Monday, October 31, 2016


Don Hazen and Kali Holloway of AlterNet have published a thoughtful essay entitled "We Can't Elect a Psychopath President." In it they summarize the range of psychopathological traits that Trump displays, and the barrage of crazy-making maneuvers that he's inflicting on all of us. The piece is well worth reading--being able to recognize and label his crazy-making manipulations may help to minimize their impact.

Donald Trump, Phoenix, Arizona/Credit: Gage Skidmore

In the last few paragraphs of the essay, headed "Trump Anxiety," the authors highlight something that many of us may have been feeling without clearly identifying it. Psychotherapists, teachers and representatives of many minority communities report an upsurge in anxiety, fear, sleeplessness, depression and other signs of stress flowing from the threat of Trump ascending to the presidency. I, for one, have no problem relating to that.

I'll second the authors' heartfelt hope or plea: We can't elect a psychopath president.

Please vote!

Sunday, October 30, 2016


With an ageing population, more than 5 million Americans suffering from Alzheimer's Disease, and with Alzheimer's now the sixth leading cause of death, finding an effective treatment is an urgent national goal.

Healthy vs diseased brain/Credit: Wikimedia

A new, still-experimental drug known as NTRX-07 shows promise towards that goal. Studies in mice whose brains have degenerative changes similar to those from Alzheimer's in humans show reduced inflammation and increased removal of amyloid plaques, both implicated in the devastating impacts of Alzheimer's.

Beta-amyloid plaques/Credit: vestque

Presenting their findings at the Anesthesiology 2016 Annual Meeting, lead researcher Mohamed Naguib and his colleagues reported that NTRX-07 enhanced the ability of microglial immune cells to reduce inflammation and clear toxic amyloid plaques from the brain.

"NTRX-07 uses a different mechanism than many other Alzheimer's drugs currently available," says Naguib, "as it targets the cause of the disease, not just the symptoms."

Of course, the path from a compound that shows promise in an animal model of a disease to a safe and effective human drug is a long and uncertain one--12 years on average. We can only hope that NTRX-07 or some other drug (such as a promising BACE1 inhibitor) that can prevent or cure Alzheimer's will run that gauntlet successfully and soon.


3/14/19:  For an update on the promise of BACE1 inhibitors, navigate here.


Friday, October 28, 2016


Steven Rosenfeld, author and political analyst for AlterNet, posted an attention-getting piece today about the threat of violence during or after the coming presidential election. Rosenfeld's post is well worth reading.

Gun Show, Houston, Texas: Credit Wikipedia
As it becomes clearer that Trump is going to lose, he's been increasing his rhetoric claiming that the election is rigged against him, and some high-profile backers like radio host ex-congressman Joe Walsh have not-so-subtly called for a violent response should he lose. With Trump repeatedly claiming that there are millions of potentially fraudulent registered voters, and some followers talking about policing voting places, there's certainly a possibility of intimidation of some voters. And with 31 states allowing firearms to be carried openly, and 13 more allowing open-carry with a special permit, the possibility of violence at voting places can't be ignored.

The rhetoric is having its predictable effect, at least among Trump's core backers, with more than 40% saying they won't recognize Hillary Clinton as the legitimate president.

According to a USA Today poll, half of likely voters expect violence on election day. Let's hope they're wrong.

Thursday, October 27, 2016


The global effort to wipe out polio, a disease that killed thousands and paralyzed tens of thousands of children in the US and the UK not that long ago, is tightening the noose around the deadly poliomyelitis virus.

Polio survivors/RIBI Image Library

The Global Eradication Inititative announced today that so far this year 27 children have been diagnosed from polio, down from 51 at this time last year. Just three countries are still finding new cases, Pakistan, Afghnistan and Nigeria. Despite war and instability, volunteers continue to bring vaccines to where they are needed, often despite great personal risk.

Type 3 polio virus

It will not be long before this ancient scourge, like smallpox, will be eliminated forever. The day can't come too soon.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016


If you live in the eastern US or in the UK, you've suffered through some of the coldest winters in recent history during the last decade.

