Parkinson’s disease and the gut

A theory was proposed more than 10 years ago that “the seeds of Parkinson’s disease somehow climb out of the gut and into the brain.”  In particular, “a misfolded form of a protein known as alpha-synuclein ” may play a vital role.  In this clumpy state, the protein “may damage and kill neurons including those near the base of the brain that help control movement” leading to the tremors and body rigidity of Parkinson’s disease.

A new study found that the appendix “holds immune cells that may help coordinate the [human] gut’s response to pathogens, and bacteria that may help maintain a healthy balance of gut microbes.”  That’s positive.  However, the appendix–even in healthy people–also has a supply of alpha-synuclein.  The theory is that the misfolded, clumpy form of this protein can spread from the appendix to the brain.

The new study tracked the medical records of 1.7 million Swedish citizens since 1964.  From that analysis, there is a “1% chance that a person will develop Parkinson’s after age 65.”  But, in this very large sample, the people who had their appendix removed 20 or more years in the past had a 20% lower risk of developing Parkinson’s, especially those who lived in rural areas-meaning there may also be an environmental link to Parkinson’s (possibly pesticide exposure).

What does this all mean?

No, you should not have your appendix removed thinking it will prevent you from getting Parkinson’s.

Yes, there may well be a causal tie between the human gut (the microbiome) and the development of Parkinson’s disease.  Research teams around the world are focusing on this connection.

Read the article (Kelly Servick, Science, October 31, 2018).

For more information about the gut and the microbiome, search the Science Primary Literature Database and the Headline Science Database.

Scapegoats and self-blame

Scapegoating is “the act of blaming and often punishing a person or a group for a negative outcome that is due, in large part, to other causes.”

It’s not a new phenomenon.  It’s been going on for centuries–think of the witch hysteria and trials in Europe and America that lasted into the late 1700’s, the Nazis’ “attempted extermination of Jews and other minority groups” during World War II , and, more recently, Bosnia, Rwanda, right-wing movements in present-day Europe, and the current government in the United States targeting migrant caravans, Muslims, and many others.  Individuals, groups, and organizations blamed for everything from corrupting traditional moral values, contributing to economic disruption, causing crime, destroying a way of life, etc., etc.  “People seem all too eager to heap blame onto others for major misfortunes.”

The idea of the scapegoat is an astounding psychological tool for managing morale.”  “A scapegoat … is a tool for taming or expelling self-hatred.”

You’re stuck in a dead-end job living paycheck to paycheck, your relationship is a mess, you’re going nowhere, and you have no prospects … who is to blame?  Those poor choices you have made can’t possibly be the reason.  Instead, it must be those illegal aliens who are taking the best jobs, getting services for free, causing crime, destroying some mythical past way of life, and on and on.  They’re to blame; you’re a victim.  Self-esteem must be saved, inadequacy must be rationalized.

Then there are those who cynically use scapegoating for personal, often political benefit.  Political “campaigning spurs visions of greatness and vicious attacks on opponents.  They’re scapegoats, and the exaggerated hostility toward them is a symbolic slaughter.  The overreachers discharge their own panic and self-disgust at others.  And their followers thrill to be part of the hero’s symbolic rampage.”

We hate and demonize others to make up for the inadequacies and self-doubt we see in our own lives–and to prop up the individuals and groups who feed our opinions.

Scapegoating is dangerous and futile.  It never solves problems–only destroys and creates new ones.  The blamers may feel victimized and enraged but, in the end, they are as likely to be harmed.

Understand what causes and leads to scapegoating; break the cycle of fear and self-recrimination.  Forgive yourself and others.

(Kevin Engel, November 1, 2018)

For more information about psychological phenomena, search the Science Primary Literature Database and the Headline Science Database.

Disseminating science via social media

Even though much of our society and even our very lives is built upon and made possible through scientific advances, there is a significant anti-science bias in the United States–coming from people across the political spectrum.

One way to try and overcome this bias is for scientists to communicate directly (and understandably) with the general public–rather than stay within the scholarly communication cycle (which provides more rewards in academia).  Beyond writing for newspapers, popular magazines, doing interviews, etc., some scientists have also turned to social media as a way to reach the public.

Here, building an audience is key; is there a threshold beyond which the communication reaches more non-scientists?

A recent study “analyzed the Twitter followers of more than 100 faculty members in ecology and evolutionary biology.”  For those who had less than 1,000 followers, the majority of those followers were other scientists–an average of 60%.  But, once scientists’ Twitter accounts broke through the 1,000 follower level, “the range of follower types became more diverse and included research and educational organizations, media, and members of the public with no stated association with science.”  The greater the number of non-scientist followers, the reach of the scientists’ Twitter accounts increased exponentially “because those [non-scientist] Twitter accounts typically had larger followings than scientist-run accounts.”

Read the article (Jeffrey Brainard, Science, August 3, 2018).

For more information about the impacts of social media, search the Science Primary Literature Database and the Headline Science Database.


Why is it so hard to change people’s minds?

