Friday, July 31, 2020

Inflammaging and COVID-19

I pass on the first paragraph from a Science Perspectives article by Akbar and Gilroy, and suggest that you have a look at the whole article.
Aging is associated with increased morbidity arising from a range of tissue dysfunctions. A common denominator of age-associated frailty is increased baseline inflammation, called inflammaging, that is present in older individuals. Recent studies have shown that the presence of excessive inflammation can inhibit immunity in both animals and humans and that this can be prevented by blocking inflammatory processes. This finding has important implications for the immunity of older individuals who are infected with pathogens such as severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) that induce overwhelming inflammation, which can be fatal, particularly in older people. Reducing inflammation may be a therapeutic strategy for enhancing immunity in older people.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Stepping backwards enhances cognitive control.

From Koch et al., some interesting work on the role of body locomotion in the recruitment of control processes.:
In the most fundamental and literal sense, approach refers to decreasing, and avoidance to increasing, the physical distance between the self and the outside world. In our view, body locomotion most purely taps into this fundamental nature of approach and avoidance. In everyday life, individuals typically approach desired stimuli by stepping forward and avoid aversive stimuli by stepping backward

...The idea that body locomotion may trigger approach and avoidance orientations has, so far, not been tested...we expected that stepping backward would increase the recruitment of cognitive control relative to stepping forward. To test this prediction, we gauged cognitive functioning by means of a Stroop task immediately after a participant stepped in one direction. The Stroop task requires naming the color in which stimulus words are printed while ignoring their semantic meaning, which is actually processed more automatically than the color. Cognitive control is required to override the tendency to respond to the semantic meaning and instead respond to the color.

...our study showed that stepping backward significantly enhanced cognitive performance compared to stepping forward or sideways. Considering the effect size, backward locomotion appears to be a very powerful trigger to mobilize cognitive resources. Thus, whenever you encounter a difficult situation, stepping backward may boost your capability to deal with it effectively.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Are you holding your breath?

Note; This is a repeat of a post that I did on Jan. 28, 2008. Its theme led me to develop a lecture titled "Are you holding your breath - Structures of arousal and calm." which is posted on my website.  The contents of the lecture are relevant to understanding the stress we are all feeling during the current COVID-19 pandemic.  

I notice - if I am maintaining awareness of my breathing - that the breathing frequently stops as I begin a skilled activity such as piano or computer keyboarding. At the same time I can begin to sense an array of unnecessary (and debilitating) pre-tensions in the muscle involved. If I just keep breathing and noticing those tensions, they begin to release. (Continuing to let awareness return to breathing when it drifts is a core technique of mindfulness meditation). Several sources note that attending to breathing can raise one's general level of restfulness relative to excitation, enhancing parasympathetic (restorative) over sympathetic (arousing) nervous system activities. These personal points make me feel like passing on some excerpts from a recent essay which basically agrees with these points: "Breathtaking New Technologies," by Linda Stone, a former Microsoft VP and Co-Founder and Director of Microsoft's Virtual Worlds Group/Social Computing Group. It is a bit simplistic, but does point in a useful direction.
I believe that attention is the most powerful tool of the human spirit and that we can enhance or augment our attention with practices like meditation and exercise, diffuse it with technologies like email and Blackberries, or alter it with pharmaceuticals...but... the way in which many of us interact with our personal technologies makes it impossible to use this extraordinary tool of attention to our advantage...the vast majority of people hold their breath especially when they first begin responding to email. On cell phones, especially when talking and walking, people tend to hyper-ventilate or over-breathe. Either of these breathing patterns disturbs oxygen and carbon dioxide balance...breath holding can contribute significantly to stress-related diseases. The body becomes acidic, the kidneys begin to re-absorb sodium, and as the oxygen and CO2 balance is undermined, our biochemistry is thrown off.

The parasympathetic nervous system governs our sense of hunger and satiety, flow of saliva and digestive enzymes, the relaxation response, and many aspects of healthy organ function. Focusing on diaphragmatic breathing enables us to down regulate the sympathetic nervous system, which then causes the parasympathetic nervous system to become dominant. Shallow breathing, breath holding and hyper-ventilating triggers the sympathetic nervous system, in a "fight or flight" response...Some breathing patterns favor our body's move toward parasympathetic functions and other breathing patterns favor a sympathetic nervous system response. Buteyko (breathing techniques developed by a Russian M.D.), Andy Weil's breathing exercises, diaphragmatic breathing, certain yoga breathing techniques, all have the potential to soothe us, and to help our bodies differentiate when fight or flight is really necessary and when we can rest and digest.

