given puzzle, Hare says, chimpanzees are much less likely to accomplish it if it involves teamwork. Not so with bonobos.

    "If the food is quite sparse and it's not easy to share, [bonobos] can solve the problem," Hare says. "Chimpanzees, in that same context — where there's not much food and it's not easy to share — they just refuse to work together. They can't solve the problem, even though they know how."

    Hare does admit that the shrinking human brain could signal an evolutionary dumbing-down, but more important is what the phenomenon tells us about ourselves. Comparing our evolution to that of other animals enriches our understanding of the human condition.

    "The nice thing about studying animals and human nature," Hare says, "is that it helps us design or think of some strategies that deal with our darker sides."