Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What it means to be a doctor

Two nice quotes from one of my favorite podcasts: Quakcast

1. "Becoming a doctor mean learning to be comfortable with incomplete and changing information."

2. "Becoming a specialist is being ignorant... with style."

These quotes I think are funny and since I am also teaching at a medical school I can say that in my experience these quotes are also relatively accurate. I always get surprised at the many changes that can occur from one edition of a textbook to the next, although I must hasten to point out that there is a large proportion that does not change to. It gets even worse if you compare different textbooks or say journal papers.

Does this mean that doctors are merely shooting at random? No, they are (if they are good doctors) basing their decisions, diagnoses and treatments on the best available evidence - and that is the doctors which have the greatest success in terms of healthy patients (read Neurologica blog for more on this).

So if you are a doctor or becoming a doctor accept that there is rarely such a thing as perfect knowledge, and if you are a patient accept that doctors cannot always say things with perfect certainty...

Watch this if you are afraid of mobile phones or microwave ovens

I have previously written about microwaves here and here. However, the fact is that even though I write about it sometimes there really isn't much to say except, fantastic technology, keep it coming. There are NO dangers associated with mobile phones or with microwave ovens (unless you stick your head in one and somehow manages to turn it on. Neither is there any reason to expect that these technologies could be dangerous.

If you want to hear this from a real expert there is a terrific lecture available on youtube which I admit, I found on the fantastic blog Bad Astronomy.

Here is the first part of the lecture.

The rest you can find here: part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5.

One statement that stuck with me was that the radiation you get from base stations (which many people worry about) is approximately equal to the radiation you get from the planet Venus (and as you know the radiation you get from venus is merely reflected sunlight).

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Mystery explained? Why women live longer

Since I started studying biology/neuroscience I have always been puzzled by the fact that no one has yet been able to explain why we age. This question may not have a simple answer. Perhaps it is one of those questions (like "what is life?") that will never really be answered, but rather re-formulated.

My own conclusion based on what I have read until now is that many different factors are involved in aging, including but not limited to 1) buildup of toxic materials in the body (from the environment as well as waste from your own body and 2) damage to DNA.

One related mystery is why women live longer than men? What is the cause of this unfair order? Until I read an article in Scientific American I always assumed that guys simply do more stupid things that sometimes kill us... The next explanation that comes to mind is that maybe our lives are just tougher, after all we always did all the difficult things while the women merely sits in their chairs, gossiping, problem solved, right?

Apparently not. It turns out that guys stupid behavior cannot account for the difference, and the latter explanation also fails because guess what, girls have been working to. Also, in the western world today men and women do pretty much the same things, and still we die earlier. Why?

The article in Scientific American suggests that the reason we die and the reason women live longer is that our self-repair mechanisms break down and that women's repair mechanism last longer and are more effective than men's. It is as if, after a certain number of decades, the body says that this body is now so crappy that it is no longer worth fixing, you will now be a burden for others so I will not repair you any longer.

Why would women have better repair? Because they give birth, and giving birth can be traumatic for many parts of the body. In order to recover from childbirth women need very effective repair mechanisms and as a side-effect of that, they also live longer...

Friday, October 8, 2010

Phil Plait - Don't be a Dick

This will just be a short post about a 30min lecture I really recommend for all my fellow skeptics. Phil Plait is an astronomer, a blogger, a skeptic, and just a nice guy (I decided that after listening to him talk but I haven't met him so I guess I don't know that for sure).

In this video Phil Plait talks about skeptic manners. Which is the best way to get people to think more critically? Do you behave like a dick and call people stupid, laugh at their mistakes etc etc (which I admit, can sometimes be tempting), or do you try to take your time to calmly explain why you believe what you believe.

In Phil Plaits words - how many of you became a critical thinker because someone called you an idiot? I think one guy in the audience raised his/her hand...

Anyway - check out the video below, and if you are interested in astronomy, Phil Plaits blog is the place to go: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/

Phil Plait - Don't Be A Dick from JREF on Vimeo.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Microwave Ovens

Having grown up in Järna, which may be the most pseudoscience-dense place in Sweden I have learned that microwave ovens are dangerous and that it kills your food (yes that is the term you normally hear).

Their arguments, of course, rely heavily on the naturalistic fallacy i.e. they claim that heating using microwaves is somehow "unnatural", that is unlike conventional oven which they seem to consider "natural". It is as if electromagnetic radiation in the infrared spectrum is somehow more natural than electromagnetic radiation with microwave frequencies.

There are however also some more empirical claims used by people who are against microwaves. For example many people quote a "study" where they compared growth of plants which had received either microwaved water or water which had not been heated. It is claimed that the plants which got the microwaved water waned down and died. The plants which had just gotten normal water on the other hand flourished. According to microwave critics this shows that microwaving water takes out some sort of "life energy" out of the H2O molecules and therefore the plants die.

Snopes have tried to replicate this "study", but found out that it was impossible – they could not kill their plants with microwaved water…

Another empirical claim that microwave antagonists sometimes use is that microwaves are forbidden in Russia because they are so dangerous – this is just a simple lie.

