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The Complexity Matters blog features the Thursday Complexity Post as well as other complexity inspired news items.

 

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Dance and a "Talent for Unconscious Entrainment"

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, April 03, 2014

What is happening in that mysterious space between people who discover they have fine interpersonal chemistry?

tango dancers Suzanne Dikker, a cognitive neuroscientist at New York University, hopes dancing holds clues. She is using dance to investigate human brainwave synchronization and learn how it can happen. "NeuroTango" was hosted recently by the Greater New York City Chapter of the Society for Neuroscience as part of its Brain Awareness Week. It was also an opportunity for Dikker to get pairs of tango dancers to wear EEG headsets to measure their brain waves as they danced and thought about dancing. A Scientist.com story by Eli Chen describes Dikker's experiment.

Couples who were experienced dancing partners danced to music as they usually would. They then switched partners, so they were dancing with a new partner or someone less familiar. Next, they stood still with their original partners and imagined dancing. Dikker projected graphics onto the walls, showing when dancers' brains were in sync, and not. Other studies have shown that experienced dancers coordinate their movement differently from novices, and that both dancing and mentally rehearsing the dance stimulate similar brain activity.

Dikker said she is using the tango because the dancers perform fast, intricate movements that require exceptional coordination and the need to anticipate each other's every step, sway and twirl. In addition, leaders and followers have different mental tasks. She also hopes to learn whether the EEG can reliably measure brain activities of people who are moving. The Scientist story says Dikker had worked with Marina Abramovic on "Measuring the Magic of Mutual Gaze," at the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow in 2011. In that event, designed to examine empathy and nonverbal communication, Amramovic and volunteers sitting opposite her gazed into each other's eyes while EEG headsets captured their brain activities. In that case, the subjects were stationary.

Lawrence Parsons, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Sheffield, did a neuroimaging study of dancers in 2008. An article he co-authored for the Scientific American says coordinated dancing may not occur anywhere in the animal kingdom except among humans. "Our talent for unconscious entrainment lies at the core of dance, a confluence of movement, rhythm and gestural representation," the article says. "By far the most synchronized group practice, dance demands a type of interpersonal coordination in space and time that is almost nonexistent in other social contexts."

Lewis Hou, a research associate at the University of Edinburgh, is studying what happens in the brains of Scottish folk dancers as they perform. He praises NeuroTango as excellent science communication and a good way to engage the public in neuroscience. Hou will be participating in a science festival this April in Edinburgh where the dance performances will be partnered with scientific explorations.

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

From "Among School Children" by William Butler Yeats

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  music  neuroscience  research 

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Different Network Structures in Twitter Maps

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, March 27, 2014

Twitter conversations create identifiable networks that have structural differences depending on the topic and the influence of dominant individuals. The structures are created as participants in the network choose the people they answer, retweet, and mention in their own messages, according to the Pew Research Internet Project.

The Pew researchers found six identifiable network structures: divided, unified, fragmented, clustered, and inward and outward hub and spoke structures. The report summary contains explanations and examples of teach type.

People who tweet about political topics, for instance, tend to form divided structures, in the form of two separate and polarized conversational networks. Participants in these differing networks don't interact with each other and they rely on very different sources of information. In many controversial conversations participants in the networks that Pew identified as liberal or conservative cited very different websites and distinctly different words and hashtags. People in the liberal groups generally cited URLs for mainstream news outlets, whereas conservatives tended to cite URLs for conservative news and commentary websites, the report says. The report says the finding underscores the partisan nature of political tweeting and group reliance on different people and organizations as well as different news sources. It also shows the two groups usually ignore each other despite intense interest in the same topics.

Unified networks are tight crowds of highly interconnected people often joined together by professional interests and hobbies. These structures often show how networked learning communities work and how social media can foster sharing and mutual support. People who form Twitter groups based on their interests in brands, products or celebrities, tend to form fragmented networks because they focus on their interest, but don't usually connect with each other.

Clustered conversations often look like bazaars with many centers of activity, the report says. For instance, people interested in the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 307 could follow the news presented in several languages by several news outlets. Any global story, the report says, can generate multiple and diverse audiences that illustrate diverse opinions and perspectives.

