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23 SEPTEMBER 2010 BUSINESS DESIGN CENTRE, LONDON
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Issue 7: Contents 7Focus: Decisions A look at how decisions are made, by machines, governments- and us
24-34Regulars A closer look at recent happenings along our regular themes: Arts, Innovation, Sci-tech, Sciatribe, Politics, Day in the Life, Reviews and Dr Hypothesis
15-23 Features 15 The Doughnuts of Science 17 Our Friends in the Gut 19 Special Feature: Neurophysics 22 Statistically Significant 23 You are What Your Mother Ate Cover by Aoife McMahon and Lasani Wijetunge Gracing our cover is a robot in the RoboCup football league playing for Aris Valtazanosâ€™s team. Aris is a PhD student who focuses on designing strategic behaviours for humanoid robots in the Institute of Perception, Action and Behaviour, which is housed in the first floor of the Informatics Forum. It is a hub for robotic research into autonomous decision-making; sensory and motor control to developing biologically inspired robots. Perhaps, a machine learned robot aiding you in making decisions is a conceivable idea after all?
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Editors-in-Chief Catie Lichten, Lynne Harris Pictures Editor Lasani Wijetunge Layout Editor Jon Manning News Editor Katherine Staines Focus Editor Jess Smith News Team Katherine Staines, Laura Bailey, Danny McLaughlin, Aldona Kutkowska, Issy Anderson, Dong Liu Focus Team Helen Ramsden, Jaehyuk Imm, Jess Smith, Laura Appleby, Lynne Harris, Tom Simmons Feature Authors Emily Pritchard, Frank Dondelinger, Helen MaynardCasely, Joanna Brooks, Katie Marwick, Rachel Dakin Regular Authors Akshat Rathi, Catie Lichten, Emilie Castonguay, Emily Pritchard, Hayden Selvadurai, Jess Smith, Jon Manning, Kirsten Shuler, Louise Buckley, Pamela Docherty Page Editors Emilie Castonguay, Emily Pritchard, Hayden Selvaduari, Jaehyuk Imm, Joanna Brooks, Jon Manning, Katie Marwick, Kirsten Shuler, Lasani Wijetunge, Rachel Dakin
Editorial We would like to say a big hello and introduce ourselves to all EUSci readers as the new EUSci editors. Thank you to Hayden and Jess for all their hard work putting the last two issues of EUSci together. We hope that we’ve managed to live up to the high standard they set and that you enjoy reading this issue as much as we’ve enjoyed putting it together! This issue’s focus explores an important theme that crosses a multitude of scientific fields; that of decision-making. This theme has two sides to it; firstly, that of how scientific technology is rapidly changing the way in which decisions are made for us, and secondly how novel scientific information is being used to make decisions that influence all of us. The focus explores a range of topics covering these two issues.
Copy Editors Anneliese Norris, Emilie Castonguay, Frank Dondelinger, Gwen Wathne, Helen Ramsden, Ishabel Vicaria, Jenny Wright, Jess Smith, Kirsten Shuler Pictures Team Veronica Alva Flores, Amir Kirolos, Aimee Lockwood, Aoife McMahon, Catriona O’Neil, Lasani Wijetunge, Liza Wolfson Layout Team Aisling Spain, Emily Pritchard, Christelle Robert, Katie Marwick, Helen Ramsden, Jen Wright President Alex Sinclair Want to be part of the EUSci team? Email firstname.lastname@example.org
With generous support from the Edinburgh BHF CoRE
President Welcome to issue 7 of EUSci magazine! Why did you decide to pick it up? Your eye caught by the front cover, an interest in science? Possibly you are a regular reader or may be one of us zealously thrust this magazine into your hand at the freshers’ fair. Either way, I hope you agree that it is a thing of beauty, containing the best in science journalism; written, illustrated
Our features cover as diverse an array of topics as ever, ranging from obesity to synchrotrons. It is credit to our contributors that we continue to publish a wide range of articles covering topics across the spectrum of scientific research. The features deadline, for issue 8 will be the 11th of October and as usual, we welcome submissions from anyone who has an interest in writing about science. Happy reading, Lynne Harris and Catie Lichten and edited by University of Edinburgh and Edinburgh College of Art students and staff. However this magazine is only one facet of the expanding EUSci media empire. Our fortnightly award-nominated podcast, conveys the latest need-toknow science-related news (available on iTunes), while the seminar series is an opportunity for anyone to expound upon a pet scientific obsession. For the imaginative the EUSciFi short story competition returns and we have just purchased a digital camera – ideas for EUSci TV wanted! Want to get involved? Meet us in person during fresher week or visit the soon-to-be revamped eusci.org ,containing information on all past, present and future activities. We can also be stalked through our facebook fan page and twitter feed (@eusci). Alex Sinclair
www.eusci.org | Sep 2010 |
What a copycat! Bowerbirds are best known for the construction and subsequent decoration of their elaborate bowers, which are used by males to attract mates. But it is not so widely known that bowerbirds are also proficient mimics, typically mimicking over a dozen other species and environmental noises. It has long been wondered whether mimics like the bowerbird are imitating other members within their own species, or if they are copying directly from different species. A recent study from the universities of Edinburgh and St Andrews, and published in Biology Letters in March, found the latter to be the case. The researchers studied the impersonations of butcherbirds and kites by male spotted bowerbirds living in an Australian national park. They found that males with bowers closer together had more similar
Forest flights give scientists aerial view of climate change A team from the Department of Geosciences at The University of Edinburgh, led by Dr Caroline Nichol, has launched a programme to assess how much CO2 boreal forests are absorbing. These forests are located around the Arctic Circle
A Spotted Bowerbird, Queensland, Australia
mimetic repertoires than those whose bowers were further apart. But the distance between bowers could not explain variations within the birds’ reproductions of the sounds. These variations were repeated by individuals and proved that the bowerbirds were copying directly from the original species and not from each other. Laura Kelley of the University of Edinburgh, who led the study, said, “We know that lots of birds are gifted impersonators and copy the sounds of other birds, animals and people. However, less is known about why birds do this, or how this skill developed. Our discovery that mimics learn directly from other species is important and opens lots of doors for further research into why songbirds developed this ability.”
Researchers at the University of Edinburgh have identified the role of an enzyme that helps control brain activity. The findings, published in June in Nature Neuroscience, may pave the way for new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and epilepsy. The scientists analysed the behaviour of brain cells during periods of peak mental activity, identified by an increase in electrical signals between neurons. They found that the enzyme GSK3 reduced the flow of chemical messages between neurons. Thus, by suppressing the effect of this enzyme, brain cells could communicate more quickly when, for example, forming new memories and this would slow the progression of Alzheimer’s. Similarly, drugs could be used to increase the A modified electron micrograph of nerve terminals
enzyme’s effect in order to relieve epileptic seizures by slowing down mental activity. However, the enzyme is involved in many brain and body functions and the team are cautious about manipulating it without fully understanding the effects. More research is needed, but they remain optimistic. The University of Edinburgh’s Dr Mike Cousin, who led the research team, said, “Until now, we understood that this enzyme was important to brain cell function, but we did not fully appreciate why. This study shows that GSK3 plays a crucial part in controlling brain function during peak activity. The development of drugs to act on the enzyme could make a real difference to the lives of people with brain disorders.” Danny McLaughlin
New Alzheimer’s treatments possible by novel study
Laura Bailey and their size is comparable to the Amazon rainforest. The university’s own fuelefficient aeroplane, with two people on board, will fly above boreal forest in Finland to acquire high-resolution images. Other sensors will collect data about the absorption of CO2 by the trees. The aerial observation combined with NASA satellite data will be used to
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analyse the role of Earth’s coldest forest on alleviation of climate change. The result will definitely lead to a better understanding of efficiency of storage of CO2 by boreal forests and potentially help to limit the increase of atmospheric CO2. Dr Caroline Nichol said, “Combining aircraft and satellite data relating to the forest’s canopy gives us much
more accurate results much more quickly, and over a wider area than we would get from ground-based measurements alone.” The project is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council and will be carried out with the University of Helsinki and the NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre. Aldona Kutkowska
Scientists crack chicken puzzle A gynandromorph bird
A curious phenomenon that is seen in chickens, where one half of the bird appears female and the other half male, has recently been solved by Edinburgh scientists. Previously there was no explanation for the occurrence of these gynandromorphs; but now it appears that these are chimaeras composed of a mixture of male and female cells that retain their sex identity. These findings contrast with the mechanisms that were previously thought to govern the sexual development of all vertebrates. The traditional view is that male or female characteristics result from the production of hormones in the ovaries or testes. This research suggests that an alternate mechanism occurs in birds, in which basic differences between male and female cells control the development of sexual traits. This work, published in the journal Nature in March, not only sheds light on the process of sexual development in birds, but may also improve sexing assays used during poultry production and be relevant for understanding differences in behaviour and disease susceptibility between males and females. Dr Michael Clinton, who led the study, believes that we should now reassess how sexual development occurs in other organisms. Laura Bailey
EdSciFest: #FF People we like chatting to @EdinburghMela @eusci @festivalslab @lizwallace @LondonSciFest @_The_Geoff_ eusci: Special #edfringe podcast episode! Features @robinince, @helenarney, @standupmaths, @FringeofReason and Helen Keen http://bit.ly/ ayk8IV
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The probability of wildfire, and the effects of climate change, can now be better estimated using information decoded from fossils, a study by colleagues at the University of Edinburgh has revealed. 200 million years ago, plants that evolved narrower leaves began to dominate East Greenland flora due to a warmer climate, which correlated with an increase in atmospheric CO2 levels. This adaptation was advantageous as it considerably limited their loss of water. But it came at a cost: narrow leaves are more flammable and thus vulnerable to natural bushfires. The burnt plants fossilised and were found A leaf fossil from Greenland by curious scientists. As well as telling an extraordinary story, the fossils are helping climate researchers to develop models that predict the potential effects of global warming. Of particular interest is the frequency of forest fires occurring at higher CO2 levels, a condition that resembles the environmental changes dating back to when the fossils were living plants. As Dr Claire Belcher, leader of the study, explains, “We studied how ancient plants and fire changed in the past and used modern experiments on living plants – much like those that grew 200 million years ago – to show that under these conditions (when atmospheric CO2 doubled), plants became more flammable.” The study, published in Nature Geoscience in June, was a joint project between fire engineers at the University of Edinburgh and Earth scientists at University College Dublin, the University of Oxford and the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
Dark matter exposed A new telescope wielding the world’s most powerful digital camera promises to reveal the secrets of the universe as it begins its observations of the night sky. This fresh new telescope, called Pan-STARRS sky survey telescope (aka PS1), will equip scientists with a better method to understand and learn about dark matter and dark energy – a substance never proven to exist but that is thought to account for the majority of mass in the universe. Astronomers from the universities of Durham, Edinburgh and Queen’s University Belfast, together with researchers from around the world, are using the telescope to scan the skies from dusk to dawn each night. The PS1’s camera has roughly 150 times as many pixels as the average, with 1400 megapixels capable of collecting intensely detailed imagery of around 75% of the night sky from its base in Hawaii. The telescope was built by the University of Hawaii, taking over a decade to develop. It will enable clues about the nature of dark energy and dark matter to be revealed. From these clues, scientists wish to confirm Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which predicts that light can bend around an object in space – such as dark matter – because it is pulled towards the Computer-simulated object by gravity. dark matter halos
Fossils on fire
eusci: Hmmm... our article came first. Just saying! http:// twitpic. com/2chnx9 (Spotted by @movingturtle)
Dong Liu The PS1 will also provide a means to identify new supernovae and monitor near-Earth asteroids owing to its capabilities to track fast-paced objects. The three-year project will collect enough data onto powerful computers to fill the equivalent of several thousand PCs. Professor Alan Heavens of the University of Edinburgh said: “Pan-STARRS has immense potential for mapping the distribution of matter in the Universe, even the unseen dark matter. Our goal is to do this over the majority of the sky for the first time – but there are still big challenges ahead for us.” Development of Pan-STARRS – Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System – has been funded by the US Air Force. Issy Anderson
The Virgo Consortium
The Roslin Institute
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Decisions are made by us and for us everyday, some more important than others; but how much do we know about how these decisions are made and what implications they have for our future health, wealth and happiness? This focus examines some of the theories behind decision making, some of the ways in which these decisions are made and a few instances where these are applied to situations which can affect all of our lives.
Title font: Typodermic Art: Veronica Alva Flores
Jaehyuk Imm compares the roles of scientists and non-scientists in making judgments that affect us all n October 2009, Professor David Nutt, chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), expressed an opinion contrary to that of the government of the time. What compelled the then Home Secretary Alan Johnson to sack Professor David Nutt over this? Why did scientists get so frustrated when Professor David Nutt was dismissed? This event raises many issues about decision-making in science and technology. In modern life, many decisions require scientific and technological knowledge. These include macro-decisions, such as whether to ban certain drugs, approve new medicines, build nuclear powerplants, and so on. There are also micro-decisions such as which medical treatment to provide to each patient, and home hygiene. Are scientists the only people who should be making these decisions? This was believed to be the case in the past, and is still considered to be so by a significant number of people. These people grant special authority to science and scientists. Both the overreaction of Alan Johnson and the frustration of scientists are rooted in the authority of science. Politicians fear the authority of scientists, while scientists fear losing this authority. However, the sociology of scientific knowledge (the study of science as a social activity) has revealed that scientific knowledge is not itself authoritative truth and can’t be separated from society. It means that decisions involving scientific knowledge require the input of both scientists and non-scientists alike. What are the specific roles of these two groups in the decision-making process? The key role of scientists in the decision-making process is to provide expert scientific knowledge. There are two potential problems with this. Firstly, who are the experts? Not every biologist is an expert of, say, mad cow disease. It is often very hard to distinguish experts who can fully contribute to the decision-
making process from non-experts who simply possess relevant knowledge. Secondly, even experts cannot always provide solid scientific knowledge within the required time-frame. For example, action is already being taken to mitigate climate change although it will take decades to establish a globally reliable climate change model. When it comes to experts, nonscientists also have important roles to play in the decision-making process. Patients or their relatives, though academically unqualified, may be able to provide valuable contributions. A good example of this is “Lorenzo’s Oil”, a movie based on a true story, in which the parents of an Adrenoleukodystrophy
environmental policy and so forth, in our local area, our country and our world. Finally, politicians, administrators and managers are literally decision-makers; that is their job. They meet experts and gather up-to-date knowledge. They meet lay people and gather their opinion. They are primarily responsible for the decisions. Although they try to make the right decisions, they are often forced to make a decision with insufficient knowledge because scientists have not yet reached a consensus.
