Saturday, August 21, 2010

Bloggers' delight!

My family blogs. The whole gang.

And while we post away on irr/relevant topics we shoulder the responsibility of helping each other in what little way we can.

While we are on the subject of the 'Family', I must admit that my family is an unusual bunch. No, there is no domineering patriarch or an emotion supporting matriarch and an ever so lovable/ annoying twin brother who loves getting me in difficult situations and then comically helping me get out of it. He should do stand up, but I digress.

Rather, everyone takes equal importance in sharing different roles.

We have the Dad a.k.a Popz, a seasoned blogger, a lovable person, and a really funny guy with few if not many "dad-jokes" tumbling out alongside really funny one-liners and wicked jibes.

Then we have the Mom a.k.a huggles and to whom hugging comes easily. While I detest being called a 'momma's boy' by certain brats, I would like to confess to them that I'm an abnormal 21 year old who still plays childish games now and then and has invented several weird sounding names to address his mother.

FYI, I'm a hug person rather than a handshake person for as long as I can remember, thanks to her.

Then there is the Twin, the one fellow who not just looks, talks, walks like me but is also an extremely funny, annoying, and yet entertaining sibling. I have to say this even if tears well up in my eyes, that I would really miss him when we go our separate ways later on in life.

Well, that's my family. Small in size but big on love.

Kudos to the first family of awesomeness!

P.S : Here are their individual blog addresses.



Thursday, August 19, 2010

Truth Revealed humorously...

Not every conversation in the White House stays private. A passing maintenance man, an intern, and the public gets wind of what’s going on behind the scenes.

That is exactly what happened here, though I won’t be revealing any sources. Who knows when the next juicy bit of inside information will be revealed. I can also reveal some good news, at least one of these problems was solved before it got too messy.

The overheard conversation was between Karl Rove, Bush’s Brain, and George himself.

You’re not looking well Mr. President how do you feel.

Well I’m a little, you know indigestated, but I feel like my performance is way up.

You look, well, you look a little constipated.

I suppose I am, but a president needs to be at top performance you know and sacrifice at the country.

Why of course you need to stay at top performance, but what does that have to do with constipation.

It’s not real bad yet. I just need to work out some details on this performance thing.

George you’re not making much sense. What the hell are you talking about? George have you started doing something new without checking it with me first. Have you forgotten George. I’m your brain. They even wrote a book about it.

Yes I know Karl they wrote another god forsaken book about how smart you are. Well I’m pretty smart too. I read it on the Internets. Some Instapudding site said I was wiley and some others Americans called warbuggers like me too. They all said I’m plenty smart.

Yes George you’re smart but you didn’t answer my question. Did you do something new that you haven’t told me about.

Okay well yes I did that corked thing. You know to enhance my performance.

What corked thing, what are you talking about?

God Karl for being so smart don’t you even read the sports page. I mean I know it was illegal for Sammy to cork his butt, but that’s because they have a rule against it in baseball. I’m a president I’m not a baseball player if I can do something to enhance my performance there’s no rule against it. Sammy said he did it for his fans and I have fans too.

I don’t know how to tell you this George

Just say it like you always do Karllll.

Sammy’s problem was with a corked bat George not a corked butt.

Are you sure Karl

Yes George I’m sure.

Karl have our guys found any of the weapons we made destructive.

You mean weapons of mass destruction.

Yea those.

I told you about the mobile biological labs didn’t I.

Yes, but people are asking me questions I can’t answer.

Like what?

Well they want to know how a semi-trailer truck is a weapon. Were the Iraqis going to run over people or what.

No George they were going to use it to make bugs and chemicals and then unleash those against our troops.

Come on Karl, your telling me they had bugs and the bugs were on a leash and they were going to let them off the leash and that was dangerous. Our troops could just take their size twelve boots and stomp on the bugs. I need something more than that.

George the bugs are invisible. They are so small that people can’t see them.

You mean like all those other weapons you said they had and now we can’t find. I’m confused.

Never mind about the biological weapons just tell them the labs created chemical weapons, you know what chemicals are right?

Sure I’m not dumb you know.

Yes George. Tell them about the mustard gas they could have produced.

God Karl you’re telling me to explain about the chemicals and now you’re telling me about gas. I know all about gas. You know I’m feeling better after that cork thing though now I have a little gas of my own. It’s pretty bad but if you just hold your nose. Karl, why can’t people just hold their noses if they encounter this mustard gas stuff.

George mustard gas burns the skin it is really nasty stuff.

Yes, well mine sometimes burns a little too.

Never mind George just tell them that you’ll reveal the truth when we find it.

Yes, okay Karl I’ll tell them that.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Why Russians Don’t Get Depressed

The saddest short story I’ve ever read is “The Overcoat,” by Gogol. (It starts out bleak and only gets bleaker.) The second saddest story is “Grief,” by Chekhov. (Nabokov famously said that Chekhov wrote “sad books for humorous people; that is, only a reader with a sense of humor can really appreciate their sadness.”) And then, if I had to make a list of really depressing fiction, I’d probably put everything written by Dostoyevsky. Those narratives never end well.

