Arquivo da tag: Visceralidade

Sente com as entranhas? Seu corpo tem um segundo cérebro dentro da barriga (UOL Saúde)

30/05/201704h00

Tem um segundo cérebro dentro da sua barriga

Tem um segundo cérebro dentro da sua barriga. Getty Images/iStockphoto

Sabe esse seu cérebro aí na cabeça? Ele não é tão único assim não como a gente imagina e conta com uma grande ajuda de um parceiro para controlar nossas emoções, nosso humor e nosso comportamento. Isso porque o corpo humano tem o que muitos chamam de um “segundo cérebro”. E em um lugar bem especial: na nossa barriga.

O “segundo cérebro”, como é chamado informalmente, está situado bem ao longo dos nove metros de seu intestino e reúne milhões de neurônios. Na verdade, faz parte de algo com uma nomenclatura um pouquinho mais complicada: o Sistema Nervoso Entérico.

Getty Images

Dentro do nosso intestino há entre 200 e 600 milhões de neurônios

Funções que até o cérebro duvida

Uma das razões principais para ele ser considerado um cérebro é a grande e complexa rede de neurônios existentes nesse sistema. Para se ter uma ideia, nós temos ali entre 200 milhões e 600 milhões de neurônios, de acordo com pesquisadores da Universidade de Melbourne, na Austrália, que trabalham em conjunto com o cérebro principal.

É como se tivéssemos o cérebro de um gato na nossa barriga. Ele tem 20 diferentes tipos de neurônios, a mesma diversidade encontrada no nosso cérebro grande, onde temos 100 bilhões de neurônios”

Heribert Watzke, cientista alimentar durante em uma palestra na TED Talks

As funções desse cérebro são várias e ocorrem de forma autônoma e integrada ao grande cérebro. Antes, imaginava-se que o cérebro maior enviava sinais para comandar esse outro cérebro, Mas, na verdade, é o contrário: o cérebro em nosso intestino envia sinais por meio de uma grande “rodovia” de neurônios para a cabeça, que pode aceitar ou não as indicações.

“O cérebro de cima pode interferir nesses sinais, modificando-os ou inibindo-os. Há sinais de fome, que nosso estômago vazio envia para o cérebro. Tem sinais que mandam a gente parar de comer quando estamos cheios. Se o sinal da fome é ignorado, pode gerar a doença anorexia, por exemplo. O mais comum é o de continuar comendo, mesmo depois que nossos sinais do estômago dizem ‘ok, pare, transferimos energia suficiente'”, complementa Watzke.

A quantidade de neurônios assusta, mas faz sentido se pensarmos nos perigos da alimentação. Assim como a pele, o intestino tem que parar imediatamente potenciais invasores perigosos em nosso organismo, como bactérias e vírus.

Esse segundo cérebro pode ativar uma diarreia ou alertar o seu “superior”, que pode decidir por acionar vômitos. É um trabalho em grupo e de vital importância.

iStock

Muito além da digestão

É claro que uma das funções principais tem a ver com a nossa digestão e excreção – como se o cérebro maior não quisesse “sujar as mãos”, né? Ele inclusive controla contrações musculares, liberação de substâncias químicas e afins. O segundo cérebro não é usado em funções como pensamentos, religião, filosofia ou poesia, mas está ligado ao nosso humor.

O sistema entérico nervoso nos ajuda a “sentir” nosso mundo interior e seu conteúdo. Segundo a revista Scientific American, é provável que boa parte das nossas emoções sejam influenciadas por causa dos neurônios em nosso intestino.

Já ouviu a expressão “borboletas no estômago”? A sensação é um exemplo disso, como uma resposta a um estresse psicológico.

É por conta disso que algumas pesquisas tentam até tratamento de depressão atuando nos neurônios do intestino. O sistema nervoso entérico tem 95% de nossa serotonina (substância conhecida como uma das responsáveis pela felicidade). Ele pode até ter um papel no autismo.

Há ainda relatos de outras doenças que possam ter a ver com esse segundo cérebro. Um estudo da Nature em 2010 apontou que modificações no funcionamento do sistema podem evitar a osteoporose.