North American cold wave November 4-23, 2014
Credit: Wikipedia

An international team of climate researchers from a variety of disciplines has now concluded that those extremely cold winters were the product of natural variability made worse by Arctic warming and ice melt.

Writing in the prestigious journal Nature Climate Change, the authors conclude that a reduced temperature gradient caused by more rapid warming at high latitudes has contributed to a slowed jet stream that meanders farther north and south, and takes longer to shift from one location to another. 

Global air temperature anomalies, January 2016
from Overland, et al., "Nonlinear response of mid-latitude weather to the changing Arctic"

When an extreme dip to the south stalls over a particular region--most recently the UK and the eastern US--arctic air can pour down and stay.

"We've always had years with wavy and not so wavy jet stream winds," says Edward Hanna, a professor of climate change at the University of Sheffield, in the UK, "but in the last one to two decades the warming Arctic could well have  been amplifying the effects of the wavy patterns."

That extra-wobbly jet stream is likely to continue or even grow worse as still-increasing levels of atmospheric CO2 warm the far north and melt more ice. However, the unlucky regions that serve as parking garages for prolonged blasts of Arctic air can vary from year to year. Hanna and his colleagues hope to use what they've learned to sharpen up forecasts of future extra-bitter winters.

“This would be hugely beneficial for communities, businesses, and entire economies in the northern hemisphere," says Hanna. "The public could better prepare for severe winter weather and have access to extra crucial information that could help make live-saving and cost-saving decisions.”

Tuesday, October 25, 2016


Trouble remembering that phone number? Forget why you went into the kitchen? Doctor's appointment just slipped your mind? Lose track of what you're saying in the middle of a . . . ?

If that kind of mental glitch is all too familiar, then you, like millions of ageing Americans, may be suffering from mild cognitive impairment (MCI). This cluster of brain-related changes centering around memory but at times impacting attention, concentration and decision-making may simply be one of the frustrations of getting older, but it can also be a warning sign along the road to Alzheimer's disease or other kinds of dementia.

The good news is that something as simple as increasing your muscle strength by lifting weights or working out on resistance machines can turn back the clock.

Credit: The University of Sydney

A new study just published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that people 55 and above with MCI who did progressive resistance exercises two times a week for six months not only gained physical strength but significantly improved their cognitive functioning as well. 

"The stronger people became, the greater the benefit for their brain," says lead author Yorgi Mavros, at the University of Sydney.

The weight-training participants--ranging in age from 55 to 86--lifted at 80 percent of their maximum capacity in order to gradually increase muscle strength.

To top off the good news, the participants' improved mental sharpness lasted for a year or more after the strength training ended.

This carefully designed and controlled study allowed the researchers to confirm a causal relationship between the strength-increasing exercise and cognitive improvement for the first time. The most consistent and across-the-board improvements came with increased lower body strength.

Previous research at the same center using MRI scans showed that weight training actually caused an increase in the size of particular brain regions, and that those brain changes correlated with improved cognitive functioning.

Remarkably, weight training boosted cognitive functioning more than computerized cognitive training did.

"The more we can get people doing resistance training like weight lifting, the more likely we are to have a healthier ageing population," said Mavros. 

"The key however is to make sure you are doing it frequently, at least two times a week, and at a high intensity so that you are maximizing your strength gains. This will give you the maximum benefit for your brain."

You can read the paper's abstract and supporting documents here.

And, to help you remember what you've just learned, a new study shows that 30 minutes of aerobic exercise improves retention and memory for new information.

Monday, October 24, 2016


"Oh what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive!"
Marmion, Sir Walter Scott

It turns out that Sir Walter was even more perceptive than he thought. New research shows that lying--especially when it benefits the liar--causes changes deep within the tangled web of the brain that make future (and bigger) lies easier and easier.

The Amygdala, twin almond-shaped nuclei deep within the brain--
important in memory, decision-making and emotional reactions.
Credit: National Institutes of Health (NIH)

Researchers at University College London (UCL) scanned the brains of volunteers while they made estimates that could either be accurate or skewed to benefit themselves, themselves and a partner, or just their partner.

