More Brainless Science

In the 21st century, immortality beckons from several directions: cybernetics, artificial intelligence, telomere extension and cell therapy, maybe even an afterlife. But most of humanity’s hope to transcend death revolves around the brain, as the manifestation of our memories and personality. On Pharyngula, PZ Myers considers the merits of new efforts to master the brain, such as a “cryonic brain preservation technique” that promises to preserve your dead gray matter for a future generation. PZ used to prepare tissue for microscopy in the same way: “I was chemically nuking all the proteins in the tissue; I was washing out most of the chemistry; I was destroying most of the physiological information to preserve a structural skeleton of what was there.” He concludes the pattern of synaptic connections is not sufficient to reconstitute a mind. In another post, PZ criticizes a researcher who could not get approval to surgically implant electrodes in human brains, and so had them implanted in his own. PZ writes, “Transhumanists might dream of some amazing Prigogenic leap that abruptly makes their cyborg aspirations reality, but it’s not going to happen that way.” You can read more about brainless science here.

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Zeroing in on Zika and Microcephaly

On The Pump Handle, Liz Borkowski reports on a “public health nightmare” in Brazil that threatens to become more common around the world. The culprit is a virus called Zika, known to cause mild infections since 1947 but now “linked to nearly 4,000 cases of microcephaly – infants born with abnormally small brains and heads.” On Aetiology, Tara C. Smith writes that the link between Zika and microcephaly is not conclusive, and explains how scientists will search for a definite relationship. In the meantime, officials in Brazil and other South American countries are telling women to postpone becoming pregnant. On Respectful Insolence, Orac writes “there’s enough evidence there to raise justified concerns, but there’s an incredible amount of uncertainty, and humans tend not to deal with uncertainty very well at all.”

Zika, which is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, is newly prevalent in South America, and threatens regions as far north as Florida and the southeastern United States. Barring eradication and/or manipulation of mosquito populations, Zika is set to spread, as climate change warms temperate latitudes. Orac notes that medical science is unprepared to protect humans from the virus itself; there has no historical incentive to develop a vaccine for Zika because the primary symptoms are so mild. But now Zika and associated cases of microcephaly will attract a lot of scientific resources, as well as a lot of conspiracy mongering—documented by Orac and Tara C. Smith on Aetiology—including Mike Adams’ claim that the U.S. government is “testing a bioweapon delivery system against humanity.” On Pharyngula, PZ Myers looks at the bright side: “this one, tragic as its consequences can be, isn’t the big pandemic that will kill us all.”