Notice a theme? Russians write some seriously sad stuff. This has led to the cultural cliche of Russians as a brooding people, immersed in gloomy moods and existential despair. In a new paper in Psychological Science, Igor Grossmann and Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan summarize this stereotype:

One needs look no further than the local Russian newspaper or library to find evidence supporting this belief [that Russians are sad] – brooding and emotional suffering are common themes in Russian discourse. These observations, coupled with ethnographic evidence indicating that Russians focus more on unpleasant memories and feelings than Westerners do, have led some researchers to go so far as to describe Russia as a “clinically masochistic” culture.

This cliche raises two questions. Firstly, is it true? And if it is true, then what are the psychological implications of thinking so many sad thoughts?

The first experiment was straightforward. The psychologists gave subjects in Moscow and Michigan a series of vignettes that described a protagonist who either does or does not analyze her feelings when she is upset. After reading the short stories, the students were then asked to choose the protagonist that most closely resembled their own coping tendencies. The results were clear: While the American undergraduates were evenly divided between people who engaged in self-analysis (the brooders) and those who didn’t, the Russian students were overwhelmingly self-analytical. (Eighty-three Russians read the vignettes; sixty-eight of them identified with the brooders.) In other words, the cliche is true: Russians are ruminators. They are obsessed with their problems.

At first glance, this data would seem like really bad news for Russian mental health. It’s long been recognized, for instance, that the tendency to ruminate on one’s problems is closely correlated with depression. (The verb is derived from the Latin word for “chewed over,” which describes the process of digestion in cattle, in which they swallow, regurgitate and then rechew their food.) The mental version of rumination has a darker side, as it leads people to fixate on their flaws and mistakes, preoccupied with their problems. What separates depression from ordinary sadness is the intensity of these ruminations, and the tendency of depressed subjects to get stuck in a recursive loop of negativity.

According to Grossman and Kross, however, not all brooders and ruminators are created equal. While American brooders showed extremely high levels of depressive symptomatology (as measured by the Beck Depression Inventory, or BDI), Russian brooders were actually less likely to be depressed than non-brooders. This suggests that brooding, or ruminative self-reflection, has extremely different psychiatric outcomes depending on the culture. While rumination makes Americans depressed, it actually seems to provide an emotional buffer for Russians.

What explains these cultural differences? Grossman and Kross then asked students in Moscow and Michigan to “recall and analyze their “deepest thoughts and feelings surrounding a recent anger-related interpersonal experience”. Then, the subjects were quizzed about the details of their self-analysis. They were asked to rate, on a seven point scale, the extent to which they adopted a self-immersed perspective (a 1 rating meant that they “saw the event replay through your own eyes as if you were right there”) versus a self- distanced perspective (a 7 rating meant that they “watched the event unfold as an observer, in which you could see yourself from afar”). Finally, the subjects were asked about how the exercise made them feel. Did they get angry again when they recalled the “anger-related” experience? Did the memory trigger intense emotions?

Here’s where the cultural differences became clear.* When Russians engaged in brooding self-analysis, they were much more likely to engage in self-distancing, or looking at the past experience from the detached perspective of someone else. Instead of reliving their confused and visceral feelings, they reinterpreted the negative memory , which helped them make sense of it. According to the researchers, this led to significantly less “emotional distress” among the Russian subjects. (It also made them less likely to blame another person for the event.) Furthermore, the habit of self-distancing seemed to explain the striking differences in depressive symptoms between Russian and Americans. Brooding wasn’t the problem. Instead, it was brooding without self-distance. Here’s Grossman and Kross:

Our results highlighted a psychological mechanism that explains these cultural differences: Russians self-distance more when analyzing their feelings than Americans do. These findings add to a growing body of research demonstrating that it is possible for people to reflect either adaptively or maladaptively over negative experiences. In addition, they extend previous findings cross-culturally by highlighting the role that self-distancing plays in determining which type of self-reflection—the adaptive or maladaptive one—different cultures engage in.

The lesson is clear: If you’re going to brood, then brood like a Russian. Just remember to go easy on the vodka.

*I think cross-cultural studies like this are an important reminder than American undergrads are W.E.I.R.D.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Your fleeting smile….
Whiff of summer warmth….
Remains in thought…
Ever ….forever…

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Gut Bacteria Give Super Seaweed-Digestion Power to Japanese

The old adage, “You are what you eat,” has a bacterial component.

In a neat confluence of human history, stomach bacteria and food, researchers have found that the intestinal microbes of Japanese people may be souped up for eating seaweed.

“In a marine bacteria, we identified an enzyme that is very specialized for degrading algal cell walls,” said Mirjam Czjzek, a biologist at France’s Station Biologique de Roscoff. “The only other place we find this enzyme is in the human-gut bacteria of Japanese individuals.”

The discovery, described April 7 in Nature, started with Roscoff biologist Jan-Hendrik Hehemann’s analysis of Zobellia galactanivorans, a common marine bacteria. In it, he found an enzyme that breaks down porphyran, a carbohydrate found in the cell walls of red algae.

The gene that codes for the enzyme has been found in one other place: the genome of Bacteroides plebeius, a microbe found in human intestines. However, not all B. plebeius strains produce the algae-crunching enzyme. It has only been found in Japanese people.

According to the researchers, the enzyme helps Z. galactanivorans eat red algae, which westerners know best as the nori seaweed wrapping around sushi rolls. At some unknown points and in some unknown stomachs in the Japanese past, the enzyme-coding gene passed from Z. galactanivorans and into B. plebeius. That lucky microbe would have benefited from a new-found ability to process red algae, spreading through its stomach environment and eventually through the human population, which in turn derived more nutrients from an algae-rich diet.

