Some recent science-related news that you might find interesting:
* Is aggression coded in our genes? The protein MOA-A appears to help neurotransmitters return to baseline level after a shock, and higher levels appear to sensitize people to violent behavior after childhood trauma [Science vol. 297, pp851-854]. In that light, a recent MRI study (not fMRI for a change) should raise eyebrows:
[A] team at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland has found a more direct link between MAO-A gene variants and violent behavior. The researchers, led by neuroscientist Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, studied a total of 142 men and women lacking any known history of mental illness or drug or alcohol abuse. The team chose to work with these healthy subjects to minimize the influence of other factors, either genetic or social, that might also alter the brain.
The differences, as revealed by MRI scans, were striking: For example, brain regions known to be involved in control of emotions and impulsivity, such as the anterior cingulate cortex, were on average 8% smaller in subjects with low levels of MAO-A. In addition, when subjects were shown pictures of angry or fearful faces, those with low MAO-A showed much greater activation of the amygdala, a region associated with anger and violent behavior. The team reports its findings online this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Place your bets now for how long before somebody tries this experiment with political leanings. You know that it is only a matter of time.
* A sobering reminder that tinkering with the immune system can have dangerous consequences. The press accounts make a recent trial using custom antibodies against the T cell protein CD28 sound pretty unsettling:
Early last week [David] O’Donnell arrived at the Parexel clinic attached to Northwick Park hospital, north London, to be screened for trials of a drug known as TGN1412. A first trial was just starting and his friend was taking part. O’Donnell was due to prepare for the next round.
To his surprise, researchers said the study had been cancelled and asked him to join another project. They did not reveal that down the corridor, six volunteers in the first trial were, as one witness said, “exploding”. Minutes after being given the drug they had suffered catastrophic reactions, screaming and begging for help. It was like “a living hell”, said a witness.
Among the victims was O’Donnell’s friend. He is one of four men who remain seriously ill in intensive care; they are conscious but, says the hospital, will “need specialist observation for some time”.
Two others are critical and being kept alive by life support systems. Myfanwy Marshall, a girlfriend of one of the victims, said he had swollen up “like the Elephant Man”.
Read excellent chat about the science behind the story here.
it just never fails to amaze me that messing with one tiny biochem-mechanism (a DNA base here, a single protein there) can cause such a huge behavioral/perceptual response.
I’m still trying to puzzle out if that means our behaviors, and our awareness of our behaviors, are much more automatic, much more chemically-mediated and much less “conscious” than we like to think. I’m inclining towards that view.