Thursday, October 28, 2010

In praise of tiny, perfect moles

It’s far into the future and science can do pretty much anything. Rabbits are a luminous green, pigs have human brain tissue and lions have been genetically spliced with lambs. That’s the premise of Margaret Atwood’s latest book “The Year of the Flood.”

Adam One is the leader of a sect known as “God’s Gardeners,” devoted to the blending of science and religion. Most of human life has been obliterated, but God’s Gardeners believe in the healing power of song. As the world is ending, they sing the praises of Earth’s creatures, like the tiny, perfect mole. And the little carrion beetles “that seek unlikely places. We turn our husks to the elements and tidy up our spaces.”

You’ll get goose bumps and giggles watching these videos of Elizabeth Saliers, backed by Emory musicians, singing some of the hymns from the novel. The special performances were for Atwood herself, while she was at Emory recently to give a series of talks on science fiction.

Related: Imagining new worlds

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Mosquito monitoring saves lives and money

Photo by Carol Clark

Cutting surveillance for mosquito-borne diseases would likely lead to an exponential increase in both the number of human cases and the financial costs when a disease outbreak occurs, according to an analysis by Emory University.

The Public Library of Science (PLoS) published the research
, led by disease ecologist Gonzalo Vazquez-Prokopec.

“Our analysis shows that halting mosquito surveillance can increase the management costs of epidemics by more than 300 times, in comparison with sustained surveillance and early case detection,” he said.

The research was prompted by a U.S. government proposal last spring to slash funding for the vector-borne disease program of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Congress ultimately voted to retain the program’s budget at the same levels, for 2011.

“This analysis provides scientific-based evidence of the need for more funding of mosquito surveillance, not less,” said Uriel Kitron, a co-author of the study and the chair of Emory’s Department of Environmental Studies.

Emory scientists are monitoring both mosquitoes and birds in Atlanta, to learn how West Nile virus moves through an urban center. Photo by Carol Clark.

Diseases spread by mosquitoes and other blood-sucking vectors are major public health risk worldwide. They include a wide variety of bacterial, parasitic and viral infections, such as malaria, West Nile virus, dengue fever and Lyme disease.

The Emory analysis used data from two outbreaks of dengue fever in Cairns, Australia, that occurred in 2003 and 2009. (Dengue fever, an extremely debilitating viral disease spread by mosquitoes, can be fatal.) A mathematical model was applied to the Cairns data to evaluate the economic impact of hypothetical epidemic curves, plotted against different response times. A response within two weeks of the introduction of the pathogen was assumed to occur with active disease surveillance in place, and delays of six-to-eight weeks were assumed when active disease and vector surveillance were eliminated.

In Cairns, where mosquito surveillance is active, the reactions to the dengue fever outbreaks were rapid. The costs of the epidemics – including vector control, case diagnosis, blood screening and work days lost to disease – totaled U.S.$150,000 for the 2003 outbreak and $1.1 million for the 2009 outbreak.

The analysis showed that a delayed response of four-to-six weeks to both Cairns dengue outbreaks would have resulted in drastically escalated costs of up to U.S.$382 million. A slight increase in the virulence of the strain could have multiplied the cost by another 10 times.

Cairns has a tropical climate similar to South Florida, where a dengue fever outbreak occurred in 2009, Vazquez-Prokopec noted. “Predictions based on our analysis show that, if the Miami area had not had a surveillance system in place, the costs to control the Florida outbreak could have been higher than the entire U.S. budget for mosquito surveillance,” he said.

Related: From swine flu to dengue fever, rising risks

While the modern-day United States has been relatively unscathed by vector-borne disease, it is not immune to a host of new and emerging pathogens, the researchers warned.

The emergence of West Nile virus (WNV) in New York City in 1999 spurred better mosquito surveillance, and serves as an example of the consequences of a delayed response. By the time a correct diagnosis was made and proper controls were initiated, the pathogen had spread throughout the country. By the end of 2008, WNV had generated 28,961 known cases and 1,130 fatalities.

