Thursday, February 11, 2010

Brain surgery boosts spirituality

Lose a tumour, gain self-transcendence.

Wings and lightsLights and wings have been associated with spirituality in different cultures.Urgesi, C. et al.

Removing part of the brain can induce inner peace, according to researchers from Italy. Their study provides the strongest evidence to date that spiritual thinking arises in, or is limited by, specific brain areas.

To investigate the neural basis of spirituality, Cosimo Urgesi, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Udine, and his colleagues turned to people with brain tumours to assess the feeling before and after surgery. Three to seven days after the removal of tumours from the posterior part of the brain, in the parietal cortex, patients reported feeling a greater sense of self-transcendence. This was not the case for patients with tumours removed from the frontal regions of the brain.

"Self-transcendence used to be considered just by philosophers and crank new age people," says co-author Salvatore Aglioti, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Sapienza University of Rome. "This is the first really close-up study on spirituality. We're dealing with a complex phenomenon that's close to the essence of being human."

The authors pinpointed two parts of the brain that, when damaged, led to increases in spirituality: the left inferior parietal lobe and the right angular gyrus. These areas at the back of the brain are involved in how we perceive our bodies in spatial relation to the external world. The authors of the study in the journal Neuron1, say that their findings support the connection between mystic experiences and feeling detached from the body.

"The most surprising part was the rapidity of the change," says Urgesi. "This discovery shows that some complex personality traits are more malleable than previously thought."

The science of spirituality

The researchers interviewed 88 people with brain tumours of various severities. Twenty of these people had benign tumours and although they underwent surgery no brain tissue was removed. All 88 people participated in interviews about their religious habits and beliefs before surgery and afterwards answered a series of true or false questions that assessed spirituality. The questionnaire tapped into three main components of self-transcendence: losing yourself in the moment, feeling connected to other people and nature, and believing in a higher power. Examples of the items on the questionnaire include: "I often become so fascinated with what I'm doing that I get lost in the moment - like I'm detached from time and place" and "I sometimes feel so connected to nature that everything seems to be part of one living organism."

The researchers then mapped the precise areas of the patients' brains where they had lesions as a result of surgery.

Brain regions responsible for spiritualitySpirituality was tracked to the the left inferior parietal lobe (left) and the right angular gyrus (right).Urgesi, C. et al.

Previous studies have shown that a broad network of frontal and parietal brain regions underlies religious beliefs 2,3,4,5. But spirituality does not seem to involve exactly the same regions of the brain as religion.

In the past, neurologists have observed spiritual changes in patients with brain damage, but it is not something they systematically evaluate. "We usually stay away from it, not because it's not an important topic, but because it's very private and personal," says Rik Vandenberghe, a neurologist at the University Hospital Gasthuisberg in Leuven, Belgium. "This paper is very interesting, but like many pioneering studies, it leaves open many questions." Vandenberghe, who uses a similar lesion-mapping technique, says the data should be interpreted with caution. "It's very unlikely that something like self-transcendence is localizable to just two brain areas," he says.

Coarse measure

Probably the most worrisome aspect of the study is the way the authors measured self-transcendence. "It's important to recognize that the whole study is based on changes in one self-report measure, which is a coarse measure that includes some strange items," says cognitive neuroscientist Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "In the future, it will be important to understand why lesions in the parietal cortex induce changes on this scale."

"Self-transcendence is an abstract concept, and different people will attribute different meanings to the word," says Vandenberghe. Patient self reporting is not always accurate, he says, adding that tapping into spirituality with more rigorous behavioural measures and pinpointing the specific thoughts and feelings that constitute it are the obvious next steps.

In future studies, Urgesi would like to measure other aspects of spirituality and determine how long changes in spirituality last in patients. He'd also like to inactivate parietal regions in healthy subjects using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a non-invasive technique that temporarily changes neural activity in a specific region, to see if he can induce immediate changes in self-transcendence. He envisions a day when TMS can be used to increase the feeling of self-transcendence in people with neurological or psychological disorders.

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Dwarf Dinosaurs Lived on 'Neverland'-Like Island

By Jennifer Viegas

Transylvanian Dwarf Dinosaurs Had Short Lives

The largest group of animals ever to walk the earth included dwarf varieties.
Vlad Codrea


  • Dwarf dinosaurs existed on a Late Cretaceous island, a new analysis of bones confirms.
  • Dwarf dinosaurs appear to have emerged from a process called progenesis, which shortens the developmental period.
  • The dwarf dinosaurs lived fast, reaching sexual maturity at earlier ages than their mainland counterparts, and they likely died young.