The first time that participants fudged their estimates to benefit themselves at their partner's expense, even just a little, their amygdalas lit up, indicating a strong negative emotional response. However, with each subsequent lie, the amygdala reacted less, and the lies got larger. Bigger and bigger lies elicited smaller and smaller emotional reactions--a classical "slippery slope."

"When we lie for personal gain, our amygdala produces a negative feeling that limits the extent to which we are prepared to lie," says Tali Sharot, principal investigator at UCL's Affective Brain Lab. "However this response fades as we continue to lie, and the more it falls the bigger our lies become."

Neil Garrett, the study's lead author, adds that this pattern may apply to other antisocial behaviors. "We only tested dishonesty in this experiment, but the same principle may apply to escalations in other actions such as risk-taking or violent behavior."

It would be interesting to see how the amygdalas of, for example, certain prominent politicians, react to telling lies. Or perhaps, as their noses get longer an longer, those deep brain centers simply shrivel up and disappear.

Pinocchios in a Florence shop window: Credit: Vladimir Menkov

Your can find the original Nature Neuroscience article, "The brain adapts to dishonesty," here.

Sunday, October 23, 2016


The volume of arctic sea ice varies season by season and year by year. Unfortunately, the trend is clearly down, with current ice volume about one-quarter of what it was in 1980. That's not good news, since it's part of a vicious cycle of warming, melting and carbon dioxide release and that impacts the entire northern hemisphere.

NASA finds oldest and thickest Arctic sea ice is melting fastest
Credit: NASA Goddard

You can find more details plus a brilliant 3D visualization of the data -- thanks to physicist and climate expert Joe Romm andmulti-talented IT consultant Andy Lee Robinson -- at this URL.

The loss of Arctic sea ice cover does not only impact polar bears and Inuit communities. Scientists are becoming increasingly sure that a smaller temperature difference between the Arctic and the rest of the northern hemisphere makes for a much wobblier jet stream, which, ironically, can cause much colder winters, for example in the eastern U.S. and the U.K.

For another brilliant--and scary-visualization, check out Ed Hawkins' spiral map of global temperature change from 1850 to 2016. It's the most powerful anti-denial intervention I've ever come across.

Credit: Ed Hawkins


Lincoln Memorial--Credit Chadh

Hopefully the world will little note nor long remember Donald Trump's words at Gettysburg on Saturday. If he was trying to gain stature by standing in Abraham Lincoln's footprints, he failed miserably.

To quote, not from Lincoln's immortal address at Gettysburg 153 years ago, but from his second inaugural address, in 1865:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

And to quote from Trump's comments at Gettysburg:

"Every woman lied when they came forward to hurt my campaign. Total fabrication. The events never happened. Never. All of these liars will be sued after the election is over."

It goes to character.

Thursday, October 20, 2016


In keeping with Trump's incredible refusal during the third debate to commit to accepting the November 8 election results, check out this highly scientific poll on his website.

In case the "poll" is taken down, here's a screenshot:

Credit: Walter Einenkel

To end any "suspense," Donald Trump does not "get" democracy. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2016


Following up on my recent post "Ten Percent of US have high concentrations of ten or more toxins in our blood,", here's a new study that calculates the costs to the U.S. economy from the burden of disease that some of those chemicals cause.

Plastic bottles--one of many sources 
of endocrine-disrupting chemicals
Credit: Velka/Shutterstock (public domain)

Writing in The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology, October 17, researchers at the New York University Medical Center say that even a conservative estimate of the diseases and conditions--including birth defects, autism, attention-deficit disorder, intellectual disability, infertility, obesity, diabetes, heart disease and stroke--caused by exposure to these toxins puts their cost to the economy at $340 billion. That's 2.3 percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Flame retardants alone (found in building insulation, fabrics, furniture and electronics) account for more than $200 billion of those health-related costs.

The researchers say this is the first assessment of the overall costs to the U.S. economy from the buildup of endocrine-disrupting substances in the population.

The major sources of these chemicals include plastic bottles, the lining of metal food cans, detergents, flame retardants, toys, pesticides and cosmetics. These pervasive chemicals build up in our bodies over time. They can impair fetal development in the womb, especially the brain and nervous system, and lead to a variety of diseases in adults.