I've changed my mind about how much attention to pay to my breathing patterns and how important it is to remember to breathe when I'm using a computer, PDA or cell phone...I've discovered that the more consistently I tune in to healthy breathing patterns, the clearer it is to me when I'm hungry or not, the more easily I fall asleep and rest peacefully at night, and the more my outlook is consistently positive...I've come to believe that, within the next 5-7 years, breathing exercises will be a significant part of any fitness regime.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

“Design fiction” skirts reality to provoke discussion and debate

I want to suggest that readers have a look at David Adams Science and Culture essay in the June 16 issues of PNAS. Here is its beginning:
In October 2015, researchers presented an unusual paper at a computer science conference in London. The paper described the promising results of a pilot project in which a local community used surveillance drones to enforce car parking restrictions and to identify dog owners who failed to clean up after their pets. Controlled by four elderly retirees, the drones buzzed around the city and directed council officials on the ground.
The paper and its accompanying video generated lively discussion about the ethics and regulation of drone use among delegates at the CHI PLAY conference. But there was a catch: The paper, the video, and the pilot scheme were fictional, as the researchers admitted at the end of both the paper and the presentation.
The researchers had invented the scenario as a way to focus attention on how drone technology—a topic of study for some of the people in the room—could shape and change society. The team thought that presenting the idea as if it were real—for example, showing familiar street signs in the video warning drivers about a drone-controlled zone—would provoke discussion about a future in which such use of technology was considered mundane.
The practice is called design fiction. Originally used in product design, the approach is finding increasing use in scientific and medical fields as a way to explore the possible consequences of technological development. These projects are not so much experiments designed to test a hypothesis as they are orchestrated scenarios designed to provoke forward-thinking discussion and debate. From climate science and artificial intelligence to wearable technologies and healthcare, researchers are creating and sharing often dystopian tales about the near future. And they’re tracking people’s reactions to these scenarios to help reshape the way researchers conceive the technology they are developing.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Dynamic Views of MindBlog

In my review of old blog posts I've come across mention of a link I placed at the top right corner os this page...Dynamic Views of MindBlog, which disappeared at some point without my noticing it (was Blogger/Google trying to shut it down?, I dunno.), I've put it back in. If you click on the link you have the options of view Deric's MindBlo in Classic, Flipcard, Magazine, Mosaic, Sidebar, Snapshot, or Timeslide formats. Give it a try!

Followup on MindBlog's Istanbul lecture on our subjective "I"

Forgive me for inflicting my nostalgia trip on you as I do the following re-post from Oct. 18, 2010. 78 year old Deric is struck by the more grandiose professory gravitas of the 68 year old Deric.

A previous post has pointed to a web text version of the piano recital and lecture I gave at "Cognitive VII", an international cognitive neuroscience meeting held in Istanbul May 18-20 of this year. The organizers indicated they would send a video of the piano performance and lecture, and after a number of tries, I have finally received, and now posted,  a video. It is missing a short bit of audio just after the beginning, and unfortunately deletes the last part of the talk on emotions and the evolution of music.  Still, it gives you a taste of the setting.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Training internal resilience

I want to point to an interesting article by Eva Holland on relieving trauma, which is very relevant to the potential mental0health fallout from living through our current pandemic. Some clips describing a therapy called E.M.D.R., eye movement desensitization and reprocessing:
E.M.D.R. was developed in the late 1980s and greeted with much skepticism at first. “It sounded like yet another of the crazes that have always plagued psychiatry,” Bessel van der Kolk, a trauma expert, wrote in “The Body Keeps The Score.” But clinical trials and peer-reviewed studies that spoke to its efficacy piled up over the three decades since its invention, and Dr. van der Kolk and many others eventually adopted it as part of their therapeutic practice.
It works like this: A therapist prompts the patient to move their eyes back and forth, rhythmically, behind their eyelids. (Devices that beep or buzz help to encourage and regulate the eye movements.) At the same time, the therapist talks the patient through the traumatic event or events at issue, leading them through a series of questions about how their body is reacting to the discussion. It is a strange, and strangely physical, experience. The precise mechanisms at play are not fully understood, but the theory is that something about the eye motion, combined with the focused discussion, can lay the intrusive memories to rest.
E.M.D.R. taught me an important lesson: that internal resilience can be deliberately cultivated...I had never before thought of resilience as a muscle I could train and strengthen. The idea felt empowering.
In a reversal of this therapy, the therapist asks the client to recall four resources from their memories: a places where they have left safest and happiest, a nurturing figure, a protector, and a source of wisdom. The author reports:
As I held a vibrating pod in each hand, and as my eyes rolled back and forth behind my eyelids in time to their pulsing, following the vibrations from left to right and back again, I thought about my grandmother — my nurturing figure, who had died when I was 18. I pictured her at the open kitchen window of her suburban bungalow....The pods pulsed. My eyes moved from side to side. I felt loved and safe. To my surprise, I felt stronger, too. In the time since, I have sometimes called up those sensory memories of my grandmother when I’m upset, or when I feel in need of support. It always helps.
The article proceeds to discuss further techniques for cultivating resilience that do not involve paying a therapist.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

How we get stronger.

Gretchen Reynolds points to studies on weight lifting monkeys that show weight training initially prompts increases in muscle strength by increasing neural input to muscles via the reticulospinal tract. Only later do the muscles actually start to grow.