Co-authors for the study also include Emory disease ecologist Luis Chaves and S. Ritchie and J. Davis from the Cairns Tropical Public Health Unit.

Sewage raises West Nile virus risk
Urban mosquito research creates buzz

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

How childhood makes us who we are

Humans have a “strangely shaped childhood,” said Emory anthropologist Melvin Konner during his recent Life of the Mind talk. When you consider our large brain size, we get kicked out of the womb a lot earlier than our last common ancestors shared with the chimpanzees. We also get weaned earlier, and we have a longer time before sexual maturation.

Konner wrote “The Evolution of Childhood,” a landmark book on human development that explores our biological past to understand our psychological present.

We have a mid-growth spurt between the ages of 6 and 8, “and then this long period of quiescence before puberty really sets in,” he said. “It’s the period when the emotional intensity and turmoil of early childhood is over, and before the turmoil of puberty. And it’s a period of great opportunity to create a cultural being.”

During middle childhood, “children are expansively exploring the world and each other, and building their own brains through the process of play,” Konner said.

Play has been compared to the evolutionary process. “It generates seemingly random and senseless movements and engagement with this world,” he said, adding that these movements are central to brain development. “In Georgia right now, playgrounds are being dismantled at schools and recess is being abolished because play is being seen as not contributing to scores on standardized tests. Obviously, we want our children to grow up to fit into our culture, but when you get to the point of dismantling playgrounds you’re abandoning a few million years of evolution, and it’s not such a good policy.”

Related: Is ADHD a disease of civilization?

The playground of hunter-gather societies is the bush around the village. The children roam and play in mixed-sex and multi-age groups, and they make a game of finding food for themselves, Konner said, with the older ones helping the younger ones learn about the environment and what’s edible.

“Modern humans left Africa maybe 80,000 years ago after a couple 100,000 years of primary culture development, and they spread rapidly,” Konner said. “I have this vivid image in my head of kids going out and roving further and further and maybe pioneering the direction of the spread of humans.”

The nurturing mind
The fruits of play

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Are hugs the new drugs?

Research is showing that compassion meditation -- focused, warm thoughts about yourself and others -- may have positive effects on both your mental and physical well-being. 

By Carol Clark

Basic empathy is a biological given. “If you talk with a sad person, you are going to adopt a sad posture, and if you talk to a happy person, by the end you will probably be laughing,” said Emory primatologist Frans de Waal. He explained that evolution has programmed us to mirror both the physical and emotional states of others.

De Waal gave the opening remarks at a conference bringing together the Dalai Lama and scientists studying effects of compassion meditation on the brain, physical health and behavior.

“Empathy is biased – it’s stronger for those that are close to you than those that are distant,” De Waal said. “Nature has built in rewards for the things that we need to do, and being pro-social is something that we need when we live in groups.”

In order to get from empathy to compassion and altruism, you need to identify others as distinct from you. While it used to be assumed that altruistic tendencies were only possible in humans, de Waal said that targeted helping of others has recently been observed among apes and elephants.

Photo by Frans de Waal shows a young chimpanzee consoling an adult male that just lost a fight.

Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist from the University of Wisconsin, recalled when he first began studying the effects of compassion meditation in 1992. He traveled to a Tibetan Buddhist monastery and attached electrodes to the head of an expert practitioner. The other monks began laughing.

“I thought it was because he looked so funny with the electrodes,” Davidson said. But it turned out the monks were amused that he was trying to study the effects of compassion by attaching electrodes to the practitioner’s head, rather than to his heart.

Years later, Davidson is finding that the monks’ view may be on target. New research shows that the heart rates of expert practitioners beat more quickly while they are meditating than the hearts of novices. “We believe that compassion meditation is facilitating communication between the heart and the mind,” Davidson said.

Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill cited her research into the effects of “love and kindness meditation,” or LKM, on the vagus nerve. The nerve, which extends from the brain stem to the heart, helps regulate emotions and bodily systems. The effectiveness of the vagus nerve is measured by its tone, or fitness. The higher the vagal tone, the better the vagus nerve performs as a regulatory pathway.