All of us should cooperate to make sound scientific decisions patient discover a new treatment for the disease. Farmers who can contribute to the GM debate, not as consumers and producers but as farming experts, are another example. These groups of people are known as experience-based experts. Lay people, without such experience-based expertise, are also important stakeholders, if they are or potentially will be affected by the decisions being made. For example, people living near a prospective nuclear power plant should have the right to participate in relevant decision-making. People not living in that area may also be important participants. After all, we live in a democracy where the general public has the right to contribute. We have the right to present our views on research and development priorities, energy policy,
We cannot set clear guidelines for the roles discussed above since they are case-dependent and can change over time. However, in the same way that juries make decisions based on evidence provided by a number of different sources, it is not only a politician or a doctor who decides, instead all of us should cooperate to make sound scientific decisions. Jaehyuk Imm is an MSc student in the School of Social and Political Science
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-JGFT BHBNF Tom Simmons introduces the playful side of life
ecisions, decisions, decisions: we are all required to make many decisions on a daily basis. Decisions are required in games, and games are played whenever parties interact, whenever strategies are concocted and prizes are to be won. This means games occur almost everywhere: from politics to evolutionary biology, economics to romantic courtship, and indeed all applications of the field of game theory. Game theory was born in 1994 in the book Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour by John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern, where they proposed a method of mathematically modelling the future actions of opposing parties in economic systems. At the time they seemingly did not appreciate its relevance to other academic disciplines. Its practice has since spread from its economic roots to complement many diverse fields and may yet revolutionise further disciplines as well. Game theory is able to model situations in which choices are made – games – assuming that players will act ‘rationally’. Rationality for game theorists means to act in one’s own self interest. The simplest examples are those with two players (conventionally, Alice and Bob), and two choices. The payoff for each player after choices have been made is given a numerical value. This value represents the cumulative consequence to each player once all the pros and cons of the decisions have been taken into account; the higher the numerical value, the better the payoff. Games are often accompanied by storylines to explain situations in which the payoffs shown might occur. Now regarded as one of the basic building blocks of the theory of games, the concept of Nash equilibria was formulated by John Nash in his postgraduate thesis. A Nash equilibrium occurs when all players are simultaneously making the best decisions, taking into account the decisions of others. Due to this, no player has any incentive to deviate from this strategy and therefore games often converge towards Nash equilibria. This concept helps us predict the actions of people as different stories unfold. The moral of this story is that the actions of people cannot be determined alone, but must be considered with the decisions of others.
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This, however, does not mean that in a Nash equilibrium each player is getting the best payoff they possibly could. The ‘prisoner’s dilemma’, possibly the most famous game in game theory, demonstrates a troubling predicament. It shows that it is possible for two ‘rationally’ behaving people to converge on a Nash equilibrium which is equally distasteful to each of them – a seemingly irrational result (see inset). There is more to game theory than abstract games; it has real applications and can help to solve real problems. Since game theory’s inception, eight of its practitioners have won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, cementing its powerful role in the field for which it was initially created. Economists regularly use game theory to understand a wide range of economic phenomena. Research is often focused around equilibrium states such as the Nash equilibrium. A focus of study somewhat related to game theory’s economic origins is in the realms of political science. In his book The Predictioneer, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, a professor of politics at New York University, describes a computer program based on game theory, which can predict the result of future political decisions. He claims to do this with a remarkable accuracy of 90% and with no crystal balls in sight! Initially, de Mesquita compiles a list of all the interested parties in a political decision and scores them based on a few key questions including their opinion and their answer’s impact. It is from these scores that the payoffs in the games he constructs are derived. Because prediction accuracy is only as good as the numbers put in, de Mesquita collaborates extensively with experts in other fields. By allowing the computer to run games based on such parameters he is able to make successful predictions. This powerful tool has more recently predicted that the Pakistan government will work hard to limit but not eliminate terrorists from within its borders, and that attempts to create international climate talks will be trumped because of the interests of developing economies. Few other theories find applications in topics as diverse as game theory does. If you learn nothing else here, no matter what you think of life, one thing is for sure – it’s all one big game. Tom Simmons is a PhD student at the Institute of Molecular Plant Science The prisoners’ dilemma The diagram demonstrates the ways in which players’ payoffs are calculated in game theory’s famous ‘prisoners’ dilemma’ which contains a single Nash equilibrium.
BOB Remain Silent Remain Silent
ALICE -10 -5
Alice and Bob are arrested and told by a magistrate: 1) If you confess and your accomplice fails to confess, you go free while your accomplice will receive the maximum jail term - a poor payoff for your accomplice (-10), but a good payoff for you (0). 2) If you both confess you will both be convicted but will each receive a shorter sentence - a slightly better payoff (-5). 3) If neither of you confess you will both be framed for a minor charge and receive a minimal punishment (-1). The Nash equilibrium in the prisoner’s dilemma is unusual because neither player need take into account the other player’s choice when choosing their own – it is always better to confess regardless. Alice’s payoff is higher if she confesses, whether Bob remains silent (0 compared to -1) or confesses (-5 compared to -10). The same is true the other way around. Therefore, even if before the trial they both agree to do what would seem to be the logical thing – to stay silent (thereby limiting their penalty to -1), they will both break their promise and be condemned to a five year jail term by their own ‘rational behaviour’.
Lynne Harris reveals how small details can be a big help
f you’re anything like me you probably like to consider yourself a rational sort of person, who makes informed, logical decisions about their health, wealth and happiness. If so, then I would like to introduce you to two species; Homo economicus and Homo sapiens. Whereas the former has the brainpower of Albert Einstein, can store as much memory as IBM’s Big Blue, and exert the willpower of Mother Teresa, the latter struggle with multiplication without a calculator, sometimes forget their wedding anniversary and drink so much beer that they can’t function the next day. Research from the emerging science of choice has found that humans do indeed behave differently to the unfortunately fictitious Homo economicus. We are particularly incapable of making unbiased forecasts, which unfortunately sometimes leads us to making poor decisions. A classic
example of this is the “planning fallacy”, or humans’ systematic tendency of assuming that projects will take less time than they actually do. This might sound vaguely familiar to any Edinburgh tram contractors currently reading this focus... Given our humanness, is there a way in which we can make it easier for people to make better decisions? The behavioural economists Thaler and Sunstein have proposed that this can indeed be done by giving people a wee nudge. The key players in their proposed “nudge theory” are choice architects, people that have the responsibility of organising the context in which other people make decisions. If you are a manufacturer who chooses the default settings of a laptop (people have a tendency to stick with default settings), you are a choice architect. If you are a doctor explaining treatment options to a patient, you are a choice architect. If you are a director of food services designing the layout of a school canteen, you are a choice architect. Nudge theory maintains that choice architects can make small changes to choice environments which enable people to make choices that are better for themselves, their families and society. So how might this work? Let’s take the example of obesity, a major health issue in Scotland. Most people know that a healthy diet is important if they want to maintain
a balanced weight and enjoy good health. However, for a multitude of reasons many people choose not to eat healthily. It has been shown that placing products at eye level in supermarkets increases the rate at which consumers buy them. Therefore, a supermarket stockist who places apples at eye level and Mars bars elsewhere is altering the environment in which the choice of what food to buy is presented to people. The stockist is making it easier for a consumer to make a choice that is beneficial to their health. A key point is that the stockist isn’t banning the deep-fried Mars bars; nudges are not mandates and the choices that people are nudged into should be those that they would themselves judge as preferable. Nudge theory is not just something which can only be applied to hypothetical situations (see ‘Practical Applications’ box for an example); it can be applied by anyone at any point in their lives. Professionals use the theory in order to help us to make decisions which they believe are the right ones (either for us or for them) and it might be worth considering whether you are a choice architect too. If so how you might nudge those around you into being a little bit better off? Lynne Harris is a PhD student in the Institute for Immunology and Infection
Crucially, GAME THEORY has also found a key application in evolutionary biology, notably in our understanding of altruism. Altruism can be summed up in the colloquialism ‘You scratch my back if I scratch yours’. Behaviour like this has an obvious benefit – there are some parts of my back that I can’t reach! In terms of game theory, one might describe behaving altruistically as increasing an opponent’s payoff (in nature biological fitness and therefore reproductive capacity) at the expense of one’s own. However, this seems counterintuitive; surely the drive not to reciprocate should produce groups of selfish individuals. As in the prisoner’s dilemma, it is always better to take advantage of an altruist than to return the favour. So why doesn’t everyone behave selfishly? This can be answered by considering groups and multiple interactions rather than individuals meeting once. An evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS) is a strategy which, when adopted by a group of individuals, ensures that individuals with opposing strategies (from another group for example) cannot invade the group and take advantage of them. This stability is a shared characteristic of ESSs and Nash equilibria. ESSs require the not unreasonable assumption that behaviour is hereditary. In games where the two options are to act altruistically or selfishly, the most successful strategy is one where the player first gives the benefit of the doubt to strangers but then copies their last actions whenever they meet again. Such individuals can be taken advantage of, but only once. Because this is the most successful strategy, after a few generations a population will eventually become predominantly populated with individuals using this strategy. In such a population, selfish individuals gain very little while everyone else gains a lot. The prevalence of altruistic behaviour observed in the world should therefore be no surprise. A wonderful example of NUDGE THEORY in practice comes from the men’s toilets at Schiphol Airport, where airport authorities have etched the image of a housefly into each urinal. It turns out that men don’t tend to pay much attention to where they aim (male Homo economicus would…), which can create some spillage, but if they see a target, attention and resultantly accuracy are much increased. Indeed fly-in-urinal trials have shown that etchings reduce spillage by around 80 percent.
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Urinal Dot Net (www.urinal.net)
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Frank Dondelinger examines the past, present and future of decision support systems
n 1969, artificial intelligence research was facing a crisis. Early promises of developing truly autonomous and intelligent agents had not been realised, funding was drying up, and successful applications were thin on the ground. Then along came Ed Feigenbaum of Stanford University with Dendral, one of the first expert systems that promised to revolutionise decision-making by combining human expert knowledge with machine accuracy. Dendral had the ability to determine the structure of a molecule by using its chemical formula and mass spectrum profile. At the heart of Dendral was a complex set of rules that the researchers had worked out in conjunction with analytical chemists. However, chemistry is not the only area where expert systems could be of use. Feigenbaum soon developed MYCIN, a similar program that could diagnose blood infections based on input from a physician. MYCIN was so clever that it managed to outperform infectious disease experts in its predictions. Although neither Dendral nor MYCIN were used much in practice (computer access being very limited at the time), they were nevertheless important as early examples of successful decision support systems. Nowadays, such systems are all around us. You can find decision support systems for planning forest management, identifying business trends or even testing railway equipment. Yet the most exciting – and potentially most critical – application of decision support systems is still in medical diagnosis. Clinical decision support systems have had mixed success. Their use improves practitioner performance, as a 2005 review showed. Despite this, their adoption in medical practice is still lagging. This may partly be due to practitioner reluctance, as some doctors feel that interacting with a machine just slows them down. However, the main obstacle seems to be that most decision support systems require the user to first enter the relevant patient data in a time-consuming manner. Nevertheless there are success stories, such as TheraDoc, an automated infection control assistant. TheraDoc has been successful in helping hospitals prevent the spread of infections and reduce the amount of effort they need to spend on monitoring infectious patients. Decision support systems are constantly evolving, and some of the most recent research is taking place here at the University of Edinburgh. Professor Chris Williams and Dr John Quinn of the Institute for Adaptive Neural Computation, together with Professor Neil McIntosh of Child Life and Health, have developed a monitoring system for premature babies. Due to their fragile condition, these babies are under constant surveillance in case their vital signs become unstable. This can lead to a large number of false alarms, for example if monitoring electrodes fall off or malfunction. Unlike the expert systems of yore, Professor
Williams’ system, a socalled switching Kalman filter, is based on a combination of expert knowledge and machine learning. It works by analysing vital signs over time to deduce when a change in the baby’s condition puts them at risk. Although the system has not yet been deployed for actual clinical use, Professor Williams hopes that it will significantly reduce the number of false alarms, while also potentially flagging up critical developments in the baby’s condition that simple alarms may miss. This kind of system could also have other applications, such as the monitoring of elderly people in their homes, or the (perhaps much-needed) monitoring of equipment in oil production rigs. Another way to arrive at a decision support system is by simulating what the effect of a decision would be. This is the approach taken by Dr Glenn Marion and his team at Biomathematics and Statistics Scotland. They have built simulation models of wildlife populations to assess which disease control strategies are most effective in controlling the spread of infectious diseases such as bovine tuberculosis in badgers. Their simulations showed that certain culling strategies are actually detrimental, for example by causing the breakdown of social structure, which leads to more movement and greater opportunities to spread infection. All of this may sound very exciting, but is perhaps rather remote from your day-to-day experiences. It may come as a surprise to you then that most of us interact with decision support systems on a daily basis. Every time you type a search query into Google, it makes a decision on your behalf about which results to display on the first page. Every time Amazon makes a recommendation for other books you may like based on your purchases, a machine is trying to help you decide what to buy next. With more and more of us relying on our iPhones and other mobile devices to make life easy, it is only a question of time before decision-making apps help us choose tonight’s restaurant, or the closest pub. For some, this may be a scary prospect, but remember that the final decision is always yours.