Significance Statement
We provide the first report of a strength training intervention in non-human primates. Our results indicate that strength training is associated with neural adaptations in intracortical and reticulospinal circuits, whilst corticospinal and motoneuronal adaptations are not dominant factors.
Following a program of resistance training, there are neural and muscular contributions to the gain in strength. Here, we measured changes in important central motor pathways during strength training in two female macaque monkeys. Animals were trained to pull a handle with one arm; weights could be added to increase load. On each day, motor evoked potentials in upper limb muscles were first measured after stimulation of the primary motor cortex (M1), corticospinal tract (CST) and reticulospinal tract (RST). Monkeys then completed 50 trials with weights progressively increased over 8-9 weeks (final weight ∼6kg, close to the animal’s body weight). Muscle responses to M1 and RST stimulation increased during strength training; there were no increases in CST responses. Changes persisted during a two-week washout period without weights. After a further three months of strength training, an experiment under anesthesia mapped potential responses to CST and RST stimulation in the cervical enlargement of the spinal cord. We distinguished the early axonal volley and later spinal synaptic field potentials, and used the slope of the relationship between these at different stimulus intensities as a measure of spinal input-output gain. Spinal gain was increased on the trained compared to the untrained side of the cord within the intermediate zone and motor nuclei for RST, but not CST, stimulation. We conclude that neural adaptations to strength training involve adaptations in the RST, as well as intracortical circuits within M1. By contrast, there appears to be little contribution from the CST.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Mindblog does another anti-aging experiment.

This is a repeat of a MindBlog post done Oct. 10, 2010, encountered during an on-and-off review I'm doing of old blog posts. Five comments on the post can be seen by clicking the link to the original post. I'm halfway tempted, it now being roughly 10 years later, to repeat the experiment.

I find myself both spooked and sparked by my second foray into anti-aging chemistry (the first being the unsuccessful resveratrol dalliance described in a previous post.) A colleague pointed me to work of Bruce Ames and collaborators (also here) which has led to the marketing by Juvenon of a dietary supplement containing Acetyl L-carnitine, alpha-lipoic acid, and the B-vitamin biotin. Experiments on rats show that these compounds reverse the age related decay in energy metabolism in mitochondria and also inhibit oxidative damage to mitochondrial lipids. So... the idea is that these supplements might energize and juice you up a bit.  The Juvenon supplement contains (per day) 600 mcg biotin, 2000 mg of acetyl-L-carnitine, and 800 mg of alpha lipoic acid.  I though $40 was a bit steep for a 30 day supply, and so I bought the equivalent supplements from Swanson Health Products for significantly less money.  I decided to take 600 mg of the carnitine/day, 1000 mg/day of the alpha lipoic acid,  and 1000 mcg/day of biotin,  half at breakfast, half at lunch (by the way, this is slightly less than 1% of the levels used in the rat experiments.) From the homework I have done so far, the levels of these supplements being taken have no documented adverse side effects.

The results?  Well.... sufficiently dramatic that I really can't credit that it is all a placebo effect,  because I go into any such experiment as an unbeliever... The first several days I felt a phase change, a  step up in energy level and kinetic energy that made me like a 20-something again, a bit incredulous, as in "whoa.. where did this come from."  With both brain and body feeling like an automobile engine running at 2,000 r.p.m. even when it was not in gear,  I cut the levels of the supplements by a half after three days.   After another three days of energy I didn't know what to do with,  generating what felt like excess brain and body "noise,"  I stopped the supplement,  deciding that my normal fairly robust daily routines (including daily gym work or swimming, running, or weights) apparently had all the energy they needed.

Any experiences or references from blog readers would be appreciated.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Our brain's chemistry of love neutralizes its chemistry of fear.

Arthur Brooks, in his biweekly Atlantic Column, offers some very sane comments on the underlying fear that virtually all of us experience, especially in this time of COVID-19. He notes several surveys that show an increase of 10-20% in fear, anxiety, and stress over the past 10-20 years. There will always be threats to face and things to fear, and his stance is that...
The way to combat fear within ourselves is with its opposite emotion—which is not calmness, or even courage. It’s love...The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote in the Tao Te Ching, “Through Love, one has no fear.” More than 500 years later, Saint John the Apostle said the same thing: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
Love neutralizes fear. It took about 2,000 years, but contemporary neurobiological evidence has revealed that Lao Tzu and Saint John were absolutely on the money...Fear is a primary emotion processed in the amygdala, a part of the brain that detects threats and signals to the body to produce the stress hormones that make us ready for fight or flight. This is largely involuntary, and, while necessary for survival, is unpleasant..The fear response is also maladapted to modern life. For example, a friend of mine with a large Twitter following once told me that he felt his chest tighten every day as he clicked on the social media app on his phone. His amygdala was alerting him that dangerous threats lay ahead, and he was getting a dose of adrenaline and cortisol in response—even though nothing was likely going to harm him.
However, we have a natural modulator of the hyperactive amygdala: the neuropeptide oxytocin, sometimes called the “love molecule.” Oxytocin is often produced in the brain in response to eye contact and touch, especially between loved ones. The feeling it creates is intensely pleasurable; indeed, life would be unbearable without it. There is evidence that an oxytocin deficit is one reason for the increase in depression during the coronavirus pandemic, with its lockdowns and social distancing.
Oxytocin has also been found to reduce anxiety and stress by inhibiting the response of the amygdala to outside stimuli. If you have loving contact with others, the outside world will seem less scary and threatening to you. What Saint John asserted is literally true: Perfect love drives out fear.
Brooks continues by noting many trends that over the past 20-30 years have decreased the amount of love in our lives, leading to an epidemic of loneliness.He then suggests concrete steps to bring more love into our lives by first sharing our fears with someone we trust, and by expressing you appreciation, affection or love for a friend or family member whom you would not normally address in this way.

