Gene&Human-Condition

There are about 50 neurotransmitters, the most important ones studied are: serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and vasopressin. Studies have shown that we are social creatures -- isolation and loneliness are toxic to our wellbeing.

This and the previous blog are notes from the Coursera: ’Genes and the Human Condition’, University of Maryland, lectures on “My Genes Made Me Do It”. What follows is from lecture 4.

brain-structure

One of the important neural circuits in our brain is the amygdala -- cingulate cortex neural circuit. In the diagram above, the amygdala (in red) is the threat detector and the cingulate cortex (in yellow) is connected to one of the self-awareness centers. Serotonin is used as the neurotransmitter in this circuit.

How this circuit works is illustrated in the video below. Also neurotransmitter activity during orgasm and addiction are explained as well as MAO and the 'warrior gene'. In the summary, an overall view of our genes and the environment are put into perspective.

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Gene&Human-Condition

This and the previous blog are notes from the Coursera: ’Genes and the Human Condition’, University of Maryland, lectures on “My Genes Made Me Do It”. What follows is from lecture 3.

“Psychologists don't really do consensus, but in the case of personality traits, it's hard to avoid: Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (OCEAN for short) that constitute the sum of human personality. Each of us has our own unique coordinates depending on precisely where we fall along each of these five dimensions. Where we fall in each dimension is about 50% genetic and 50% environmental. So what do you think is the major environmental influence on personality? If you said parents then you would be wrong. Some major studies suggested that parents make only a few percent of differences in personalities and behaviors.  And the effects of family largely disappear as people get older. Criminal parents are most likely to produce criminal children. Yes, but not if they adopt the children. Likewise the children of divorced parents are more likely to get divorced. Yes, but only if they are biological children. So basically, these studies suggest that parents are overrated as shapers of values. Sandra Scarr suggests that people pick the environment to suit their characters.

You adopt the mannerisms of your peers. In the western world, at least, peers may be a lot more important than parenting. There are evolutionary reasons for this. Your peers will be your lovers, your allies, your rivals. In the long run, they're the ones who matter most. They matter more than your parents.”

Book-covers

It is interesting to compare Hillary Clinton’s politically slanted book: “It Takes a Village” with that of  Senator Rick Santorum’s conservative: “It Takes a Family”. Both books ignore the ability of children to make their own choices.

In a new field of study called genopolitics, it has become accepted that your political views may have a genetic component. Neuroscientists have shown that liberals and conservatives have different patterns of brain activity. In particular, there are differences in their amygdala, the part of the brain that makes emotional responses. Research has shown that people’s whose basic emotional responses to threats are more pronounced, develop ring wing opinions. Twin studies suggest that opinions on a long list of issues from religion, to gay marriage, to party affiliations have a substantial genetic component.

In the upcoming American presidential elections, it will be interesting to see how the idea that genes will influence the political outcome plays out.

Below is a mashup of the Coursera lecture:

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Gene&Human-Condition

This and the next blog are notes from the Coursera: ’Genes and the Human Condition’, University of Maryland, lectures on “My Genes Made Me Do It”.

The age old debate of nature vs nurture takes on new meaning in the light of modern genetics and neuroscience. Society’s misunderstanding of some of the implications genetics goes from one extreme where in 2009 a murderer in Italy got a reduced sentence because he had genes associated with criminality while in the US an argument was made for a higher sentence based on the prosecution’s evidence that people with particular genes cannot be cured. The gene in question was the SRY gene carried on the Y chromosome that determines maleness. There is NO GENE for criminality. Apart from the rare exceptions such as the gene for sickle cell anaemia which protects against malaria and Huntington's disease, a neurodegenerative disorder, all other traits involve hundreds of genes and the interaction with the environment (the nurture bit).

Most of the studies on the effect of the environment comes from the work with identical and fraternal twins. If one minimises the influence of the environment then the remaining differences become genetic. The paradox is that the more equal we make society, the more important we will make the genes.