Decision support systems are constantly evolving
Frank Dondelinger is a PhD student at Biomathematics and Statistics Scotland
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ritain’s ‘Big Society’ is one of responsibility and empowerment, ideals that are particularly relevant to the clinical world where patients want choice and control over their treatments. However, evidence from cognitive psychology suggests that we are far from optimal decision-makers, so decision support systems could help us fare better in taking control successfully. REACT (Risk, Events, Actions and their Consequences over Time) is a tool being developed by a group in Edinburgh. REACT aims to improve our decisionmaking abilities. It enables patients to interactively scrutinise the benefits and risks of their treatment options over time. Tough decisions are an inevitable aspect of medicine because there is rarely a single, reliable treatment for diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. In most instances, clinicians will suggest an often ambiguity-free treatment course based on wellknown and practised treatment options as well as the patient’s lifestyle, goals and concerns. This may be satisfactory for some. Others, inspired by the Internet and accessibility of research papers, may desire a deeper understanding and perhaps even a quantitative approach to their treatment risks. Does more information necessarily translate to better decisions? Cognitive psychologists say otherwise. Often experiences appear to intuitively guide our decisions (an ‘experience-based heuristic’) rather than an ‘optimal’ choice reached by logical and methodical analysis. For example, in a clinical setting a patient may reject a typically low-risk treatment because an acquaintance recently suffered adversely having received it (an ‘availability heuristic’). He or she may even select a treatment choice that would give the best consequences for the present even if it will lead to a poor long-term outcome (a phenomenon known as ‘time-discounting’). The decision support system REACT not only provides the most important information about treatments, their benefits and risks, but also graphically represents the risk quantified. This enables patients to choose, execute virtually and evaluate a flexible health plan that is tailored to their own medical history. REACT is developed by the COSSAC consortium and funded by Cancer Research UK. Dr David Glasspool manages the branch in Edinburgh at the School of Informatics. He explains that the initial motivation for REACT was as a tool for genetic counsellors, who must present and discuss treatment options with patients who have a high genetic predisposition to cancer. The most developed system explores options for the mutations in the BRCA1 gene which cause a lifetime risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer of up to 75% and 40%, respectively. The unique feature of this clinical situation is the health of the patients; they may never develop cancer but to counteract their predisposed risk they are offered drastic precautions such as full mastectomy (breast removal) or oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries).
Helen Ramsden introduces software that can make life’s toughest choices a little bit easier
This is clearly a difficult emotional decision but it is also challenging in terms of the ‘cognitive load’ imposed by such a long-term and extreme plan. REACT is designed to remove the burden of the five features of this working-memory load, thus making it a unique medical software tool. First, REACT eases the process of remembering the sequence of events in a patient’s life because it displays a timeline on which they can visualise and assess different treatments. Second, REACT clearly displays all the options at a given time point and describes when each is suitable. Third, argument-based rules help them make the right decision by providing the pros and cons of each treatment, without the confusion that probability of success can cause. Fourth, patients can explore how options interact by adjusting their ordering and checking for warnings of potential conflicts. For example, the drug tamoxifen cannot be taken whilst breast-feeding. Finally, the patients’ choices can be continuously monitored against the end goal of reducing risk of cancer because they can observe how much each treatment reduces their risk. This feature is particularly attractive as it may prevent a patient opting for a treatment based on time-discounting and the memory of others’ bad experiences. REACT is still in the process of being developed. Although it has yet to be used in true clinical settings, a pilot study shows that REACT helps participants with poor working memory make objectively better benefit/cost decisions. Furthermore, genetic counsellors have found the graphical representation of lifetime risk to be highly useful in communicating treatment options to individuals. Interestingly, the graph is also somewhat controversial because the designers found that the most intuitive way of presenting changes in risk is actually mathematically contradictory. REACT is versatile. The group has explored REACT’s capabilities to find the best treatment options for clinical examples of diabetes, breast cancer, cardio-vascular health and aneurysms. It could even be used to find the best mortgage deal! To cover such a broad spectrum, the developers envisage that the information REACT communicates could be generated and updated directly, with expert guidance, from NHS protocols and recent experimental literature. The only practical limits for implementing this are funding and potential legal concerns. REACT could potentially offer the responsibility and empowerment that some crave by providing a computational platform for exploring what risk really means. As such, it could prevent the misconceptions that can lead to errors in decisionmaking and potentially harm a person’s future.
There is rarely a single, reliable treatment
Please see www.cossac.org/projects/react for more information. Helen Ramsden is a PhD student in Computational Neuroscience
www.eusci.org | Sep 2010 |
5IFJNQPSUBODF PGCFJOH/*$& Laura Appleby discusses just how NICE decides who and how to treat
he UK's National Health Service (NHS) is one of the largest and most comprehensive in the world. It mediates, manages and procures healthcare from diagnosis, through prognosis to cure. However, it is an unfortunate reality that the NHS only has limited, in fact diminishing, resources at its disposal. The unenviable role of allocating these scarce resources equitably has been delegated to the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, or NICE, which makes decisions concerning which drugs to invest in, what diagnostic tests to perform, and which patients to prioritize for treatment. This article attempts to review the processes employed in making such decisions, from quantifying the value of a year of life to striking deals with drug manufacturers to offset negative outcomes. It will also consider how and why controversies arise. Established in 1999 as a government funded, independent body, NICE exists to provide non-partisan guidance, set quality standards and recommend treatment and management of specific conditions. When new drugs enter the market, NICE makes recommendations to the NHS that depend on an appraisal of the available evidence. The viability of a new treatment being adopted is decided based on a combination of clinical evidence, cost and the quality of life years gained
by the patient in response to treatment. NICE currently appraises 40% of drugs that are reaching the market, but it has inevitably sparked controversy over some of its decisions about what to recommend (or not) and over how popular opinion has swayed its choices.
ICE has endeavoured to objectify their decisionmaking process to minimise the possibility of controversial recommendations. The quality-adjusted life year gained (QALY) is the key to much of what underlies NICE policy and decision-making. The QALY is an economic term which combines the objective measurement of quantity of time gained with the subjective measurement of the quality of that time. The advantage of it as a measure of health outcome is that it can simultaneously capture gains from reduced morbidity (quality gains) and reduced mortality (quantity gains). One of the most important features is that all QALYs are equal. Thus, a QALY gained or lost due to one disease is equivalent to that of another and starting age is irrelevant. If confronted with the choice to save a child or a grandmother from a burning building, the decision would have to be made at random since the value of an additional adjusted life year is the same for both. On the surface this may seem irrational as the grandmother has lived a full life whereas the child’s is only beginning, but if considered in the view of the economic law of diminishing marginal utility - that the less you have of something, the more you value it (in this case life years remaining) - the decision to toss a coin becomes less arbritrary. Eliza Wolfson Figure 1 shows a simple example of how the QALY can be used to compare two treatments for a disease. Unfortunately, the QALY path can be much more complex than this. For instance, in treating many cancers the immediate quality of life is very low, but the outcome is a much higher quality of life in the long term. Indeed, this picture is usually more of a murky shade of grey than black and white, as invariably a treatment strategy that gives a better outcome than another will cost more. NICE must then determine, from available evidence, what the increase in health gain will be in return for the increase in expenditure. This is the cost-benefit ratio and it is a critical feature of NICE’s decision process.
NICE has endeavoured to objectify their decision-making
Figure 1: Quality-adusted life-year gain in an intervention. Two treatment options are being considered for a disease. The QALY/time curve A shows that treatment A causes rapid deterioration of the individual’s health-related quality of life until death. With treatment B the individual’s quality of life is maintained at a higher level for longer, and death occurs at a later point in time. The shaded area represents QALYs gained with treatment B.
13 | Sep 2010 | www.eusci.org
he cost-benefit ratio (see Figure 2) depends not only on costing drugs, but also on the intensity of care provided by staff during and after treatment, which is a complex calculation. NICE has in fact placed an arbritrary threshold of £30,000 per QALY. It may seem insensitive and somewhat obscure to put a price on the worth and quality of an extra year of life. However, this threshold is not hard and fast. Rather, final decisions
regarding the threshold will depend on four features: (1) the degree of uncertainty surrounding the estimate, (2) the nature of the condition and the population that the disease in question affects, (3) the innovative nature of the technology and (4) wider society costs and benefits. Such flexibility has the advantage of encouraging competition between drug companies to lower prices following poor reviews. For example, after NICE determined that the treatment bortezomib was not cost effective for multiple myeloma, the NHS and the drug manufacturer struck up a deal. Currently, if patients respond partially or fully to bortezomib, the NHS picks up the tab. If not, the treatment is discontinued and the manufacturer refunds the cost of the drug treatment up to that point. This flexible threshold also ensures equality in the distribution of healthcare. In 2003 NICE recommended the use of Imatinib in the treatment of chronic myeloid leukaemia at a cost of £37,000 per QALY, which it deemed to be cost effective. However, the cost-benefit ratio for this treatment changes depending on the stage of leukaemia progression at which it is administered. In the accelerated phase, the cost rises to £38,400. Since the cost at the accelerated phase is so similar to the cost at the chronic phase, NICE deemed it inconsistent to deny treatment. However, at the terminal blast crisis phase, the cost rises to £49,000. Despite this, NICE considered it unfair to deny patients the drug on the basis that the healthcare system was most likely at fault if patients had reached this stage untreated. Can such flexibility be justified in some arenas but not in others?
hile NICE in name, handling the task of deciding the allocation of finite health resources cannot always be an agreeable situation. Those who play a role in the health care system include patients, their families, their doctors and the reporting bodies or the media, all of whom have questioned the wisdom of the institution. For example, NICE has been criticised for the lag time between the release of a drug onto the market and its appraisal of the drug, leading to delayed treatment in situations where an early diagnosis and treatment could lead to a better prognosis. This highlights the compromise between timely, extensively researched and fast decisions. Another criticism is that since disease often clusters in time and space, it may not be optimally cost-effective for hospitals hundreds of miles apart to act under the same treatment guidelines at all times. NICE has also come under fire for appearing to succumb to pressure from the media and the public regarding some of its appraisals. This has led to favourable outcomes for treatments that may not be cost-effective, which leaves hospitals with the hefty task of finding the funds, potentially at the cost of not treating patients with other conditions. Finally, NICE decisions have come under pressure from the Scottish Medical Consortium, who can choose to fund different drugs, thus creating a double standard within the NHS.
Figure 2: The cost-benefit ratio. The relationship between the price of a health technology and the QALYs received. At A, a small increase in price significantly increases the relative number of QALYs. Thus, technologies that fall to the left of A are likely to be adopted as they give a good cost benefit ratio. As the graph plateaus towards point B, increases in investment or price no longer provide relative increases in QALY. Thus, treatments that fall to the right of B are likely to be considered too expensive.
Ultimately, ensuring equality of treatment within society is a tough hurdle to overcome, particularly when the field is so subjective. The Citizens Council is one of the structures in place to try to combat this obstacle. The Council meets twice a year to discuss topics pertaining to societal values and equality in distribution of healthcare. It consists of 30 people from the ordinary public, who represent the UK population in terms of age, sex, race, and socioeconomic background. NICE guidelines often raise difficult and challenging social issues, and the Council is responsible for ensuring these issues are discussed and brought to the attention of NICE. For example, should NICE put more importance on a year of extra life for children, compared to a year for their parents or grandparents? Despite hardships and setbacks, NICE remains the best format currently available to tackle the unenviable task of deciding how to allocate medical resources. It is a functional rationer of health care and has successfully acquired lower overhead costs through facilitating NHS negotiations with drug manufacturers. An additional benefit is that it removes the decisionmaking from the doctor’s responsibilities; not only can the doctor be left to concentrate on the care of his or her patient, but this creates a smaller likelihood of supplier-induced demand. In an age where there is a global pandemic of health technologies and treatments on the market, a review panel such as NICE is essential to equitable healthcare. It may have its failings, but the need to ration in these days of economic crisis may trump them all.
The NHS has diminishing resources at its disposal
Laura Appleby is a PhD student at the Ashworth laboratories
www.eusci.org | Sep 2010 |
If I were to ask you, “What is a synchrotron?”, you would probably think “Eh?”, but you are probably aware of the largest of them all, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), part of the CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research. This particle smasher, which is hunting for the so-called ‘God particle’, the Higgs Boson, lives under part of the French-Swiss border. The LHC is a large circular pipe that is 27 kilometres in circumference and works by accelerating charged particles (such as protons and electrons) around the circle by use of varying magnetic fields. When the particles are fast enough, they are diverted and allowed to smash into each other, revealing what they are made of in the process. However, though the LHC is the largest synchrotron in the world, and as a result can generate the fastest particles, it is not the only one. In Europe alone there are 21 smaller synchrotrons (usually about 1 kilometre in circumference), which are used by scientists in every discipline, from biology to engineering. Why is this? The reason is that when only electrons are accelerated in a synchrotron, very high-energy x-rays are produced as a by-product, and it is these x-rays that have a multitude of scientific uses. -rays are on the higher frequency end of the electromagnetic spectrum, corresponding to a very small wavelength of about 1 nanometre (or 1 billionth of a metre), which is also about the distance between atoms in crystals. X-rays can interact with materials in a number of ways, one of which is because the wavelength of x-rays and the distance between atoms is so similar, and if the atoms are arranged in a regular way (as they are in crystalline material, which most solids are), the x-rays scatter in a pattern that is particular to where the atoms are. Hence, we can determine the way atoms are arranged in a material, its strength, and how the individual atoms interact with each other as well as many other physical properties. Generating x-rays is relatively easy; every hospital has an x-ray generator, so why are synchrotron x-rays needed? The way that x-rays interact with materials is very weak, especially if the material is made up of light elements which are very small (those at the top of the periodic table; hydrogen, oxygen and carbon, for instance). The higher energy your x-rays are the bigger the effect will be and hence the more likely that we will be able to observe it. It is synchrotrons that allow x-rays of sufficiently high energy to be produced.