Broadcast networks tend to form a hub and inward spoke structure, in which participants repeat and comment on the output of well known media outlets. Participants are often connected to and in conversation with the hub, not each other. Support networks, such asbusinesses trying to resolve customer complaints, create a hub and outward spoke structure, where the hub business sends replies and information to many disconnected users.

Social media is the new public square, Pew researchers say, and the network maps formed by Twitter conversations are like aerial photographs that show size, composition, and network locations that are analogous to positions of strategic importance in physical landscapes. These locations can help identify key people who influence social media conversations. Read the Pew Research Internet Project report for more information, illustrations of the maps, and further sources on network data and visualizations.

Thanks to Buck Lawrimore for pointing out this story.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  connection  systems 

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Army Women Create Mentoring Network

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Army is making more of its positions gender neutral but women are still a minority in the rank and file and an even smaller minority in leadership. The new Women's Mentorship Network at Fort Hood, Texas, is designed to move the numbers by cultivating capable, resilient female leadership.

Major Heather Gunther, communications officer for the 3d Brigade Combat Team, First Cavalry Division, sees mentorship as a professional responsibility. She recognizes the math problem: women make up only 17 percent of all active duty forces, and women are underrepresented in the brigade combat team of more than 4,500 soldiers. Those numbers will grow as the Army opens more previously closed positions to women-there could be more than 10,000 positions newly available to women by early next year, and as many as 90,000 in five years. Just a year ago, Major Gunther, a signal officer, could not have served at the Battalion level. Only a man could be the signal officer in a combat arms unit. The Fort Hood cavalry division was one of the pilot units for the Women in the Army research and is now leading the way in gender integration.

"When you look at that many soldiers, and recognize the relatively few women, you feel a real professional responsibility," Gunther said. "There are professional development groups for officers and Fortune 500 companies have employee engagement groups and networks. We wanted something powerful for women in the military."

Gunther and colleagues started by holding brown bag lunches where people could come voluntarily, on their own time, to examine issues women face aspiring to professional growth and leadership. "We had battle buddies up and down and across the installation asking 'can we come,' and before we knew it, there were circles of women meeting everywhere, wanting to expand the conversation to non commissioned officers and junior enlistees. We talked about mentorship, role models, challenges, opportunities, and psycho-social supports."

The Army has a long tradition of male mentoring, and many famed leaders were beneficiaries. Just to name a few, Major General Fox Connor, operations officer for the American Expeditionary Force during World War I, mentored Dwight Eisenhower. While Eisenhower was on his staff, Connor designed a course of study in which Eisenhower did extensive reading in military history and had daily practice writing field orders for every aspect of command. General George Marshall, the Army chief of staff when the U.S. entered World War II, mentored Omar Bradley, who eventually presided over the American D-Day landing on the beaches of Normandy.

Gunther notes that the Army's senior leadership has cited the need to create conditions and support that will help develop women leaders. She adds that some of her own best mentors have been men, and she wants the new group to empower men to join women in positive, informed discussions. To be inclusive and transparent, the Womens' Mentoring Network (WMN) is open to men and civilians as well as Army women. And as Gunther puts it, the organization has to be "scalable and starfishy." Before coming to Fort Hood, Gunther had been at the Army's general staff college at Fort Leavenworth. While there, she participated in a 2011 leadership development program with Ori Brafman, the author of The Starfish and the Spider, a book about successful organizations that are decentralized and adaptive. She also met Lisa Kimball, a former Plexus Institute president, organizational development leader and skilled facilitator, who has worked with the Army on leadership development. She conferred with both about the WMN and she and colleagues decided to infuse the new venture with some of the processes and practices that had inspired participants in the groups at Fort Leavenworth.

When WMN was launched in January, 60 women attended a clinic directed by Brafman, and since then 19 women have been trained as facilitators who know how to guide discussions and use such techniques as improv, and several Liberating Structures that can quickly identify crucial questions and issues even in a large group. Each facilitator hosts a one hour session according to her schedule, so participants can select the session best suited to their schedules and needs. Facilitators introduce the interactive exercises in ways designed to engage attendees as both mentors and mentees, depending on the situation. In that way, participants can develop relationships, form networks and share resources even when they are deployed.