Monday, July 20, 2020

A calming Brahms Romance for Monday afternoon.

Yet another item I've stumbled upon in my review of old MindBlog posts:

Urgent care for our brains.

I gave a Zoom lecture to the Austin Prime Timers group on May 17 titled "Urgent care for our brains" and thought I might as well point to the lecture text and graphics here on MindBlog. The text is informal, casual, and directed to our current situation with COVID-19.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Mindblog's back office has expanded

I want to introduce two new young MindBlog editorial assistants, Markus and Martin, three month old Abbysinian kittens who are in training to be the next generation after Marvin and Melvin, now 12 years old, who have been noted in numerous posts since their employment in summer of 2008.

Benefits of exercise on aging brain obtained without exercise - by plasma transfer.

There is a large literature on beneficial effects of exercise on brain health in agings adults such as improving memory and cognition. Mouse experiments by Horowitz et al. raise the possibility that affluent human couch potatoes might be able to obtain these benefits by receiving injections of plasma (blood without its cellular components) from people who have exercised. They transferred plasma from regularly exercising adult or aged mice to aged sedentary mice. This increased the formation of new hippocampal neurons, increased the concentrations of neurotrophic factors, and improved cognition in behavioral tests of the sedentary mice. Their abstract:
Reversing brain aging may be possible through systemic interventions such as exercise. We found that administration of circulating blood factors in plasma from exercised aged mice transferred the effects of exercise on adult neurogenesis and cognition to sedentary aged mice. Plasma concentrations of glycosylphosphatidylinositol (GPI)–specific phospholipase D1 (Gpld1), a GPI-degrading enzyme derived from liver, were found to increase after exercise and to correlate with improved cognitive function in aged mice, and concentrations of Gpld1 in blood were increased in active, healthy elderly humans. Increasing systemic concentrations of Gpld1 in aged mice ameliorated age-related regenerative and cognitive impairments by altering signaling cascades downstream of GPI-anchored substrate cleavage. We thus identify a liver-to-brain axis by which blood factors can transfer the benefits of exercise in old age.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

We navigate with stereo smell

From Wu et al.:

The human brain exploits subtle differences between the inputs to the paired eyes and ears to construct three-dimensional experiences and navigate the environment. Whether and how it does so for olfaction is unclear, although humans also have two separate nasal passages that simultaneously sample from nonoverlapping regions in space. Here, we demonstrate that a moderate internostril difference in odor intensity consistently biases recipients’ perceived direction of self-motion toward the higher-concentration side, despite that they cannot report which nostril smells a stronger odor. The findings indicate that humans have a stereo sense of smell that subconsciously guides navigation.
Human navigation relies on inputs to our paired eyes and ears. Although we also have two nasal passages, there has been little empirical indication that internostril differences yield directionality in human olfaction without involving the trigeminal system. By using optic flow that captures the pattern of apparent motion of surface elements in a visual scene, we demonstrate through formal psychophysical testing that a moderate binaral concentration disparity of a nontrigeminal odorant consistently biases recipients’ perceived direction of self-motion toward the higher-concentration side, despite that they cannot verbalize which nostril smells a stronger odor. We further show that the effect depends on the internostril ratio of odor concentrations and not the numeric difference in concentration between the two nostrils. Taken together, our findings provide behavioral evidence that humans smell in stereo and subconsciously utilize stereo olfactory cues in spatial navigation.
(By the way, a previous MindBlog post points to work showing binaral rivalry between the nostrils, analogous to the binocular rivalry that has been studied for over a century.)

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

The enlightenment returns.

 OhMyGawd..... I just came across the following MindBlog post from March 31, 2009, celebrating Obama's statement on restoring government guided by rationality and scientific integrity.  I pray that I can do do a similar post next March with Biden's name replacing Obama's.....

I have been almost reduced to tears of gratitude by Obama's statements on restoring an American government that is guided by rationality and scientific integrity rather than a conservative religious faith that distorts both. Kurt Gottfried and Harold Varmus (see below) write an editorial in Science Magazine that salutes this (Here is the President's memorandum):
The authors of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States were children of the Enlightenment. They understood the power that flows from combining human reason with empirical knowledge, and they assumed that the political system they were creating would thrive only in a culture that upheld the values of the Enlightenment. And thrive it did, in large part because our people and government upheld those values throughout most of U.S. history. Recently, however, the precepts of the Enlightenment were ignored and even disdained with respect to the manner in which science was used in the nation's governance. Dogma took precedence over evidence, and opinion over facts. Happily, as was made clear by two policy announcements by President Barack Obama on 9 March 2009, the break in the traditionally harmonious relationship between science and government is now ending

As the president put it, "promoting science isn't just about providing resources--it is also about protecting free and open inquiry … free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what [scientists] tell us, even when it's inconvenient--especially when it's inconvenient." In using the words "manipulation" and "coercion," the president was not speaking purely in the abstract; he was alluding to recent breaches of a code to which government must adhere if science is to play its proper role in advising the government on such complex issues as public health, climate change, or environmental protection. When the government systematically disregards this code, it undermines the historic role of science as a bulwark of an enlightened democracy.