One claim with some actual research behind it is that microwave ovens destroy certain vitamins in your food (see here for example). This claim is probably true but only if you compare microwaved food with raw food. The study quoted on health bulletin shows that meat heated in microwave ovens has 30-40% less vitamin B12 than raw meat. So if you start eating your steaks raw you can skip a glass of milk a day (which would otherwise compensate the loss).

In the same study you can find the following paragraph:

"Microwave ovens are widely used for cooking and food processing. Extensive studies (Cross and Fung, 1982; Hoffman and Zabik, 1985) have shown equal or better retention of some vitamins (B1, B2, B6, C, and folic acid) after microwave heating compared with conventional heating."

In other words, if you lack vitamins, cooking in your microwave can help you.

It is also interesting that otherwise environmentally conscious people are so against microwave ovens even though they save a lot of energy compared to conventional ovens.

So where does all this leave us? My conclusion is that microwave heating is a fast and convenient way of cooking. Don't put eggs or metal in there and don't overheat things so that you burn yourself. If you follow these guidelines a microwave oven will be a terrific assistant in your kitchen. Of course some things just taste better when you cook them in a conventional oven and in that case I am all for that…

If you want more on this topic I can recommend this episode on Brian Dunning's skeptoid.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

My favorite podcasts - Best podcasts

I have not been blogging for quite a while, however, this blog is not dead. The reason for my inactivity has been twofold. I have discovered podcasts (more about that in a moment) and I have become a father for the second time. These two "hobbies" of mine have consumed all my spare time and therefore the blog has suffered a bit, but I still feel I have a lot to write about and share with those who are interested.

If you have read any of my previous posts you will probably know that I am a great fan of The Teaching Company, a company that offers great courses for download (read my previous posts here.

Recently I have however mostly been listening to podcasts and I thought I would write a little about my favorite podcasts here. Unlike the teaching company courses, podcasts are normally free to download, although some depend on donations.

1. Skeptics Guide to the Universe - This is the podcast that I look forward to the most every week. Host, Steven Novella (a neurologist) and his fellow rouges discuss science news and discoveries from a skeptical perspective. You learn a lot of science by listening to this show and it is also highly entertaining in my opinion. Fantastic show really.

2. Skeptoid - Another excellent learning resource. Brian Dunning guides you through original sources on many issues including "was the pyramids built by slaves", "is asparthame dangerous (its not)", "organic vs conventional farming", "roswell" and many other topics. Dunning is also not afraid to admit that the jury is still out there if that is the case - he never makes conclusions that go beyond the evidence he has presented - great podcast.

3. Hardcore History and Common Sense - Reporter and excellent storyteller Dan Carlin is the man behind both of these two podcasts. In Hardcore History Carlin gives you some of the best accounts of various historical episodes that I have heard - I especially liked his four part podcast on "Ghosts on the Osfront" about operation Barbarossa - if you are the least bit interested in the second world war this is a must. In "Common Sense" Carlin sits and talks for himself about current events in the news, giving his perspective on things - and according to himself he always manages to piss of someone...

4. Dr.Karl and the Naked Scientist - Great science podcast. Although perhaps not as entertaining as the Skeptics guide to the galaxy this podcast is always very informative and it takes you through the biggest current science news in a way that most people can manage (unlike actually reading Nature and Science which many people find difficult). Some programs are Q&A where listeners can ask about any science question. I always learn a great deal from listening to this podcast.

5. This Week In Tech (TWIT) - This podcast is all about gadgets and new technology and is a great way for me to satisfy my need to hear about the most recent developments. If this is something you like too then I highly recommend this podcast.

6. 60-second science podcasts. "Scientific American" gives you three different 60-second long podcast where they take one news item and explains it very clearly in about 60 seconds, quite impressive if you ask me. Since I am into neuroscience my favorite is 60 second psych, but there is also 60-second earth and then there is the more general 60-science. They also have a longer show called Science Talk where they interview authors of important scientific publications. Also a great show.

7. NeuroPod - Official podcast of the journal "Nature Neuroscience". It simply takes you through their publications - much faster than it takes you to read the journal. Good resource for anyone into the field of Neuroscience.

8. ESPN Soccernet podcast - I am a science nerd and but I also love soccer and especially the Premier League. This podcast gives you all the analysis and transfer gossip you can handle.

9. Quackcast - Mark Crislip gives all medical quacks out there a hard time. If you think that vaccinations are dangerous or that conventional medicine is just one big conspiracy I hope that you will give this podcast a chance.

10. Rationally Speaking - Massimo Pigliucci has another another great podcast based on a skeptical approach. Because he is a philosopher he also gives a different perspective than Steven Novella from Skeptics Guide to the Galaxy. Another podcast which is also interesting and informative.

Swedish podasts:

1. SkeptikerPodden - Sveriges "Skeptics Guide to the Universe". Underhållande och informativ och med intressanta reportage. Min favorit är när ett Medium får kontakt med en död mor - bara det att modern aldrig var död... hmmmm. Bra jobbat SkeptikerPodden!