While WMN members can bring up a range of issues, Gunther says, including controversial ones if they wish, facilitators help keep the discussions focused on professional development and leadership and at the same time maintain military values of respect, service and trust. While women's mentorship initiatives have formed at half a dozen Army bases, not all have generated wide support. One in Georgia that featured the slogan "divas in boots" and offered advice on household tips and couponing aroused the ire of military women who complained it was "too much June Cleaver and too little GI Jane." Gunther doesn't dismiss domestic concerns. She just wants the women in WMN to maintain the vision of career development and a support system that will eventually enrich the Armed Forces with experienced, confident women who are ready to lead when the opportunity arises.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  leadership  scaling 

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Complementary Commerce Reduces Ethnic Violence

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, March 13, 2014

In Indian Port cities that have enjoyed a long history of ethnic tolerance even as regions around them succumbed to violence, commerce may have provided the path to peace.

Saumitra Jha, an assistant professor of political economy at Stanford Graduate School of Business, who studies conflict among different social and ethnic groups, looked at the level of violence in medieval port cities in India, which tended to have greater ethnic diversity than other towns. He discovered that when differing groups provide each other with complementary goods and services, their cities are more peaceful.

He examined the history of Hindus and Muslims in South Asia, where they have interacted for more than 1,500 years. The two groups have done a lot of fighting, but they have also had peace, and Jha wanted to learn what conditions led to some long periods of tolerance and cooperation. His research showed that port cities were five times less prone to Hindu-Muslim riots between 1850 and 1950, and half as prone from 1950 to 1995. In the Gujarat state in India, port cities were 25 percent less likely than similar inland towns to experience violence in the ethnic rioting that swept the region in 2002. The medieval port city of Surat in Gujarat was peaceful during that upheaval.


When a minority group, or group not native to the area, provided goods or services that couldn't be duplicated, peaceful coexistence was likely. In a paper in the American Political Science Review, Jha wrote that seventeenth century Muslims had something Hindus wanted. They had transoceanic trade routes, developed through religious pilgrimages. For millions of Muslims from all over the world, the Hajj, an annual pilgrimage to Mohammed's birthplace in Mecca in Saudi Arabia, in a time-honored obligation. Jha writes that from the 700s through the 1800s the world's largest textile market was in Mecca during the Hajj. Ocean trade routes couldn't be stolen or replicated, Jha writes, so the Muslim dominance in Middle Eastern trade was valuable to Hindus, and made the two groups less prone to conflict.

Jha also found that institutions and organizations, especially those that emerged from historic ethnically diverse trade, can help counter conflict. For example, he writes, the Bhoras were Muslim traders who had promoted ethnic tolerance and community disaster relief as well as commerce through a well organized religious hierarchy. See Jha's paper on trade organizations and religious tolerance. The influence of such organizations is likely to have aided the historical and present day relatively peaceful coexistence of Muslim and Hindu in port cities in the Indian Ocean region. See a Stanford news release here.

image credit: ancient city of Surat from freelibrary.com

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture 

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Learning from Sleeping Bears

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, March 06, 2014

While bears hibernate through bitter cold winters, they don't eat, drink, or excrete, their kidneys shut down, their heart rate falls to a few beats a minute, their oxygen intake and blood flow plunge, and because they're living off their own mighty stores of fat, their cholesterol skyrockets. And when they wake up they're fine. They're not suffering from diabetes, hardening of the arteries or gall stones, and they haven't lost muscle or bone density.

Scientists think the mysteries of bear hibernation may have much to teach us about human health issues ranging from obesity to kidney disease to organ preservation and long distance space travel.

Kevin Corbit, a senior scientist at the biotechnology company Amgen calls hibernation by black bears and grizzly bears an "astonishing feat of evolution." In a New York Times story he explains that when bears halt their renal functions during hibernation, the result is badly scarred kidneys and levels of blood toxin that would kill a human. Yet full function is restored when the bear wakes, and scientists find no lasting damage. Before hibernation, bears eat and drink prodigiously, and quickly gain the weight and fat they'll need for their long sleep, which can last up to seven months. During hibernation, Corbit writes, bears become insulin resistant, making them in effect diabetic. Unlike diabetic humans, however, they maintain normal blood sugar levels. And again, when they wake up, their insulin responsiveness is restored.