When Hungarian baron Franz Nopcsa claimed that his sister in 1895 found bones belonging to dwarf dinosaurs on his family's Transylvanian estate, many thought his claims were on par with Count Dracula fiction.

A new study not only confirms the existence of dwarf dinosaurs, but also explains how dinosaurs shrank during the Late Cretaceous at a Neverland-like place -- Hateg Island, Romania -- where dinos never really grew up.

According to the study, which has been accepted for publication in the journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, the unusual phenomenon appears to have only affected some of the island's dinosaur residents.

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"The other animals living with the dinosaurs -- fish, frogs, albanerpetonids (salamander-like amphibians), turtles, crocodilians, pterosaurs, birds, lizards, snakes, and mammals -- were generally much smaller anyway, but so far haven't shown obvious size differences from mainland relatives," lead author Michael J. Benton told Discovery News.

Benton, who directs the Palaeobiology and Biodiversity Research Group at the University of Bristol, and his colleagues conducted one of the most extensive studies yet on the Hateg Island dinosaur remains. They analyzed the dinosaurs' limb proportions and bone growth patterns, comparing them with those of mainland dinos.

The analysis determined that at least four of the Hateg dinosaurs were dwarves.

The diminutive dinosaurs included the titanosaurian sauropod Magyarosaurus, which had a body length of about 16 to 19 feet. That's impressive by human standards, but is miniature compared to a sauropod such as Argentinosaurus, which grew to be at least 82 feet long.

Another small dinosaur was the hadrosaurid Telmatosaurus. Its 13-foot-long body contrasted with the average size of other hadrosaurids, which were 23 to 33 feet long, according to Benton.

Two species of Zalmoxes dinosaurs also appear to have been dwarves, with one -- Zalmoxes robustus -- measuring about 10 feet in length.

"So these forms are all typically half the length of their close relatives on larger land masses, and this equates to a body mass of perhaps one-eighth that of the relatives," said Benton. "Body mass is what matters most in biological terms, such as physiology and food intake."

Magnified sections of the dinosaurs' bones revealed that the animals were adults and not juveniles. The scientists believe the dinosaurs likely shrank due to a process called progenesis, which shortens the developmental period. Sexual maturity happened early, and these dinosaurs may have also died two to five years younger than their "normal"-sized counterparts.

"This in-depth study by Benton and colleagues is both fascinating and provocative," paleontologist Scott Sampson, a research curator at the Utah Museum of Natural History, told Discovery News, "demonstrating that the largest group of animals ever to walk the earth included dwarfed varieties."

Sampson added that the study also supports "the more general 'island rule'-- the idea that, when marooned on islands, evolution tends to make large animals smaller, and small animals larger."

Scientists continue to debate why this happens on islands. Reduced supplies of food, smaller ranges, and few larger predators have all been theorized.

"I think most biologists accept that there is something going on, and that the island rule has validity," Benton said.

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Directed Panspermia: Moral Obligation or Bio-Pollution?

By Ian O'Neill

The Huygens probe as it descended through Titan's atmosphere in 2004. Could a similar delivery method seed life on other worlds? (NASA)

The speculative mechanism of panspermia could explain how life formed on Earth and how it might exist elsewhere in our solar system and beyond. Hitching rides on chunks of rock blasted into space by meteorite impacts or gliding through space on a comet, it turns out that "life as we know it" has an astonishing knack of surviving in the most extreme environments.

But what if mankind could purposefully launch space probes packed with little biological "starter kits" toward star systems that appear to have the potential to nurture life? We have lots of life down here, isn't it our duty to spread our seed amongst the stars?

WATCH: Extremophiles, micro-organisms that can live in volcanos, space and the deep oceans, are still a mystery, but one scientist has found a way to use them to study other elements.

Yes, says Michael Mautner, Research Professor of Chemistry at Virginia Commonwealth University, in a paper submitted to an upcoming issue of the Journal of Cosmology. Before the rich biosphere of Earth is dead, Mautner believes that we need to ship Earth Brand™ biology to suitable adopted homes so our evolutionary line has a chance to gain a foothold elsewhere in the universe.