Professor Raymond St. Leger presented such an example using IQ:

Present studies indicate that the heritability of intelligence, judged largely by IQ scores goes up linearly across lifespan. So from 30% in very young children, to 40%, 50%, 60%, some people even say it becomes 80% heritable by the time you're middle aged. Well that's saying that 80% of the reason that we're all different in IQ is genetic and so it suggests that genes play a majority role in IQ scores. But environment is important, particularly in young people. Remember that an average IQ is 100. So potentially the 30% of variation in IQ due to environment could be fairly significant in determining if someone has an IQ of 120, or is in the sub-normal range. However, by the time an adopted child is 18, their IQs correlate with their biological parents, and not their adopted parents. This makes the point that the environment, all that mass coaching and tiger mothering can maybe have an effect on the kid's IQ when he's young, bump him up a few notches. But as he gets older, his IQ will become ever more closely correlated with that of his blood relatives.”

GWAS

The analysis of human traits has moved from using SNP’s (single nucleotide polymorphism)— a kind of barcode to the sequencing of the whole genome. This allows for genome-wide association studies (GWAS). In which tens of thousands of people are analysed for genetic variance — this also uses the non-coding parts of the DNA as well.

What are some of the highlights so far?

It turns out that some of the common conditions such as asthma and diabetes are controlled by tens or even hundreds of genes. The good news is that the pathways by which some diseases start have been identified and some entirely unexpected new pathways have been discovered. For instance a high risk version of the FTO gene has been associated with obesity and the high production of the hormone called ghrelin which makes people hungry. The study of the DNA of centenarians (people called the wellderly) have identified 5-6 biochemical pathways that are often revved up. This includes gene variants of the insulin IGF-1 pathway. As already mentioned variance of the SRY gene has been linked to violent crime.

From the twin studies a risk loci has been identified that is shared by the five major psychiatric disorders: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism, major depression and ADHD. Two of these loci involve genes that are part of the calcium channels — which are used when neutrons send signals in the brain.

For a mash-up of the first set of lectures:

Ups-Downs-PhDs

The symposium 'Future of Research' was held in Boston in October of this year and once again Paula Stephan recommended that biomedical graduate departments partake in birth control. "We are definitely producing many more PhD's than there is a demand for in research positions." she said.

“The biomedical research system is structured around a large workforce of graduate students and postdocs,” says Michael Teitelbaum, a labour economist at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “  Faculty members rely on cheap PhD students and postdocs because they are trying to get the most science out of stretched grants. Universities, in turn, know that PhD students help faculty members to produce the world-class research on which their reputations rest.

There are cost advantages in having a Postdoc scholar: the low salary and long hours mean that they are less expensive by almost half than graduate students of scientific staff. The hourly rate for postdocs is about US$ 16/hr compared to post-graduate students (US$ 34 - US$ 21/hr) and staff scientists (US$ 30/hr).  In the US, the NIH salary rate for a postdoc was US$ 42,840 in 2015. The other advantages of a postdoc are they have a higher skill than a graduate student and are usually more motivated than a staff scientist.

"Although principal investigators acknowledge the difficulty of securing an academic position, the system worked for them and so it is tempting to tell students that they can do it too — just another experiment, another publication or another year, and you’ll get there." says Julie Gould in the Nature article.


As for my own 'future of research' perspective, in the last 10 years of my academic career I didn't take on any more PhD students. This was partly due to the lack of resources (finances) to train a world-class scientist and also partly to my doing my bit for PhD birth control.

3-worlds-of-work

There is a saying that goes something like: “It is not that our plans had failed but that we had failed to plan.” This applies to the future of work. We seem to be driven down by technology as if we were in the early days of the agricultural or industrial revolution.

There are countless  conferences,  reports,  scenarios - almost every organisation feels compelled to ask:  What is the future of work?  I suggest the report by PricewaterhousCoopers is a good place to start. It offers three different lenses to view how the future might look — the Orange world where small is beautiful, the Blue world where corporate is king and the Green world where  companies care. Click here for the report.