The process of producing x-rays with a synchrotron starts when electrons are injected and sped up in a smaller ring by a set of alternating magnets. Once the electrons are fast enough (referred to as having enough energy), they can be injected into the main synchrotron ring where they will be sped up further and circle round and round. The larger the ring, the faster the particles can get. The electrons will eventually lose their energy but before that happens they can be ‘topped up’ from the smaller ring, so a continuous stream of electrons, which generates x-rays, can be maintained. The x-rays are generated tangentially to the
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ring of electrons. For examples, if you take a ball on the end of a string, spin it about, then let is go, the path it will then follow is a tangential one. The x-rays are collected from their tangential path and focused so that a beam of x-rays can be delivered to where a sample is sitting. If you look at a plan of any synchrotron you’ll see a ring with a splay of ‘beamlines’ around it, each with its own specialism, be it for studying tiny samples, for characterising drugs or for looking at how surfaces of materials interact. ne important application of synchrotrons is the study of drug molecules. For instance, the US Food and Drug Administration regulations state that no drug can be given to humans until its structure is known. Also, as drugs are patentable, knowing their structure is a vital way of protecting the intellectual property rights. A more serious need is to attempt to fully understand any variations that the structure of a drug can undergo in order to account for all of its possible side-effects. For example, the birth defects caused by Thalidomide (used to prevent morning sickness) were the result of a mirror-image molecule produced in the digestive system. These problems might have been avoided if the variations in the structure of the drug had been better understood. Synchrotron x-rays can also be used to probe more subtle effects, and recent work at a synchrotron in Chicago has investigated a key protein in human sound reception, which may have great impact on understanding and General diagram of a synchrotron. Each potentially reversing deafness. beamline contains scientific instruments, Aside from applications of biological experiments etc. and receives an intense importance, the use of synchrotron beam of radiation. x-rays for physical research can have
15 | Sep 2010 | www.eusci.org
everyday implications. The term giant magneto-resistance (GMR) may not mean much to you, but you probably carry technology derived from it in your MP3 player. GMR is a phenomenon that creates large resistances by alternating thin layers of magnetic and non-magnetic materials, and was probed by a synchrotron in Germany. This discovery opened up a new field, known as â€˜spintronicsâ€™, where the resistance can be used to write information in a small space, creating a way for storing lots of digital information-the hard disk. The miniaturisation of hard disks into teeny music players, laptops and even
Though only a few of the many applications of synchrotrons have been covered here, you can read for yourself a broad range of science highlights at www.lightsources.org. New synchrotrons are being built regularly; one of the latest is the UKâ€™s own x-ray synchrotron, Diamond Light Source, which has been built near Oxford. n this age of big science experiments gobbling mountains of cash only to break a month later (ring any bells?), synchrotron x-ray science is refreshingly resourceful. In fact, the first x-ray synchrotrons were converted from pre-runners of the LHC. These synchrotrons would originally have been used by particle physicists to smash particles, but became too small, as larger synchrotron rings were needed to make faster particles. To convert a particle-smashing synchrotron to an x-ray synchrotron, all that is needed is to feed electrons into the synchrotron and construct beamlines to channel off the x-rays. A new x-ray synchrotron being commissioned in Germany (called PETRA-III) is a former accelerator ring, Positron-Electron Tandem Ring Accelerator (PETRA) for an even bigger ring, the Hadron-Electron Ring Accelerator (HERA) particle smasher that sits under suburban Hamburg. HERA (and also its smaller ring PETRA) was not needed after the larger LHC was finished, but HERA is too far underground to be viably used as an x-ray synchrotron. It was decided to turn the smaller PETRA ring, which is mostly above ground, into an x-ray source and, when completed, will be the most powerful x-ray synchrotron in the world. One of the more remarkable stories of synchrotron recycling is the first Berlin Electron Storage Ring Society for Synchrotron Radiation ring. Having been de-commissioned in Germany a few years ago, it is now being transported piece by piece to Jordan. There it is being reconstructed to become the Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science Applications in the Middle East. Vray synchrotrons, the doughnuts of science, are generating high-impact science daily. Where the few big expensive synchrotrons, like LHC, are being used to search for just one tiny particle, the legion of small synchrotrons are churning out science that directly impacts our lives. However, with funding cut-backs and debt in the central research councils, running time at the x-ray synchrotrons is being threatened, and particle physics with its high-profile image and big name supporters has often received preferential funding. Is it perhaps time that we realised that particle physics research may be a luxury we canâ€™t afford to fund so well? In contrast x-ray synchrotrons, workhorses of research today, allow for both fundamental research and innovation that affect our everyday lives.
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phones would not have been possible without the discovery of GMR. What is fascinating is that at the time this was termed fundamental research, but now has become technology we use every day. Scientists, working at the Centre for Science at Extreme Conditions at the University of Edinburgh, have developed methods to use synchrotrons to study a huge variety of materials at extreme conditions. To generate high pressures, temperatures, and magnetic fields involves encasing samples in complicated assemblies which only high-powdered x-ray beams can penetrate. Though many of the initial discoveries made by this group are of fundamental interest-at 1 million atmospheres the simple metal sodium melts at room temperature-increasingly more applied science is being undertaken. In a recent example, the structure of a highpressure form of the most powerful explosive currently known, hexanitrohexaazaisowurtzitane (HNIW), was determined. With this knowledge, detonations of HNIW (which are effectively high-pressure events) can be better controlled.
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To find out more about how a synchrotron works and to have a go at accelerating particles yourself: insidediamond.squarespace. commachine-overview A general website reviewing all of the synchrotron sources across the world: lightsources.org/cms X-ray synchrotrons on Twitter: @DiamondLightSou (Diamond Light Source) @advancephoton (APS Chicago), @ausynch (Australian synchrotron), @BNLlight (Brookhaven national laboratory, New York) and @KEK_en (Photon factory, Japan). Helen Maynard-Caselyâ€™s blog at domestic-science.blogspot.com
www.eusci.org | Sep 2010 |
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17 | Sep 2010 | www.eusci.org
Emily Pritchard delves into the microbial metropolis of our intestines here are 10 times as many bacteria in your gut than there are cells that make up your entire body. In total they weigh 1.5 kilograms. After they die, they make up 60% of the dry mass of your poo, and there are between 300 and 1000 different species of them. They are clearly a major component of your biology. Most of these bacteria are what TV adverts euphemistically call â€˜friendly bacteriaâ€™, which roughly translates into the scientific term, â€˜symbiotic gut floraâ€™ (symbiotic meaning mutually beneficial, gut meaning gut and flora meaning nonhuman living things). What this means is that we have a mutually beneficial relationship with the non-humans that live in our gut, so the ad-menâ€™s description is not completely inaccurate. The world is full of these symbiotic relationships, two or more species that depend on one another for their wellbeing. For example, leguminous plants, such as beans, have nodules of nitrogen-fixing bacteria attached to their roots that can convert nitrogen in the air into ammonium, which can then be converted into nitrates and nitrites that the plants need to grow, while the bacteria benefit from plant-produced sugars. Similarly, lichen is actually made up of an alga or a cyanobacterium, which photosynthesises to produce sugars, and is kept moist by its symbiotic partner, a fungus, which can retain water. Amongst the vertebrates, sharks have a symbiotic relationship with pilot fish, which clean the larger fishâ€™s teeth and scales, while remaining protected within its mouth. What is important in symbiotic relationships is that both parties get something from the other partner that they would not be able to get for themselves. So, what do we get from our gut flora? And what do they want from us? What the bacteria get from us is pretty easy to spot. Firstly, bacteria thrive in constant warm temperatures, and as mammals we homeostatically maintain our body heat at a cosy 37Â°C, on average. Secondly, many of the bacteria that live in our gut die in the presence of oxygen, and our guts are completely airtight-that is they let certain gases out, and these are probably gases that the bacteria made
themselves, but donâ€™t allow any gases in. Thirdly, just like all living, growing things, bacteria need food, and we are constantly putting food into our guts. ut doesnâ€™t that mean theyâ€™re stealing our food? Strangely, no. Tapeworms steal your food, and as such are rumoured to be used as an extreme dieting tool; gut bacteria just give you a hand with it. We eat quite a lot that we canâ€™t actually digest, such as certain starches, fibres and sugars. Our anaerobic (oxygen-free) gut flora get energy by fermenting these carbohydrates into short-chain fatty acids that we then can digest and get our own energy from. The bacteria in our gut can also help us to absorb fats and nutrients, as well as producing much needed vitamins, such as vitamin K and biotin. nother great way that our gut bacteria help us out is by acting as our own personal army. Space and food are limited resources in the gut, and there are plenty of bacteria and yeasts who would like to take advantage of them. Some of them are our friendly symbionts that help us to digest food, but some are nasty pathogens that will make us poo and vomit whilst writhing in immense pain and sweating through a Godawful fever. Like all living things, microbes are involved in a constant struggle to live longer and produce more offspring than anybody else-what Darwin called â€œsurvival of the fittestâ€?. Fortunately for us, our symbionts are usually the fittest: they got to our gut first, are larger in number and are hanging on pretty tight. Some of them even produce a few nice anti-microbial chemicals to battle off their enemies. It is these chemicals that humans have learnt to harness and use as antibiotic drugs. Most of the time, the good bacteria win; when they donâ€™t, you (and everybody you live with) will know about it. You might be wondering what our bodiesâ€™ natural army (the immune system) thinks of all this. Doesnâ€™t the immune system kill the gut bacteria? When a baby is first born, its immune system is massively underdeveloped, and it gains its gut flora from its mother through suckling, kissing and cuddling, and from contact with faecal matter during a vaginal birth. C-section babies develop full gut flora five months after vaginal births. Not fought off by the babyâ€™s inadequate immune system, the gut flora train it to
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leave them alone. This training is thought to be linked to allergies; those who are trained by the right bacteria early on are less likely to develop allergies, as their immune system does not overreact to antigens. The idea that allergies may be related to the level of exposure to microbes in early life is known as the â€˜Hygiene Hypothesisâ€™, and is thought to explain the rise in allergies in recent years. Similar to this, our gut flora is thought to prevent inflammation of the bowel in disorders such as Crohnâ€™s disease, where the bodyâ€™s own immune system attacks the bowel causing inflammation, severe abdominal pain, diarrhoea, bloody stools and weight loss. The positive effect of the gut flora on inflammatory bowel disorders is partly attributed to the Hygiene Hypothesis, and partly due to the short-chain fatty acids produced by the symbionts which help to prevent inflammation. o all these benefits of our gut flora mean that we ought to be glugging a daily dose of probiotic yoghurts? For most of us, the answer is no. A healthy gut is already full of bacteria and they are constantly growing and replacing themselves. You donâ€™t really need any more. Also, the bacteria found in probiotic yoghurts are not exactly the most useful of gut bacteria. Most of the bacteria in our gut (~30%) are of the genus Bacteroides, but none of the well-known probiotic yoghurts (Yakult, Activia or Actimel) contain Bacteroides. Most contain Lactobacilli, which are rare in the gut (but could be helpful if youâ€™re lactose intolerant, as they produce lactase), or Bifidobacteria, relatively common in the gut, but by no means top dog. Probiotics might, however, be useful if youâ€™re not so healthy. If youâ€™ve just had a hefty dose of antibiotics, itâ€™s likely that your gut flora is a little thin on the ground and open to infection by more of those pesky pathogens. One solution would be another dose of antibiotics to get rid of them, but then youâ€™re stuck in a vicious cycle. A better idea is to stuff your gut full of probiotics and let them take root. Probiotics are also used to treat individuals with aforementioned Crohnâ€™s disease and other inflammatory disorders. But I wouldnâ€™t bother with anything found in the yoghurt aisle of your local supermarket. Youâ€™re much better off with the foul-tasting freeze dried probiotics that you dissolve in your
juice (for instance, VSL3 probiotic). The recommended two sachets a day contain 100 times the bacteria of the recommended one yoghurt drink a day, and it is a blend of eight different kinds of bacteria, compared to the one found in most yoghurts. Of course, it tastes disgusting, so you know itâ€™s going to be better for you than all those lovely fruity flavoured yoghurts. So, what happens if you have no gut bacteria? Humans are exposed to so many bugs all the time that itâ€™s hard to imagine life without them. But laboratory mice are often kept in germfree environments, never exposed to a single bacterium in their lifetime, and they survive perfectly fine. Interestingly, these mice never get colitis, another inflammatory bowel disease. Mice can give us a few more insights into our gut flora; it has been shown that obese mice have a different balance of gut flora to their leaner counterparts. The obese mice had more Firmicutes and less Bacteroidetes bacteria compared to the healthy mice, and this is thought to be linked to the energy reabsorption of the two different bacterial types. The balance of bacterial types can also affect your susceptibility to colon cancer, with Bacteroides and Clostridium encouraging tumour growth and Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria preventing tumour formation. ut Iâ€™m afraid Iâ€™m looking at our gut flora through rose-tinted glasses. Like looters during natural disasters, all some of our symbionts need is an opportunity to turn to crime. The reason that gut flora only turn nasty in certain situations is that bacteria can only infect one specific cell or tissue type. Our gut bacteria cannot infect the cells that make up the lining of our gut, so normally weâ€™re safe, but if that lining is damaged, a number of other cell types will be exposed, and some of our gut bacteria may be opportunistic pathogens that can infect those newly exposed cells. However, fear not, nasty as that infection might be, itâ€™s nothing that a good old dose of antibiotics wonâ€™t fix. Of course then youâ€™ll lose your gut flora, so you might want a little probioticâ€Ś
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Emily Pritchard is a PhD student in the MRC Human Genetics Unit
www.eusci.org | Sep 2010 |
Special Feature: Neuroimaging
8O_\YSWKQSXQ SX ^RO .YMU Katie Marwick interrogates the legal applications of neuroimaging In 2009, evidence from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was submitted to a US court for the first time. The defence for Brian Dugan, a convicted murderer and rapist, suggested that brain scans demonstrating blood flow abnormalities more common in psychopathy should be viewed as a mitigating circumstance when choosing a sentence for his crime. Despite this defence, he was sentenced to death.
