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Brain Research

Scouring the internet for the latest brain studies and research reported on in medical journals and other sources, I found a recent study on the effects of cell phones. While the claims of an increase in brain cancer from microwaves emitted by cell phones have been partially refuted (or at least are still hotly debated and therefore probably minimal), there is a new risk to consider. More on that below.

Following that report, I also have some notes on whether people in a vegetative state are really unaware. Then there are two studies that look at religious or spiritual aspects of the brain. Those are sure to upset a few people (sometimes we just don't want a scientific explanation of things), but they are interesting nonetheless.

Cell Phones and Brainpower

The more recent studies or compilations of results from previous brain research, suggest that perhaps the concerns over brain cancer from cell phones may have been premature or at least overblown. The debate continues in any case, but now there is a new risk we may be facing from using cell phones. The Journal of the American Medical Association recently reported on a study which links cell phone use to changes in brain metabolism. According to an article in Discover Magazine;

Lead author Nora Volkow, a psychiatrist at the National Institute on Drug Abuse of the National Institutes of Health, recruited 47 healthy volunteers and used positron emission tomography (PET) scans to measure glucose metabolism in the brain while cell phones were placed over the right or left ear. She found that 50-minute cell phone calls increased metabolism in the regions closest to the phone antenna—specifically, the orbitofrontal cortex and temporal pole, which are involved in sensory integration, language, decision making, and social and emotional processing. Volkow has other studies underway to determine how long the stimulating effects persist.

It isn't clear if this can lead to neurocognitive damage, since it could take years for such problems to show up. One thing worth noting here is the 50-minute cell phone calls tested. Personally i do not ever talk for that long on a cell phone. Perhaps is there are any negative effects they are minimized by keeping calls short.

A Vegetable?

It is common to refer to a non-responsive patient in a hospital as a "vegetable" if he or she has been in that state for a long time. But new research suggests that many who are presumed to be in a vegetative state may be conscious and alert. It may be possible to tell which ones are conscious now, according to work done by neuroscientist Melanie Boly of the Cyclotron Research Center in Belgium. Again, from Discover Magazine;

To seek the neural pattern for consciousness, Boly and her colleagues measured brain activity in vegetative, minimally conscious, and healthy subjects while playing a series of tones. Normally the brain reacts by sending information from the temporal cortex to the frontal cortex (a center of higher-order thought) and back in a loop. Boly found that the healthy and minimally conscious subjects showed neural activity throughout the complete loop, while truly vegetative ones did not. If the finding is confirmed, it could allow doctors to focus treatment on patients wrongly diagnosed as vegetative.

I hope that if this work leads to identification of conscious patients who seem non-responsive that we can then find a way to communicate with them.

The Psychological Benefits of Religion

Does religious thought help one's elf control? That's what recent research from Queen's University in Canada indicates. According to an article in Science Daily;

Study participants were given a sentence containing five words to unscramble. Some contained religious themes and others did not. After unscrambling the sentences, participants were asked to complete a number of tasks that required self-control -- enduring discomfort, delaying gratification, exerting patience, and refraining from impulsive responses.

Participants who had unscrambled the sentences containing religious themes had more self-control in completing their tasks.

The study, published in Psychological Science, was headed by Kevin Rounding, a psychology graduate student at Queens. Rounding noted that;

"Our most interesting finding was that religious concepts were able to refuel self-control after it had been depleted by another unrelated task," says Mr. Rounding. "In other words, even when we would predict people to be unable to exert self-control, after completing the religiously themed task they defied logic and were able to muster self-control."

The Sacred and the Brain

A study done at the Center for Neuropolicy at Emory University found that what we consider sacred is treated differently in the brain. The thinking which goes into normal decision making, in which costs and benefits are weighed, is handled in one part, while decisions involving more important personal or "sacred" values are processed in other parts of the brain. The study, headed by Gregory Berns and first published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, was reported on by Science Daily;

Sacred values prompt greater activation of an area of the brain associated with rules-based, right-or-wrong thought processes, the study showed, as opposed to the regions linked to processing of costs-versus-benefits.

Berns headed a team that included economists and information scientists from Emory University, a psychologist from the New School for Social Research and anthropologists from the Institute Jean Nicod in Paris, France. The research was funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the National Science Foundation.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to monitor the brain responses of participants as they were shown various statements. As the article explains;

...In the first phase, participants were shown statements ranging from the mundane, such as "You are a tea drinker," to hot-button issues such "You support gay marriage" and "You are Pro-Life." Each of the 62 statements had a contradictory pair, such as "You are Pro-Choice," and the participants had to choose one of each pair.

At the end of the experiment, participants were given the option of auctioning their personal statements: Disavowing their previous choices for actual money. The participants could earn as much as $100 per statement by simply agreeing to sign a document stating the opposite of what they believed. They could choose to opt out of the auction for statements they valued highly.

We used the auction as a measure of integrity for specific statements," Berns explains. "If a person refused to take money to change a statement, then we considered that value to be personally sacred to them. But if they took money, then we considered that they had low integrity for that statement and that it wasn't sacred."

Given that this was an experiment rather than an actual decision-making situation or a context in which such "lying" would hurt someone, I personally would have disavowed all statements for the money. But then, I do not consider words themselves to be sacred.

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