Getty Images

Vida nas entranhas

O “segundo cérebro” tem como uma de suas principais funções a defesa do nosso corpo, já que é um dos grandes responsáveis por controlar nossos anticorpos. Um estudo de 2016 com apoio da Fapesp mostrou como os neurônios se comunicam com as células de defesa no intestino. Há até uma “conversa” com micróbios, já que o sistema nervoso ajuda a ditar quais deles podem habitar o intestino.

Pesquisas apontam que a importância do segundo cérebro é realmente enorme. Em uma delas, foi percebido que ratos recém-nascidos cujos estômagos foram expostos a um químico irritante são mais depressivos e ansiosos do que outros ratos, com os sintomas prosseguindo por um bom tempo depois do dano físico. O mesmo não ocorreu com outros danos, como uma irritação na pele.

Com tudo isso em vista, tenho certeza que você vai olhar para suas vísceras de uma maneira diferente agora, né? Pensa bem: na próxima vez que você estiver estressado ou triste e for comer aquela comida bem gorda para confortar, pode não ser culpa só da sua cabeça.

Gut feeling: Research examines link between stomach bacteria, PTSD (Science Daily)

Date:
April 25, 2016
Source:
Office of Naval Research
Summary:
Could bacteria in your gut be used to cure or prevent neurological conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety or even depression? Two researchers think that’s a strong possibility.

Dr. John Bienenstock (left) and Dr. Paul Forsythe in their lab. The researchers are studying whether bacteria in the gut can be used to cure or prevent neurological conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety or depression. Credit: Photo courtesy of Dr. John Bienenstock and Dr. Paul Forsythe

Could bacteria in your gut be used to cure or prevent neurological conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety or even depression? Two researchers sponsored by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) think that’s a strong possibility.

Dr. John Bienenstock and Dr. Paul Forsythe–who work in The Brain-Body Institute at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada–are investigating intestinal bacteria and their effect on the human brain and mood.

“This is extremely important work for U.S. warfighters because it suggests that gut microbes play a strong role in the body’s response to stressful situations, as well as in who might be susceptible to conditions like PTSD,” said Dr. Linda Chrisey, a program officer in ONR’s Warfighter Performance Department, which sponsors the research.

The trillions of microbes in the intestinal tract, collectively known as the gut microbiome, profoundly impact human biology–digesting food, regulating the immune system and even transmitting signals to the brain that alter mood and behavior. ONR is supporting research that’s anticipated to increase warfighters’ mental and physical resilience in situations involving dietary changes, sleep loss or disrupted circadian rhythms from shifting time zones or living in submarines.

Through research on laboratory mice, Bienenstock and Forsythe have shown that gut bacteria seriously affect mood and demeanor. They also were able to control the moods of anxious mice by feeding them healthy microbes from fecal material collected from calm mice.

Bienenstock and Forsythe used a “social defeat” scenario in which smaller mice were exposed to larger, more aggressive ones for a couple of minutes daily for 10 consecutive days. The smaller mice showed signs of heightened anxiety and stress–nervous shaking, diminished appetite and less social interaction with other mice. The researchers then collected fecal samples from the stressed mice and compared them to those from calm mice.

“What we found was an imbalance in the gut microbiota of the stressed mice,” said Forsythe. “There was less diversity in the types of bacteria present. The gut and bowels are a very complex ecology. The less diversity, the greater disruption to the body.”

Bienenstock and Forsythe then fed the stressed mice the same probiotics (live bacteria) found in the calm mice and examined the new fecal samples. Through magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS), a non-invasive analytical technique using powerful MRI technology, they also studied changes in brain chemistry.

“Not only did the behavior of the mice improve dramatically with the probiotic treatment,” said Bienenstock, “but it continued to get better for several weeks afterward. Also, the MRS technology enabled us to see certain chemical biomarkers in the brain when the mice were stressed and when they were taking the probiotics.”

Both researchers said stress biomarkers could potentially indicate if someone is suffering from PTSD or risks developing it, allowing for treatment or prevention with probiotics and antibiotics.