“With just six weeks of LKM training in novices, we see improvements in resting vagal tone,” Fredrickson said. “Just like physical exercise improves muscle tone, emotion training improves vagal tone.”

High vagal tone is related to both a person’s physical health and their ability to feel loving connections with others, Fredrickson said. “In a way, our bodies are designed for love, because the more we love, the more healthy we become.”

Emory researchers Charles Raison and Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi described their ongoing research into the effects of compassion meditation and depression. Negi developed a secular form of meditation for the research, based on the Tibetan Buddhist practice called “lojong.” Lojong uses an analytical approach to challenge a person’s thoughts and emotions toward other people, with the long-term goal of developing altruistic behavior.

The pair collaborated on a 2005 study that showed that college students who regularly practice compassion meditation had a significant reduction in stress and physical responses to stress. They recently launched the Compassion and Attention Longitudinal Meditation Study (CALM), to explore the physical effects of different forms of meditation.

“We’re trying to zero in on what is it about meditation that is useful for people’s health,” Raison said.

Emory researchers are also getting positive preliminary results in compassion meditation studies involving schoolchildren ages six to eight and adolescents in the foster care system.

“This seems like the dawning of a new day,” the Dalai Lama said. “We’ve heard about the benefits, and now we need to act to cultivate compassion from kindergarten to universities.”

Elementary thoughts on love and kindness
Monks + scientists = a new body of thought
The biology of shared laughter
Hugs go way back in evolution
Escaping mental prisons

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Dalai Lama: Make inner peace, not war

“It seems clear that it’s important to synthesize ideas” and move towards an integrated understanding of the world, and of our selves, His Holiness the Dalai Lama said during his recent visit to Emory.

His visit began with an update on the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative (ETSI). The initiative aims to combine insights from centuries of Tibetan-Buddhist compassion meditation with the knowledge of modern science.

During the past 100 years, science and technology have advanced tremendously, “but at the same time, the 20th century was a century of bloodshed. More than 200 million people were killed through violence,” he said.

“Nuclear physics was one of the great achievements for science, but that great achievement brought fear and destruction,” the Dalai Lama said, referring to the use of nuclear weapons by the United States during World War II.

“Scientific achievement, in order to be constructive, to bring more happiness, more peace and a healthier world, ultimately depends on our minds and our emotions,” he said, adding that special efforts are needed to try to cultivate inner peace. “What’s important is the sense of well-being for others, in other words a compassionate attitude.”

Monks + scientists = a new body of thought
The quest for inner peace and happiness

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Morals without God?

Emory psychologist Frans de Waal writes an opinion piece in the New York Times:

I was born in Den Bosch, the city after which Hieronymus Bosch named himself. This obviously does not make me an expert on the Dutch painter, but having grown up with his statue on the market square, I have always been fond of his imagery, his symbolism, and how it relates to humanity’s place in the universe. This remains relevant today since Bosch depicts a society under a waning influence of God. His famous triptych with naked figures frolicking around, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” seems a tribute to paradisiacal innocence. The tableau is far too happy and relaxed to fit the interpretation of depravity and sin advanced by puritan experts. It represents humanity free from guilt and shame either before the Fall or without any Fall at all.
Detail from "The Garden of Earthly Delights" by Hieronymus Bosch. The painting combines references from religion, nature and science. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

For a primatologist, like myself, the nudity, references to sex and fertility, the plentiful birds and fruits and the moving about in groups are thoroughly familiar and hardly require a religious or moral interpretation. Bosch seems to have depicted humanity in its natural state, while reserving his moralistic outlook for the right-hand panel of the triptych in which he punishes — not the frolickers from the middle panel — but monks, nuns, gluttons, gamblers, warriors, and drunkards.