Humans are known to benefit from digestive enzymes produced by the trillions of microbes in each person’s intestines, but “I don’t think anyone’s ever shown an ethnic difference like this,” said Andrew Gewirtz, an Emory University immunologist who studies the role of gut bacteria in obesity. “It’s perfectly logical, and fits with ideas that scientists have kicked around.”

How much the new gene helps people digest seaweed hasn’t yet been quantified. The microbes’ fate in people with seaweed-free diets is uncertain.

The researchers also don’t know when the gene jumped from marine to human microbes, though Czjzek suspects it happened long ago. As for whether other people have seaweed-processing strains, the study isn’t absolutely conclusive. It looked only at the gut microbes of 18 westerners — enough to suggest a pattern, but not a final word, though the chances are probably low.

“Often the question comes, ‘I’ve been eating sushi for two years now. Do I have this enzyme?’ The answer is, these are very rare events,” said Czjzek. “In the early days, seaweed wasn’t sterilized. Nowadays, it’s cooked, roasted and prepared. The chance to have this type of transfer is much lower.”

That’s likely the case with most types of food, said Gewirtz. As for whether “that’s a good or a bad thing, it’s hard to say,” he said. But Justin Sonnenburg, a Stanford University microbiologist who wrote a commentary accompanying the findings, is concerned.

“Consumption of hyper-hygienic, mass-produced, highly-processed and calorie-dense foods is testing how rapidly the microbiota of individuals in industrialized countries can adapt while being deprived of the environmental reservoirs of microbial genes,” he wrote.

However, globalized diets do give people a chance to eat foods they wouldn’t have found before. “The next time you take a bite of an unfamiliar food, think about the microbial inhabitants you may also be ingesting, and the possibility that you will be providing one of your 10 trillion closest friends with a new set of utensils,” wrote Sonnenburg.

Image Courtesy: Javier Lastras/Flickr.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Brendan Koerner has a really fantastic article in the latest Wired on Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). It’s a fascinating exploration of the organization, from its hallucinogen inspired birth (Bill Wilson was tripping on belladonna when he found God in a hospital room) to the difficulty of accurately measuring the effectiveness of AA:

The group’s “cure rate” has been estimated at anywhere from 75 percent to 5 percent, extremes that seem far-fetched. Even the most widely cited (and carefully conducted) studies are often marred by obvious flaws. A 1999 meta-analysis of 21 existing studies, for example, concluded that AA members actually fared worse than drinkers who received no treatment at all. The authors acknowledged, however, that many of the subjects were coerced into attending AA by court order. Such forced attendees have little shot at benefiting from any sort of therapy–it’s widely agreed that a sincere desire to stop drinking is a mandatory prerequisite for getting sober.

Yet a growing body of evidence suggests that while AA is certainly no miracle cure, people who become deeply involved in the program usually do well over the long haul.

In a 2006 study, for example, two Stanford psychiatrists chronicled the fates of 628 alcoholics they managed to track over a 16-year period. They concluded that subjects who attended AA meetings frequently were more likely to be sober than those who merely dabbled in the organization.

The University of New Mexico’s Tonigan says the relationship between first-year attendance and long-term sobriety is small but valid: In the language of statistics, the correlation is around 0.3, which is right on the borderline between weak and modest (0 meaning no relationship, and 1.0 being a perfect one-to-one relationship).

Koerner also investigates AA from the perspective of the brain. He focuses on the prefrontal cortex, that chunk of tissue behind the forehead that allows us to exert self-control, to order club soda instead of whiskey:

As dependence grows, alcoholics also lose the ability to properly regulate their behavior. This regulation is the responsibility of the prefrontal cortex, which is charged with keeping the rest of the brain apprised of the consequences of harmful actions. But mind-altering substances slowly rob the cortex of so-called synaptic plasticity, which makes it harder for neurons to communicate with one another. When this happens, alcoholics become less likely to stop drinking, since their prefrontal cortex cannot effectively warn of the dangers of bad habits.

This is why even though some people may be fully cognizant of the problems that result from drinking, they don’t do anything to avoid them. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, my family is falling apart, I’ve been arrested twice,’” says Peter Kalivas, a neuroscientist at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. “They can list all of these negative consequences, but they can’t take that information and manhandle their habits.”

The loss of synaptic plasticity is thought to be a major reason why more than 90 percent of recovering alcoholics relapse at some point.

It’s now possible to see these changes in the prefrontal cortex at an extremely precise level. Interestingly, one of the most important changes has to do with how alcoholics (and addicts in general) process “prediction error” signals. In essence, a prediction error signal occurs when we expect to get a reward – and it doesn’t matter if the reward is money, sex, praise or drugs – and we instead get nothing (or maybe even a negative outcome).

The brain processes this disappointment as a prediction error. As Wolfram Schultz and others have demonstrated, such prediction errors are an incredibly efficient way to learn about the world, allowing us to update our internal models (all those predictions of good stuff) in light of our mistakes.

