Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Psychedelics, the brain and shamanism

“Call upon me, for I am the black jaguar. It is me you must evoke if you wish to scare the illness away.” These words of a Brazilian shaman describe the ancient practice of creating a charismatic intermediary with the divine.

In the above video, Emory art historian Rebecca Stone gives a brief overview of an ongoing exhibit at the Carlos Museum, “For I Am the Black Jaguar,” that explores shamanism through art, zoology, botany, religion and anthropology.

The trances that transformed shamans into totems like jaguars and whale sharks were brought about in part by the ingestion of etheogenic substances. Psychiatrists Katherine MacLean and Charles Raison will discuss what happens in the brain during these trances in a special lecture at the museum, on Thursday, November 29 at 7:30 pm.

Tapping traditional remedies to fight modern super bugs

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Chemists fine-tune ideas on how life evolved

By Carol Clark

An iPod can store a music library in a wafer-thin device that fits in your palm, providing a vast amount of data at your fingertips. But a human cell, only a few microns across, contains all of the information that made you. And even more remarkable, the first complex cells are thought to have somehow self-assembled from the fundamental building blocks of life.

The Accounts of Chemical Research (ACR) devoted its entire December issue to ideas about this self-assembly process, and how it could have enabled life to emerge from the chemical soup of early Earth and grow increasingly complex. By understanding this process, chemists hope to boost our ability to bioengineer living systems in ways that benefit us, just as computer engineers do with digital devices like iPods.

“Chemists have spent a long time breaking down cells and looking at their individual components,” says Emory chemist Anil Mehta. “Now we have a fantastic understanding of these parts. So how do we put them together? How can we, as chemists, get new complex networks to emerge from these components that communicate with each other? We are right on the verge of achieving this.”

The special ACS issue was edited by three Emory chemists – Mehta, Jay Goodwin and David Lynn, who are all also part of the NSF/NASA Center for Chemical Evolution – and a University of Utah chemist, Cynthia Burrows.

“We’re trying to figure out how to get from inanimate matter to living matter,” Goodwin says. “It’s one of science’s greatest challenges, and a problem the scientific community has been working on for centuries.”

The quest has heated up during the last decade, largely driven by genetic sequencing technology and our growing understanding of the minimum amount of information needed for evolution.

Fossils from Western Australia indicate that the earliest life may have been primitive bacteria going back about 3.4 billion years. “But it wasn’t until the ribosome appeared, around 3 billion years ago, that life exploded,” Mehta says. “Everything seems to have radiated from the ribosome.”

Ribosomes are essentially little machines that churn out proteins from nucleic acids. And proteins and nucleic acids are two biological macromolecules that learned to collaborate in encoding, transmitting and expressing genetic information.

In a paper included in the ACR issue, the Emory chemists use a digital-to-analog converter model to explain how the polymer cooperation of ribosomes may have helped the first dynamic functional networks reach the critical threshold for the emergence of cellular life.

Presumably, the polymers of proteins and nucleic acids evolved separately, and then found a way to join forces. “They both have strengths and weaknesses,” Goodwin says. “And together they make a system that takes advantage of the strengths of both, generating greater diversity and evolutionary potential.”

The nucleic acids are the digital part of the system, providing the ability to store vast amounts of information, like songs on an iPod, with crucial and exacting accuracy. Proteins are analog, delivering responsiveness and a continually variable range of functionality, such as the ability to communicate with internal and external networks, or play the songs. The ribosome functions like a digital-analog convertor that joins these two components into a single, dynamic system.

“We recognize that the march of molecular history likely had many pathways,” Lynn says. The aim of the special ACR issue is to bring together different areas of research on the problem, he adds. “Just as it takes a diversity in chemical composition for the evolution of life, it takes a diversity of ideas to fully comprehend the origins of that evolution.”

Chemists go in search of little green molecules
Peptides may hold 'missing link' to life

Top image: iStockphoto.com.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Paleontologist goes wild for Thanksgiving

Emory paleontologist Anthony Martin has prepared a special Thanksgiving treat -- a post about wild turkeys on his blog, "Life Traces of the Georgia Coast." Here's an excerpt:

"Unfortunately, because I live in the metropolitan Atlanta area, I never see turkeys other than the dead packaged ones in grocery stores. Nonetheless, one of the ways I experience turkeys as wild, living animals is to visit the Georgia barrier islands, and the best way for me to learn about wild turkey behavior is to track them. This is also great fun for me as a paleontologist, as their tracks remind me of those made by small theropod dinosaurs from the Mesozoic Era. And of course, as most schoolchildren can tell you, birds are dinosaurs, which they will state much more confidently than anything they might know about Benjamin Franklin."