Five centuries later, we remain embroiled in debates about the role of religion in society. As in Bosch’s days, the central theme is morality. Can we envision a world without God? Would this world be good? Don’t think for one moment that the current battle lines between biology and fundamentalist Christianity turn around evidence. One has to be pretty immune to data to doubt evolution, which is why books and documentaries aimed at convincing the skeptics are a waste of effort. They are helpful for those prepared to listen, but fail to reach their target audience. The debate is less about the truth than about how to handle it. For those who believe that morality comes straight from God the creator, acceptance of evolution would open a moral abyss.

Read the whole article in the New York Times.

The biology of shared emotion
Teaching evolution enters a new era
A new twist on an ancient story
Icons of evolution

Friday, October 15, 2010

The quest for inner peace and happiness

Depression is the most common mental disorder in the world. In addition to emotional suffering, it takes a terrible physical toll. “Over time, depression damages the heart and sets people up to get diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease,” says Charles Raison, clinical director of the Emory Mind-Body Program.

Emory researchers are looking for ways to treat depression without medication – including the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of compassion meditation. An initial study found that Emory students who regularly practiced compassion meditation had a significant reduction in stress and physical responses to stress. The research is now expanding, to explore whether a range of meditative practices have effects on the body and the brain that would be protective not just for depression, but other illnesses as well.

On Monday, Oct. 18, the Dalai Lama will lead a “Compassion Meditation Conference” at Emory, bringing together meditation experts and neuroscientists for a public discussion on the latest research into empathy, compassion and meditation.

So if you are not depressed, are you happy? What exactly is happiness? One way to explore the meaning of this elusive state of being is through the ancient traditions of the world’s major religions.

Happiness is something that people tend to take for granted, says Scott Kugle, an Emory expert on Islam. “But very often,” he adds, “you lose sight of the deeper psychological or devotional insights that are required to get to a point of deep happiness.”

On Sunday, October 17, the Dalai Lama will head an “Interfaith Summit on Happiness.” Broadcast journalist Krista Tippett will moderate the discussion, also including representatives of Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths.

The pursuit of happiness
Breathe in, breathe out, be happy
Richard Gere on Emory, Tibet and shyness
Monks + scientists = a new body of thought

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Monks + scientists = A new body of thought

When you’re talking about cells, are you referring to their minds or their bodies?

The question from a Tibetan translator temporarily stumped Emory biologist Arri Eisen. In Tibetan, every organism has a mind and a body, and you have to be speaking about one or the other, explained Geshe Dadul Namgyal, a member of the team translating Western scientific concepts into the Tibetan language.

“I told him that Westerners don’t usually think of cells as having a mind,” Eisen recalls.

These are the sorts of conversations sparked by a groundbreaking program to bring the best of Western science to Tibetan monastics, and the insights of Buddhist meditative practices to Western scientists.

Launched in 2006, the program recently became officially known as the Robert A. Paul Emory Tibet Science Initiative (ETSI). It was the vision of Paul, the former dean of Emory College, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama that led to the formation of the Emory Tibet Partnership and the ETSI.

“It’s the way globalization should happen – taking the best of different traditions and creating something new,” says Eisen, one of many Emory science faculty who are involved with developing the ETSI.
Geshe Lhakdor, director of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, looks at one of the early textbooks created for the program. Photo by Kay Hinton.

“The enthusiasm and the commitment of the science faculty has been a huge gift,” says Geshe Lobsang Negi, co-director of the ETSI.

“It’s amazing how smoothly the program has developed,” Negi says. “The pieces keep coming together as we need them.”

Emory faculty are developing special science curricula for the monastics, and teaching it every summer at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in Dharamsala, India, the seat of the Tibetan community in exile. The faculty are working in conjunction with three Tibetan translators based at Emory, and five more at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala.

Prototype materials were created in English covering three areas: physics, neuroscience and biology and the life sciences. Work is under way to refine the curricula, based on feedback from faculty and the monastics as the program progresses. The long-term goal is to develop and translate five primers for each of these three areas, and eventually integrate the five-year science education program into Tibetan monasteries and nunneries throughout India. (The completed texts for the first-year primers for neuroscience and for biology and the life sciences were recently sent to the printers.)