This is an essential aspect of decision-making, as it allows us to avoid the mindless repetition of mistakes. Just look at what happens to monkeys when their prediction error pathway is surgically disrupted. The experiment went like this: monkeys were given a joystick that moved in two different directions. At any given moment, only one of the movements would trigger a reward (a pellet of food). To make things more interesting, the scientists switched the direction every twenty-five trials. If the monkeys had previously gotten in the habit of lifting the joystick in order to get a food pellet, they now had to shift their strategy.

So what did the monkeys do? Animals with an intact prediction error pathway had no problem with the task. As soon as they stopped receiving rewards for lifting the joystick – this generated a prediction error – they started turning it in the other direction, which meant they continued to receive their pellets of food.

However, monkeys that were missing their prediction error machinery demonstrated a telling defect. When they stopped being rewarded for moving the joystick in a certain direction, they were still able (most of the time) to change directions, just like a normal monkey. However, they were unable to persist in this successful strategy, and soon went back to moving the joystick in the direction that garnered no reward. They never learned how to consistently find the food, to turn a mistake into an enduring lesson.

What do prediction errors have to do with addiction? One way to think about addiction is the abuse of a substance despite serious adverse consequences.

We think the alcohol will make us happy – and it does, for a few minutes – but the drug will also lead to withdrawal, hangovers, ruined relationships, an empty wallet, etc. In other words, the costs of the drink far exceed its fleeting rewards.

Why, then, do addicts keep on drinking? One possible explanation is that addicts can’t properly process their prediction errors, so that all those negative outcomes get ignored. (In other words, we’re like those monkeys who keep on pressing the joystick in the wrong direction.) The end result is that we never learn from our very costly decision-making mistakes.

A new paper in the Journal of Neuroscience by Soyoung Q Park, et. al. provides compelling support for this hypothesis. The scientists began by giving twenty “abstinent alcohol-dependent patients” a simple reinforcement learning task featuring green smiling faces (positive feedback) and red frowning faces (negative feedback).

The first thing to note is that it took the alcoholic patients significantly longer to figure out the game than a group of control subjects. Because the game was played inside an fMRI machine, the scientists were able to analyze the neural differences that led to the learning problems.

Interestingly, the alcoholic patients didn’t have a problem generating prediction errors in the striatum, the dopaminergic source of the prediction error signal. When they made a bad guess and saw the red frowning face, their addicted brains looked identical to brains of control subjects. Both groups instantly and automatically recognized their mistakes.

It’s what happened next that begins to explain the errant behavior of addicts. In the control group, this prediction error signal was quickly passed along to the prefrontal cortex, which used this new information to modulate future decisions. As a result, the control brain was able to quickly learn from its mistakes and minimize the number of red frowning faces.

The alcoholic brain wasn’t nearly as adept. Park et. al. found that, at least in this small group of addicted patients, there appeared to a connectivity problem between the striatum and the prefrontal cortex. As a result, when these subjects made a mistake, their prefrontal cortex wasn’t fully informed – there was a reduced amount of “feedback-related modulation” – and this lack of modulation correlated with 1) an inability to succeed at the simple learning task and 2) the magnitude of their alcohol craving. (This data extends similar results observed in smokers.)

In other words, the addicts who couldn’t internalize their prediction errors were the most addicted. This suggests that it is the inability to learn from mistakes – even when these mistakes are destroying our life – that makes addiction so damn hard to escape.

Now here’s some blatant speculation.

I think one reason AA is successful, at least for many of those who commit to the program, is that it’s designed to force people to confront their prediction errors.

Just look at the twelve steps AA uses, many of which are all about the admission of mistakes, from step number 1 (“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol–that our lives had become unmanageable”) to step number 8 (“Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all”) to step number 10 (“Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it”).

I’d suggest that the presence of these steps helps people break through the neuromodulatory problem of addiction, as the prefrontal cortex is forced to grapple with its massive failings and flaws.

Because unless we accept our mistakes we will keep on making them.

Monday, August 9, 2010

An Emptied Flask Makes for Empty Promises

After four vodka tonics, you might feel determined to conquer fear and finally tell your married co-worker that you’ve been in love with her for years. But the next morning, not so much.

It may seem obvious to most of us that drunken promises don’t mean much, but apparently two German researchers weren’t so sure. Using 60 undergrads as guinea pigs, they designed a randomized control trial to test the effects of alcohol on a person’s commitment to unrealistic goals.

“People may indicate being determined to reach their goals after having consumed alcohol,” wrote the researchers in the August edition of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, “but once sober again, they do not walk the talk.”

After asking participants about their most-important personal goals, the researchers gave half the students vodka tonics and the other half plain tonic water with lime. To separate the true effects of alcohol from the psychological effects of thinking you’re intoxicated, the researchers went to great lengths to convince the entire group that they’d be sipping spirits, including sneakily smearing all the glasses with alcohol and pouring decarbonated tonic water out of a vodka bottle.

They must have done a pretty good job, as only two people from the placebo group realized they’d been duped (and one tolerant drinker in the vodka group thought he’d been tricked, too).

After four drinks, both groups were asked to rate their commitment level to a specific goal. Not surprisingly, inebriated students expressed strong commitment to their deepest desires, whether it was to hook up with a new friend or fly to France to visit a relative. But unlike sober participants, the drinking group didn’t lower their commitment level just because a goal was unrealistic.