Using constantly improving technology will mean growth but this growth will not mean more jobs — millions will be rendered obsolete. Those that can offer professional services in the digital marketplaces will secure a greater volume of assignments, market themselves, use secure payment systems and vet potential clients. One example is Upwork which connects freelancers with assignments in areas such as software programming, graphic design, marketing and mobile development. It connects some 3.6 million client businesses with more than nine million freelancers from 180 countries. This is a preview of the Orange world where large companies breakdown to a network of smaller collaborative organisations.

In my view:  in the future there will be fewer jobs and many people will not have regular jobs.  Society will need to change so that the increase in productivity of technology benefits us all — as it did in agriculture and modern factories. Instead of the profits of increased productivity going to the <1% at the top, everyone should benefit in the form of an universal living wage. The attitude and value to work would need to change -- work being a privilege, an opportunity to serve the community — a vocation.

For example contrast the attitude to work in Norway and Saudi Arabia — both living from oil.

For the full interview of Tim O'Reilly by Michael Kransy

Jennifer Doudna - co-inventor of the CRISPR technology talks about the need for 'ethics of CRISPR'.

Following on the issues raised in a previous post, Jennifer and numerous colleagues have called for an international meeting to discuss the safe use of CRISPR and the ethics of being able to create "engineer humans" as well as other genetically modified organisms (GMO's)

It is important that all stake holders (excuse the jargon), which includes you and me, understand the potential and risks of this technology and to have an informed discussion in accordance with the principles of a pluralist democracy. For more , click here.

For an elegant explanation of the CRISPR-Cas9 system watch the video.

A groundbreaking experiment on quantum entanglement puts the final nail in the coffin of our ordinary view of the universe, settling an argument that has raged for nearly a century.

(from the NewScientist | 5 September 2015 pp 8-9)

To understand the experiment, we have to go back to the 1930s, when physicists were struggling to come to terms with the strange predictions of the nascent science of quantum mechanics. The theory suggested that particles could become entangled, so that measuring one would instantly the measurement of the other, even if they were far apart.

Einstein famously proclaimed that God does not play dice with the universe and called entanglement "spooky action at a distance". He and others favoured the principle of local realism, which broadly says that only nearby objects can influence each other and that the universe is "real" - observing it doesn't bring it into existence by crystallising vague probabilities.

They argued that hidden variables at some deeper layer of reality could explain quantum theory's apparent weirdness. On the other side, physicists like Niels Bohr insisted that we accept the new quantum reality, because it explained problems that classical theories of light and energy couldn't handle.

Quantum-weirdness

In this set-up, Alice and Bob sit in two laboratories 1.3 kilometres apart, far enough to close the locality loophole. Each laboratory has a diamond containing an electron with a property called spin. The team hits the diamonds with randomly produced microwave pulses. This makes them each emit a photon that is entangled with the electron's spin. These photons are sent to a third location, C, where a device clocks their arrival time. If photons arrive from Alice and Bob at exactly the same time, the two electron spins become entangled with each other. The result was clear: they detected more highly correlated spins than local realism would allow. (For the Abstract, click here). The weird world of quantum mechanics is our world.

This raises the bar for other possibilities; Is the brain a quantum computer?

Professor Stuart Hameroff

On the face of it the weirdness of quantum mechanics and biology would seem to have nothing to do with each other. Quantum mechanics deals with the subatomic world and biology with much larger things like cells. Any quantum effects in cells would be cancelled out by the multitude of noisy biological processes. But not so. Quantum biology refers to the many biological processes that involve the conversion of energy to usable chemical transformations and are quantum mechanical in nature.

Examples are photosynthesis, vision, magnetoreception in animals, DNA mutation, and the conversion of chemical energy into motion. Any process that involves the transfer of electrons and protons in chemical processes uses quantum mechanical effects. In photosynthesis it has been shown that the wave and particle conundrum occur simultaneously. The wave spreads uniformly to potential receptors, while the particle follows the path of least resistance through the field of potential created by the wave. This makes for a 95% efficiency in energy transfer.

Many important biological processes taking place in cells are driven and controlled by events that involve electronic degrees of freedom and, therefore, require a quantum mechanical description. An important example are enzymatically catalyzed, cellular biochemical reactions. Here, bond breaking and bond formation events are intimately tied to changes in the electronic degrees of freedom. For more quantum biology examples, click here.