In the president's Memorandum on Scientific Integrity last week, addressed to the heads of all executive departments and agencies, he directed those officials to neither suppress nor alter scientific and technological findings solicited in the process of policy formulation. He also asked that scientific information developed or used by the government be made readily available to the public. To put these directives in place, the president requested the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop, within 120 days, recommendations "designed to guarantee scientific integrity throughout the executive branch" and to ensure "that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda."
(Kurt Gottfried is a cofounder of the Union of Concerned Scientists and chair of its board of directors. He is professor of physics emeritus at Cornell University. Harold Varmus is president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, a cochair of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and a former director of the National Institutes of Health.)

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

How stress triggers inflammation

Acute stress seems to amplify inflammatory disease despite the fact many stress hormones such as cortisol actually suppress the immune system. Qing et al. show that this is because the rise in adrenaline (epinephrine) and norepinephrine levels during acute stress triggers the release of the pro-inflammatory cytokine interleukin-6 (IL-6) by brown fat cells. IL-6 is the signal for liver release of the glucose needed for the fight or flight response, but this comes at the cost of enhancing mortality to a subsequent inflammatory challenge. Here is their abstract:

• IL-6 is the dominant endocrine cytokine induced by acute stress in mice
• Stress-inducible IL-6 is produced in brown adipocytes via ADRB3 signaling
• IL-6 is required for stress hyperglycemia and adaptive “fight or flight” responses
• Stress-induced IL-6 decreases tolerance to a subsequent inflammatory challenge
Acute psychological stress has long been known to decrease host fitness to inflammation in a wide variety of diseases, but how this occurs is incompletely understood. Using mouse models, we show that interleukin-6 (IL-6) is the dominant cytokine inducible upon acute stress alone. Stress-inducible IL-6 is produced from brown adipocytes in a beta-3-adrenergic-receptor-dependent fashion. During stress, endocrine IL-6 is the required instructive signal for mediating hyperglycemia through hepatic gluconeogenesis, which is necessary for anticipating and fueling “fight or flight” responses. This adaptation comes at the cost of enhancing mortality to a subsequent inflammatory challenge. These findings provide a mechanistic understanding of the ontogeny and adaptive purpose of IL-6 as a bona fide stress hormone coordinating systemic immunometabolic reprogramming. This brain-brown fat-liver axis might provide new insights into brown adipose tissue as a stress-responsive endocrine organ and mechanistic insight into targeting this axis in the treatment of inflammatory and neuropsychiatric diseases.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Gay scientists isolate christian gene.

 Another of my old posts, from March 18, 2009:

My thanks to friend Mark Weber for bringing this satire to my attention.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Nearest neighbors shape educational attainment regardless of class origin.

From Hedefalk and Dribe:

Much neighborhood research has focused on contemporary and segregated cities in the United States, but less on small and more homogenous cities. Additionally, neighborhood conditions are often estimated using administrative borders, which bias results. We adopt a long-term perspective on the importance of childhood neighbors, using more realistic methods of neighborhood conditions. We estimate individual neighborhoods at the address level, using geocoded longitudinal microdata (1939 to 2015) for a medium-sized Swedish town. We show that even when growing up in an economically relatively equal population, when higher education expanded greatly, the social class of the nearest childhood neighbors was important for educational achievements, regardless of social class and schools. Associations are strongest for boys, but with similar patterns across genders.
We study the association between sociospatial neighborhood conditions throughout childhood and educational attainment in adulthood. Using unique longitudinal microdata for a medium-sized Swedish town, we geocode its population at the address level, 1939 to 1967, and link individuals to national registers, 1968 to 2015. Thus, we adopt a long-term perspective on the importance of nearby neighbors during a period when higher education expanded. Applying a method for estimating individual neighborhoods at the address level, we analyze the association between the geographically weighted social class of the nearest 6 to 100 childhood neighbors (ages 2 to 17), and the likelihood of obtaining a university degree by age 40, controlling for both family social class and school districts. We show that even when growing up in a town with relatively low economic inequality, the social class of the nearest same-age neighbors in childhood was associated with educational attainment, and that the associations were similar regardless of class origin. Growing up in low-class neighborhoods lowered educational attainment; growing up in high-class neighborhoods increased attainment. Social class and neighborhoods reinforced each other, implying that high-class children clustered with each other had much higher odds of obtaining a university degree than low-class children from low-class neighborhoods. Thus, even if all groups benefited from the great expansion of free higher education in Sweden (1960s to 1970s), the large inequalities between the classes and neighborhoods remained unchanged throughout the period. These findings show the importance of an advantageous background, both regarding the immediate family and the networks of nearby people of the same age.