“Intoxicated participants’ lack of considering their expectations particularly played out when chances to attain the goals were grim,” wrote researchers. “In light of low expectations, participants in the alcohol condition felt more committed to their goals than did participants in the placebo condition, whereas in light of high expectations, commitment did not differ between conditions.”

In other words, drunk people ignore reality and think they can do just about anything, a condition scientists have aptly labeled “alcohol myopia.”

Unfortunately, drunken courage didn’t translate into sober certitude. In a second, similar study, the researchers followed participants for three weeks after the experiment. Among the sober crew, the strength of a person’s commitment predicted how many steps they would take to achieve their goal in the following weeks. But among those who had been drinking, commitment didn’t correlate with future action.

The researchers say their results can help explain why people who don’t have high hopes for success are more likely to abuse alcohol. The study also helps clarify why weekend revelry never leads to dogged concentration on Monday morning. Or maybe that’s the hangover.

Image 1 Courtesy: Flickr/Jeremy Brooks. Image 2 Courtesy: Figure 1 from Sevincer and Oettingen, “Alcohol Breeds Empty Goal Commitments,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Vol. 188 (3), 623-633, August 2009. Reprinted with permission from the American Psychological Association.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Brain Scan Lie-Detection Deemed Far From Ready for Courtroom

A landmark decision has excluded fMRI lie-detection evidence from a federal court case in Tennessee.

The defense tried to use brain scans of the defendant to prove its client had not intentionally defrauded the government. In a 39-page opinion, Judge Tu Pham provided both a rebuke of this kind of fMRI evidence now, and a roadmap for how future defendants may be able to satisfy the Daubert standard, which governs the admissibility of scientific evidence.

“It has no automatic binding force on any other court, but because it’s been so carefully done, it will very likely carry a lot of persuasive value,” said Owen Jones, a professor of law and biological sciences at Vanderbilt University, who observed the entire hearing.

The specific facts of the Tennessee case revolve around whether defendant Lorne Semrau, CEO of two nursing home facilities, intentionally had his employees fraudulently fill out Medicare and Medicaid forms. Semrau claims he acted in good faith and that the government directions were unclear; the government argues his companies made an extra $3 million by marking up a variety of services beyond their assigned value. The brain scans were intended to show Semrau is telling the truth today about his behavior in the past.

As Jones pointed out to in May, with the fMRI scans, “the defense is attempting to introduce evidence of the brain’s current assessment of the brain’s former mental state.”

To get the brain scans into Federal court, the evidence had to meet the Daubert standard, so-named for the 1993 Supreme Court case that established rules for scientific testimony. Daubert has multiple prongs, but they don’t form a literal checklist: Judges are allowed to examine the evidence holistically.

Judge Pham, who presided over this evidentiary hearing, summarized his reading of Daubert: Reasonable tests to apply and ideas to consider include “(1) whether the theory or technique can be tested and has been tested; (2) whether the theory or technique has been subjected to peer review and publication; (3) the known or potential rate of error of the method used and the existence and maintenance of standards controlling the technique’s operation; and (4) whether the theory or method has been generally accepted by the scientific community.”

In walking through the use of fMRI in the case, the judge highlighted multiple areas where it did not meet the standard. First, he called attention to the difficulty of applying laboratory results about lying where the consequences of being caught are nonexistent, versus a real-world situation like the Semrau case.

“While it is unclear from the testimony what the error rates are or how valid they may be in the laboratory setting, there are no known error rates for fMRI-based lie detection outside the laboratory setting, i.e. in the ‘real-world’ or ‘real-life’ setting,” Pham wrote in his decision.

But Pham did not take his criticism too far. He could imagine, he wrote, that even if we didn’t know how well fMRI worked in the real-world, it could still be deemed admissible.

“The court notes that potential or known error rates is but one factor under the Daubert analysis,” Pham wrote, “and that in the future, should fMRI-based lie detection undergo further testing, development, and peer review, improve upon standards controlling the technique’s operation, and gain acceptance by the scientific community for use in the real world, this methodology may be found to be admissible even if the error rate is not able to be quantified in a real world setting.”

More damaging to Semrau’s case was that the neuroscience community has not accepted fMRI lie detection as ready for use in real-world situations. “No doubt in part because of its recent development, fMRI-based lie detection has not yet been accepted by the scientific community,” Pham plainly wrote.

Pham was also less than impressed with the scientific methodology employed by Cephos, the company who conducted the lie-detection test. After Semrau failed one of the two tests he’d agreed to take, Cephos CEO Steven Laken retested him a third time, claiming his client had been tired.

“Assuming, arguendo, that the standards testified to by Dr. Laken could satisfy Daubert, it appears that Dr. Laken violated his own protocols when he re-scanned Dr. Semrau,” Pham wrote.

On balance, Hank Greely, Stanford law professor and co-director of the Law and Neuroscience Project, did not find Cephos’ case for its product’s scientific accuracy compelling.

“It seems almost laughable that Cephos could parade this as a great method when, in this very case, they tried it three times and got one result twice and the other one once,” Greely wrote in an e-mail to “In the only ‘real world’ test we’ve got evidence about, their accuracy rate was either 66.7 percent or 33.3 percent.”

Finally, there was a small twist at the end of the Tennessee’s judge’s opinion where he cited a different evidentiary standard as a second basis for excluding the evidence, completely outside the scientific realm. Rule 403 of the Federal Rules of Evidence provides for the exclusion of evidence “on Grounds of Prejudice, Confusion, or Waste of Time.”