Could witnesses find themselves being asked to “think the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” as they give testimony while having a brain scan? Advancing brain imaging techniques allow scientists to learn more about how we think and feel. The following articles provide a look at the increasing use of brain imaging outside traditional fields and also the contribution of physics to brain imaging. Such issues are being explored this year in a series of workshops called “What are we thinking? Who has the right to know? Brain Imaging and Society” (www.sinapse.ac.uk/media/ events/ias.asp). University of Edinburgh neuroscientists, psychologists and lawyers are involved in these workshops, which will culminate in a meeting with MSPs.
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ugan’s case was the first use of fMRI in court. However, a range of neuroimaging technologies have had applications in criminal law. They have been used to demonstrate injury, to suggest diminished responsibility for crimes on the basis of brain abnormalities and, most recently, touted as potential truth detectors. This article first describes some notable cases involving neuroimaging, and then considers some possible technical and ethical concerns about the new ‘mind reading’ machines. The use of neuroimaging technologies as evidence goes back as far as 1981, when John Hinckley shot President Reagan. Hinckley was found “not guilty by reason of insanity” partly on the basis of computerised tomography (CT) scans. Hinckley’s scans revealed brain abnormalities some of which had been shown to be associated with schizophrenia by an Edinburgh psychiatrist. In the USA in 1997, neuroimaging evidence suggested that a convicted rapist, John Holt, had normal brain structure but abnormal brain metabolism and electrical activity. Experts testified that these changes were more common in people with aberrant sexual behaviour. The defence suggested that the changes partly explained Holt’s actions and should be viewed as a mitigating circumstance when sentenced. Nevertheless, the jury sentenced him to death. Neuroimaging findings associated with known mental disorders, as opposed to more nebulous ‘abnormal behaviour’ patterns, have been given more weight in court. For example, in Philadelphia in 2004 Simon Pirela, a convicted murderer who had been on death row for 21 years, had his sentence successfully vacated following brain scan evidence. The judge stated that Pirela’s scans were “quite convincing” that he suffered from “mental retardation”. Neuroimaging has also been put forward as a way to probe a defendant’s memories. “Brain fingerprinting” uses electroencephalography (EEG) to measure brain waves which are triggered by novelty, thus providing evidence of a lack of prior exposure to the information shown. For example, in Iowa in 2003, the defence for Terry Harrington, serving a life sentence for murder, submitted EEG evidence that suggested information related to the murder was new to him, but information related to his alibi was not. His conviction was reversed by the Iowa Supreme Court. Neuroimaging has also been put forward as a truth/lie detector. Brain blood flow in groups of people has been demonstrated to vary between lying and telling the truth. Commercial companies exist that will perform fMRI during a questioning session on any topic. For example, “No Lie MRI” is a California-based company which suggests customers may wish to resolve “trust issues in interpersonal relationships” via their services. Other companies are also hoping to have fMRI imaging accepted for lie detection in defendants or key witnesses, thus tapping into the substantial amounts of money associated with criminal law proceedings. However, judges in two US cases this year have ruled to exclude fMRI from the courts for this purpose. Witnesses will not yet have to place their hand on a bible while being wheeled into a brain scanner. A final potential application of neuroimaging in criminal law is the ‘holy grail’ predicting criminal behaviour. Currently, the link between abnormal structure and future law-breaking is sufficiently uncertain that no pre-emptive action could be contemplated on the basis of neuroimaging alone. However, as neuroscientific knowledge increases, this may become a future possibility. Films such as Minority Report may not be as futuristic as assumed.
Title font: Dieter Steffmann Art: Catriona O’Neil
ind-reading’ by making judgements about memories and deceit is a serious, profound claim to make for a technology. Is it justified? A major scientific issue for the use of neuroimaging in courts is the problem of individual variation. Most findings associating an abnormality in brain structure or metabolism with a behaviour pattern, mental disorder or personality disorder (such as psychopathy) have only been found to be significant in groups of people. For example, on average, men are taller than women – but some women are taller than some men. Therefore, it’s not possible to predict an individual’s sex with 100% accuracy based solely on a height measurement. Similarly, it’s currently unclear how to interpret the association between many abnormal brain findings and behaviour in an individual. It gets more complex. Not only do brain abnormalities vary between individuals, they also vary within individuals across time. The same individual performing the same task a few days apart may show slightly different patterns of blood flow. For those accused of crimes, what can be inferred about their brain state at the time of the crime from their brain state at the time of the trial? Current scientific knowledge cannot provide a detailed answer. This degree of complexity and uncertainty is not reflected in the striking, superficially simple, images brain scans like fMRI can produce. Swirls of yellow and red emphasise and accentuate differences and have the allure of being “objective” - pure blood, oxygen or glucose flow, unspoilt by the complications of face and voice. This is exactly what they are not. The shades of colour represent degree of statistical significance: an objective probability given subjective significance. What is the p value for reasonable doubt? Or for condemning someone to death? Furthermore, the attractive images may give juries a false sense of clarity and understanding. A 2007 study showed that suggesting an obviously false scientific conclusion along with fMRI images is more likely to be accepted than the same conclusion along with bar charts only. This raises the possibility that such images could have a misleading influence on a jury’s decisions. Joanna Wardlaw, Professor of Applied Neuroimaging at the University of Edinburgh summarised the problem at the recent “Brain Imaging and Society” workshop: “Images are powerful and compelling, and people are likely to accept
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hese issues could be dismissed as mainly technical. It could be reasonably assumed that in due course problems of inter and intraindividual variation might be taken into account. Perhaps one day neuroimaging will allow the determination of guilt with 100% certainty, along with a description of the atypical brain pathways that were operating at the time. But so what? Conviction would become much simpler, but sentencing could become even more complex. It all boils down to our desire to attribute blame. Where lies the fault for your inefficient compassion circuits? Is it your genes that lead to a faulty neurotransmitter receptor? Is it your parents, who subjected you to early life trauma? Is it the government, who reduced your opportunities to learn social cooperation through sport? Or is it your fault? How much control do you have over the choices you make? Do you feel in control when you pull a trigger, or not? Free will is a thorny topic. It has been suggested that a psychopath retains control over their actions despite their “predisposition” for violence as they do not harm every person they encounter; they choose whom to attack. However, it could also be argued that any action is a function of both brain and environment, and in a particular environmental situation, brain abnormalities associated with psychopathy could lead inexorably to violence. If a criminal could be shown to have reproducible abnormalities in their brain compared to the general population, would that mean they have a medical disorder, or a tendency to criminality? As Stephen Lawrie, Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroimaging at the University of Edinburgh commented recently: “Psychopathy and crime are associated with structural and functional abnormalities of the brain, but these do not necessarily explain it, let alone signify treatability or predictive value.” While neuroimaging cannot answer philosophical questions, a growing number of lawyers are attempting to use it to demonstrate damage, deceit, and responsibility. This makes it important to clarify what brain scans can and cannot tell us at present and what further questions they may raise in the future. In the meantime, my brain’s making me make a cup of tea… Katie Marwick is a Junior Doctor based in Edinburgh
www.eusci.org | Sep 2010 |
Special Feature: Neuroimaging
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Joanna Brooks discusses the contribution of physics to the field of neuropsychology Physics is one of the oldest academic disciplines and has historically been interwoven with biology, chemistry, philosophy and mathematics. Although less obvious at first glance, physics has also completely revolutionised the field of neuropsychology. Physics is the study of matter, energy and force through time and space. It has shed light on invisible forms of energy like magnetism and radiation that can penetrate matter and reveal new aspects previously unobserved. In the context of neuropsychology these principles have transformed the way in which we explore the human brain. The physicist Wilhelm Röntgen was credited with developing the use of electromagnetic radiation (such as x-rays) - he won the first Nobel Prize
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XO_\YZ]cMRYVYQc for Physics in 1901 for this contribution. Computed tomography (CT) scans have been developed from the basic x-ray to provide information on brain structure, especially for indicating the presence of blood or tumours. During a CT scan a series of x-rays are taken from different angles and ‘matter’ in the brain blocks the electromagnetic radiation to provide a gross representation of structure. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) produces images with much higher spatial resolution. MRI uses the principle of physics to manipulate electromagnetic waves and detect induced changes in cortical activity. For example, during MRI rotating electromagnetic fields
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cause hydrogen atoms, contained within water in the body, to align in a certain way and then relax (the basis of the MRI image). Similarly, functional MRI (fMRI) can help neuropsychologists understand which brain regions are involved in a given process (for example memory) by measuring changes in cerebral blood flow during task performance. Increased blood flow in a given brain region indicates higher involvement in the task. Whereas fMRI has a time resolution of tens of seconds an electroencephalogram (EEG) has a time resolution of tens of milliseconds. Given that it can take less than 150 milliseconds for electrical activity to travel across a neuron this means that EEG is a useful neuropsychological measure. During EEG electrodes are placed at different scalp locations to record electrical responses generated by groups of neurons. For instance, an EEG can be conducted while a person views images that depict different emotional situations. Increased activity at an electrode may signal enhanced activity in the underlying brain region. The role of physics in EEG is the detection of time-locked changes in cortical activity. Although fMRI and EEG can produce ‘snapshots’ of brain activity during task performance this does not necessarily mean that this brain region is directly and solely responsible for certain types of cognitive processing. To this end, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) uses the principles of physics to stimulate small regions of the brain with a mild current running across a magnetic conductor, temporarily ‘knocking out’ brain activity in a given region. If task performance is impaired during TMS this strongly implies that the region stimulated is directly involved with the task at hand. Although there are questions about the accuracy of TMS (with regards to the precise region(s) being stimulated) and the long-term effects of this technique, it is important
to acknowledge that TMS is an important transition from simply describing the brain to changing how it responds. So what more can we expect as physics continues to become further entwined with neuropsychology? One of the most recent applications of physics has been the introduction of ‘optogenetics’, a technique that uses lasers (developed by physicists) to ‘probe’ neurons in the brain at very high speeds. Some scientists believe that techniques like optogenetics and TMS could, in theory, one day help alter unresponsive brain regions in patients who suffer from disorders like Parkinson’s disease, which causes impairment to motor skills and speech production.
SX^O\^aSXON Despite the fusion of these disciplines and the advances that have been made there are many outstanding questions. For example, in the brains of people who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, a neurological disorder that causes a loss of long-term memory and an inability to form new memories, scientists often find neuronal ‘tangles’ - but there are outstanding questions about the degree to which these neuronal tangles play a primary or more peripheral role in Alzheimer’s disease. Imagine a future, then, where physics and neuropsychology were completely intertwined, with physicists and neuropsychologists working alongside one another on a daily basis in the laboratory. What would that future hold? A continuing collaboration between neuropsychology and physics is likely to help answer such outstanding questions about the human brain and make today’s impossibilities tomorrow’s practical reality. Joanna Brooks is a PhD student in the Department of Psychology
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Frank Dondelinger calculates the standard error in the public perception of statistics “There are lies, damned lies and statistics.” “97.3% of all statistics are made up.” “There are three kinds of statisticians: Those who can count and those who can’t.”