Thursday, July 09, 2020

An interlude of Grieg's Lyric Pieces

Almost every afternoon around 4 p.m. I open up my Steinway B and read some piano scores stored on my iPad. It takes very little effort to do a video of the playing using my iPhone with a small condenser microphone plugged into its usb port. Here are a few of the starting pieces in Grieg's Lyric Pieces series.

Lower socioeconomic status and the acceleration of aging.

An analysis from Steptoe and Zaninotto, who show that lower wealth correlates with accelerated aging independently of the presence of health conditions:

Lower socioeconomic status (SES) is a determinant of many of the health problems that emerge at older ages. The extent to which lower SES is associated with faster decline in age-related functions and phenotypes independently of health conditions is less clear. This study demonstrates that lower SES (defined by wealth) is related to accelerated decline over 6 to 8 y in 16 outcomes from physical, sensory, physiological, cognitive, emotional, and social domains, independently of diagnosed health conditions, self-rated health, education, and other factors. It provides evidence for the pervasive role of social circumstances on core aging processes and suggests that less affluent sectors of society age more rapidly than more privileged groups.
Aging involves decline in a range of functional abilities and phenotypes, many of which are also associated with socioeconomic status (SES). Here we assessed whether lower SES is a determinant of the rate of decline over 8 y in six domains—physical capability, sensory function, physiological function, cognitive performance, emotional well-being, and social function—in a sample of 5,018 men and women aged 64.44 (SD 8.49) y on average at baseline. Wealth was used as the marker of SES, and all analyses controlled for age, gender, ethnicity, educational attainment, and long-term health conditions. Lower SES was associated with greater adverse changes in physical capability (grip strength, gait speed, and physical activity), sensory function (sight impairment), physiological function (plasma fibrinogen concentration and lung function), cognitive performance (memory, executive function, and processing speed), emotional well-being (enjoyment of life and depressive symptoms), and social function (organizational membership, number of close friends, volunteering, and cultural engagement). Effects were maintained when controlling statistically for other factors such as smoking, marital/partnership status, and self-rated health and were also present when analyses were limited to participants aged ≤75 y. We conclude that lower SES is related to accelerated aging across a broad range of functional abilities and phenotypes independently of the presence of health conditions and that social circumstances impinge on multiple aspects of aging.

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Exaggerated meta-perceptions predict intergroup hostility between American political partisans

An interesting study from Moore-Berg et al. showing that Democrats think (have the meta-perception) that Republicans view them more negatively than they actually do, and vice versa. The bottom line is that "partisan meta-perceptions are subject to a strong negativity bias with Democrats and Republicans agreeing that the shadow of partisanship is much larger than it actually is, which fosters mutual intergroup hostility."

Although much current research highlights differences between political partisans, our research provides evidence that strong partisan biases in meta-perceptions are largely symmetrical for Democrats and Republicans. This suggests that biased meta-perceptions are a consequence of shared psychology rather than merely a consequence of divergent ideological convictions. Meta-perceptions represent evaluations that are distinct from perceptions at a core psychological level: While negative perceptions, such as dehumanization, can be thought of as offensive or reprehensible, meta-perceptions are inferences about what others think and can, therefore, be false. The theoretical distinctions between perceptions and meta-perceptions suggest that practical approaches to reducing negative meta-perceptions may be distinct from those that aim to reduce negative perceptions.
People’s actions toward a competitive outgroup can be motivated not only by their perceptions of the outgroup, but also by how they think the outgroup perceives the ingroup (i.e., meta-perceptions). Here, we examine the prevalence, accuracy, and consequences of meta-perceptions among American political partisans. Using a representative sample (n = 1,056) and a longitudinal convenience sample (n = 2,707), we find that Democrats and Republicans equally dislike and dehumanize each other but think that the levels of prejudice and dehumanization held by the outgroup party are approximately twice as strong as actually reported by a representative sample of Democrats and Republicans. Overestimations of negative meta-perceptions were consistent across samples over time and between demographic subgroups but were modulated by political ideology: More strongly liberal Democrats and more strongly conservative Republicans were particularly prone to exaggerate meta-perceptions. Finally, we show that meta-prejudice and meta-dehumanization are independently associated with the desire for social distance from members of the outgroup party and support for policies that harm the country and flout democratic norms to favor the ingroup political party. This research demonstrates that partisan meta-perceptions are subject to a strong negativity bias with Democrats and Republicans agreeing that the shadow of partisanship is much larger than it actually is, which fosters mutual intergroup hostility.

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Brain correlates of the muting of our emotions as we age.

 (This is a re-post of the MindBlog post of Oct. 1, 2008, as relevant today as then.)

My boyfriend in the early 19980’s was a pharmacy graduate student whose t-shirt read “Drugs are my life.” If I were to wear such a t-shirt now it would read “Hormones and neurotransmitters are my life.” I increasingly feel that all this verbal stuff we do - chattering in person or in the electronic ether, writing blogs, etc. - is a superficial veneer, noise on top of what is really running the show, which is the waxing and waning of hormones and neurotransmitters directed by an “it”, a martian inside us utterly running its own show. These compounds regulate our assertiveness versus passivity , our trust versus mistrust, our anxiety versus calm, our pleasure during antipication and reward. (They function, respectively, in neural systems that use testosterone, oxytocin, adrenaline, and dopamine.). The swings in these systems become less dramatic as we 'mellow' with aging.