At the top seasonal weight, male black bears can weigh up to 900 pounds and females can weigh up to 500 pounds.They may lose up to 30 percent of their body weight during hibernation. See a Nova report and a National Park Service piece on bear hibernation.

"Bears naturally and reversibly succumb to diabetes," Corbit writes. "Since we know when they make this switch, we hope to pinpoint how they do this."

The bears scientists have studied don't handle fat the same way humans do. It doesn't cause tissue inflammation in bears, and Corbit writes that bears store their excess winter weight harmlessly in fat tissue, rather in the liver and muscles as humans do. Corbit's research on bears, supported by his company, is focused on finding innovations in treating obesity. Hibernation itself is an adaptation to seasonal food shortages, extreme cold and snow. Millions of years of evolution has produced genetic adaptations that make fluctuating weight and obesity benign for bears. Corbit figures maybe scientists can figure out how to do that for humans.

A Science article by Sara Reardon says the mysteries of bear metabolism during hibernation could give doctors the ability to slow down the metabolism of accident victims, thereby extending the time when treatment is most effective. Findings could also help extend the preservation of organs for donation. Understanding how bear brains continue to function with low oxygen, and the mechanisms by which sleeping bears conserve their muscle and bone mass during months of inactivity could be useful in managing long term space travel.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  medicine  nature 

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Intuition and Technology: Out of Sync

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, February 27, 2014
Updated: Wednesday, February 26, 2014

BMW engineers were so successful in creating a silent automotive interior that customers complained. They missed engine roar and road noise. So BMW spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop an audio algorithm to generate engine noises to be played through the car's stereo system. BMW claimed its system accurately replicated engine sounds over the full range of RPMs, operating conditions and speed.

 

David Pizarro, an associate professor of psychology at Cornell, cites BMW's expensive reversal of its initial engineering achievement as an example of what happens when our intuition and our technology are out of sync. In fact, Pizarro argues that our social and moral intuitions increasingly fail us as we are confronted with fast-paced changes in science and technological innovation. In a lecture at Edge.org, Pizarro describes how subjects in an experiment on trustworthiness quickly engaged with a robot called Nexi that had very limited facial features and movements and visible wires. The robot, with its unmistakable mechanical appearance, had been programmed with nonverbal cues experimentally associated with trustworthiness.

 

"Within 30 seconds people were actually talking to Nexi as though she were a human being, in fact saying things that were quite private," Pizarro said. He added that some participants even thought Nexi was a technologically advanced talking robot, "when in reality there was a graduate student behind the curtain, so to speak." Pizarro quoted early psychological research indicating our social intuitions build in intentionality and agency, even when they're not there. During a discussion after the lecture, economist Sendhil Mullainathan, recalled stories in Everett Rogers' book Diffusion of Innovation, describing how people adopt new technologies in ways that are congruent with older intuitions. When Indian farmers started using tractors, for example, they went to the tractor every night and put a blanket over it.

 

We want to kick the vending machine that doesn't deliver the candy bar and bellow at the computer when Windows delivers the blue screen of death. We feel bad if a computer game stops playing with us. When we get those pop-up ads based on an earlier purchase or search, we get a creepy feeling that someone has been watching us and reading our email. And that's even when we know about algorithms that generate personalized ads.

 

"We don't have intuitions for algorithms," Pizarro said. "As technology advances, there is no way in which we can rapidly generate new intuitions. So...when we hear about self-driving cars, we get nervous, even though we're certain that percentage-wise this would reduce the number of traffic accidents. It just doesn't feel right." Pizarro fears some new technologies may be stifled by old intuitions that have evolved from earlier eras. We could end up making erroneous moral judgments about technological advances with the potential to cure diseases and improve lives. By the way, a Car and Driver story by K.W. Colwell explains BMW is not the only auto manufacturer to pipe fake sounds to the drivers.

 

Pizarro believes we have yet to define what constitutes an error in judgment in many areas of emerging technology. For instance, he asks, does the impersonal nature of drones and robots in war constitute an immoral action? Is the problem the lack of human agency? How does one figure out acts of omission vs. acts of commission when technical tools are involved?

