from the world's big
How should we study sex differences in a polarized age?
A new study on brain differences between sexes sparks a persistent question.
- A new study found brain volume differences between men and women.
- The research focuses on regional grey matter volume, a contentious measurement in neuroscience.
- Without environmental conditions being considered, how trustworthy is our emphasis on biology?
In his book, "Chemically Imbalanced," University of Virginia research professor, Joseph E. Davis, questions the 20th century paradigm shift that created the belief that the brain is the last scientific frontier in understanding ourselves and the world. Neuroscience is valuable—that isn't in dispute. An expectancy that this discipline alone holds the keys to enlightenment is what's under debate.
Davis warns of the dangers of using biological explanations for social and personal dilemmas—namely, suffering. The entire field of psychiatry has fallen (or rather, been pushed) under the spell of brain chemistry, as I've repeatedly written about. Davis writes,
"Many of the claims about the relation of mind and mental states to brain are not really scientific at all and cannot themselves be tested in any empirical way. They rest no so much on a theory as on changed assumptions about human being."
This doesn't mean we should abandon the relationship of our brains to our bodies. We just can't confuse correlation with causation. In some ways, we've been sheltering in place for two centuries, thanks to indoor climate control and electricity. This "control of nature" has caused researchers to overlook the importance of the environment on mental health.
What about actual genetic differences in brain composition, however? Are they dependent on environment? This brings us to one of the more contentious debates in biology: genetic differences between men and women. A new study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is forcing us to again confront that question.
The basis of the study is sound. Armin Raznahan, Chief of the Section on Developmental Neurogenomics at the National Institute of Mental Health, has been studying sex differences since he was a PhD student. He knows the field is filled with landmines. His first study was cited in an argument for same-sex schooling, which served as a wake-up call about the dangers of publishing on the subject.
Men vs. women: Why we’re imagining equality all wrong | Heather Heying | Big Think
This new research not only found sex differences in terms of regional grey matter volume (GMV), but also tied those differences to sex chromosomes. Specifically, after discovering neuroanatomical sex differences, the team found "that sex differences in regional GMV are aligned with functional systems for face processing."
This sparked the question of the validity of using grey matter to measure social and physical functioning, as this deep dive in Wired details. Raznahan's research found larger volumes of grey matter in men than women, though previous research has found women are better than men at facial recognition.
Grey matter is often used as evidence of stronger neurological connections. The default example is the famous London taxi driver study, which found that drivers, who have to memorize the entirety of the city to pass a rigorous test, have larger GMV in the brain's posterior hippocampi (spatial memory and navigation) than non-taxi drivers. This line of argument has also been used by meditation researchers, who have extrapolated from GMV volume to argue that meditation helps increase memory and empathy while decreasing stress.
Back to correlation and causation. Taxi drivers must study street maps for years; mediation is a specific discipline that has measurable effects on the nervous system (beyond grey matter). In both cases, the subjects have changed their relationship to their environment, thus hinting at correlation. If anything, you can argue environmental changes cause changes in GMV.
Raznahan's study is looking at genetic differences, yet environment still plays a role. The data was pulled from the U.S. and UK, predominantly white, wealthy countries. Comparing that data to other sets in African or Asian countries, for example, could result in a Bell Curve-type controversy—gender studies are already controversial enough. How then do you study biology when everything is polarized?
Dozens of women and men attend a rally and march in Washington Square Park for International Women's Day on March 8, 2018 in New York City.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
One political party in America grows angry any time a connection between income disparity and ethnicity is made. We seem unable to move beyond this political wedge, especially since it fires up the base, yet it holds the key to freeing scientists to take a holistic approach. You can't only look at changes in brain function when contemplating social differences. But you can investigate such differences if you're trying to understand brain disorders—the focus of Raznahan's work.
The gender question might always be with us. In 2014, Fallon Fox, a transgender MMA fighter, broke Tamikka Brents's skull during a match. Brents later said she had "never felt the strength that I felt in a fight as I did that night." There are real biological differences between men and women. Arguing against that is antithetical to good science.