Dreher et al. have published an interesting bit of work that deals specifically with the muting of the intensity of the pleasures we feel during anticipation and reward, in their article on “Age-related changes in midbrain dopaminergic regulation of the human reward system.” Their data show what is going on as we experience less excitement at opening a present when we are 60 than when we are 10 years old. There are changes in the brain's production of dopamine, which plays a central role in our reward system, as well as in which parts of the brain respond to it, and by how much they respond. (a recent brief article on dopamine and the reward system of the brain is here.) Here is their abstract, followed by a figure from the paper.
The dopamine system, which plays a crucial role in reward processing, is particularly vulnerable to aging. Significant losses over a normal lifespan have been reported for dopamine receptors and transporters, but very little is known about the neurofunctional consequences of this age-related dopaminergic decline. In animals, a substantial body of data indicates that dopamine activity in the midbrain is tightly associated with reward processing. In humans, although indirect evidence from pharmacological and clinical studies also supports such an association, there has been no direct demonstration of a link between midbrain dopamine and reward-related neural response. Moreover, there are no in vivo data for alterations in this relationship in older humans. Here, by using 6-[18F]FluoroDOPA (FDOPA) positron emission tomography (PET) and event-related 3T functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in the same subjects, we directly demonstrate a link between midbrain dopamine synthesis and reward-related prefrontal activity in humans, show that healthy aging induces functional alterations in the reward system, and identify an age-related change in the direction of the relationship (from a positive to a negative correlation) between midbrain dopamine synthesis and prefrontal activity. These results indicate an age-dependent dopaminergic tuning mechanism for cortical reward processing and provide system-level information about alteration of a key neural circuit in healthy aging. Taken together, our findings provide an important characterization of the interactions between midbrain dopamine function and the reward system in healthy young humans and older subjects, and identify the changes in this regulatory circuit that accompany aging.

Legend (click on figure to enlarge). Statistical t maps of the within-groups effects in the different phases of the reward paradigm. (A) (Left) Main effect of anticipating reward in young subjects during the delay period, showing activation in the left intraparietal cortex, ventral striatum, caudate nucleus, and anterior cingulate cortex. (Right) Main effect of anticipating reward in older subjects during the delay period, showing activation in the left intraparietal cortex only. The glass brain and the coronal slice indicate that no ventral striatum activity was observed in older subjects. (B) (Left) Main effect of reward receipt in young subjects at the time of the rewarded outcome showing activation in a large bilateral prefronto-parietal network. (Right) Main effect of reward receipt in older subjects at the time of the rewarded outcome showing bilateral prefronto-parietal activation.

Monday, July 06, 2020

For a tranquil start to your week, Debussy with flowers

In my slow cruising through old MindBlog posts, I just came across the following post from Monday, March 2, 2009.....perhaps a faintly calming antidote to our current uncertain times. Enjoy:

I got an email from the fellow who made this video asking if he could use my YouTube videorecording of the Debussy Reverie. I said 'sure, go ahead'.... I'm not too keen on the electronic 'enhancements' he added to my basic piano track to make the first half of the video, but here it is...

Some rambling on "Selves" and "Purpose"

I've decided to re-post the following text from a MindBlog post of Oct. 9, 2007, which I found while cruising old posts. A bit terse and disjointed, but I like the general sentiments.
Self conscious "Purpose" of the sort we humans experience, in the service of crafting new political movements or environments, is an evolved psychology that (sometimes) helps pass on our genes, and requires our distinctively human self reflective "I". Our behavior and that of other animals also reflects a kind of purpose that has been formed by our evolutionary and developmental history. In other animals such behaviors are acted out on the cusp of an eternal present - there is no evidence that they "know that they know" in the way that we can.
Both modern neuroscience and Buddhist psychology inform us that the self and the purpose that each of us experiences is an illusion or confabulation of our brains - hopefully a useful one - whose utility is tested by how it enhances our energy and individual survival. This 'illusion' is a powerful instrument of downward causation, regulating our psychological, immune, neuro-endocrine robustness.
What is especially amazing is that our human body/brain can sometimes use meditative or other techniques to bootstrap to a level of metacognition that rests antecedent to - and can be the detached observer of - the generation of this illusion of a self and its purposes.
The maximum power of our self illusion, for most of us, goes with our heartfelt immersion and belief in it (i.e., our delusion). From such a immersion, it can be more difficult to discern or appreciate the different selves and purposes of other humans, and their cultures and historical eras.

Friday, July 03, 2020

Which way are you wagging your tail?

Blakeslee writes a review (PDF here) of work by Vallortigara et al (PDF here) on emotional asymmetric tail wagging by dogs that is a further reflection of lateralized functions of the brain. Some edited clips from her article:
In most animals, including birds, fish and frogs, the left brain specializes in behaviors involving what the scientists call approach and energy enrichment. In humans, that means the left brain is associated with positive feelings, like love, a sense of attachment, a feeling of safety and calm. It is also associated with physiological markers, like a slow heart rate.