Later this year, Bienenstock and Forsythe will perform experiments involving fecal transplants from calm mice to stressed mice. They also hope to secure funding to conduct clinical trials to administer probiotics to human volunteers and use MRS to monitor brain reactions to different stress levels.

Gut microbiology is part of ONR’s program in warfighter performance. ONR also is looking at the use of synthetic biology to enhance the gut microbiome. Synthetic biology creates or re-engineers microbes or other organisms to perform specific tasks like improving health and physical performance. The field was identified as a top ONR priority because of its potential far-ranging impact on warfighter performance and fleet capabilities.


Journal Reference:

  1. S. Leclercq, P. Forsythe, J. Bienenstock. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Does the Gut Microbiome Hold the Key? The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 2016; 61 (4): 204 DOI: 10.1177/0706743716635535

Gut microbes signal to the brain when they’re full (Science Daily)

Date: November 24, 2015

Source: Cell Press

Summary: Don’t have room for dessert? The bacteria in your gut may be telling you something. Twenty minutes after a meal, gut microbes produce proteins that can suppress food intake in animals, reports a study. The researchers also show how these proteins injected into mice and rats act on the brain reducing appetite, suggesting that gut bacteria may help control when and how much we eat.


These are neurons (c-fos, green) in the rat central amygdala activated by E. coli proteins in stationary phase and surrounded by nerve terminals (calcitonin gene-related peptide, red) originating from anorexigenic brainstem projections. Credit: J. Breton, N. Lucas & D. Schapman.

Don’t have room for dessert? The bacteria in your gut may be telling you something. Twenty minutes after a meal, gut microbes produce proteins that can suppress food intake in animals, reports a study published November 24 in Cell Metabolism. The researchers also show how these proteins injected into mice and rats act on the brain reducing appetite, suggesting that gut bacteria may help control when and how much we eat.

The new evidence coexists with current models of appetite control, which involve hormones from the gut signalling to brain circuits when we’re hungry or done eating. The bacterial proteins–produced by mutualistic E. coli after they’ve been satiated–were found for the first time to influence the release of gut-brain signals (e.g., GLP-1 and PYY) as well as activate appetite-regulated neurons in the brain.

“There are so many studies now that look at microbiota composition in different pathological conditions but they do not explore the mechanisms behind these associations,” says senior study author Sergueï Fetissov of Rouen University and INSERM’s Nutrition, Gut & Brain Laboratory in France. “Our study shows that bacterial proteins from E. coli can be involved in the same molecular pathways that are used by the body to signal satiety, and now we need to know how an altered gut microbiome can affect this physiology.”

Mealtime brings an influx of nutrients to the bacteria in your gut. In response, they divide and replace any members lost in the development of stool. The study raises an interesting theory: since gut microbes depend on us for a place to live, it is to their advantage for populations to remain stable. It would make sense, then, if they had a way to communicate to the host when they’re not full, promoting host to ingest nutrients again.

In the laboratory, Fetissov and colleagues found that after 20 minutes of consuming nutrients and expanding numbers, E. coli bacteria from the gut produce different kinds of proteins than they did before their feeding. The 20 minute mark seemed to coincide with the amount of time it takes for a person to begin feeling full or tired after a meal. Excited over this discovery, the researcher began to profile the bacterial proteins pre- and post-feeding.

They saw that injection of small doses of the bacterial proteins produced after feeding reduced food intake in both hungry and free-fed rats and mice. Further analysis revealed that “full” bacterial proteins stimulated the release of peptide YY, a hormone associated with satiety, while “hungry” bacterial hormones did not. The opposite was true for glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1), a hormone known to simulate insulin release.

The investigators next developed an assay that could detect the presence of one of the “full” bacterial proteins, called ClpB in animal blood. Although blood levels of the protein in mice and rats detected 20 minutes after meal consumption did not change, it correlated with ClpB DNA production in the gut, suggesting that it may link gut bacterial composition with the host control of appetite. The researchers also found that ClpB increased firing of neurons that reduce appetite. The role of other E.coli proteins in hunger and satiation, as well as how proteins from other species of bacteria may contribute, is still unknown.