the statistics? Ben Goldacre certainly seems to think so. In his bestseller, Bad Science, he describes how newspapers obtain attentiongrabbing headlines by reporting the most impressive-sounding figures. One popular ou have probably heard statements like strategy is choosing the relative risk (“24% these before. It seems that in the popular increased risk of heart attack”) over absolute imagination, statisticians fall somewhere risk (“one extra heart attack in 1005 people”). between lawyers and used-car salesmen. A recent study on mobile use and brain cancer Yet anyone working with statisticians will provides another example. The BBC reported tell you that most of them take enormous on this with the headline “Mobile phone pride in the accuracy of their results, and study finds no solid link to brain tumours”. would rather cut off an arm than falsify a Whereas the Telegraph had another take: confidence interval. So why is How to Lie “Half an hour of mobile use a day ‘increases with Statistics still a best-seller after more brain cancer risk’”. To find out which story is than 50 years? Why does Ben Goldacre closer to the truth, you have to go back to the devote a whole chapter in his book Bad original World Health Organisation report, Science to the problem of bad stats? What is which states that, “There were suggestions of going wrong in the world of statistics? an increased risk of glioma [a type of cancer] Let’s get one […] [but] biases and thing out of the errors limit the strength way right away: of the conclusions that [A statistician] would Statistics is not a can be drawn from these rather cut off an arm than hard subject. Of analyses and prevent a course you will falsify a confidence interval causal interpretation.” need to acquire It would be unfair, vast amounts however, to blame the of knowledge media for all instances of about arcane-sounding subjects like bad statistics. A lot of the time, the erroneous ANOVA, regression analysis and fast spin put on the story may result from a Fourier transforms in order to excel at it, misunderstanding of what the statistics mean. but this knowledge is no greater than what This is an area where statisticians can (and do) a geneticist needs to know about gene influence the public perception of their craft. sequencing, or a physicist about quantum The more time is spent on educating journalists mechanics. Furthermore, most of the and the public about the difference between a statistics that appear in the media are of a mean and a median, or what the meaning of very elementary nature. This should give us a confidence interval is, the less confusion all the more reason to wonder why they are is caused by misleading figures. Institutions causing so much confusion. such as the Royal Statistics Society further Maybe the statistics that are released by this goal by providing outreach activities and governments and companies really are making experts available for media contacts. that misleading. Even if the statisticians Meanwhile, the excellent programme More as a whole are honest people, they may or Less on BBC Radio 4 somehow manages be pressured by their bosses to produce to make even obscure statistical topics figures that are not strictly accurate. This understandable and relevant. sounded like a good working hypothesis, Being a statistician will probably never until we spoke to David Signorini, senior be seen as a glamorous job, but a lot can statistician in the Justice Department for be done to make these unsung heroes of the Scottish Government. He explained science better known. No scientist nowadays that government statisticians are bound by can get away without a basic knowledge of the Code of Practice for National Statistics, statistics, and many research groups include ensuring that they remain impartial and a statistician or two. Whether it is analysis balanced in their reporting. Signorini of microarray experiments, fitting complex describes how misleading figures can mathematical models in particle physics, or nonetheless appear in the newspapers, designing sampling strategies for ecological citing the example of knife crime: “There surveys, there is always a place for people who are usually some areas where crime has know how to turn messy data into beautiful, gone down and some areas where it has meaningful graphs and figures. gone up, but what the media tend to focus on is where it has gone up.” Frank Dondelinger is a PhD student at So can we blame the media for distorting Biomathematics and Statistics Scotland
www.eusci.org | Sep 2010 |
6IOL? 4B;N6IOL *INB?LN? Rachel Dakin introduces a new player in the obesity epidemic
n the last 20 years we have observed a vast increase in the incidence of obesity and its myriad of associated diseases, but we lack a full understanding of what has caused this. There are many players that come together to make up ‘team obesity’, some having greater impact on the epidemic than others. The superstar strikers are definitely the changes to diet and lifestyle observed in recent years. On the substitutes’ bench are genetic mutations; those identified mainly alter feeding habits and cause severe obesity. These are thankfully very rare. Scientists are continually searching for more players in the team who may then be targeted in a therapeutic manner. A strong candidate that has drawn attention recently is foetal programming. The theory of foetal programming suggests that the developmental environment can lead to longterm changes in an organism. The German evolutionary biologist August Weismann nicely illustrated this back in the 19th century. He noticed two distinct forms of the butterfly Pieris napi; butterflies that developed in the winter had dark colourings while those developing in the summer had a lighter pattern. This is a simple but striking example of how the developmental environment, in this case temperature, can alter the message encoded in the genes. This idea has since been extended to humans and is now suggested to play a role in obesity. This concept first came about from observations made following the Dutch Hunger Winter of 1944. Women who were pregnant during this harsh winter had babies of low birth weight. Although ‘starved’ during their development, obesity, high blood pressure and heart disease were found at higher prevalence once the babies reached adulthood. This remained true when factors such as current diet and lifestyle were taken into consideration. Importantly, these changes could not be due to genetics, as tens of thousands of people of different backgrounds were affected. Could under-nutrition during foetal development be a cause for obesity in later life? This could potentially be the case in developing
countries, although it is unlikely to play a role in more developed nations, where over-nutrition seems to be the biggest problem. In the UK for example, over 20% of women of childbearing age are considered obese, a figure which has considerably increased in recent years. It is now well established that these women have more complications during labour and that their newborns are more likely to need time in intensive care following birth. Could gestational over-nutrition also lead to an increased risk of obesity and diabetes in the offspring? As the obesity epidemic is a relatively new phenomenon, studies addressing this question are, like the children affected, in their infancy. However, preliminary results tend to point in this direction. Due to the lack of human data available, animal models have been developed to give us insights into the potential problems of maternal obesity. In many research centres, including here at the University of Edinburgh, over-nutrition during pregnancy is being modelled in pregnant rodents fed diets rich in fat and sugar. Although it would seem likely that babies from these mothers would be heavier, increased birth weights are not consistently seen. However, by the time these babies are three months old, there is already evidence of extra fat deposition, altered metabolism of ingested fat and changes in insulin sensitivity, which in the long term can lead to type-2 diabetes. Worryingly, these phenotypes are seen even when offspring are fed a standard balanced diet, suggesting the effects of the maternal diet cannot be easily reversed by a healthy lifestyle. Unsurprisingly, the changes in metabolism mentioned are further exacerbated by feeding offspring a high-calorie diet. This is important as it would seem logical that children growing up with obese parents are more likely to be fed an unbalanced diet and build unhealthy eating habits themselves. Differences between humans and rodents aside, this research certainly gives us an insight into how conditions during pregnancy may ‘programme’ the future of a child, though the exact mechanisms that control this continue to elude scientists. Uncovering these mechanisms is now a strong focus of research in animal models of foetal programming, but until they are found it seems a vicious cycle: children born to obese mothers are more likely to become obese themselves, as are their children, and their children’s children. It’s clear that the players in team obesity are increasing in number as we add foetal programming to the lineup. Whilst I would never deny ‘you are what you eat’, I think it’s also worth considering that you might be better or worse off because of what your mother ate.
The developmental environment can lead to long-term changes
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Rachel Dakin is a PhD student in the Centre for Cardiovascular Science Title font by Cosmic Cosmos Art by Amir Kirolos
The Coalition Government and You: The Future of British Science Jess Smith checks out what the new coalitition government will mean for science. he election campaigns of the three major political parties in Britain weren’t highly focused on science, engineering and technology (SET). Therefore very little was discussed in public about the in-depth SET policies of the parties. Now that the election has taken place and a new government is in Whitehall, it is time the Con-Lib Dem government outlined the future for British SET in more detail.
People interested in science-based policies of the political parties, and wishing to cast their vote based on these, would have had only the information prior to May 6th to go on; namely, the party manifestos. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats talk about climate change and creating a ‘greener’ Britain throughout their manifestos but it is important to look at how they each promise this. The Conservative manifesto seems to
The new science and universities minister is the Conservative MP David Willetts. He is working in the department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) under the business minister Vince Cable. Although most minor ministers in departments report to and receive instructions via the cabinet minister responsible for their departments, it is perhaps a good sign that the new coalition government have continued the policy of the previous government whereby the science minister is also a member of the cabinet, and so has frequent access to the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, giving them greater ability to put forward the case for science within the UK personally.
draw most of its policy promises on SET from suggestions made in the Dyson Ingenious Britain report, published in March 2010, and written by Sir James Dyson (of the bagless new vacuum and crazy hand-driers in the Teviot loos fame). The main suggestions made in this report, commissioned to plot out the best ways to ensure Britain becomes a leading high-tech nation, follow two main areas; one which will encourage businesses to use and exploit knowledge and new discoveries in the open market, and one which will encourage more people to enter career areas relating to SET. The latter includes encouraging a cultural shift in the way that SET is seen
and rewarded by the public. This includes additional financial incentives for people to study SET subjects at university and businesses to sponsor them to do so. As a big idea, this is an important one, that whilst being potentially difficult to bring about and with less detailed ways in which to do so, is necessary in order to make SET a priority. Aside from high-tech gadgetry, there is very little for science champions to get excited about within the Conservative manifesto; GM crops are viewed with distrust and disdain it seems, and other proposed policies are not backed up with either detail or information on how they would be paid for. Other sections demonstrate a lack of understanding of how science works; they say that, clinical trials of “innovative techniques to treat and diagnose cancer” will be encouraged in the NHS. However they fail to suggest why they think that a current barrier to more clinical trials is a lack of encouragement. Further to this they don’t suggest how this will be paid for, even though clinical trials come at a massive cost, especially if they don’t produce a viable treatment. The Liberal Democrat manifesto also shows support for the development of a low-carbon future and getting more people studying SET at a higher level, but goes into a lot more detail on the specifics and how it will all be paid for. They were also honest about the levels of SET funding, claiming that they wouldn’t be able to increase the level of investment at first but that they still recognised its importance. In fact, the Liberal Democrat manifesto contains a section specifically dedicated to research and development funding, regarding not only finance but also the importance of safeguarding the jobs of people working in SET. We should hope that the Liberal Democrats can have substantial influence
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on science policies, despite the science minister being a Conservative. David Willetts has outlined promising policies in detail since the formation of the coalition government; in his first interview as science and universities minister, with New Scientist magazine, he stated that he will support ‘blue skies’ science research – research which is done solely in pursuit of knowledge as opposed to with some commercial interest at its heart – and that he recognises the cultural benefits of science to society. This is reassuring as it indicates that not all funding will be diverted to ‘useful’ research, or indeed politically motivated research. Despite the positive noises being made from the science department, SET will not be immune from budget cuts; the department which is to experience the greatest cuts, of almost £900 million, is BIS, the department of which science is a part. British SET also faces a new challenge during potential spending cuts by other nations’ governments. Canada have recently ‘poached’ four of Britain’s leading and high-profile scientists (along with many other members of staff from
their labs) by offering them massive grants in the region of £13 million to move across the pond. Australia is offering similar incentives, adding to worries that the next few years may show an overwhelming ‘brain drain’ of the best in British SET. Add to this the recent changes in UK immigration law; previously, skilled workers, as well as fulfilling various criteria,
Tuition fees in England and Wales may need to be raised were required to get sponsorship from an employer in the UK offering them a job which earned at least £20,000. New rules have changed that threshold to £32,000, ruling out not only nurses and teachers from skilled migration, but also the vast majority of post-doctoral scientists without their own lab. Either this policy needs to be reversed or James Dyson’s changes need to be implemented quickly; a culture shift,
Inspace is a laboratory where we explore the cultural significance of informatics and new media practice. Inspace is home to a joint research partnership between the School of Informatics and New Media Scotland. Inspace, 1 Crichton Street, Edinburgh EH8 9AB www.inspace.ed.ac.uk Supported by Pufferfish and Arts & Business
bringing with it the financial rewards which should be expected for jobs requiring such a high level of training and skill, or face the inability of Britain to compete on an international level as the scientists leaving for a more certain future abroad, or even just international experience, won’t be replaced by their international counterparts at home, as is now the case. Perhaps the most indicative, and worrying, statement made by David Willetts, although not directly related to SET, is his recent announcement that university tuition fees in England and Wales may need to be raised. Previously in the House of Commons, he had voted against top-up fees at every opportunity, as had in fact the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats en masse. This is perhaps a warning that all of the rhetoric on the necessity and importance of SET within Britain is just that, and faced with real-life decisions and financial savings to be made, principles and ideals may be the first thing to fall by the wayside. Jess Smith is a research technician in the Centre for Cognitive and Neural Systems
Close Encounters of the Wired Mind: When Cucumbers Taste Pink Emilie Castonguay introduces a lecture on the enigmatic world of colour
hen Patient X meets psychologist Dr Julia Simner, he prefers to call her by her first name Julia than by her nickname ‘Jools’. Indeed, calling her ‘Jools’ triggers an intense gush of orange Starbust candy flavour in his mouth, a sensation he prefers to avoid when speaking to his doctor. What’s wrong with Patient X? Nothing, actually; he’s affected by a neurological condition called synesthesia. In synesthesia, visual colour information merges with other senses. This condition, and colour perception in general, were the topics of the Colour My World Neuroscience Encounter I saw last May at InSpace. The Encounters are a lecture series put on by InSpace and Edinburgh Neuroscience. This series explores topics related to informatics and neuroscience. InSpace itself is a public engagement research laboratory resulting from a research partnership between the School of Informatics and New Media Scotland. The theme of the Encounter, colour, was treated from the point of view of two specialists from very different fields: an artist and a scientist. Gordon Brennan, the artist, is the Head of Painting at the Edinburgh College of Art. Dr Julia Simner, the scientist, is a cognitive neuropsychologist at the University of Edinburgh who specialises in synesthesia research. They each gave a 20-minute talk that was followed by a discussion with the audience chaired by Sergio Della Sala, Professor of Human Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh. The organiser of the Encounter series, Jane Haley from Edinburgh Neuroscience, made sure that the subject was presented from the point of view of specialists from different fields, as is the case with all Encounters. As she explains, “This gives the members of the audience different points of view and tools to grasp and relate to the topics being discussed.” rennan first introduced the idea that the concept of colour has a different meaning to each of us. For example, when Brennan asked his students how they defined colour, he obtained answers as diverse as “it comes out of tubes” or descriptions relating to the smell of paint. According to Brennan, “the best way to develop our relationship with colour is not through theory but through experience”, such as art. Brennan showed us a few famous paintings and explained how the artist had used colour to make the painting ‘work’. For example, according to him, what makes Edward Hopper’s 1942 painting Nighthawks work is the red colour of the dress of the woman sitting in the café. Different colours invariably have different connotations and are sometimes linked to emotions. Symbols such as the Yellow Star or the Red Revolution demonstrate the profound socio-political impact colour can have. When considering how people differ in the associations they make with colour, synesthetes belong in a separate category. In the second half of the Encounter, Dr Simner talked about synesthesia, an inherited condition affecting as many as one in 23 people, where stimulating one sensory or cognitive pathway causes an involuntary experience in another. ver 60 different types of synesthesia have been reported, and most of them trigger colour experiences. Synesthetes are normally affected by several forms at once. In one of its most
common forms, grapheme-colour synesthesia, letters and numbers possess a certain colour and if the letter ‘a’ is perceived as red, it will always be red. Representing ‘a’ as green might even cause discomfort in the patient. In sound-colour synesthesia, music, voice or other sounds provoke colour experiences and shapes that seem to arise and float around the synesthete until the sound is over. For example, different musical instruments might produce different colours. This could make listening to an orchestra an unpleasant experience, as the different colours of the instruments might not go together. Touch, and even people, can trigger synesthetic colour experiences. Overall, I really enjoyed the lectures and discussion at this Encounter. As Jane Haley put it, “all sorts of folks attend - most of them are students from the University but from amazingly diverse backgrounds.” This means that the questions brought up in discussion were quite varied. Many attendees were wondering if the people affected by synesthesia actually ‘suffer’ from it. Far from it, many synesthetes enjoy their experiences. Dr Simner even mentioned cases of sequence-space synesthetes who perform better at remembering events in time because they perceive letters, numbers, days and months as precise locations in space. I wondered whether synesthetes tend to become artists. Brennan explained that, indeed, artists Tom Thomson and Wassily Kandinsky were known or presumed to have the condition. inally, events like this serve to show how fun and even useful it can be for scientists to reach out and interact with people studying related questions in different fields. Definitely check out the Encounters coming this autumn!