 

What about genetically modified humans? The New York Times reports that with mitrochondrial manipulation technology, the nuclear material can be removed from an egg or an embryo of a woman who has an inheritable mitrochondrial disease and inserted into the healthy egg or embryo of a donor whose own nuclear material has been discarded. The resulting child would have the genetic material of three people. The federal Food and Drug Administration is considering the issue.  

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  technology 

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Chaotic Past Gave Us Human Diversity

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, February 20, 2014

Invading armies, the slave trade, merchant travel on the Silk Road, the flight of refugees and the rise and fall of ancient empires have left indelible traces in the lives of people today. Geneticists using new statistical techniques to unravel the surprising results of the world-wide mixing of human populations over the last 4,000 years have created a human genetic atlas published in the journal Science.


Genes tell stories of humanity's past. The Kalash people of Pakistan today have bits of DNA from an ancient European population. The Kalash and several other groups in the region are the likely descendants of soldiers of Alexander the Great, who invaded India in 326 BCE. The Arab slave trade is the likely source of segments of African origin in the genomes of people who live today in the southern Mediterranean and parts of the Middle East. That trade began in the seventh century, and many slaves were absorbed into host populations. European ancestral genes were probably brought to the Tu people of central China between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries by traders traveling the Silk Road. Scientists say the rise of the Mongol Empire and the invasion of Mongol hoards conquering new territories is one of history's most wide-spread population mixing events. Alterations in the human genome have emerged through centuries of the chaotic events we call history.

A team of scientists led by Simon Myers of Oxford University, Garrett Hellenthal of University College of London, and Daniel Falush of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany sampled genomes round the world and discovered they could identify 95 distinguishable populations.

While all humans have the same set of genes, a New York Times story by Nicholas Wade explains, our genomes are "studded with mutations, which are differences in the sequence of DNA units in the genome." Whole sets of mutations are passed from parent to child, so certain patterns become common in certain populations. When people from different populations marry, their children's genomes have big chunks of DNA from each parent's ancestry. The size of the chunks decreases with each successive generation, as the DNA of the parents' genome is swapped during the chemistry of reproduction. Geneticists looking at the size of the different chunks can calculate how many generations have passed since the introduction a new mutation. That allows them to identify an approximate date when the populations mixed.

The European colonization of America is recorded in the genomes of the Maya and Pima Indians, the story says, and the genomes of Cambodian populations record the invasion Tai people and the fall of the Khmer Empire in the fifteenth century. The English are known to have a rich history of ancestral invaders, but because they were genetically similar to the English, scientists have not yet been able to identify specific mixing events. While scientists who created the genetic atlas did not work with historians, they hope their discoveries will be useful in historical research and discovery. Read the Times story here. Read a Christian Science Monitor story here, an abstract of the Science story here and see an interactive map here.

A man is whole encyclopedia of facts. The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn, and Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America, lie folded already in the first man. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  research 

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Leaders Face New Challenges in a Networked World

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, February 13, 2014

The language of leadership often reflects hierarchy and elaborates distinctions between leaders and followers. The "great man" theory of history proposed by nineteenth century philosopher Thomas Carlisle still offers an appealing view of extraordinary men and women shaping and moving events through their own personal strength and charisma. Scholar and author Mila Baker, PhD, argues one of the most profound social shifts in recent years has been erosion of individual power and the rise of collective power enabled by technology and social media.

"We need a mindset and language of leadership that maintains equilibrium between leading and following-a conception of leadership that is agile and stateless in its composition," she writes in her new book Peer to Peer Leadership: Why the Network is the Leader. "Like the U.S. Constitution guides and influences the nation's trajectory without stifling the rights and freedoms of its populace, organizations' design needs to facilitate leading and following on an equal platform."

Dr. Baker isn't saying CEOs have no role. She is saying today's changing business world requires them to adopt new thinking and behavior. In the architecture of a peer to peer network community, every computer-or electronic device-represents a node. The network connects people and provides instant flow of information. All nodes within the network are equal participants in a larger whole, a concept Dr. Baker calls equipotency. Electronic technology is no longer just a tool in organizations. It changes the way we relate to one another. It enables information to be sent and received among peers working toward a common goal. Everyone leads and everyone follows. Dr. Baker tells of her own experience working in a psychiatric emergency room. Each individual had an equal opportunity to contribute, which was not defined by an individuals' role or position, but the need of the moment. "We shared power and authority-we followed and gave orders as necessary," she writes, all respecting each other's commitment to the wellbeing of patients. "In general, she says, "equipotency blurs the line between leader and follower, and at the same time clarifies the overall purpose within groups and organizations."