These chemicals are pervasive and extremely difficult to avoid. To address the problem at the policy level, the authors call for more proactive testing and tighter regulation, starting with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). They point out that people living in Europe, where these substances are more strongly regulated, have less exposure, lower levels in the bodies and blood, and reduced risk of disability and disease.

At the personal level, they recommend steps such as not microwaving food in plastic containers or covered by plastic wrap, avoiding containers with the number 3, 6 or 7 on the bottom, which contain phthalates and using fragrance free or "all natural" cosmetics.

You can find more ways to minimize your and your family's exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals here.

This may seem a daunting or even impossible task, given how ubiquitous these chemicals have become. However, new research shows that avoiding common sources of endocrine disrupting chemicals can quickly reduce levels in the body

Saturday, October 15, 2016


If you consider yourself a member of the fact-based community, you might be interested in some new research about deaths at the hands of police in the U.S.

Memorial to Michael Brown, Ferguson, Missouri. Credit: Jamelle Bouie

The study was carried out by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York. They analyzed data from the National Violent Death Reporting System for the years 2009 through 2012. The 812 fatal encounters they studied came from 17 states that voluntarily provide the CDC with relevant statistics.

You can access the full report, "Death Due to Lethal Force by Law Enforcement," here

I'll list some of their key findings:

The victims were predominantly male (96.1%), as were the police officers involved (97.4%). 

Blacks were 2.8 times more likely to die at the hands of police than whites.

If you assume that blacks are more likely to be armed in these fatal encounters, you would be wrong. Black victims were 1.6 times more likely to be unarmed (14.8%) compared to whites (9.4%).

If you assume that blacks are more likely to have placed the officers involved at risk, you would also be wrong. "Black victims were also significantly less likely than whites to have posed an immediate threat to LE [law enforcement]," the authors write.

The authors cite an earlier study by other researchers using FBI statistics that found that the likelihood of a suspect being killed per 100,000 police stops or arrests was not significantly different among blacks, hispanics and non-hispanic whites. However, the same study showed that compared to whites and Asians, blacks, native Americans and Hispanics were stopped by police significantly more frequently.

That study also produced two statistics that surprised me--a suspect or bystander is seriously injured or killed in one out of every 291 police stops, and U.S. police killed or injured an estimated 55,400 people in 2012.

The 812 deaths in 17 states analyzed in the current study represent just a fraction of the total number of people killed by police during those years. Reliable numbers are hard to come by, but the Nevada-based website sets out to count every case by collating information from multiple sources. They list by name 3825 individuals who died in encounters with police during those same years.

If you compare either number with the number of legal executions (i.e. capital punishment) in the United States--never more than 100 in any year since 1976, and just 43 in 2012--it becomes obvious that there is an enormous gap between justice applied with our constitutionally-guaranteed due process and what actually happens many times per day on the street. You'll find a more recent, in-depth post on that subject here.

The authors of the current study take pains not to vilify law enforcement officers. They write about the kinds of implicit biases that almost everyone carries, perhaps exacerbated by negative experiences policing particular neighborhoods, training issues, police culture, and a variety of other factors that together may help explain this disparity.

Whatever the causes, the study provides hard data that support what blacks know all too well--that far too many black men die in encounters with police, including a disproportionate number who are unarmed and non-threatening.

But it's also clear that this isn't just a racial problem--it's a systemic nationwide problem involving the police and the communities they are supposed to serve. Even the "safest" Americans, non-Hispanic whites, are 26 times more likely to die in an encounter with police than, for example, a German citizen. 

Whatever happened to "protect and serve?"

Credit: Thomas Hawk

Friday, October 14, 2016


The Great Barrier Reef is considered Earth's largest living structure. It has survived and grown for 25 million years, providing shelter for thousands of species and uncountable billions of organisms. In recent years rising ocean temperatures and ocean acidification--both driven by the CO2 that we are pouring into the atmosphere--have caused repeated bleaching events, in which the coral-building organisms expel the photosynthesizing algae that feed them. The longer the water around them remains too warm, the more likely the reef-building corals are to starve and die.