Instruction of the first cohort of 30 monastics began in 2008. Six monks from this cohort are on the Emory campus this fall, to sharpen their English skills while gaining more exposure to Western-style science.

“We want to train monastics and other science educators in India to teach the curriculum themselves, so that the program becomes rooted in the community and doesn’t disappear,” Eisen says.

Each year, ETSI keeps expanding its reach. Its student body now includes 90 monks and nuns from 19 different monastic institutions.

“When ETSI first began, there was quite a bit of skepticism in the monastic community about the idea,” Negi says. “Now we’re seeing a 180 degree shift in that attitude. There is huge interest and enthusiasm among the major monasteries for making Western science part of their education.”

Where science meets spirituality
Tibetan monks contemplate science
The quest for inner peace and happiness

Monday, October 11, 2010

Wasps add buzz to National Fossil Day

A chunk of limestone studded with fossils of wasp cocoons. Photo by Anthony Martin.

It’s National Fossil Day on Wednesday, October 13, and we can’t resist getting in at least one good dig: Why are so many paleontologists focused on the body fossils of dinosaurs? After all, anyone can stumble across a dinosaur bone. But it takes a special eye to hone in on prehistoric wasp cocoons.

Emory paleontologist Anthony Martin has just published the first study linking wasps and dinosaur nests, in the journal Historical Biology. It finds that wasps were nesting with dinosaurs 75 million years ago in the Two Medicine Formation of northwestern Montana.

“Insects reproduce quickly, and they’re extremely sensitive to their environments, so they can tell us a lot about prehistoric conditions,” says Martin, a leading expert in trace fossils.

Co-author David Varricchio, a dinosaur expert from Montana State University, had been studying dinosaur nests in a limestone outcrop at the site, and called in Martin to help analyze fossils that resembled insect pupae. They correlated the size, shape and weave-like impressions on the surface of the fossils with those of modern-day wasp cocoons. They also found the same prehistoric and modern-day correlations in the traces of prehistoric insect burrows and brooding chambers within the assemblage of dinosaur nests.

The Two Medicine Formation consists mostly of sandstone and limestone, deposited by rivers and deltas during the Late Cretaceous. The area is known for its dinosaur eggs and the earthen, ring-shaped remnants of the ground nests that held them.

The solitary wasps that were burrowing amid the dinosaur nests can provide clues about the plants that may have been flowering in the area and the climate. “Modern insects that use soil for reproduction tend to be relatively picky about where they reproduce,” Martin says. “Bees and wasps like really well-drained soils, for instance, and prefer semi-arid conditions.”
Martin stands by a section of the outcrop containing the nests of dinosaurs and prehistoric wasps. Photo by Ashley Proust.

The fossil cocoons litter the ground around the dinosaur-nesting site. “You can actually use the cocoons as prospector tools if you are looking for dinosaur nests,” Martin says.

Now that you know what to look for, click here for a bonus video on how to sustainably store your fossilized wasp cocoons, should you come across any.

Trace fossils include cocoons, tracks, trails, burrows, nests and dung. It’s not the glamorous branch of paleontology, and yet trace fossils often tell stories that body fossils cannot. For instance, Martin recently determined the swimming pattern of a prehistoric fish in a lake that disappeared millions of years ago.

Here’s a trace fossil quiz: What prehistoric animal left the impression in the rock in the photo at left? Look closely at the dark outline and see if you can make out a familiar creature.

If you’re stumped, click here for the answer.

Photo by Erich Fitzgerald.

Dinosaur burrows reveal clues to climate change

Friday, October 8, 2010

The monarch butterfly's medicine kit

The journal Ecology Letters just published findings by Emory biologists that monarch butterflies use medication to cure themselves and their offspring of disease.

So what’s in a monarch’s medicine kit? Milkweed – but only a particular species. Experiments show that egg-laying monarchs that are infected with a parasite choose plants that have a medicinal benefit for their caterpillars.