Finally in neuroscience there is a debate as to whether the brain is a quantum computer -- that the microtubules within neurons have the capability to perform quantum computation . Stuart Hameroff  believes that the tubulin subunits which make up a microtubule are able to cooperatively interact in a quantum computational sense.

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CRISPR is causing a major upheaval in biomedical research.  It is cheap, quick and easy to use, and it has swept through labs around the world as a result.

What is CRISPR? - it is an abbreviation for ‘clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats’. It was  initially found in bacteria as a resistance mechanism to foreign genetic material such as plasmids and phages.

CRISPRs are associated with cas genes that code for proteins related to CRISPRs —  Cas9 for instance  By delivering the Cas9 protein and appropriate guide RNAs into a cell, the organism's genome can be cut at any desired location. Researchers only need to order the RNA fragment; the other components can be bought off the shelf. Total cost: is as little as $30. This effectively democratises the technology so that anyone can use it.

Last year, bioengineer Daniel Anderson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and his colleagues used CRISPR in mice to correct a mutation associated with a human metabolic disease called tyrosinaemia. It was the first use of CRISPR to fix a disease-causing mutation in an adult animal — and an important step towards using the technology for gene therapy in humans.

What are the risks?

Many researchers are deeply worried that altering an entire population, or eliminating it altogether, could have drastic and unknown consequences for an ecosystem. They are also mindful that a guide RNA could mutate over time such that it targets a different part of the genome. This mutation could then race through the population, with unpredictable effects - the risk of the accidental release of an experimental gene-drive.

What is a gene-drive?

First let us look at how mutations are normally spread within  populations.

STD-1

With gene-drive the genetic change would spread rapidly throughout the population since at each mating the genetic change would occur in both parents.

GDI-1

For further information, the source article is: Nature 522, 20–24 (04 June 2015)

 

Smiley_Face

This is the last posting on the edX online course: The Science of Happiness. As well as providing video clips and written material about happiness, the course provided weekly 'happiness exercises' all based on research linking these practices to greater happiness. They are in keeping with the overall goals and philosophies of the Great Good Science Center: 

Here are the do-it-your-self practices or exercises that can help you on your way to greater happiness.

Happiness practice #1: Three good things
To be happier, spend 10 minutes every night remembering three good things that happened during the day. For each thing, write a title, details about the event (including how you felt then and now), and what caused it. This activity teaches us to seek out and savor positive things, and it’s been shown to increase happiness up to six months later.

Happiness Practice #2: Active listening
One practice that’s been shown to increase happiness is active listening. Take 15-30 minutes a week to have a conversation with someone you’re close to, and ask them to share what’s on their mind. As they’re talking, show attentive body language and don’t get distracted or interrupt them. Make sure you understand by paraphrasing what they’re saying and asking questions. Try to be empathetic and avoid pronouncing judgments. When they’ve finished talking, share something yourself.

Happiness practice #3: Random acts of kindness
Do five kind things – that you wouldn’t normally do – in a single day. To maximize the effects, make them all different and take time later to write down what you did and how you felt. The five kindnesses don’t have to be for the same person, and the person doesn’t even have to know about it (like feeding someone’s parking meter).

Happiness practice #4: Eight essentials when forgiving
Robert Enright detailed eight steps to forgiveness, beginning by making a list of people who hurt you who are worth forgiving. Then, you start with the least painful offense and take some time to think about how you suffered and how that makes you feel. When you’ve decided to forgive, you can start to think about the circumstances that led to the offense, including the offender’s childhood, past hurts, and other pressures they were under. Pay attention to whether you feel kinder toward the offender and consider giving them a small gift. In the end, you can reframe the experience and try to find meaning and purpose in what happened. Once you’re done, rinse and repeat for the more painful offenses on your list, working up to the most painful. This process has been shown to increase forgiveness and decrease anxiety and anger.