Neuroscience will remain a sticky topic for some time, however. The methods for measuring blood flow and brain volume are, as Davis suggests above, more art than science. Until better measuring sticks are developed for understanding brain functionality, the field will be more speculative than declarative. That's okay: scientists need to fail in order to grow. In a time when even minor failures result in ostracism, however, that's a tough line to walk.
Environment always matters. Humans are the products of the spaces they inhabit. Genetic disorders aside, our chemistry is linked to our environment. When neuroscience is able to utilize brain scans in conjunction with sociology, real progress will be possible. Until then, controversies will abound, even where they should be none.
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Health officials in China reported that a man was infected with bubonic plague, the infectious disease that caused the Black Death.
- The case was reported in the city of Bayannur, which has issued a level-three plague prevention warning.
- Modern antibiotics can effectively treat bubonic plague, which spreads mainly by fleas.
- Chinese health officials are also monitoring a newly discovered type of swine flu that has the potential to develop into a pandemic virus.
Bacteria under microscope
needpix.com<p>Today, bubonic plague can be treated effectively with antibiotics.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unlike in the 14th century, we now have an understanding of how this disease is transmitted," Dr. Shanthi Kappagoda, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, told <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">Healthline</a>. "We know how to prevent it — avoid handling sick or dead animals in areas where there is transmission. We are also able to treat patients who are infected with effective antibiotics, and can give antibiotics to people who may have been exposed to the bacteria [and] prevent them [from] getting sick."</p>
This plague patient is displaying a swollen, ruptured inguinal lymph node, or buboe.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p>Still, hundreds of people develop bubonic plague every year. In the U.S., a handful of cases occur annually, particularly in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/plague/faq/index.html" target="_blank">where habitats allow the bacteria to spread more easily among wild rodent populations</a>. But these cases are very rare, mainly because you need to be in close contact with rodents in order to get infected. And though plague can spread from human to human, this <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">only occurs with pneumonic plague</a>, and transmission is also rare.</p>
A new swine flu in China<p>Last week, researchers in China also reported another public health concern: a new virus that has "all the essential hallmarks" of a pandemic virus.<br></p><p>In a paper published in the <a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/06/23/1921186117" target="_blank">Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences</a>, researchers say the virus was discovered in pigs in China, and it descended from the H1N1 virus, commonly called "swine flu." That virus was able to transmit from human to human, and it killed an estimated 151,700 to 575,400 people worldwide from 2009 to 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.</p>There's no evidence showing that the new virus can spread from person to person. But the researchers did find that 10 percent of swine workers had been infected by the virus, called G4 reassortant EA H1N1. This level of infectivity raises concerns, because it "greatly enhances the opportunity for virus adaptation in humans and raises concerns for the possible generation of pandemic viruses," the researchers wrote.
SEAL training is the ultimate test of both mental and physical strength.
- The fact that U.S. Navy SEALs endure very rigorous training before entering the field is common knowledge, but just what happens at those facilities is less often discussed. In this video, former SEALs Brent Gleeson, David Goggins, and Eric Greitens (as well as authors Jesse Itzler and Jamie Wheal) talk about how the 18-month program is designed to build elite, disciplined operatives with immense mental toughness and resilience.
- Wheal dives into the cutting-edge technology and science that the navy uses to prepare these individuals. Itzler shares his experience meeting and briefly living with Goggins (who was also an Army Ranger) and the things he learned about pushing past perceived limits.
- Goggins dives into why you should leave your comfort zone, introduces the 40 percent rule, and explains why the biggest battle we all face is the one in our own minds. "Usually whatever's in front of you isn't as big as you make it out to be," says the SEAL turned motivational speaker. "We start to make these very small things enormous because we allow our minds to take control and go away from us. We have to regain control of our mind."
Is focusing solely on body mass index the best way for doctor to frame obesity?
- New guidelines published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal argue that obesity should be defined as a condition that involves high body mass index along with a corresponding physical or mental health condition.
- The guidelines note that classifying obesity by body mass index alone may lead to fat shaming or non-optimal treatments.
- The guidelines offer five steps for reframing the way doctors treat obesity.