Click here to read more.

Polar dinosaur tracks open new trail to past

Image: Wikipedia Commons.

Friday, November 16, 2012

A clinical look at the Bieber Fever pandemic

Why does the pop superstar Justin Bieber cause most adults to roll their eyes and many adolescent girls to scream and swoon? In the above video, Emory psychologist Jared DeFife explains how cases of Bieber Fever may be tied to both mental, biological and chemical processes of human development.

Batman and the psychology of trauma

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Positive mental health boosts lifespan, study finds

People who are flourishing – both feeling happy and functioning well in their lives – are 60 percent less likely to die prematurely, finds a major study that followed more than 3,000 U.S. adults over 10 years.

The results, published in the American Journal of Public Health, applied to both men and women of varying ages, races, weights and socio-economic status.

“We’ve shown that, even when you factor in many other variables, if you are flourishing you have a dramatically lower risk of premature mortality, no matter what the cause of death,” says lead author Corey Keyes, a sociologist at Emory University and a pioneer of positive psychology.

The data for the analysis drew from the Midlife in the United States Study, which measured baseline positive mental health of the participants in 1995, and followed up in 2005. The ages of the participants spanned 25 to 74 at the beginning of the study, and 35 to 84 at the conclusion.

In the baseline survey, the participants were asked if they had suffered within the past year from depression, panic disorder or generalized anxiety, conditions that have been associated with a higher risk of premature mortality. They were also assessed for emotional happiness, or simply feeling good, and for whether they were functioning well in life, or flourishing. The term flourishing encompasses factors such as managing stress, achieving intimacy with others, working productively and making a contribution to society.

Nearly 50 percent of the study participants, who were representative of the general population, met the criteria for sufficiently high emotional well-being. Only 18 percent, however, were flourishing, meaning they met the full criteria of sufficiently high emotional well-being, combined with sufficiently high social well-being.

“You need both of these qualities for complete happiness,” Keyes says.

A total of 6.3 percent of the participants died during the study period. The odds ratio for mortality was 1.62 for adults who were not flourishing, relative to participants with flourishing mental health.

“What was most amazing to me was that the results held for all ages,” Keyes says. “Even late in life, if you are flourishing you are significantly less likely to die prematurely.”

Tobacco use and physical inactivity, behaviors associated in previous studies with people who have lower levels of emotional well-being, may partially explain how positive mental health affects mortality, Keyes says.

“We focus so much of our national health resources on treating mental illness, when it’s actually the absence of well-being that is getting to us,” Keyes says. “It may be common sense, but it’s uncommon public policy to invest more in promoting well-being.”

Compassion meditation may boost empathy
The pursuit of happiness

Image: iStockphoto.com.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Optical experiment eyes Parthenon mystery

The Parthenon ruins in Athens. "For complex visual and psychological reasons, it's an extremely powerful building," Bonna Wescoat says.

By Carol Clark

The Parthenon, one of the most important buildings in world history, has been studied for centuries, but many questions remain about the 2,500-year-old centerpiece to the Acropolis. Among them is the mystery of why an ornate frieze was located in a seemingly obscure position, high on the outside wall of the Parthenon’s central chamber, and partially blocked by the surrounding colonnade.

An optical experiment, to be led by students of Emory University art historian Bonna Wescoat, will take a fresh look at the puzzle. Volunteer observers have been recruited to participate in the event, to take place on Saturday, November 10, at the Nashville Parthenon, a full-scale replica of the original building.

“We’re recreating the experience of how the ancient Athenians may have viewed the frieze as they approached the Parthenon,” Wescoat says. “This experiment could become a paradigm-shifting intervention in the studies of the frieze. We’re bringing the science of seeing into the discussion, an important and overlooked area.”

The original Parthenon, in Athens, Greece, was built to honor the goddess Athena, the patron of the city. “For complex visual and psychological reasons, it’s an extremely powerful building,” says Wescoat, whose research focuses on ancient Greece. “There’s not a straight line in the Parthenon, every single stone in it is curved and tapered slightly. And the proportions are not the usual one-to-two, which is stable, but four-to-nine. These subtle refinements produce an energy and tension that engages the eye.”

One section of the Parthenon's frieze was still in place when William Stillman took this photograph in the 1860s. (Michael C. Carlos Museum.)

The building was elaborately painted, and outfitted with beautiful statuary and adornments, including the celebrated frieze. Wrapping around the four sides of the building, the carved marble panels depict a ceremonial procession. Now dispersed between museums in London, Paris and Athens, the frieze is considered an icon of Western art.