Emilie Castonguay is a PhD student in the Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell Biology
Title font: WC Fonts Art: Catriona O’Neil
www.eusci.org | Sep 2010 |
/VSUVSJOH4DPUUJTI#JPUFDI Hayden Selvadurai discusses biotech in Scotland with Graeme Boyle, the director of Nexxus
cotland is a world-recognised hub for knowledge exchange, helps the sector to realise the biotechnology industry - from its full potential. We support the whole range academic driven science to full-scale of life sciences from medical technologies, commercial production. The size of this through biotechnology, to pharmaceuticals industry is often underestimated, and and all members of the community including key to the success of it all is a supportive researchers, companies, Universities, the community with clear communication NHS and support organisations. and collaboration. This must happen not just between scientists, whose ideas are the foundation of the industry, but also with the public and private sectors who are responsible for helping these ideas grow into successful ventures. Getting these groups to talk isnâ€™t always an easy thing, which is where Nexxus â€“ a life sciences networking organisation â€“ steps in. From a mere idea thrown about during the formative years of Scottish biotech in the mid 1990s, Nexxus has grown into a successful, publicly funded industry organisation with staff in Edinburgh and Glasgow devoted to facilitating networking and communication within the industry. At the helm of this organisation is scientistturnedbusinessman Graeme Boyle. Having started off as a biochemist, Boyle went on to found a business consultancy firm, via several stints in industry and government, Graeme Boyle, director of Nexxus before settling down as the director of Nexxus. He shares some of his insight and experience on Scottish biotech with us here.
What is Nexxus, and what role does it play in Scottish biotech? Nexxus is a network that aims to connect, communicate and inform the vibrant life sciences community in Scotland. Since 2003 we have acted as an independent broker that through events, marketing communications and
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Why is Scotland such a good place for biotech start-ups? It is often said that for an industry cluster to thrive there must be collaboration and interaction between industry, the science base and government. This is happening in Scotland. The life sciences Advisory Board is a joint industry, enterprise and government strategy team that plays a crucial role in ensuring Scotland has the best possible environment for fledgling technologies and established players alike. Its prime remit is to set the overall strategy for the growth of the life sciences sector in Scotland. This, along with our world-class science base, financial support and skilled people, means that Scotland can provide the knowledge and infrastructure that growing biotechs require.
How important is biotech to the Scottish economy? The figures speak for themselves - the Scottish Life Sciences sector continues to be dynamic and successful. Scotland is home to 15% of all UK life science companies and encompasses 630 enterprises with a combined turnover of ÂŁ3bn. Life sciences are also a significant part of the Scottish economy, employing almost 31,500 people and contributing of ÂŁ1.39bn of gross value added. This last figure is especially important when you consider that tourism needs to employ almost 5 times as many people to generate a similar level impact on the Scottish economy!
What are some of the challenges facing the biotech sector in the current economic climate? A good question! Biotechnology is an international industry and companies need to be global from the outset. Issues such as President Obamaâ€™s healthcare reform, and the emerging economies such as Asia and Brazil, are as important as local aspects such as accessing finance for growth, management skills and regulatory and legal compliance. The sector needs to think global and act local. Title font: Larabie Fonts Pictures: Nexxus
How is Nexxus helping address these challenges? Aside from our core events and communications mentioned earlier we need to ensure that we deliver valuedadded for the community. To this end we are aiming to extend our reach through partnerships with international networks such as BayBio and BioCom in California, BioTop in Germany and BioSingapore.
Do you think the current climate is making the process of actually starting a company out of academic research more difficult? Clearly there has been much coverage over the last couple of years of the difficulty in sourcing funding, especially for growth. Things are changing, slowly perhaps, but improving nonetheless. At the BIO (the US biotechnology industry trade group) convention in Chicago in May there was a definite air of optimism. In fact several of the Scottish biotechnology companies that attended were overwhelmed by the positive response they received. My message to those researchers looking to start a company is that if you have a technology solution that offers a real gain (not just â€˜me tooâ€™) and you have the skills and, importantly, the desire to succeed - you will.
What other advice would you give to researchers interested in pursuing the commercialisation of their work? Donâ€™t think you have to do it all by yourself â€“ there is a wealth of experience and goodwill in Scotland to see bioscience flourish. There are networks such as the Scottish Universities Life Sciences Alliance, Scottish Stem Cell Network and the Scottish Bioinformatics Forum that aim to support technical and business development and, through Nexxusâ€™s soon to be launched mentoring programme, access to leading figures in the industry who understand the problems and opportunities of start-ups.
What do you think some of the big growth areas are at the moment? Personalised medicine is a key driver for the future. Everyone who spoke at BIO encouraged researchers to focus on â€˜the patient and not the moleculeâ€™. Scotland is well placed to exploit this paradigm shift and the Nexxus team aims to play its part in enabling Scotland to seize the opportunity. Hayden Selvadurai is a PhD student in the Centre for Integrative Physiology
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(M@Q?LB(MSPL?JGQK2FC $SRSPCMDRFC"GEGR?J+CBG? Jon Manning explores the changing face of journalism
he days of the printed newspaper may be numbered. ven with the benefits of free online news journalism, who Those used to getting their ‘news fix’ for free online are will pay for it to be produced as newspaper sales decline? soon to be asked to pay by sites such as The Times. Web- Rupert Murdoch’s answer is the ‘pay wall’, charging for access to based technologies and cheap, compact recording The Times’ website. A similar approach has worked for specialist equipment have enabled more people than ever professional publications such as the Financial Times, but not just to read the news, but to participate Iain Heburn is sceptical: “There’s this weird dichotomy, in, or even produce it (so-called ‘citizen everyone assumes the news is free, but are willing to journalists’). How will you read your pay for everything else [referring to iTunes] … the news in 10 years time? Who will be specialist stuff people will always pay to getproducing it? Will you be paying for it? and that’s where the money’s going to be”. With the help of experts interviewed The way to seduce those unwilling to at this year’s Science Festival, EUSci pay may be to offer them something examines the issues. better. iRex technologies, Sony and oday’s interactive web has changed the Amazon, among others, decided that way we view the news. Camera low-power portable ‘electronic ink’ phones and comment buttons give devices were the answer (for example, journalists pause for thought: Kindle or Reader). They are capable of storing “You can’t just put out a piece hundreds of books and have some of the and leave it to stand on its perceived benefits of paper (light, readable own […] people will pick in sunlight, durable). Unfortunately, holes in your argument”, clunky interfaces, greyscale screens, and says Brian Baglow, lack of paper ‘features’, such as simple gaming and PR guru. annotation, have meant that these Demonstrating the devices only have a niche following. further impact a nonApple released its iPad reading journalist can have on device this year, and with sales of a story, Severin Carrell, 3,000,000 in its first 80 days, looks Scotland correspondent for set to have a more significant impact on The Guardian, described the publishing industry. For a publisher, Veronica Alva Flores the response to a story on the iPad represents the novelty of a large ocean acidification: “[the market of potential users to target, all with the story] went global, with over same device, making it simple to produce content that looks good 350 posts involving climate for everyone. For the consumer, iPad versions of publications may scientists, experts in ocean acidification from all over the world be worth paying for. Many publications already had iPad versions taking part in a conversation which left me standing.” ready at its release, and unlike other devices, iPad content is often Fortunately, Martin Belam, Information Architect for The specially designed, taking advantage of interactive abilities such as Guardian, doesn’t see ‘citizen reporting’ as a danger to the geo-location and movement sensing. While the iPad has started to professionals: “There’s a difference between citizen reporting change the way news and other media is distributed and consumed, and citizen journalism. If you get the picture of the plane Apple’s device restrictions make even simple file transfers difficult ditching in the Hudson River, it doesn’t really matter if that (“It won’t connect to anything else”, Brian Baglow), which, combined person’s a professional journalist with its price tag, might limit its impact. or just had their camera there. But The fundamental way in which professional equally they’re not the person who journalism is produced is much the same today as it !?KCP?NFMLCQ?LB follows up why the plane ditchedhas always been. Current models of distribution and AMKKCLR@SRRMLQ was it because of poor maintenance consumption however, may not be sustainable, and EGTCHMSPL?JGQRQN?SQC by the airline or because the the drive for reform has begun. Newspapers with DMPRFMSEFR government isn’t doing their job of declining print sales are turning to their previously regulation properly?” Iain Hepburn free online content as a source of income, a strategy of the Scottish Daily Record also likely to fail while free alternatives remain. A sounds a caution for the more determined amateur journalist: portable, interactive newspaper, however, complete with video and “The danger of the citizen journalist route is that […] you [sic] social networking may be something worth paying for-whether or end up risking potentially their freedom if they start writing not the iPad is the way to display it. stuff that they’re not qualified to write about, and they put themselves in a position where they break the law.” Jon Manning is a postdoc in the Centre for Cardiovascular Science
29 | Sep 2010 | www.eusci.org
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5PWGLERMBM?.?VGNPCNGL?$F?MRGA-?@ Emily Pritchard explains why bench science can make you crazy to turn them. So I turn contortionist, trying to find a space where the flasks can fit in. I eventually finish and can finally go home. Day two. Now the size of Maxi-preps means I canâ€™t use nice little disposable tubes to spin down my culture, I have to use these weird-shaped reusable
Bench science is a frustrating beast; things that seem ever so simple can often take all day. Because labs are such large communal spaces, thereâ€™s a lot of equipment and chemicals that are shared. As thereâ€™s no official â€˜lab adminâ€™ to clean up and order new things, itâ€™s everybodyâ€™s responsibility to take care of these things, but the problem is, very often they donâ€™t. A worstcase scenario can be exemplified doing a maxi-prep, used to get DNA samples out of bacteria. Maxi-preps are not fun. I have to culture a ton of bacteria and spend all day pipetting and centrifuging and pipetting and centrifuging again. All I get out of it is a piddling little tube of DNA. Add in the fact that everybody around me has forgotten to do all those little tidying-up jobs around the lab and Iâ€™m having a really crap day. Day one. I have to put vast quantities of bacterial culture in whopping 2l flasks and I encounter problem number one. Somebody has decided that the best place to store the huge, heavy flasks I need is on the highest shelf, at the back. I wonder - how many people die every year falling off a chair and breaking their neck while trying to get things from the back of high shelves? Problem number two. Now I have to put my giant flasks into the shaking incubator overnight. There are clamps that are screwed into the base of the incubator to hold the flasks. The clamps are removable so I can put in the ones that are the right size for my flasks. But where is the screwdriver? After half an hour searching, I find it on the other side of the lab. At least nobody took it home with them. Then I try to undo some of the screws. Has the Incredible Hulk been in the lab and screwed all these in? Theyâ€™re so tight that I start to scrape the metal off the screws as I try
flasks. After using the flasks, they are to be washed and autoclaved. The thing is, there are loads of them on the draining boards next to sinks, but none that have actually been autoclaved. So I grab one from a draining board, hope for the best, and decant the culture into it. I go to the
#CLAFQAGCLACGQ? DPSQRP?RGLE@C?QR centrifuge to find itâ€™s full of someoneâ€™s putrid spilt culture. It could have been there for days and with nobodyâ€™s name on the sign up sheet, I canâ€™t even find out who did it. After cleaning up, I can finally use the centrifuge. Now, what Iâ€™d like to do, what Iâ€™d really like to do, is find the person whose smart idea it was to make the centrifuge play â€œMy Bonnie lies over the oceanâ€? when it finishes. Iâ€™d like to
centrifuge them, at about 12,000rpm, with the tune blasting loudly. Also, Iâ€™d like to remind the same centrifuge manufacturers of a little phrase â€“ â€œLefty Loosey, Righty Tightyâ€?. How long have I just spent trying to turn the screw to take off the lid, turning it â€œlefty looseyâ€? to realise that in the centrifuge world itâ€™s actually â€œLefty Tighty, Righty Loosey? Now that, Iâ€™ve centrifuged my culture down, I can start adding chemicals and whatnot to get out the DNA. These are helpfully supplied in a little kit, but today some of the bottles of solution in the kit are almost empty. Thatâ€™s okay, Iâ€™ll just look in the cupboard for the new kit that surely the last person ordered. Thatâ€™s odd, there isnâ€™t one. Why, oh, why did nobody notice it was finished? I rush around the lab trying to find a bottle to â€˜borrowâ€™ from someone else. By the way, I hate it when people â€˜borrowâ€™ from my bench. Yes! Iâ€™ve found one. I will put it back when Iâ€™m done, I really will. What is left for me to do is pipette and pipette and pipette and spin and spin and pipette and wait and â€Śoh, the mindless tedium! Eureka! I now have DNA in solution. A reasonable yield would be 200500Îźg. Iâ€™ve got a 1ml solution here so Iâ€™ll just check the concentrationâ€Ś 24.2Îźg/mL. Noooooooooooooooooooooooooo ooooooooooooooooo! Post-script: one week later. Why is that person running round the lab like a lunatic, shouting about solutions being stolen from their bench? Something about maxi-prep kits? Oh no, maybe if I sneak it back onto their bench they wonâ€™t know it was me. Emily Pritchard is a PhD student in the MRC Human Genetics Unit
www.eusci.org | Sep 2010 |
A Day in The Life
5GCNKV[6JQY0GGVU6EKGPVKUVU Louise Buckley and Pamela Docherty survive to tell the tale This past spring, five researchers from the University of Edinburgh battled it out against scientists from across the UK in the inaugural round of “I’m a Scientist, Get Me out of Here!” With 25 scientists and around 2,000 high school students participating in its first round, this Wellcome Trustfunded event aims to make science and scientists more accessible to teenagers, and hopefully show that scientists are normal people, too! The event lasts two weeks and takes place entirely through the “I’m a Scientist” website. The website is divided into ‘zones’, with five scientists each. Some of these are themed zones (focusing on topics such as the brain or evolution), and some are general science. Students post questions on the site to be answered either by a specific scientist or by all five scientists in a zone. Teachers can also book live slots in which students and scientists chat in real time via a chat room. The students can quiz scientists on anything – from their research through to wider scientific issues. They can
challenge them on the social implications negative perception many have of science is of science and question their personal very rewarding and essential – and I might opinions and values. recruit more animal welfare scientists.” The name of the game is to sell science Pamela continued, “I entered ‘I’m to teenage students. In the true spirit of a a Scientist’ in the hope of honing my reality show, the teenagers also get to ‘vote ability to communicate mathematical off ’ their least favourite scientist. During concepts to a wider audience.”. the second week, one scientist is voted off Did Pamela feel she had achieved this? each day. The most successful scientific She enthusiastically nods her head, “In ‘salesman’ survives to the end and wins the end I got much more out of it than £500 to spend on communicating science. that! From discussing the moral issues of The losers are cast back into the scientific animal testing to explaining rainbows, I jungle and take home nothing but their was hooked for the whole two weeks!” wounded pride! he competition organisers are keen ere we catch up with two of that the students not feel as though Edinburgh’s researchers. Pamela “big brother is watching them”, so that Docherty is a PhD student who works in they feel free to ask almost anything they mathematical physics within the School wish. This relative lack of censorship of Mathematics. Louise Buckley is a PhD student and chicken welfare scientist at the Roslin Institute and Scottish Agricultural College. ,YQWNFPVYCPVVJGUG So what inspired these scientists to take part? Louise explains, “What VGGPCIGTUCVO[XKXC attracted me to this event was the chance to promote science to school children.” She recalls, “I hated science when I was at school and was actually ‘removed means that some questions are from science’ with ‘interesting’ and not always scientific. Key information a note sent home Pamela explained, “The idea was that Target age group: 12 – 17 year olds stating that the only we would answer questions that they Time commitment: 1 – 2 hours/day thing biological may be unwilling to ask their teachers, Benefits: Undertaking public engagement at your desk with a Louise was interested or indeed, that their teachers may be cuppa in hand! in was boys!” unwilling to answer! Consequently, no What changed? question could go ignored – even sex Event length: 2 weeks “I saw how science and religion were up for debate!” Selection process: competitive benefited society. The Scientists were briefed in advance that Eligibility: If you’re a scientist you can apply! Diversity of chance to change the sometimes “students will test you to find out applications is welcomed from graduates to professors. Website: www.imascientist.org.uk Next event running: Early 2011 Some Actual Questions Contact: Sophia@gallomanor.com Is it possible to get stoned on Vicks Vaporub?