It now appears that with more heating and acidification locked in due to the CO2 we've already pumped into the atmosphere, and with CO2 emissions still soaring, the 25-million-year-old Great Barrier Reef is doomed.

Environmental (and food) writer Rowan Jacobsen has written the reef's obituary. It's a must read for anyone who cares about the future of life on Earth--including our own.

Bleached coral, Keppel Islands, Great Barrier Reef: Credit Wikipedia

As many of you may know, Jacobsen's obituary for the Great Barrier Reef has gone viral. It has raised the ire of many scientists, who point out that the reef--while suffering the worst bleaching event in history and clearly threatened--is not in fact dead, and potentially can be saved. I think we can safely assume that Jacobsen knows all that, and is thrilled that his premature obit may in fact galvanize people to face up to the life-or-death climatic challenges it, and we, face.

Thursday, October 13, 2016


We're currently pumping 2.4 million pounds of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere per second!

Earth's atmosphere is pretty big, but human activity is measurably changing it.

The longest run of measurements of atmospheric CO2 was started by American scientist Charles Keeling in 1958, from an observatory atop Hawaii's Mauna Loa.

The Keeling Curve--Atmospheric CO2 1958-2015

Credit: By Delorme - Own work. Data from Dr. Pieter Tans, NOAA/ESRL and Dr. Ralph Keeling, Scripps Institution of Oceanography., CC BY-SA 4.0,

Keeling was the first to document irrefutably that atmospheric CO2 was rising, we now know due to the burning of fossil fuels and other human enterprises such as agriculture and deforestation.

That record of the concentration of CO2 in Earth's atmosphere is known as the Keeling Curve. It shows clear yearly cycles as vegetation absorbs and releases CO2 with the changing seasons.

But it also shows the dramatic rise in CO2 levels from 315 parts per million (ppm) in 1958 to today's levels of more than 400 ppm.

Two University of Washington atmospheric scientists, doctoral student Judy Twedt and Prof. Dargan Frierson, decided to dramatize what we're doing to the atmosphere by transforming the Keeling Curve into music.

You can hear and see the resulting YouTube video here. It speaks for itself.

To view a striking visualization of rising CO2 levels, check out item 3 at this URL.


It's common knowledge that we're all exposed to many different kinds of toxins from the air we breathe, the water we drink, the pesticides and other chemicals we're exposed to and many other sources, and that some of those accumulate and persist in our bodies.

Cycling of POPs. Credit: EUGRIS

What we didn't know but researchers have just discovered, is that at least some of those pollutants are not spread randomly through the population, with some individuals having more of one and others having more of a different one. Much like income or wealth, some people have just a little while some have a lot.

A new study of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)--the first that looked at many different kinds of POPs in the same people at the same time--found that that they were strongly clustered, with more than 10% of the U.S. population carrying ten or more different POPs in their blood at concentrations above the 90th percentile. Blacks, people with low incomes, people with a high body mass index (BMI) and older individuals were more likely to carry heavy loads of multiple organic toxins.

Industrial smokestacks--one source of pollutants
Credit Peter Essick/National Geographic

When I asked physician and epidemiologist Miquel Porta, one of the study's authors, about the implications of his findings, he first cautioned about stirring up fear. "As a physician, I firmly believe that fear is seldom compatible with a broad vision of health," he wrote. 

However, he went on to emphasize that finding that a large number of people have 90th-percentile-or-higher concentrations of 10 or more known toxins needs to be noted by researchers and public health authorities:

"Whatever we know, whatever we think we know about the adverse health effects of a given chemical compound, and about the adverse health effects of several different compounds, simply think that it will not be uncommon for them to be--each and all--present at high concentrations in a significant minority of your patients, constituency, citizens, family or friends. And then think about the plausible negative health effects of the combination or 'cocktail' at high and low concentrations."

As reported in the journal PLOS One, Porta and his colleagues looked at the concentrations of 91 POPs in the blood of 4739 people living in the U.S. They found that 13% of the people studied had 10 or more of the most frequently detected organic pollutants at or above 90th percentile levels. You can view the original article here.