It has long been debated why such a refined work of art was placed in what seems like an obscure, cramped location. Scholars have surmised that viewers would have to crane their necks to glimpse the frieze, and much of its detail would be lost in the shadowy, ambient light. Some have even suggested that the frieze was not part of the original plan for the Parthenon, and may have been added as an afterthought.

Wescoat is among the doubters of that theory. Her perspective has been shaped both by her work on major archeology projects in Greece and frequent visits to the Nashville Parthenon, about a four-hour drive from Atlanta.

The Nashville Parthenon, originally built for Tennessee’s 1897 Centennial Exposition, is made of concrete, not marble, and it does not include all of the original structure’s ornamentations, such as the frieze. But the replica offers a vision of the Parthenon not as a ruin, but as a complete building.

Bonna Wescoat and graduate student An Jiang compare images of the original frieze to a canvas simulation. Photo by Ann Borden.

“Each time I’ve taken students to the Nashville Parthenon, I’ve thought that the area where the frieze would be located is not as bad as it is made out to be,” Wescoat says. “It’s an intimate area. Tracking the panels with your eye, catching shifting views of them between columns, requires an effort that draws you in. You have to keep moving, just as in the procession portrayed by the frieze. The scene is both timeless and timely, an enduring visual expression of the citizens’ relationship to their divine patron, Athena.”

After officials at the Nashville Parthenon gave their blessing, Wescoat and the 11 students in her seminar called Ancient Greek Architectural Decoration set about designing an experiment to test the visibility of the frieze. They decided to create facsimiles of some of the panels and install them in situ.

Their work began with a reconnaissance trip to Nashville in September, where the students decided to concentrate on panels that would have adorned the northwest corner of the building.

The students returned to Atlanta and set up a workshop in the Michael C. Carlos Museum for their Parthenon Project. They made full-scale line drawings for each of the original marble panels. They researched what colors the ancient Greek artists might have used, and how color might have factored in with the visibility. The end result is five painted canvas panels, and a sixth panel made of insulation foam to imitate the 2-inch relief of the original frieze.

“It gives you a much better appreciation for the artists who carved this out of marble,” says Rebecca Levitan, a senior art history major, as she dabs a finishing touch of paint on a horse’s hoof.

The ancient Greek figures take on a new vibrancy with paint. “They start to come alive as we add color and shading,” says Katie Cupello, a graduate student in art history.

Click on the photo above, to enlarge the image and get a better view of the completed panels. Photo by Katie Cupello.

This weekend, the students will return to the Nashville Parthenon with the completed panels, where they will be installed in their correct positions on the building. They will recreate the processional routes of the Athenian Acropolis, using contractor’s spray to stake out the paths. On Saturday, the volunteer observers will move along the passages, starting about 35 feet away from the building, and describe how well, and how much of the frieze they can see, using a detailed questionnaire form. As they move along, the volunteers will also use green contractors’ flags to mark particularly good viewing spots.

The result will be the first experimental data on the frieze gathered from conditions similar to the ones in which it was originally viewed. The volunteer observers will be asked to take their time, and pay attention to detail, in ways that our modern eyes rarely do, Wescoat says.

“The Athenians must have felt great pride when they approached the Parthenon,” she says. “The frieze was meant to communicate something meaningful, there is no question about that. It wasn’t a message that you needed to get with absolute clarity in 30 seconds, like driving by a billboard today. It was meant to be appreciated over a lifetime, and down through generations.”

Emory University Parthenon Project
Digging into the mystery of a Greek Island
How the Greek gods measure up

Friday, November 2, 2012

Predictive Health: A call to reinvent medicine

"Predictive Health: How We Can Reinvent Medicine to Extend Our Best Years," a new book Emory physicians Kenneth Brigham and Michael M.E. Johns, proposes focusing on health first instead of disease.

Brigham and Johns want to harness the formidable power of medicine and technology — including genome-sequencing, protein-cataloging, massive data-sorting — as tools for health assessment, diagnosis, and intervention. The ultimate goal is to guide people to the improvement and maintenance of their health.

Physicians who practice predictive health would assemble a health portrait by running sophisticated tests on an infant at birth. Potential risk factors for diseases, such as type II diabetes or a genetic propensity for obesity, would become evident long before they are problematic, and physicians could initiate personalized strategies for treatment.

"Our approach involves more than curing disease or making an early diagnosis," Brigham says. "We see it as important to develop a mindset in which to see health as defined positively. We look at disease risk but more importantly at what a person can do to live a healthy, fulfilling life. We look at body fat and what is in a person's blood, yes, but we also look at how you live, where you live, who you live with, and how you react to stress, to determine a healthy lifestyle for an individual."

Read more.

New health course switches to peer-led, personalized approach