If I jump off a 50ft pier what kills me first – hitting the water or drowning? What is it about humans that lead to us inventing science? What was the most important evolutionary change? Where do you stand on using animals for experiments and trials with medicine and commercial products? Who is your favourite scientist and why? To check out their replies to these and many other questions see: hydrogen.imascientist.org.uk
31 | Sep 2010 | www.eusci.org
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how you react”. Louise said, “The students could be boisterous but this was part of the fun. You need a good sense of humour and the ability to think on your feet. One live chat involved a classroom full of teenage boys all keen to talk about, well, you can imagine! Louise laughs, recalling “I turned it round into a chat about the shapes of different insect willies and sperm wars. The students went home knowing a bit more about evolutionary biology then they did when they arrived that day!” Both researchers agreed that this is one of the event’s benefits – students can absorb scientific information while having a laugh with the scientists. These
added “participating in events like ‘I’m a Scientist….’ is an excellent way to get involved in science communication. Plus it’s fun for us too!” Did either of them win? Alas, no. Louise was narrowly pipped to the post in the final by an engineer from Imperial College. Joining fellow evictee, Pamela, Louise commented, “I am gutted to lose, but Ugandan school children are the real winners” as the winner donated her money to buy much needed equipment for science lessons. And both of them agreed, “We’ll be back!” ll was not lost for Edinburgh researchers the second time around, as Joanna Brooks, a PhD student in Psychology, won the most recent event in the ‘Brain Zone’. The second round took place in June and this time the event was even more popular, with 100 scientists and 5000 students participating. How did she feel about winning? “I was so happy! I had worked really hard to answer all my questions as clearly and as accurately as possible.” She feels what set her apart from the other scientists was a regularly updated profile page: “Every few days I put up a new link to a BBC science quiz and also an interactive 3D brain on the last day. I think this showed the students that I was really making an effort and that I was trying to communicate science in a fun way.” Joanna is already putting her prize money to good use, in setting up ‘brain workshops’ to show students how psychologists explore things like memory, attention, emotion and language. She says, “I’d like to introduce the students to brain scanning techniques and, in particular, discuss the outcome of neurological impairment from things like Alzheimer’s disease or traumatic brain injury. In fact, some of the schools that participated in the event are also taking part in my workshops, which is great because I feel like I already know the students.”
discussions often led to a flurry of questions posted directly after the live chats and related to scientific discussions started during these chats. Louise pointed out that some questions were very thought-provoking and mature: “Some questions attacked the central assumption of my whole PhD. I had to be very careful how I answered. I wouldn’t want these teenagers at my viva!” Pamela was keen to emphasise that justifying the impact of your research on society has never been more important. “The research councils and similar organisations recognise this and there are funds available to enable scientists to undertake public engagement work”. She
Louise Buckley is a PhD student in the Scottish Agricultural College and Pamela Docherty is a PhD student in the School of Mathematics
www.eusci.org | Sep 2010 |
Kirsten Shuler reviews Panic in Level 4 by Richard Preston Richard Preston is best known for his bestselling novel, The Hot Zone, in which he introduced the Ebola virus to a mainstream audience. His latest work, Panic in Level 4, is a collection of nonfiction, science-related stories. Preston opens with an introduction detailing his experience in a Level 4 laboratory, Level 4 being the highest level of bio-security. He then introduces us to the Chudnovsky brothers, who built a supercomputer in their New York apartment to continue their quest for pi (π)- they’ve calculated it to over 2 million places! The brothers appear again in a story about the famous artworks, the Unicorn Tapestries. Preston’s interest in the tapestries lies in the difficulties encountered during digital imaging, performed to capture and record the colours and mirror images found perfectly preserved on the reverse of the tapestries. The Chudnovsky brothers’ mathematical minds are required to reassemble the tiny bits of the images. Preston’s eye for the ‘little details’ is particularly apparent when he explores the destruction of the North American eastern hemlock tree by an Asian parasite. Through his descriptions, the reader gets a real feeling of the grandeur of these trees and the devastation this invader has caused. Speaking of little things with a big
33 | Sep 2010 | www.eusci.org
We spend more than a third of our life sleeping but we know very little about it. How many times have we heard people ask questions like, “Am I sleeping enough?”, “Am I sleeping well?” or “How can I sleep less and still be as productive?”, and yet we have not tried to answer them. Jim Horne’s Sleepfaring has solutions for many of these problems and more. It is a compelling read for anyone wanting to learn about this mysterious subject. The book is very informative, covering a wide range of topics and includes references for further reading. Jim clearly picks the most suitable studies to illustrate the points he makes. For example, it is commonly said in the media that since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, every year we have been sleeping fewer hours causing the modern society to develop a ‘sleep debt’. If that were true, then studies on the society’s ‘sleep debt’ from the 1990’s should show an increase in ‘sleep debt’ from the studies in the 1930’s, but that is not the case. The chapter on ‘crashing out’ gives an indepth analysis of how sleep can often cause accidents, supported by the fact that one in five car accidents in the UK are due to lack of sleep. Jim also quotes interesting examples from other animal species. For example, did you know that dolphins sleep with
impact, the story of the race to decode the human genome is an eye-opening look at the politics involved and the intense rivalry between the players. Best of all, we learn what DNA tastes like! In retrospect, this chapter is all the more interesting as one of the main players was J. Craig Venter, whose company recently created ‘synthetic life’. Readers with an interest in unusual diseases shouldn’t worry that Preston has forgotten them. He includes stories about an outbreak of Ebola in the Congo and a rare genetic disease, Lesch-Nyhan, which
Oxford University Press
Akshat Rathi reviews Sleepfaring: A journey through the science of sleep by Jim Horne
only one side of their brain while the other stays active? And it’s not just dolphins but also ducks and other bird species that are able to perform this feat. The book, with its great content, keeps the reader interested throughout, but sometimes the excessive referencing to other chapters within in the book could put the reader off. At many such places, instead of a reference to another chapter, a simple one line explanation would have been enough. Also, don’t be surprised to read 30-40 pages without a single illustration, which may occasionally make reading this very informative book monotonous. Yet, if you want to understand sleep, this is by far the best book around on the subject. Akshat Rathi is a graduate student at Oxford University
causes self-cannibalism. His meeting and subsequent friendship with two LeschNyhan sufferers provides a touching look into life with this unimaginable disorder. Preston’s clear enthusiasm and passion for his varied topics shines through all of the stories and he includes the little details that make the people and situations all the more real. Panic in Level 4 is an unusual but thoughtprovoking read. Kirsten Shuler is a PA in the Division of Clinical Neurosciences
'S +ZQPUIFTJT EUSci’s resident brainiac answers your questions. Email email@example.com with your questions for next issue Dear Dr. Hypothesis, I have heard that women who live together tend to menstruate together. I am a girl, and back when I used to live with four other girls I noticed this synchrony effect. Now, I live with just one female flatmate. We both menstruate regularly, but never at the same time. Could it be that a critical number of women must be present in order for the synchrony to start? Out of Sync Dear Sister Sync, The idea that women who spend a lot of time together will menstruate together has carved out a firm place in the annals of dormitory lore, thanks to decades of anecdotal reports from cohabitating women (and their male observers). Still, believe it or not, after almost 40 years scientists have yet to agree on whether the phenomenon constitutes myth or reality. The theory first hit the science scene in 1971, when psychologist Martha McClintock, now at the University of Chicago, published a paper in Nature. She reported that for female undergraduate students living together in dormitories, the start of their menstrual cycles became closer to that of their friends over time. McClintock was the first to formally study menstrual synchrony, which has come to be called the ‘McClintock Effect’, but she has not been the only scientist to explore
it. For instance, the largest study carried out to date was published in the journal Human Nature in 2006. Authors Zhengwei Yang and Jeffrey Schanck collected over a year’s worth of menstruation data from 186 Chinese women living in dorms and also reanalyzed McClintock’s original data. They titled their paper, “Women Do Not Synchronize Their Menstrual Cycles”. Lest anyone worry that university students do not accurately represent the entire human population, a study published in 1997 focused on the Dogon, a population of cliff-dwelling people in West Africa. In this study, author Beverly Strassman, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan, also failed to find evidence of menstrual synchrony (believers in lunaception may be disappointed to learn that the menstrual cycles of Dogon women did not appear to follow the phases of the moon either). As if the dispute over menstrual synchrony were not enough, McClintock’s work fans the flames of another controversy: the existence of mammalian pheromones, or social signals that we emit and detect subconsciously. Similar signals have been identified in insects such as ants, and some believe pheromones must be the force behind menstrual synchrony. McClintock published a paper in Nature in 1998 providing ‘definitive evidence of human pheromones’. The evidence was that exposure to underarm secretions affected the length of women’s menstrual cycles, but critics have complained that the study’s methodology had serious flaws.
As for the mammalian pheromone idea in general, after fifty years of discussion, it has yet to advance from speculation to accepted fact. Richard Doty, a zoologist at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Great Pheromone Myth, staunchly doubts it ever will. In a recent article in New Scientist, he argues, “Not only have mammalian pheromones not been found, but the idea oversimplifies the nature of chemical communication among mammals.” So if human pheromones might not exist and the McClintock effect is not real, where did all that anecdotal evidence come from? One explanation is that we might just be fooling ourselves. As Irrationality author and psychologist Stuart Sutherland explained, “People selectively remember items that are in line with their beliefs.” Synchrony will happen by chance; only when it does do we notice and remember it, skewing our observations. That is, like toast ‘always’ falling jam-side down, menstrual synchrony appears to occur more often than it really does. Getting back to your question, Sister Sync, even if the McClintock effect is an illusion, random and pairwise synchrony is indeed more likely to occur when more women are present. Supposing all women menstruate for 28 days, the chance that two roommates would start their periods on precisely the same day is less than 4%. But for 5 women together, the chance that at least two start together jumps up to 31%. The probability increases above 50% if you allow overlap within a day or two to count as synchrony. It also increases if you take into account that women’s cycles vary around the 28 day average. The bottom line? Debates about menstrual synchrony and mammalian pheromones are not over yet. However, current evidence suggests that, unlike swimmers and boy bands, menstrual cycles do not tend to be ‘in sync’. Catie Lichten is filling in for Dr Hypothesis
Title font by Divide by Zero
www.eusci.org | Sep 2010 |
&64DJ4DJFODF'JDUJPO4IPSU 4UPSZ$PNQFUJUJPO 4$01& What will the world be like in 2082? 1582:
University of Edinburgh founded.
1680s: Newton publishes Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica. 1780s: Planet Uranus discovered. 1882:
Strasburger coins term “cytoplasm”.
FDA approve the first recombinant pharmaceutical: insulin.
500 years on from the founding of the University of Edinburgh… What will the world be like? What will we know? What will we do? EUSci wants to read your 2082-related science fiction stories.
-&/(5) Target length is 1300 to 1500 words.
%&"%-*/& 5pm on 31st Jan 2011.
+6%(*/( Entries will be judged by a panel of EUSci members. Judging criteria will include originality, writing quality, scientific plausibility and 2082 relatedness.
&-*(*#*-*5: Entrants can be from anywhere in the world and do not need a personal Edinburgh connection. Pieces written for another purpose or competition will be considered. However, please do not submit a story already published elsewhere (print or online).
13*;&4 The winning entry will be published in Issue 9 of EUSci. Runners up will be published online at www.eusci.org
'03."5 Please submit Word or pdf files. Please tell us your name and postal address by email but do not include them in the submission (if you wish to be judged anonymously).
$0/5"$5 Please submit entries or queries to EuSciFi@gmail.com
Title font: Typodermic Art: Aimee Lockwood
Published on Oct 17, 2010