It’s Thanksgiving, your family is gathered uncomfortably around the turkey, and your uncle is loudly lecturing you about why climate change is a complete myth perpetuated by socialist radicals.  You, in turn, present a well-reasoned response complete with hard facts and clear examples showing the scientific consensus that climate change is, in  fact, happening right now (as torrential rain pours down outside).  Your uncle is unmoved; why won’t he change his mind?

“Addiction specialists figured out a long time ago that lecturing an addict about all the terrible things drugs and alcohol can do is unlikely to work” … unlikely to “scare them into taking action to curb their addiction.”

Why?  And, what has this to do with your uncle and his opinion about climate change or vaccinations and autism or the health benefits of radium or trickle-down economics or the motives and accomplishments of a politician, etc.?

People do not abuse drugs or alcohol “because of rational thought processes, the reward value of substances for addicts is overwhelming and the suffering from substance withdrawal is intolerable.”  The brain regions involved “are the basis for habit and emotion, not reason.”

So, what about your uncle?  “It turns out that holding onto an irrational idea that is the basis for membership in a group functions much in the same way as an addictive drug.”  Agreeing with the group beings reward (increased dopamine release).  Defying the group “stimulates many of the same brain regions that fire during drug withdrawal.”

So, even though evidence piles up against a belief–and a rational response would be to reconsider an opinion–it is very hard for an individual to do that especially if the belief is deeply held, or for another person to cause that to happen.

But, there are techniques that have worked “to help addicts change their behavior” and may work to convince people to change their minds.

Read the article (Sara Gorman and Jack M. Gorman, Psychology Today, November 7, 2017).

For more information about psychology, the impacts of social media, and technological deception, search the Science Primary Literature Database and the Headline Science Database.

A change in diet can help mitigate climate change

It’s already known that corporate agriculture and “the global food system is a major driver of climate change, land-use change, and biodiversity loss” as well as depletion of fresh water and pollution and ecological damage through fertilizer runoff.

Certain kinds of agriculture though are especially damaging and, despite western preferences and even government subsidies, meat and dairy production are particularly resource-intensive.

The concern is that as global population approaches 10 billion by 2050 and incomes rise in some formerly less developed nations, more people will choose “meat-rich western diets.”  To a point that may be positive; people “who are undernourished need to eat a little more meat and dairy.”  But, not in western nations; for example, “UK and US citizens need to cut beef by 90% and milk by 60% while increasing beans and nuts/seeds between 4 and 6 times.”  This “flexitarian” diet (less beef, less pork, fewer eggs, much more beans, nuts, and seeds) could “halve emissions from livestock.”  That, and technological changes in farming practices–how manure is managed, more universal water storage, “far more careful use of fertilizers”, etc.–will help further reduce the greenhouse gas emissions attributed to agriculture.

A positive is that the needed diet and technological changes “are already being implemented somewhere in the world.”  But, “global change is needed.”

The evidence is now unequivocal–we need to change our diets if we are to have a sustainable future.  The fact that it will also make us healthier makes it a no-brainer.”

Read the article; see the graphic (Damian Carrington, The Guardian, October 10, 2018).

For more information about the impacts of climate change and attempts to adapt and mitigate, search the Science Primary Literature Database and the Headline Science Database.

The consequences of warming half a degree; and the courage to chart a new future

The recent IPCC report described the consequences of the Earth warming 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.  The Earth has already warmed 1 degree C since the 1800’s.

How big of a problem is half a degree more?  It’s huge!

See this article and graphic for a look at the consequences.

Keep in mind that the Earth will warm more than 1.5 degrees C.  That target was the aspiration of the Paris climate negotiations in 2015.  But, nations won’t meet that target.  “Holding warming to 1.5 degrees C would entail a staggering transformation of the global energy system beyond what world leaders are contemplating today.  Global greenhouse emissions would need to fall in half in just 12 years and zero out by 2050.”  “Virtually all of the coal plants and gasoline-burning vehicles on the planet would need to be quickly replaced with zero-carbon alternatives.”

Current national/international efforts are more consistent with an increase of 3.1 to 3.7 degrees C by 2100.  Keep that in mind when looking at the enormous consequences of 1.5 degrees C.

“Each time the Earth heats up an extra half degree, the effects aren’t uniform across the planet.  Some regions, such as the Arctic, will heat up 2 to 3 times faster.”  “The number of extremely hot days around the world … tends to rise exponentially as the global average temperature increases.”

The bottom line is that changes fueled by climate change are happening now especially in places like the United States.  They will continue to happen and will get worse.  But, we still have an opportunity individually and collectively to mitigate and adapt to the consequences.  That opportunity will require courage and bravery.  We can’t look to and live in the past.  It’s not about making something great again.  It’s about making a new future that is more responsive to the planet we live on.  It’s an opportunity; we need to take it.  It’s happening to us right now.

(Brad Plumer, Nadja Popovich, and Iris Gottlieb, New York Times, October 7, 2018).

For more information about the impacts of climate change and attempts to adapt and mitigate, search the Science Primary Literature Database and the Headline Science Database.