2. Godmorgon Världen - Enligt mig det bästa veckomagasinet med nyheter som finns.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The placebo response as a form of classical conditioning

I have already written a few posts about the pros and cons of The placebo effect. The placebo effect can loosely be defined as the effects you get when you think you are receiving medical care, be it psychological counselling or an injection of some substance.

I have also written previously about classical conditioning (see for example Learning described at the cellular level: Finding from our laboratory in Lund). Classical conditioning is a type of learning in which you pair a neutral stimuli such as a tone, a light, a touch, a picture, a thought or something else with another stimulus that has an associated reflex such as a puff of air in the eye (causes you to blink), a punch in the face (also causes you to blink), an electrical shock (causes fear and pain), or a shot of morphine (causes you to enter heaven for a short while).

If you present a neutral stimulus to someone and then, directly afterwards a reflex eliciting stimulus to the same person, and then repeat this procedure many times, then you will eventually notice that merely presenting the neutral stimulus can cause the person to perform the reflexive behavior that was formerly associated only with the second stimulus.

For example, play a tone just before giving an air-puff to the eye of your participant, over and over again, and you will eventually see that the participant blinks when he or she hears the tone. Show someone a picture just before you give that person an injection of morphine, and eventually (after a number of repetitions), that person will feel as if he or she was in heaven just from looking at the picture.

I don't know whether the relationship between the placebo effect and classical conditioning has become obvious to you yet, but if not, let me spell it out. Say that you have a spinal injury causing permanent and intensive pain. In some cases the only available therapy is regular morphine injections. You go to your doctors, enter the hospital, the doctor takes out an injection needle, and sticks it through your arm into a vein and injects a fluid which contains morphine. Notice that all these experiences leading to up the injection of the morphine can work as a neutral stimuli that is consistently associated with an injection of morphine. In other word, it is likely that one of these neutral stimuli such as seeing the injection needle (just like seeing a nice steak will cause an increased saliva production (at least for me)), will start processes in your body similar to the ones you experience when you get the actual morphine injection.

This was a hypothetical example for which I have no reference, however, you can find examples in the scientific literature which quite strongly supports the idea that placebo's sometimes are a form of classical conditioning.

For example it has been shown that people who are allergic to pollen, can get allergic reactions just from seeing a flower, even if it is made of plastic and therefore has no pollen.
In a more extreme example, a boy was getting chemotherapy to treat his cancer. The chemotherapy was paired with a specific taste and smell. Later on, the boy was presented with only the taste and smell and surprisingly (or not), the doctors observed the same effects as during the "real" chemotherapy...

These results have all but convinced me that there is indeed many parallells between the placebo effect and classical conditioning. Further these findings do suggest that you can help patients quite a lot without actually giving them "real" medicine. However, I also think it is wise not to go to far with this (see again: The placebo effect).
At the very least, this is a truly fascinating subjects that I, for one, will continue to follow.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Lund University Blog Portal

My university (see picture) has recently started a blog portal on the web.

If anyone out there would like to read what other employees at my University think you should check out this page:


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Our tiny planet in our huge Universe

I have always been fascinated by astronomy and before I decided to go into neuroscience to study our amazing brain I had dreams about studying astronomy. I personally cannot understand how people can avoid being overwhelmed by our universe.

Our earth is a pretty big place, yet planets such as Saturn and Uranus are much bigger. Jupiter, however, is larger than all the other planets in our solar system combined into one planet - now that is big. Compare Jupiter to our sun and Jupiter looks like a pea next to
football, put another way - the sun is huge and massive! Still, our sun, which we rely on so intimately, is one of a hundred billion stars in our massive galaxy "the milky way". The Milky Way is a hundred thousand light years across - meaning that it takes light 100.000
years to reach us from the other end of the galaxy (yet the light can whizz around the earth 7 times in one second). Our sun, which is huge, is not even close to one light year across - rather it is about one light minute...

Our huge Milky Way galaxy containing a hundred billion stars and with a diameter of about 100.000 light years is small compared to the local cluster of galaxies (a small cluster of half a dusin galaxies), which measured millions of light years across.

I think you see where this is going... Our local cluster, which is absolutely humungous, is tiny compared to the observable universe. The most distant galaxies that can be seen are about 14 billion (that's light years away - suggesting that the observable universe has a diameter of maybe 28 billion light years. Our local cluster of galaxies is tiny in comparison...

Still, theory suggests that our 28 billion light year observable universe is just a small fraction of the true size of the universe (we cannot see the whole universe because galaxies far away may be travelling away from us faster than the speed of light in which case their light will never reach us). Maybe the observable universe is just "one billionth" of the size of our true universe.

At last - many theorists believe that our universe, in which we are much smaller than a grain of sand in the Sahara dessert, is but one out of a large number of universes...

I don't know about you, but these numbers make my heart beat faster. I feel small and improbable, but also grand, lucky and inspired - it turns all my daily woes into experiences - I feel lucky for having experienced what it feels like to be sad, angry or happy - I feel
lucky for being able to study all the grand aspects of nature - from our huge universe to our fantastic brains.