"We have a moral obligation to plan for the propagation of life, and even the transfer of human life to other solar systems which can be transformed via microbial activity, thereby preparing these worlds to develop and sustain complex life," Mautner said. "Securing that future for life can give our human existence a cosmic purpose."

These are certainly lofty plans, but he proposes that we send a variety of basic organisms to "potentially fertile" worlds throughout the universe (to worlds from a few to over 500 light years away). Using early-Earth as an example, organisms like cyanobacteria could be sent to alien worlds to go into reproductive overdrive, feasting on toxic gases and releasing byproducts such as oxygen.

These little biological starter kits would support a brand new biosphere, helping more complex life forms to develop and evolve.

(Is anyone else thinking this was borrowed from the plot of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock?)

In his paper, Mautner goes into some detail about what this galactic seeding mission would look like. As current launch costs are astonishingly high (using current technology, it costs $10,000 to get a one kilogram payload off the Earth's surface and into space), the space seeding pods would need to be small. But using tiny "pods" weighing only 0.1 grams, as many as 100,000 microorganisms could be accommodated to give a reasonable chance of success.

Perhaps surprisingly, he indicates that we'd need "hundreds of tons" of biological material. But in this case, the launch costs would be a modest $1 billion; a bargain considering we'd be ensuring the continuation of Earth Brand™ life on various new worlds.

All these plans are completely speculative however, and to put a cost on such a mission is fanciful at best. Although Prof. Mautner does a great job of identifying how we could go about flinging our seed to the furthermost reaches of the galaxy, I'd question the fundamental point of "directed panspermia" at all. Is it really our "moral responsibility"?

I understand that we -- as life forms -- see the whole life thing as sacred, but what if one of these biological pods fertilizes a world where another life form is struggling to survive? Who are we to say that our Earth Brand™ life is superior to another brand of alien microbe?

If our life takes hold of a planet where another life had the opportunity to evolve into an interstellar civilization in a couple of billions of years time, wouldn't we be in violation of some kind of cosmic anti-monopoly regulation (or at least in violation of the Prime Directive)?

And there's another thing to ponder: What if "life" is the universal equivalent of some kind of infection. Is life rare because the universe has a very strong immune system? Firing our genetic code far and wide could be considered to be biological pollution.

I'm all for spreading the human influence around the galaxy, but I think this can only be considered if we physically go to these alien worlds, to evaluate these places in person before we start setting up home. Blindly sending life from Earth to habitable worlds and planet-forming accretion disks seems a little reckless, especially as we have no clue about the consequences if we started impregnating unsuspecting planets.

I know these points are just as speculative as Mautner's paper, but it does make you wonder whether sending it into space is really a "moral responsibility" when we have little clue about who or what we are in the grand (cosmic) scale of things.

Just because we've got it doesn't mean the rest of the universe wants it.

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Martian Dune Mystery Solved by Bouncing Sand Grains Read More

By Lisa Grossman, Science News


Once Martian sand grains hop, they don’t stop.

sciencenewsThat’s the conclusion of a new study that finds sand can move on Mars without much windy encouragement.

Mars’ sandy surface has clearly been shaped by wind. Its characteristic dunes and ripples are the kind formed by sand particles taking short wind-borne hops, a process called saltation.

Winter Overcomes 1,200-year-old Oak

CHIRK, Wales, Feb. 10 (UPI) — A Welsh oak tree, already more than 300 years old when King Henry II spared it in 1165, couldn’t withstand the unusually cold winter of 2010, locals say.

Mark Williams, a historian of the Wrexham area in North Wales, told the BBC he and Deryn Poppit visited the tree Tuesday and found its trunk had been split. He said ice apparently formed around the base of the tree, which had a circumference of 34 feet.

“The tree is on marshy ground in a basin with a stream running down nearby,” he said. “With the stream overflowing because of melting snow, the water must have settled around the trunk and it looks as if this has caused it to split.”

The Great Oak at the Gates of the Dead near Chirk was 1,200 years old, dating from the 9th century. According to legend, in 1165, King Henry II of England, preparing to meet Owain Gwynedd in the Battle of Crogen, commanded his men to clear Ceiriog Woods but ordered the Great Oak to be spared.

“Although some parts of the tree were rotten, some of it was still as strong as an oak,” Williams said.