In applying rule 403 to this case, Pham compared Semrau’s situation to the case law surrounding polygraphs that are obtained by defendants unilaterally, saying they presented “similar issues.” In those cases, courts did not look kindly on tests performed solely to bolster the credibility of the witness without both prosecution and defense having been involved.

“Dr. Semrau risked nothing in having the testing performed, and Dr. Laken himself testified that had the results not been favorable to Dr. Semrau, they would have never been released,” Pham noted.

Furthermore, and the judge quoted extensively from the prosecution’s cross-examination on this point, Cephos only claims to be able to offer a general impression of whether someone is being deceptive. While they ask dozens of individual questions, Laken admitted that his company’s method could not be used to tell whether someone was lying or telling the truth on any of specific facts.

That is to say, Laken refused to say that Semrau was telling the truth to a question like, “Did you enter into a scheme to defraud the government by billing for AIMS tests conducted by psychiatrists under CPT Code 99301?” but was willing to say that Semrau was “more overall” telling the truth.

Given the slipperiness of that method, “the court fails to see how his testimony can assist the jury in deciding whether Dr. Semrau’s testimony is credible,” Pham concluded.

Laken’s unwillingness to testify to specific questions — and Pham’s acknowledgment of it — piqued Greely’s interest.

“That’s a really interesting critique of the Cephos method — and one that none of us had really noticed before this testimony because we hadn’t realized that Laken would say that he couldn’t give an opinion on individual questions,” Greely said. “If that’s Laken’s final position, it makes a courtroom use of this technology seem unlikely.”

All-in-all, the decision found multiple instances where fMRI evidence did not meet the standards of evidence in the United States. While that’s a victory for opponents of the use of fMRI in courts, like Greely, it might also offer proponents a clear path to shoring up the use of lie-detection scans.

“There will certainly be further litigation over fMRI lie detection in future cases. I expect that the companies marketing this research for forensic purposes will likely conduct new tests in light of the report recommendation to address some of the articulated weaknesses,” Owen said.

Image Courtesy: flickr/Stephanie Asher

Friday, August 6, 2010

IDT launches 3D video frame rate converters

Integrated Device Technology (IDT) has announced what it claims is the industry's first motion-compensated frame rate conversion processors with an integrated resolution-enhancement engine for use in 120 Hz and 240 Hz television sets and high-definition video projectors.

The new IDT VHD1200 and VHD2400 devices feature advanced IDT HQV MotionSMART technology, which provides smooth motion and full-detail images while minimizing side effects seen with competitive solutions.

The frame-rate conversion processors are also 3D capable, providing smooth motion with minimal side effects, which is significant for 3D where varying side effects could be very distracting to viewers.

IDT HQV MotionSMART technology includes per-pixel processing, providing the capability to make intelligent localized decisions in the detection and processing of complex images and motion in video images.

The IDT solutions also feature cadence detection, which removes judder from sources with cadence, and a wide detection range to eliminate flickering when images move horizontally, vertically or diagonally on the screen.

The IDT VHD1200 and VHD 2400 processors are able to lock to a large range of motions to provide full detail with no judder on fast camera pans and small, fast-moving objects. The devices also feature the advanced HQV resolution enhancement engine for increased detail in high-definition images.

Image Courtesy: IDT

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Space Food Turns Gross Within a Year

CHICAGO — Most people find the palatability of in-flight entrees an oxymoron. But even frequent fliers seldom encounter more than a few such meals per week.

Astronauts, in contrast, may have to survive months in orbit dining on a really limited menu of processed foods and reconstituted beverages served from oh-so-glamorous plastic pouches.

Luckily, even the International Space Station can restock its pantry several times a year because these foods are relatively perishable. Which explains the problem NASA faces in planning for really long missions — like a trip to Mars.

Astronaut foods may appear indestructible, but many crew favorites don’t retain their nutrition or palatability for even a year, notes Michele Perchonok.

She should know. Perchonok manages not only NASA’s advanced food technology program, but also the development and preparation of foods for Shuttle astronauts. At the Institute of Food Technology annual meeting, on July 20, she described NASA’s limited larder.

Foods destined for Space Shuttle missions must have a shelf life of a year, and 18 months if they’ll be deployed on the International Space Station. Of the roughly 65 foods currently available for stocking spacecraft and deemed really palatable by NASA taste panels, 10 will lose their appeal within a year — turning off-color, mushy or tasteless, she reported. By the end of five years, Perchonok says, “we’re down to seven items.”

Servings of apples from a pouch packaged recently and sterilized with pressure-assisted technology (left) and from one 2 years ago (right) show the older serving doesn't pass muster.

Moreover, she adds, “studies have shown that if the acceptability or the sensory properties degrade, so does the [food's] nutrition.” Indeed, after one year, space food exhibits notable losses of vitamin A, folic acid (an important B vitamin) and thiamine (another B vitamin that plays a role in the body’s use of carbs and certain building blocks of proteins).

And nutrient losses don’t end there, Perchonok says. “Basically, after one year, we are out of vitamin C.”

Sure, NASA could supply astronauts with multivitamin pills. But that’s no panacea, Perchonok observes, since preliminary studies by NASA have shown that the potency of vitamins diminishes faster in pills than it does in foods.