“We believe that our experiments provide the best evidence to date that animals use medication,” says evolutionary biologist Jaap de Roode, who led the research.

Watch the video to learn more, and get a tour of one of the few labs in the world studying monarch butterflies.

Photo at left of a monarch laying her eggs by Jaap de Roode.

Do monarch butterflies use drugs?
What aphids can teach us about immunity

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Modern commerce vs. evolutionary psychology

Photo by Carol Clark

Emory economist Paul Rubin writes in the Wall Street Journal about how evolutionary psychology may play a role in "the protectionist instinct" when it comes to commerce:

As unemployment remains high and the election nears, many politicians are again campaigning against free trade and its cousin, outsourcing. Polls show voters are increasingly skeptical of the benefits of free trade. There is no area where the beliefs of ordinary citizens are more at odds with the views of professional economists.

Why is that? Why do so many people have difficulty understanding the benefits of international trade, while clinging to counterproductive policies that reduce consumer welfare by limiting it? An answer can be found in the writings of the Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek and of evolutionary psychologists.

In "The Fatal Conceit" (1988), Hayek wrote that "man's instincts . . . were not made for the kinds of surroundings, and for the numbers, in which he now lives. They were adapted to life in the small roving bands or troops in which the human race and its immediate ancestors evolved during the few million years while the biological constitution of homo sapiens was being formed." His insight anticipated the modern field of study called evolutionary psychology, which explains current belief systems as being based in part on our evolutionary history.

Read the whole column in the Wall Street Journal
. FYI: The WSJ wants you to subscribe to see the full story, which seems a bit protectionist. : )

Your money and the herd mentality
Getting a grip on cultural evolution

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Hopes high for HIV vaccine

Less than two out of five people who need treatment for HIV in the United States are receiving it, underscoring the tremendous sociological complexities surrounding HIV/AIDS, and the importance of finding a vaccine.

The Emory Center for AIDS Research
recently served as the Atlanta host for the AIDS Vaccine 2010 conference, where scientists from around the world discussed promising research. (See video, above.)

The socioeconomic issues associated with poverty increase the risk for HIV infection and affect the health of people living with HIV. By race/ethnicity, African Americans face the most severe burden of HIV in the United States. At the end of 2007, blacks accounted for almost half of people living with a diagnosis of HIV infection, according to the CDC.

In Africa, an estimated 23 million people are HIV positive, yet only 3 million are receiving anti-retroviral treatment.

Along with efforts to find a vaccine, Africa needs cost-effective social strategies, such as Couples Voluntary Counseling and Testing (CVCT), said Emory vaccine researcher Susan Allen. “The majority of new HIV infections in Africa are acquired from a spouse, and couples are the largest HIV risk group,” she said. “CVCT is an economical, sustainable and proven model for reducing the rate of HIV/AIDS in Africa.”

For more news from AIDS Vaccine 2010, visit Emory Health Now.

Blazing a new path for development work
Health volunteers battle odds in Ethiopia

Monday, October 4, 2010

In classrooms, are pencils missing the point?


In her blog "Live Shots," Elizabeth Prann of Fox News
reports on how Emory is using technology to engage science students in the classroom:

Along with the required reading list, Emory chemistry lecturer Tracy Morkin requires her students to buy what looks like a television remote at the beginning of the semester. It’s called a “clicker.”

Morkin said it’s a great tool to get every student directly involved in the lecture. She posts multiple-choice questions on an overhead projector, her students then punch their answers into the device and the results are sent to Morkin's computer.

“It’s a way to engage and activate the learning even in a large lecture setting,” Morkin said about clickers. “I love the idea of getting feedback from students in real time. They tell me what they know in that moment and I can adjust my lecture accordingly.”

Preetha Ram, an associate dean for pre-health and science education at Emory says technology is quickly expanding beyond the clicker, to a global virtual study hall called OpenStudy.

Read the full story at the Fox News web site.

What do you think? Will technology ever fully replace the art of taking lecture notes using a pen or pencil?

Should chemistry class be fun?
Computer games called future of education