The dynamic action needed to respond to a situation, she says, "occurs at the intersection of art and science." That's the relational dynamic that develops within a network when all perspectives are heard, integrated and accounted for. The network becomes the leader, Dr. Baker writes, because actions are based on a consensus of needs.

So what is the paradigm for new leadership? Dr. Baker says leadership can only be demonstrated in the context of a relational dynamic. She describes leadership as a "dyad exchange structure." She says this kind of leadership is shown by "the catalytic action that occurs in the relational dynamic between two individuals working together toward a common goal." In organizations that have successfully evolved away from the Industrial Age individual-centered command and control model, dyad exchange structures will connect nodes-people-for the purpose of resolving polarities and innovating. Dr. Baker says these structures will strengthen the bonds among people, enable the network to do its work, and allow us to embrace technology "as an extension of our capacity to evolve as humans in a connected world." The connected world means we need to move beyond the idea that leadership is limited to individuals, and that information should flow mainly from boss to subordinate. Networked information in organizations means more openness and more agility. Hazards associated with increased openness can be mitigated by technology that quickly uncovers patterns and identifies risks.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  leaders  leadership  networks 

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Discovering Molecules that Influence Behavior

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, February 06, 2014

We humans have more in common with fruit flies than we might realize, and that's why research on these tiny insects can yield valuable clues about human genetics, illnesses and a wide range of social interactions. Researchers have even found that jilted male fruit flies turn to drink.


Scientists at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) discovered that when male fruit flies are rejected by female fruit flies they are driven to excessive alcohol consumption and will drink far more than their sexually satisfied peers. They also discovered that a tiny molecule in the fly's brain, called neuropeptide F, governs this behavior. Neuropeptides are a highly diverse class of signal molecules in the brain. The UCSF experiments showed that rejected male lies, whose brain levels of neuropeptide F were lowered, sought alternative rewards by drinking to intoxication when given access to alcoholic and non-alcoholic liquids. Successfully mated male flies, who had higher levels of neuropepetide F in their brains, were less likely to choose the intoxicant.

Ulrike Heberlein, who led the UCSF research and who is now scientific program director at the Janelia Farm research campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute has noted the research found a connection between the flies and mammals for a social behavior influenced by brain chemistry. It turns out that a similar human molecule, neuropeptide Y, may also be associated with social triggers that drive people to abuse alcohol and drugs.

Now scientists studying fruit flies are learning more about the brain activity that underlies male aggression. A New York Times story by James Gorman describes research by David J. Anderson, a California Institute of Technology neuroscientist who is running what the story calls a fruit fly fight club. He and colleague are studying the role of the neuropeptide tachykinin in male aggression. When neurons that produce tachykinin are silenced, researchers were able to decrease aggression in the files. The emergence of tachykinin is very interesting, the story says, because mammals have several different kinds of tachykinin, some of which have been associated with aggression in rodents and may have a variety of roles in human brain function. While the implications for humans is unclear, Dr. Anderson told The Times that "studying aggression in fruit flies can actually teach us something about some of the molecules that control aggression."

Researchers have known for some time that humans and Drosophila fruit flies have many of the same genes and use them in the same way. Many known human diseases have recognizable matches in the genetic code of the fruit fly. A University of Glasgow scientist studying kidney stones produced kidney stones in fruit flies-and noted that unlike humans, the flies didn't seem pained by them. Other researchers have noted that genes and pathways that regulate fruit fly life spans seem closely parallel to the genes that underlie human longevity.

The poet William Blake had all life, even tiny insects, in mind when he wrote "The Fly" in his Songs of Experience, His poem, in part, "Am I not/A fly like thee?/ Or art not thou/ A man like me?/For I dance,/ And drink, and sing,/ Till some blind hand/ Shall brush my wing."