Clearly, she says, these food-nutrient losses are “pretty serious.” So if NASA wants to be able to stock a spacecraft for Mars travel, “we’ve got a problem.”

Using current propulsion systems, the space agency has to plan on it taking between six and eight months to travel each way to Mars, Perchonok explains. Since Mars and Earth come close to each other only once every other year, crews “will have to stay on the surface for 18 months” before returning home, she adds.

Because glitches may arise or crews may be asked to help stock a Martian pantry for followup visitors from Earth, NASA’s goal is the development of foods that will remain both safe and appetizing for at least five years.

Canned goods have a good shelf life, but can’t be heated in microwaves — and are considerably heavier than the pouches that astronaut food is dispensed in today. And weight is a big issue. It constitutes about 15 percent of the payload of food, which is expected to weigh 10.6 U.S. tons for a crew of six heading out to Mars.

To keep the weight down, foods are eaten in their packaging. And today’s foil-lined pouches tend to work well when conventionally heat sterilized — but can delaminate when their contents are subjected to “pressure assisted” thermal sterilization, a new technique being developed by C. Patrick Dunne of the Army’s Natick, Massachusetts, Soldier R&D Center and his colleagues. Dunne’s consumers are military troops sent into the field with rations packaged as meals ready to eat, or MREs. (Dunne’s innovative pressure-assisted sterilization helped him win selection as an IFT research fellow, last year.)

MREs must have a shelf life of three years at 79 degrees Fahrenheit, Dunne reported at the IFT meeting, last week. And though the experimental pressure-assisted sterilization system he reported on is slow (able to sterilize just 10 MREs per half hour), he expects the technology eventually can be scaled up to a continuous processing of 50 pouches per minute.

The new technology’s real benefit is taste, he noted. A salmon fillet in Alfredo sauce processed with the new pressure-assisted technology not only tastes yummy, he says, but also “looks like a salmon that was poached — not like cat food.”

Taste is a particularly pivotal issue for astronaut food: Crews need to eat every bite of what they open up. Crumbs from cookies or crackers can make a mess and eventually get into someone’s eyes, Perchonok says. Wet foods that aren’t completely gobbled up will eventually go bad and stink up a spacecraft. Which can become especially nasty since astronauts don’t take out the trash every day but bring it back home with them or hold it for months until they can pack it into a craft that is destined to travel toward Earth’s surface (but actually incinerate in the atmosphere).

Bottom line, Perchonok says: NASA needs new ideas for lightweight, very air-tight flexible food packaging that can seal in freshness and sterility for at least three years. Luckily, there should be ample time to find such alternatives since travel to Mars is still many years away, Perchonok says: “Probably 2035 at the earliest.”

Image courtesy: 1) No, this is not where astronauts buy food. This is a funny photo I found on Flickr. 2) NASA

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Itch of Curiosity

Curiosity is one of those personality traits that gets short scientific shrift.

It strikes me as a really important mental habit – how many successful people are utterly incurious? but it’s also extremely imprecise. What does it mean to be interested in seemingly irrelevant ideas? And how can we measure that interest?

While we’ve analyzed raw intelligence to death – scientists are even beginning to unravel the anatomy of IQ – our curiosity about the world remains mostly a mystery. (According to one review of the literature, the amount of research on curiosity peaked in the late 1940s.)

Einstein would not be pleased: “I have no special talents,” he once declared. “I am only passionately curious.”

Nevertheless, progress is occurring; our curiosity about the brain is even leading us to understand curiosity.

One of the most interesting recent papers comes from the lab of Colin Camerer at Caltech, and was led by Min Jeong Kang. The experiment itself was straightforward: Nineteen Caltech undergrads were asked 40 trivia questions while in a brain scanner. After reading each question, the subjects were told to silently guess the answer, and to indicate their curiosity about the correct answer.

Then, they saw the question presented again, followed by the correct answer. That’s it.

The results of the fMRI experiment are an intriguing, if limited, glance at the neural processes underlying creativity. The first thing the scientists found is that curiosity obeys an inverted U-shaped curve, so that we’re most curious when we know a little about a subject (our curiosity has been piqued) but not too much (we’re still uncertain about the answer).

This supports the information gap theory of curiosity, which was first developed by George Loewenstein of Carnegie-Mellon in the early 90s. According to Loewenstein, curiosity is rather simple: It comes when we feel a gap “between what we know and what we want to know”.

This gap has emotional consequences: it feels like a mental itch, a mosquito bite on the brain. We seek out new knowledge because we that’s how we scratch the itch.

The fMRI data nicely extended this information gap model of curiosity. It turns out that, in the moments after the question was first asked, subjects showed a substantial increase in brain activity in three separate areas: the left caudate, the prefrontal cortex and the parahippocampal gyri.

The most interesting finding is the activation of the caudate, which seems to sit at the intersection of new knowledge and positive emotions. (For instance, the caudate has been shown to be activated by various kinds of learning that involve feedback, while it’s also been closely linked to various parts of the dopamine reward pathway).

The lesson is that our desire for abstract information – this is the cause of curiosity – begins as a dopaminergic craving, rooted in the same primal pathway that also responds to sex, drugs and rock and roll.