“We now think bacteria physiologically participate in appetite regulation immediately after nutrient provision by multiplying and stimulating the release of satiety hormones from the gut,” Fetisov says. “In addition, we believe gut microbiota produce proteins that can be present in the blood longer term and modulate pathways in the brain.”


Journal Reference:

  1. Jonathan Breton, Naouel Tennoune, Nicolas Lucas, Marie Francois, Romain Legrand, Justine Jacquemot, Alexis Goichon, Charlène Guérin, Johann Peltier, Martine Pestel-Caron, Philippe Chan, David Vaudry, Jean-Claude do Rego, Fabienne Liénard, Luc Pénicaud, Xavier Fioramonti, Ivor S. Ebenezer, Tomas Hökfelt, Pierre Déchelotte, Sergueï O. Fetissov. Gut Commensal E. coli Proteins Activate Host Satiety Pathways following Nutrient-Induced Bacterial GrowthCell Metabolism, 2015; DOI: 10.1016/j.cmet.2015.10.017

‘Nuvem personalizada’ de micróbios permite identificar indivíduos (Estadão)

FÁBIO DE CASTRO – O ESTADO DE S. PAULO

22 Setembro 2015 | 19h 02

Experimento realizado por cientistas americanos revela que cada pessoa lança ao ar milhões de bactérias por hora, formando ao seu redor uma combinação única de microorganismos

Cada pessoa traz em torno de si uma “nuvem personalizada” de micróbios e, de acordo com um novo estudo, é possível identificar um indivíduo a partir do exame da combinação única de bactérias suspensas no ar ao seu redor.

O novo estudo, liderado por pesquisadores da Universidade do Oregon, nos Estados Unidos, foi publicado hoje na revista científica Peerj.

De acordo com o estudo, cada pessoa lança ao ar, a cada hora, milhões de bactérias diferentesDe acordo com o estudo, cada pessoa lança ao ar, a cada hora, milhões de bactérias diferentes

A fim de testar até que ponto seres humanos possuem uma assinatura própria em suas nuvens de micróbios, os cientistas realizaram um experimento de sequenciamento genético dos micróbios suspenso no ar em torno de 11 pessoas diferentes.

Os voluntários foram colocados em câmaras experimentais higienizadas e, a partir do exame dos micróbios coletados no ar, os pesquisadores puderam identificar a maior parte deles a partir de suas combinações pessoais de bactérias.

Os micróbios que permitiram identificar os indivíduos são bactérias extremamente comuns – como a Streptococcus, normalmente encontrada na boca, a Propionibacterium e a Corynebacterium, ambas abundantes na pele humana.

Ainda que todos os micróbios tenham sido detectados no ar em torno de todos os voluntários do estudo, os autores descobriram que diferentes combinações das bactérias permitiam distinguir indivíduos.

“Nós já esperávamos que poderíamos detectar o conjunto de micróbios no ar em torno de uma pessoa, mas ficamos surpresos ao descobrir que podemos identificar a maior parte dos ocupantes das câmaras unicamente a partir de amostras de suas nuvens de micróbios”, disse o autor principal do estudo, James Meadow, pós-doutorando da Universidade do Oregon.

“Nossos resultados confirmam que um espaço ocupado é microbioticamente distinto de um espaço desocupado. Demonstramos também pela primeira vez que indivíduos emitem sua própria nuvem de micróbios personalizada”, afirmou Meadow.

“Aura” de micróbios. Durante o experimento, os voluntários receberam roupas limpas e foram isolados em uma câmara estéril, onde ficaram sentados em uma cadeira de plástico desinfetada por até quatro horas. As amostras das bactérias emitidas pelos indivíduos foi feita a partir de material coletado em placas de Petri – pequenos pratos de vidro usados em laboratório para culturas de bactérias – deixadas na câmara e em filtros de ar especiais.

Segundo Meadow, o exame do material deixou claro que cada voluntário emitiu milhões e milhões de micróbios pela respiração, pela pele e provavelmente pelo suor. Os cientistas verificaram que a combinação de bactérias de cada indivíduo era totalmente distinta.

O estudo, segundo os autores, ajuda a compreender até que ponto as pessoas emitem sua população específica de micróbios no ambiente ao redor e pode ajudar a entender os mecanismos envolvidos no alastramento de doenças infecciosas em prédios.