Read The New York Times story here. A UCSF news story explains how scientists discovered the link between fruit fly sex, their altered brain chemistry, and links to a propensity for inebriation.

photo credit

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  nature  research 

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Researchers Tackle Orphan Genetic Disorders With Patient Powered, Crowd-Funded Science

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, February 03, 2014

Dr. Jimmy Lin has never forgotten one little boy he saw when he began his medical training in pediatrics at Johns Hopkins. The child was 5, developmentally delayed and suffering from inexplicable bouts of agonizing pain. His parents had taken him to top doctors all over the country. Despite test after test, none of them could identify what was wrong. The image of the parents pushing their son's wheelchair down the hall as they walked away remains burned into his memory.

"It was heartbreaking," he recalled, wondering where that family would go next. Dr. Lin had been doing cancer research, and he still does, but he was haunted by families struggling with so many other diseases no one was working on. With all the extraordinary medical advances, resources and sophisticated technology available today, he thought, there has to be a way to help such families. That personal perspective and the recognition of a gaping unmet need led Dr. Lin, a physician, computational geneticist and former faculty member at Washington University in St. Louis, to found the Rare Genomics Institute. It's an unusual organization he hopes will be a catalyst for treatments and cures of rare diseases, and it may also inspire new business models in the life sciences.

Dr. Lin says there are 7,000 rare diseases afflicting some 30 million Americans and 250 million people world-wide, and many are genetically based. "The ultimate dream is that we'd like to see cures for all these diseases," he said in a phone conversation. "The intermediate dream is that we can have research projects created and study all these rare diseases so they are on a path to therapy or cure. We don't want to see loving parents trying to find cures no one is looking for."

The RGI team began with Dr. Lin's appeal to friends and friends of friends who were interested in genetic research and excited about seeing it have impact. "We posted the idea on Facebook, saying I've got this problem to solve," Dr. Lin said. "A lot of scientific researchers don't get to see the results of what they are working on, so this is very attractive to scientists. It appeals to their humanity. I myself have been amazed at how many people-from all over the world-have come aboard." See the RGI team here. Dr. Lin says all the RGI scientists are unpaid volunteers. The organization itself runs on less than $10,000 a year, he says, but produces nearly $1 million a year worth of research because so much of the work is pro bono. See news stories on RGI's work and the children helped here.

The cost of DNA sequencing has dropped dramatically, but is still beyond the means of most families. Dr. Lin spoke with his friend David Lam, who worked at Razoo, one of the largest social networking sites for philanthropy, and they came up with ideas to help patients crowdsource funding for their own genetic research. Volunteers at a consortium of 18 universities analyze RGI patients' DNA looking for abnormalities that potentially cause their disorders. As reported by TED, Dr. Lin tells the story of Maya, a 4-year-old with severe developmental delays. Within six hours of a posting on the RGI site, people from all over the country had contributed small amounts adding up to $3,500, the cost of sequencing Maya's genome and those of her parents. Researchers at Yale then discovered a previously unknown mutation in a gene active in fetal development, and it may be the first crowd-sourced genetic discovery. "People are still working on a treatment for Maya," he told Plexus. "There are only a handful of cases where there would be an immediate cure, and those are amazing. The normal process of discovery is to understand a gene, understand what it does, then figure out if there is a drug that can treat the problem it causes." That can take lifetimes, he adds, but discoveries about genes begins the processes that can lead to treatments.

"We see ourselves as jetpacks for parents," he said. "We make it a little easier for them to connect with the right doctors, to leverage resources." Crowdsourcing funds fosters the democratization of science, in his view, and RGI provides a platform where patient communities can fund research for any disease. Rare diseases are a long tail problem, Dr. Lin says, and that means a bottom up approach with patients and scientists making discoveries is the most workable.

Dr. Lin points out many diseases, such a muscular dystrophy have been identified as genetic, yet not all who have those diseases have the genes known to cause them. More needs to be learned about genes. "We're starting to see more and more that there's not a one to one match of disease to gene," he says. "Often you're dealing with a group of diseases, or many gene mutations. A disease can have a specific label, but many different causes-it may present as one disease but really be a different disease. We can help with that if we can see potentially there is another underlying cause."

Read a Salon story, and a story in Forbes. Other news coverage appears in Bloomberg Businessweek and TIME. Join a PlexusCall from 1-2 PM ET February 28 with Dr. Lin and Trish Silber, president of Aliniad Consulting Partners.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  healthcare  research 

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