This reminds me of something Read Montague, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, told me a few years ago: “The guy who’s on hunger strike for some political cause is still relying on his midbrain dopamine neurons, just like a monkey getting a sweet treat,” he said. “His brain simply values the cause more than it values dinner…You don’t have to dig very far before it all comes back to your loins.”

The elegance of this system is that it bootstraps a seemingly unique human talent to an ancient mental process. Because curiosity is ultimately an emotion, an inexplicable itch telling us to keep on looking for the answer, it can take advantage of all the evolutionary engineering that went into our dopaminergic midbrain. (Natural selection had already invented an effective motivational system).

When Einstein was curious about the bending of space-time, he wasn’t relying on some newfangled circuitry. Instead, he was using the same basic neural system as a rat in a maze, looking for a pellet of food. I’ll let the scientists have the last word:

Understanding the neural basis of curiosity has important substantive implications. Note that while information-seeking is generally evolutionarily adaptive, modern technologies magnify the amount of information available, and hence the potential effects of curiosity.

Understanding curiosity is also important for selecting and motivating knowledge workers who gather information (such as scientists, detectives, and journalists).

The production of engaging news, advertising and entertainment is also, to some extent, an attempt to create curiosity. The fact that curiosity increases with uncertainty (up to a point), suggests that a small amount of knowledge can pique curiosity and prime the hunger for knowledge, much as an olfactory or visual stimulus can prime a hunger for food, which might suggest ways for educators to ignite the wick in the candle of learning.

Image Courtesy: Wikipedia

Monday, August 2, 2010

Chip the Light Fantastic..

Closeup of a silicon surface pockmarked with holes, designed to slow light passing through it. This "slow light" waveguide, designed by a team led by Yuri A. Vlasov of IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center, could be used as a buffer for optical signals and thus would be a crucial component of an optical (or "photonic") computer, or an all-optical network router.

Super-fast optical computers are a step closer thanks to research breakthroughs that may lead to silicon chips that can process information as electronic bits or flashes of light.

Two discoveries announced in the past week have sped the path to the fabrication of hybrid silicon chips with both electronic and photonic components.

The first discovery, published in this week's issue of the journal Nature, foreshadows a future in which computers may run at terahertz speeds and, paradoxically, light will move much more slowly than it does today.

The other discovery, published in last week's issue of the same journal, presents a new silicon-based microtransmitter that can send optical data at 100 Gbps -- one-tenth of a terahertz.

Both teams are hoping their discoveries will fit within the present manufacturing framework -- and can be built using the same techniques as silicon semiconductor chips (technically, "complementary metal-oxide semiconductor," or CMOS).

Both must also work around what is both the inherent strength and weakness of optical computing and communications: The bits are always moving at the speed of light.

Here is where something called "slow light" comes into play. Having been studied in elaborate laboratory settings for years, light propagating in optically dense media -- media that slow light's propagation speed down considerably -- has been an area of increasing interest in photonics.

Slowing an optical bit down enables a computer to better buffer and route information traffic in much the same way that stoplights and speed limits are essential to controlling the flow of physical traffic.

The challenge has been that the only substantially light-slowing media were laser-illuminated gas clouds or specially prepared ruby crystals, neither of which are well suited for a CMOS chip.

However, a team of researchers led by Yurii A. Vlasov of IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center announced this week that a grid of specially perforated silicon can slow the speed of light moving through its channels by a factor of 300.

"Instead of using atomic vapors and sophisticated equipment, we wanted to build a small (optical) circuit that doesn't require any lasers and is built on the same production lines where computer chips are built," said Vlasov.

David Lackner, senior analyst for the technology research and advisory firm Lux Research, said that Vlasov's light-slowing silicon could also enable a near-term application: an all-optical network router.

In internet traffic today, Lackner said, "It doesn't matter how quickly you deliver data across the Atlantic, because on either side of the Atlantic, you have to go through routers. And that's what slows things down."

It is the translation of a network signal from optical to electronic bits, he said, that is often the bottleneck.

Said Fred Zieber, analyst and president of Pathfinder Research, "Slow light can allow you to store, briefly, an IP packet of information without converting it to electrical signals."

Of course, computerized communications take place not only across thousands of miles but also across millimeter and centimeter scales.

James Harris, the James & Ellenor Chesebrough Professor of Electrical Engineering at Stanford University, said that as a chip's clock speed increases, electronics become better suited for computation and photonics better for communication.

"As electronics keeps scaling and becoming faster, the communications bandwidth demands become ever greater at lower levels, from LANs ... to chip-to-chip to finally on-chip, there will be a push to use photons and optical interconnects for the communications function," he said. "But I think we will have electronic computational engines for a long time into the future."

Harris was one of an eight-member Stanford team that announced the fabrication of a silicon-based optical transmitter in last week's issue of Nature. The CMOS-ready transmitter, one-thousandth the size of a human hair, encodes data as light pulses ("1") or empty space ("0") at the rate of 100 Gbps.

The Stanford team's device, built around a microelectronic shutter that opens and closes rapidly, was built for communicating across a motherboard or across the length of a computer chip. This, says Harris, is where the future of electronic-photonic hybrid chips lies.

"I believe that optical communications will eventually be integrated into and used at the chip level, and this will be part of the essential elements to continue to increase the speed and functionality of electronics," he said.