Category Archives: Medicine

Scientists use Flashes of Light to Investigate Memory

If you’ve seen the Men in Black movies, you might remember the neuralyzer – the flashy thing the agents use to wipe memories? Well this might make you remember. Researchers at the University of California have just used flashes of light to find new evidence about how the brain stores memories.

What were they looking for?

Dr. Brian Wiltgen and Kazumasa Tanaka – a graduate student – were trying to investigate how the brain stores memories. It’s thought that one specific region of the brain – the hippocampus – is what triggers memory recall.

What did they find?

Their study supported their hypothesis. “Our study demonstrates that memory is retrieved when the hippocampus reinstates patterns of cortical activity that were observed during learning,” said Dr. Wiltgen in an email.

How did they do it?

To do this study, the researchers created genetically modified mice that did two specific things. First, their brain cells would light up like Christmas lights when activated by a memory. Secondly, the scientists could also temporarily de-activate cells.

The researchers then tested their hypothesis. If the mice were stimulated to remember a scary event in their past (in this case, an electric shock) they normally froze and their brain cells would light up. However, if the researchers turned off hippocampus cells, the brain cells never lit up and the mice didn’t freeze.


It means that the mice didn’t recall that memory.

They forgot?

Not quite. The memory was still there – the brain cells were still there, after all – they just weren’t able to access it. Without the hippocampus to act like a key, the memory was locked away.

What does this mean?

In an email, Dr. Wiltgen said, “The hope is that once we figure out how these processes work we will be better able to understand (and treat) human disorders that affect memory.”

One caveat of this study is that the research was specifically looking at what’s known as episodic memories – memories of people, places, and events. It’s thought that other types of memory – such as skills or languages – might be controlled differently.

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Posted by on October 20, 2014 in Medicine, Natural History


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Mickey Finn

Mickey Finn. Local business owner, bartender. Lived in Chicago. Ran the Lone Star Saloon and Palm Garden from 1896 to 1903. Famous for his drinks. Not a good man – in trouble with the law more than once. Liked to be on the slip. It was said that you could find things at his place – money, girls, goods. Mickey was a fence. From what the underworld would tell you, a successful one.

Apocryphal story. Good one though. Goes like this. Mickey Finn liked to add special ingredients to his drinks. Called it the “white stuff”. Probably chloral hydrate. Very bad for you. Sedative. Put it in alcohol – even worse. Knocks you out cold. Gives you amnesia. Later used in Jonestown.

Once victim was anaesthetized Mickey would carry them to the back room. Rob them. Dump the body in an alley. Victim wouldn’t remember what happened. Finn paid off cops to keep them off his back. Not enough though. Eventually shut down.

Story continued though. Stayed in the loop. People liked it. Origin of the phrase “slip a mickey“. Possibly. Either way. People like stories. They like having a villian. Attach a face to a name – story lives on.

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Posted by on August 15, 2013 in Medicine, Modernity


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A New, Unique Treatment for Snakebites

Over one-hundred thousand people die every year from snake bites. Antivenoms can save your life, but only if you can get to them. Most people who die from snakebite never make it to a hospital.

And you have to get to a hospital – field treatments aren’t very reliable. Antivenoms are tricky. They’re expensive, you kind of have to be trained to use them correctly, and, worst of all, you have to keep them refridgerated. If you’re a farmer in rural India, a researcher in the middle of the Outback, or a hiker way out in the rockies, well, they might as well have never have been invented. They’re too far away.

But a new, experimental treatment from the California Academy of Sciences led by Dr. Matt Lewin may have solved some of these problems.

One of the major dangers of snakebite is paralysis. A rush of venom, then cramps, stiffness, and, if it spreads to your diaphragm, suffocation. We actually have some very good anti-paralysis drugs – called anticholinesterases – and these are often used in hospitals to help treat snakebites. And they’re much cheaper and hardier too. But, like antivenoms, you have to be very careful when administering them.

Dr. Lewin’s teams’ innovation was finding an easy way to administer anticholinesterases – instead of needing to get to a doctor or inject yourself, Dr. Lewin’s team put them into a nasal spray. It’s easier to administer, works quickly, and doesn’t involve stabbing yourself with a needle. The treatment is a long way from manufacture – the team just finished their proof-of-concept experiments. But results look promising.