A descoberta pode ter também, de acordo com os autores, aplicações forenses como determinar onde uma pessoa esteve, embora ainda não tenha ficado claro se indivíduos podem ser detectados em um grupo com muitas pessoas.

Small advances: understanding the micro biome (ABC RN)

Tuesday 1 September 2015 4:27PM

Amanda Smith

Microbes

IMAGE: THE HUMAN MICROBIOME MAY PLAY A ROLE IN EVERYTHING FROM OBESITY TO ASTHMA (FLICKR/PACIFIC NORTHWEST NATIONAL LABORATORY)

What is it that makes you, you? While you’re made up of 10 trillion human cells, 100 trillion microbial cells also live on you and in you. This vast array of microscopic bugs may be your defining feature, and scientists around the world are racing to find out more. Amanda Smith reports.

AUDIO: https://soundcloud.com/abc_rn/excerpt-the-body-microbial/s-oz6JA

Microbes, it seems, are the next big thing. Around the world, scientists are researching the human microbiome—the genes of our microbes—in the hope of unlocking quite a different way to understand sickness and health.

At the Microbiome Initiative at the University of California, San Diego, Rob Knight runs the American Gut Project, a citizen science initiative where you can get your microbiome sequenced.

Breast milk is meant to present the baby with a manageable dose of everything in the environment. It samples the entire environment—everything the mother eats, breathes, touches.

MAUREEN MINCHIN, AUTHOR OF MILK MATTERS.

‘What we can do right now is put you on this microbial map, where we can compare your microbes to the microbes of thousands of other people we’ve already looked at,’ he says. ‘But what we need to do is develop more of a microbial GPS that doesn’t just tell you where you are, but tells you where you want to go and what you need to do, step by step, in order to get there.’

The Australian Centre for Ecogenomics is also setting up a service where you can get your gut microbes analysed. The centre’s director, Phillip Hugenholtz, predicts that in years to come such a process will be a diagnostic procedure when you go to the doctor, much like getting a blood test.

‘I definitely think that’s going to become a standard part of your personalised medicine’, he says. ‘Micro-organisms are sometimes a very good early indicator of things occurring in your body and so it will become something that you’d go and get done maybe once or twice a year to see what’s going on.’

While this level of interest in the microbiome is new, the first person to realise we’re all teeming with micro-organisms was Dutchman Anton Leeuwenhoek, way back in 1676. Leeuwenhoek was interested in making lenses, and constructed himself a microscope.

‘He was looking at the scum from his teeth, and was amazed to see in this scraped-off plaque from inside his own mouth what he called hundreds of different “animalcules swimming a-prettily”,’ says Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at Kings College London.

‘He was the first to describe this, and it took hundreds of years before people actually believed that we were completely full of these microbes and we’d co-evolved with them.’

Microbes have come a long way over the last century. Until recent advances in DNA sequencing, all tummy bugs were considered bad.

‘We used to think that there was no such thing as a good microbe in our guts, that they were all out to do us no good, and we’ve basically spent the last 100 years trying to eliminate them with disinfectants and then the last 50 years with antibiotics,’ says Spector.

This has given rise to the ‘hygiene hypothesis’, which contends that by keeping ourselves too clean, we’re denying ourselves the microbes necessary to keep our immune system balanced, resulting in all sorts of chronic diseases.

‘Over the last half-century, as infectious diseases like polio and measles and hepatitis and so-on have plummeted in their frequency, chronic diseases—everything from obesity to diabetes to inflammatory bowel disease—have been skyrocketing,’ says the Microbiome Initiative’s Rob Knight.

‘So the idea is that potentially without exposure to a diverse range of healthy microbes our immune systems might be going into overdrive and attacking our own cells, or overreacting to harmless things we find in the environment.’

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek

IMAGE: ANTONIE VAN LEEUWENHOEK WAS THE FIRST MICROBIOLOGIST AND THE FIRST TO OBSERVE MICRO-ORGANISMS USING A MICROSCOPE. (LICENSED UNDER PUBLIC DOMAIN VIA COMMONS)

In terms of human DNA, we’re all 99.99 per cent identical. However our microbial profiles can differ enormously. We might share just 10 per cent of our dominant microbial species with others.