At a fundamental level, the right brain specializes in behaviors involving withdrawal and energy expenditure. In humans, these behaviors, like fleeing, are associated with feelings like fear and depression. Physiological signals include a rapid heart rate and the shutdown of the digestive system.

Because the left brain controls the right side of the body and the right brain controls the left side of the body, such asymmetries are usually manifest in opposite sides of the body. Thus many birds seek food with their right eye (left brain/nourishment) and watch for predators with their left eye (right brain/danger).

In humans, the muscles on the right side of the face tend to reflect happiness (left brain) whereas muscles on the left side of the face reflect unhappiness (right brain).

Dog tails are interesting...because they are in the midline of the dog’s body, neither left nor right. So do they show emotional asymmetry, or not?

Vallortigara et al show that when dogs were attracted to something, including a benign, approachable cat, their tails wagged right, and when they were fearful, their tails went left. It suggests that the muscles in the right side of the tail reflect positive emotions while the muscles in the left side express negative ones.

Brain asymmetry for approach and withdrawal seems to be an ancient trait..Thus it must confer some sort of survival advantage on organisms.

Animals that can do two important things at the same time, like eat and watch for predators, might be better off. And animals with two brain hemispheres could avoid duplication of function, making maximal use of neural tissue.

The asymmetry may also arise from how major nerves in the body connect up to the brain... Nerves that carry information from the skin, heart, liver, lungs and other internal organs are inherently asymmetrical, he said. Thus information from the body that prompts an animal to slow down, eat, relax and restore itself is biased toward the left brain. Information from the body that tells an animal to run, fight, breathe faster and look out for danger is biased toward the right brain.
(This is a re-posting of the MindBlog post of 4/27/2007, material as interesting and fresh today as it was then.)

Thursday, July 02, 2020

Response to climate change...."Managed Retreat"

This PNAS Core Concepts article by John Carey is worth a read. Here is its beginning:
As climate change causes seas to rise and fuels ever-stronger storms and droughts, humanity faces a stark choice. Communities can seek shelter from rising waters and battering storm surges by building fortifications such as the sea walls planned in Boston or Miami. Or people can figure out how to live with the new climate reality, such as by perching homes on 10-foot stilts on the North Carolina coast to stay high and dry above surging storm waves. Or they opt for a third option that’s increasingly getting attention: “managed retreat” away from the problem area. Managed retreat is “the purposeful, coordinated movement of people and assets out of harm’s way,”
Carey notes historical examples of moving entire towns or neighborhoods to safety away from high water or highway construction...
So what’s different now? Put simply, climate change. Sea levels could climb as much as six feet or more by century’s end, inundating hundreds of coastal cities, and intense storms and floods, heat waves, and wildfires are already striking communities around the globe. Unlike in the past, the number of people who will be forced to move is likely in the hundreds of millions—more than 300 million globally by 2050 just from sea level rise alone—according to new, more precise measurements of land heights that show that more people than previously thought are living just a few feet above sea level. To meet that staggering challenge, the historical pattern of relocations—typically just a few homes at a time, largely ad hoc, and almost invariably after a disaster has left a trail of damage and destruction—is woefully inadequate, researchers say. Relocations now and in the future must be many orders of magnitude larger in number and size, and, ideally, proactive rather than reactive. That means a tremendous increase in the need for managed retreat.

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Five Epic Crises All at Once - David Brooks

I've been preparing a few summaries for a meeting this coming Sunday of The Austin Rainbow Forum, a senior group that discusses current topics and ideas. The topic for the meeting is "Possible Futures - The World after Coronavirus." I thought I would pass on what I'm putting in a slide showing a truncated version of David Brooks' recent Op-Ed piece in the NYTimes. His five epic crises:
1 - we are losing the fight against Covid-19. Our behavior doesn’t have anything to do with the reality around us. We just got tired so we’re giving up.
2 - Americans... are undergoing a rapid education on the burdens African-Americans carry every day...already public opinion is shifting with astonishing speed.
3 - we’re in the middle of a political realignment. The American public is vehemently rejecting Donald Trump’s Republican Party.
4 - a quasi-religion, Social Justice, is seeking control of America’s cultural institutions...Viewpoints are not explorations of truth, but weapons that dominant groups use to maintain their place in the power structure. Words can thus be a form of violence that has to be regulated.
5 - we are on the verge of a prolonged economic depression.
The Social Justice methodology is ultimately not a solution to our problem, it’s a symptom of our problem. Over the last half century, we’ve turned politics from a practical way to solve common problems into a cultural arena to display resentments. Donald Trump is the ultimate performer in this paralyzed arena.
...thank God that Joe Biden is going to be nominated by the Democratic Party. He came to public life when it wasn’t about performing your zeal, it was about crafting coalitions and legislating. He exudes a spirit that is about empathy and friendship not animosity and canceling. The pragmatic spirit of the New Deal is a more apt guide for the years ahead than the spirit of critical theory symbology.