It’s not foolproof – you’ll still need hospitalization and the treatment would only work against neurotoxins – get bit by a hemotoxic rattler and that may (read: will) still be a problematic situation. But against a cobra – a black mamba – a tiger snake – this new treatment could buy you the time you need.


Posted by on July 30, 2013 in Medicine


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Cyborg Snail Batteries

In Dresden Codak the protagonist, Kim Ross, is a cyborg scientist who designed and wears her own protheses. An attack from time colonists (don’t ask) left her sans left arm, both legs, and one eyeball. And while her cyborg attachments don’t give her, say, superstrength, they work admirably. She doesn’t even seem to miss the original limbs. Part of this comfort may come from the fact that the prostheses are self-powered – they can flex, bend, and pull on their own. They don’t even need batteries, instead they run on her own internal blood sugar. Which apparently translates into pancakes.

This is a real thing.

At least, the blood sugar thing is.

Not the time colonists.

That’d be silly.

Evgeny Katz (and man, can you come up with a better scientist name than Evgeny Katz?) of Clarkston University just released a report on their cyborg snail batteries. They implanted biofuel cells into a living snail that are powered by free glucose, which the snail can regenerate simply through eating and resting.

I swear I’m not making this up.

Here. There’s a picture.

cyborg snail electricity biofuel

The snail, for it’s part, seems to be doing fine.

This opens up the possibility of attaching real electrical devices to living animals. This could either be used to help power new forms of prostheses or, possibly, military cyborg insects.

You can’t fake this stuff.

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Posted by on July 11, 2013 in Medicine, Modernity


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El secreto de una buena vejez no es mas que un pacto honrado con la soledad. 

-Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Sometimes as I write, I come across article that hit a little close to home. Not things that are contentious, or antagonistic to what I believe – I can accept those as honest debate – but the hardest ones are those that confirm something I already felt I knew.

Researchers from Ohio State University just put out a new study that links loneliness to several conditions – in particular, it seems that lonely people tend to have dysfunctional immune responses.

Two different study groups both exhibited similar patterns of correlation. Latent virus infections like cold sores were elevated in lonelier people. Their bodies also responded to stress differently than well-connected people. Lonely people had higher levels of inflammation proteins in their blood. Inflammation can signal or proceed a number of different conditions that are usually associated with aging such as heart disease, arthritis, or Alzheimer’s.

Previous studies have also, unsurprisingly, linked loneliness with a number of psychological issues such as depression, alcoholism, and suicide.

Loneliness has been a constant companion to many people – myself included – and a number of great works of art have been dedicated to trying to understand it. Jean-Paul Sartre believed it was an inescapable part of the human condition and I firmly believe One Hundred Years of Solitude is the greatest piece of literature ever written.

So looking through news articles today, it was almost poetic to see science hint at what I already knew. Loneliness feels like growing old all at once.

Source:, psychologytoday


Posted by on January 20, 2013 in Medicine, Modernity


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Crocodile Blood Packed with Super-Antibiotics

Crocodiles live rough lives. They live in swamps and rivers that reek with microbes, hunt, kill, and eat animals as large as themselves, and fight each other for territory, food, and mating rights. Even their armor-like scales can’t defend against everything – open wounds are common. And yet, crocodiles rarely get sick.

Like, at all. And the reason is starting to attract interest.

You’re looking a little *green*! Ah? Ah? …I’ll show myself out.

All vertebrates have a two-pronged technique for fighting infections. The first is our innate immune response, an array of relatively simple but fast-acting and reliable defenses. Your skin is part of this immune system, as are many blood proteins and most white blood cells. Our adaptive immune system, however, is slower to react, but more flexible. A handful of specialized white blood cells sniff out infections, capture and memorize the culprits, and start to produce antigen-specific antibodies. The next time the bacteria or virus appears it’s met with an immediate targeted attack. It’s this immunological memory that lets us build up immunities and use vaccines.