Mike McKenna, owner of Kronospan, a wood-panel producer in Chirk, has retained a firm of tree surgeons to determine if anything can be done to keep the Great Oak going.

How to Answer the Dumb Things Climate Deniers Say

If you are like me you probably have encountered a few people that do not believe global warming exists, or if they do, they are not always convinced that humans are contributing to the problem. There are usually a range of issues these skeptics raise in an attempt to cast doubt on climate change evidence. Below are a few responses to some of the more frequent statements these deniers toss our way.

The Skeptics: There is simply no evidence that humans are contributing to climate change, if the earth is even warming.

Answer: As carbon dioxide (CO2) is pumped into the air through human activities, heat becomes trapped in the atmosphere. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as the "greenhouse effect." If the earth's global temperatures rise a mere 3 degrees, there will be catastrophic results all over the world.

The Skeptics: CO2 can't possibly be to blame for any so-called climate change as emissions only stay in our atmosphere for up to 10 years. Our oceans and terrestrial carbon sinks absorb this CO2 anyway. In fact, the oceans are so big that they could absorb over 50 times more CO2 than humans contribute now. As such, we can't possibly be to blame for any change in global temperatures today.

Answer: Actually the ocean's ability to store CO2 is not very long. Only 50% of CO2 is absorbed by areas of the ocean that are not very deep. In these areas, CO2 is released back into the atmosphere. Recent studies have shown that only 30% of CO2 is stored in the deep ocean. The rest, some 20%, stays in the atmosphere for thousands of years.

The Skeptics: The evidence that CO2 emissions are linked to any rise in global temperatures is casual at best. Global CO2 emissions do not match Arctic temperatures, which are often used as the best gauge for how to measure the earth's climate.

Answer: While the Arctic may serve as a great resource for measuring climate change, looking at one small area of the planet is not the best way to assess the situation. During the 1930s, for example, warming occurred in the Arctic, but the cause is not exactly known and did not take place all over the planet.

The Skeptics: It's actually been much hotter than it is today during recorded human history. During medieval times, for example, warm temperatures plagued much of Europe. This happened long before humans started burning fossil fuels, which is hard proof that we aren't causing global warming today.

Answer: The warming that happened during 800-1300 AD is considered to be a local warming event, which is quite different than the changes in the global climate we are experiencing today. Ice samples have shown that temperatures around the world varied during that time.

The Skeptics: But ice core sampling is simply not a reliable way to measure changes to our climate because it is an imperfect science. Records come from measuring gas that is trapped in tiny air bubbles. But this air isn't saved in stone, it can seep out over time.

Answer: Specific ice samples may not be completely reliable, this is true. However, in order to reduce error many samples are taken all over the world, which gives us a much better record of the earth's historic climate trends. When used in conjunction with other resources, like tree rings, these records are undeniably accurate and reliable.

The Skeptics: Scientists fix the data all the time. One ice sampling in the Arctic at Siple has shown us that CO2 levels were around 328 parts per million all the way back in 1890. However, global warming believers insist that this level wasn't met until the early 1970s. In order to make their point, graphs have been altered to fix this data in order to have us believe that CO2 emissions, from humans, were to blame for the rise in global temperatures.

Answer: When new evidence is found scientist alter their theories and data. No additional samplings taken anywhere in the world confirm that CO2 levels were above 290 parts per million in the last half of a million years. The Siple ice core samples in the Arctic cannot be used to counter this overwhelming consensus. Perhaps temperatures in the Siple area were elevated for a month or a year, but not consistently and not anywhere else on the planet at the same time. Since new data has come to light to address these findings, scientists have adjusted their graphs.

The Skeptics: Our environment has a great ability to adjust for inflation in CO2 emissions. When an increase occurs, our carbon sinks pick up the slack over a period of decades. So all the hype about global warming is nothing more than hot air.

Answer: Past warming cycles are not the result of greenhouse gas emissions. These warming trends were the result of the earth's rotation around the sun. When the earth heated up in the past, more CO2 was released from our carbon sinks, which created a greenhouse effect. So when humans release CO2 today we are not allowing the earth to go through its natural cycle. Our oceans haven't even started heating up yet. But if they do, and we do not cut CO2 in the atmosphere over the next twenty years, catastrophic effects will ensue.

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Another Blizzard: What Happened to Global Warming?

By Bryan Walsh

A pedestrian crosses Fuller Place in Brooklyn, New York.