"Decades after the evidence on the presence of toxic chemical mixtures in humans became available, official approaches to assess the risks for human health of such mixtures continue to lag tragically behind scientific evidence of the adverse effects of individual compounds and the potential effects of mixtures," Porta writes.

"We provide a method to improve exposure assessment. Our method is an important complement to what is usually done."

In other words, it's no longer justifiable to study one toxin at a time in one group of people at a time. Now that we know that many different toxins pile up in certain populations, with the odds tilted by race, age, income and other factors, studies, recommendations and regulations that don't take that into account from the start are likely to seriously underestimate the risks to the health of a significant number of people.

You can find a follow-up to this research, detailing some of the health impacts of POPs, here.
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The universe just got ten times more crowded.

Less than a century ago, astronomers believed that the Milky Way galaxy--our home galaxy--comprised the entire universe. In 1924, astronomer Edwin Hubble discovered galaxies, "island universes" far beyond the Milky Way. As telescopes got bigger and better, and eventually were sent into space, researchers estimated that the observable universe--the part of the universe from which light has had time to reach Earth--contained some 120 billion galaxies.

Hubble Ultra-deep field, 2014. Credit: NASA

Today, a team of researchers from NASA and ESA (the European Space Agency) released the results from a new and more accurate 3-D galactic census. The find that for every galaxy astronomers can see with today's telescopes, there are at least 10 that will be detected by the next generations of instruments.

"It boggles the mind that over 90% of the galaxies in the universe have yet to be studied," says the study's lead author, Christopher Conselice.

So it looks as though we live in a universe not with 120 billion other galaxies, but 1.2 trillion. With an average galaxy containing, say, 100 billion stars, that makes the star count around 10 to the 23rd power, or 10 with 23 zeroes after it.

It seems like pretty much every astronomical discovery, starting with Copernicus' shocking revelation in 1543 that Earth is not the center of the cosmos, has had the effect of pointing out that we're not quite as significant in the big scheme of things as we might like to think. 

The good news is that knowing that we're just the inhabitants of the third planet around one star out of a hundred billion in one galaxy out of a trillion does put our current worries--right down to the size of a particular presidential candidate's hands--into perspective.

(And hats off to British science fiction author, Brian Aldiss, for the evocative and prophetic title of his 1960 book, Galaxies Like Grains of Sand.)

Monday, October 10, 2016

Roy Cohn would be proud of Donald Trump

After viewing the second presidential debate, historian Lev Adler posted this commentary on the Daily Kos. He paints Trump as Roy Cohn's prize pupil, a master of the dark arts of demagoguery that Cohn honed as Joseph McCarthy's hit man during the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) witch hunts of the 1950s.

Donald Trump at a 2016 rally. Credit Wikipedia

Sunday, October 02, 2016


In the Paris Agreement reached last year, the international community, represented by 195 nations including the U.S., agreed that it's vital to keep global warming well below 2 degrees Centigrade (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) compared to pre-industrial levels. 

Dignitaries celebrating the Paris Agreement, 12/12/15--Credit U.S. Dept. of State

As reported by environmentalist Bill McKibben, writing in the New Republic, the latest calculations show that if we burn the fossil fuels in the mines and wells that already exist, Earth's surface temperature rise will exceed that 2 degree limit.

Open-pit coal mine in Dhanbad, India--Credit Wikipedia

According to these new calculations, adding 800 gigatons (800 billion tons) of CO2 into the atmosphere will push the climate through the 2 degree C. limit. There are 942 gigatons waiting to be extracted from existing mines and wells to be burned. Do the math.

The sobering conclusion is that we can't afford to drill any new oil wells, dig any new coal mines, or open up any more territory for fracking.  If we're serious about controlling global warming, McKibben writes, "we're done expanding the fossil fuel frontier."

The problem is that fossil fuel companies have no intention of abandoning the reserves and leases that are crucial to their future profits--their potential "stranded assets." According to Carbon Tracker, that could amount to some $2 trillion. Two trillion dollars represents a lot of motivation to keep drilling and digging no matter what the environmental and societal costs, and makes investing a few hundred million to influence elections, lawmakers and regulators seem like a pittance.

Still, if we're in the biggest hole ever, as McKibben says, the simple answer is, "stop digging."