The crocodile’s immune system is the same as a humans except that their innate response is insane. If humans have a line of beat cops patrolling their blood, crocodiles have that guy from the Simpsons.

Scientists exposed crocodile serum to twenty-three different strains of bacteria, including several drug-resistant strains such as MRSA. Human serum was able to defeat a total of eight strains – crocodiles killed all twenty-three. When the scientists introduced HIV, the virus responsible for AIDS, the crocodile serum killed a significant fraction of that too.

The proteins in their blood are just that hyperactive. As the scientist Adam Britton put it: “The crocodile has an immune system which attaches to bacteria and tears it apart and it explodes. It’s like putting a gun to the head of the bacteria and pulling the trigger.”

This would explain why crocodiles and alligators are so good at avoiding sickness – the microbes don’t even get a chance to infect them. If we could somehow harness the power of this system we could develop new, stronger antibiotics. And we’re trying, scientists are currently looking into ways to replicate these super-strong proteins. The only problem is that so far high concentrations of this serum tends to be poisonous to human cells too.

Sources:, National Geographic


Posted by on December 11, 2012 in Medicine, Natural History


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A Short Survey of Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese Medicine is a tricky subject for me. One the one hand, it often stands apart from western medicine and science, roughly in the same area as homeopathy or other alternative medicines. Untested cures based on tradition, rather than evidence. On the other hand, not a lot of study has flown the other way, either. With such an array of history, it’s quite likely that some if not many of the cures are actually effective in some manner, but not a lot of research has been done with regards to Traditional Chinese Medicine and a number of interesting compounds are now being discovered thanks to these cures. That said, I think I’ll stick with vaccines and vitamins.

But Traditional Chinese Medicine also has a societal aspect to it too, one that is just as complex as the scientific aspect. Demand for rare animal parts has fueled decades of poaching and destruction. A major fraction of tiger and rhino poaching goes directly into the black markets of Traditional Chinese Medicine. But on the other hand, this is a rich tradition that goes back thousands of years and the philosophies it has been based on have long been a cornerstone of how China viewed the world.

Tricky. Tricky.

Well, enough of opinions and hard thought. It’s time to point out some of the more interesting ingredients in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Now, most of the time you’ll see things like ginger or ginkgo. Maybe a lotus root or two in there somewhere, but these ingredients are substantially weirder.

  • Ophiocordyceps sinesis A parasitic fungus that grows out of the heads of subterranean caterpillars high on the Tibetan plateau. The price of this aphrodisiac and cancer treatment has exploded. A pound can cost up to $50,000.
  • Dried seahorse – Seahorses tend to arrive on the market as bycatch from shrimp trawlers around the Phillipines and India, although some are specifically hunted by lamplight. Dried seahorse can be used for impotence and incontinence, aiding circulation, and relieving swelling.
  • Turtle shell – Invigorates the blood and attacks malaria.
  • Silkworm feces – Used to treat diarrhea and abdominal cramps. Also apparently keeps your stomach from growling.
  • Scorpions – Clears the liver and relieves headaches.
  • Cinnabar – A vibrant red ore, actually a natural form of mercury sulfate, ground into a powder. It’s taken to calm the heart and reduce anxiety. Just like in European alchemy, Chinese Taoists believed that mercury was essential in creating their elixir of immortality. Mercury is, of course, highly toxic and neurological symptoms can develop if taken incautiously.
  • Realgar – Also known as ruby sulphur, these bright red crystals are taken for sore throats, swellings, and to kill intestinal parasites. And it certainly will kill those, realgar is actually a form of arsenic and like cinnabar should be taken with care.
  • Cicada moultings – Clears rashes, relieves visual obstruction, and ‘disperses wind’.
  • Pangolin scales – Used to keep menses regular and prevent period cramps.
  • Hornets nests – Relieves pain and toothaches and clears up ringworm.
  • Centipedes – Prevents lock jaw and seizures as well as counteracting toxins.

Yeah, I don’t think I need any centipedes, thanks.

Sources: seahorse-australia, yinyanghouse

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Posted by on October 16, 2012 in Anthropology, History, Medicine, Modernity


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