Happiness practice #5: Mindful breathing
Practice mindful breathing 15 minutes a day for a week or more. To do that, find a comfortable position and relax your body. Breathe naturally and start to notice where you feel your breath. Keep observing your breath; when your mind wanders, gently say to yourself “thinking” or “wandering” and bring your attention back to the breath. To come out of the exercise, notice your body again and feel grateful for the experience. This kind of mindful breathing helps us deal with stress and negative emotions and concentrate better. It’s been shown to elevate vagal tone and improve our ability to regulate our emotions, since it creates distance between ourselves and our thoughts and feelings.

Happiness practice #6: Body scan meditation
Three to six days a week for a month, spend 20-45 minutes doing the body scan meditation. In this exercise, focus on different parts of the body and notice any areas of tension or relaxation. Learn to be non-judgmental of our bodies, more accepting of any pain or discomfort rather than feeling bad about it. We may even learn to appreciate our bodies more and make healthier choices around them. The body scan incorporates observation and non-reaction, two aspects of mindfulness, and has been shown to improve psychological well-being.

Happiness practice #7: Self-compassionate letter
Write a letter to yourself about something you’re ashamed or insecure about. Describe how it makes you feel, and express compassion and understanding. If that’s difficult, try to imagine you’re writing to a loved one. Remember that everyone has flaws, and think about how life circumstances may have contributed to you developing this quality. Think about how you could improve or cope with it, and read the letter later when you’re feeling down. This practice has been shown to reduce shame and self-criticism while increasing motivation for self-improvement. Repeated over time, it can quiet our critical inner voice and cultivate a kind one.

Happiness practice #8: Best possible self
Take 15 minutes to write about a future life where everything is going as well as possible, from family and personal life to career and health. Be creative and specific, and focus on your potential rather than any past shortcomings. Doing this daily for two weeks has been shown to increase positive emotion, possibly because it helps us identify goals, feel more in control of our lives, and maybe even decide to change things.

Happiness practice #9: Gratitude journal
One to three times a week, spend 15 minutes writing about five things you’re grateful for (doing it daily doesn’t have the same effect for most people). It helps if you get into the habit of doing it at a certain time. To get the most out of it, focus on being specific and detailed instead of coming up with more things. If you need inspiration, think of the people you’re grateful for, any negative things you don’t have to deal with, and surprises in your life. Try to cultivate the attitude that good things in life are gifts. If you repeatedly list someone or something, focus on a different aspect of it. This practice works because it helps shift our focus from the obstacles and negatives of life to the positives. And actually writing things down gives them more emotional impact.

Happiness practice #10: Gratitude letter
Think of someone whom you haven’t properly thanked and spend 15 minutes writing them a 300-word letter. Explain how they helped you, what impact it had on your life, and why you’re grateful. Also mention what you’re doing now and how you remember what they did for you. The gratitude letter is most effective if you read it to them in person, but you can also do it over the phone or online. Set up a meeting but don’t tell them the exact reason for it. When the time comes, ask them to listen to the whole thing and then respond. As you read, observe their reactions and your own. Be open to having a conversation about it afterward, and give them the letter. The gratitude letter’s happiness boost lasts over a month but less than six months, so some researchers recommend you do it every six weeks. It’s so effective because it reminds you that people in the world are looking out for you and strengthens your bond with one of them.

Happiness practice #11: Writing about awe
Take 15 minutes to write in detail about an experience of awe. You might write about an encounter with nature, challenging ideas, art, an impressive speech or performance, or religion. This will boost your happiness because it helps put everyday troubles in perspective, gives you a sense of purpose and connectedness, and shakes up your routine ways of thinking.

Activity: Expressive writing
Spend 20 minutes, four days in a row, writing about your strong feelings, about a struggle in your life. Try to write without stopping, exploring how you’ve been affected and how it relates to important events and people in your life. Optionally, after four days, you can try writing about the struggle from the perspective of someone else involved. This exercise has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression; strengthen the immune system and reduce doctor visits; improve work and school performance; and increase happiness up to months later. The idea is that we regain control of the difficulties in our lives when we write and give structure to them, rather than being plagued by rumination.

Summary
Each individual will have their preferences as to which exercises best suit them, but the suggestion is to try some that may not initially appeal in order to discover the possibilities. For a quick fix: Active listening and Random acts of kindness are good places to start.

For more click here.