According to Knight, some of the differences are explained by method of birth.

‘If you come out the regular way you get coated with microbes as you’re passing through your mother’s birth canal,’ he says.

Babies delivered by Caesarian section, on the other hand, have microbes that are mostly found on adult skin, from being touched by different doctors and nurses.

‘One thing that’s potentially interesting about that is differences between C-section and vaginally delivered babies have been reported: higher rates in C-section babies of asthma, allergies, atopic disease, even obesity. All of those have been linked to the microbiome now.’

Also important to the development of healthy microbiota in babies is breastfeeding, according to Maureen Minchin, the author of Milk Matters.

‘We’ve known for over 100 years that breast milk and formula result in very, very different gut flora in babies, but it’s only very recently that anyone has thought to look and see what breast milk does contain, and at last count there were well over 700 species of bacteria in breast milk,’ she says.

According to Minchin, breastfeeding is the bridge between the womb and the world for babies.

‘Breast milk is meant to present the baby with a manageable dose of everything in the environment. It samples the entire environment—everything the mother eats, breathes, touches. Her microbiome is present in that breast milk and will help create the appropriate microbiome in the baby.’

Minchin is an advocate of the World Health Organisation’s recommendation to breastfeed exclusively to six months and then continue breastfeeding while introducing other foods through the first and second year.

Related: Why the digestive system and its bacteria are a ‘second brain’

So if what babies are fed is important for their microbiome, what about adults? Tim Spector says research into microbes is yielding new information about healthy eating.

‘It’s going to soon revolutionise how we look at food and diet. This is one of the most exciting things in science at the moment, because it’s obviously much easier to change your microbes than it is to change your genes.’

‘Most processed foods only contain about five ingredients, and in a way our epidemic of the last 30 years of obesity and allergy is that our diets have become less and less diverse.’

According to Spector, studies of people with various chronic diseases, obesity and diabetes show a common feature, which is that their gut microbes have a much-reduced diversity compared to healthy people.

He likes to use the analogy of a garden: ‘A neglected garden has very few species, not much fertilised soil, and this allows weeds to take over in great numbers,’ he says.

‘I think this is a nice concept because we’re very good gardeners, humans, and I think we need to start using those principles—fertilising, adding soil, experimenting and avoiding adding nasty toxins to our own bodies as we would our gardens.’

May your gut flora bloom!

Micro biomes of human throat may be linked to schizophrenia (Science Daily)

Studying microbiomes in throat may help identify causes and treatments of brain disorder

Date:
August 25, 2015
Source:
George Washington University
Summary:
In the most comprehensive study to date, researchers have identified a potential link between microbes (viruses, bacteria and fungi) in the throat and schizophrenia. This link may offer a way to identify causes and develop treatments of the disease and lead to new diagnostic tests.

In the most comprehensive study to date, researchers at the George Washington University have identified a potential link between microbes (viruses, bacteria and fungi) in the throat and schizophrenia. This link may offer a way to identify causes and develop treatments of the disease and lead to new diagnostic tests.

“The oropharynx of schizophrenics seems to harbor different proportions of oral bacteria than healthy individuals,” said Eduardo Castro-Nallar, a Ph.D. candidate at GW’s Computational Biology Institute (CBI) and lead author of the study. “Specifically, our analyses revealed an association between microbes such as lactic-acid bacteria and schizophrenics.”

Recent studies have shown that microbiomes — the communities of microbes living within our bodies — can affect the immune system and may be connected to mental health. Research linking immune disorders and schizophrenia has also been published, and this study furthers the possibility that shifts in oral communities are associated with schizophrenia.

Mr. Castro-Nallar’s research sought to identify microbes associated with schizophrenia, as well as components that may be associated with or contribute to changes in the immune state of the person. In this study, the group found a significant difference in the microbiomes of healthy and schizophrenic patients.

“Our results suggesting a link between microbiome diversity and schizophrenia require replication and expansion to a broader number of individuals for further validation,” said Keith Crandall, director of the CBI and contributing author of the study. “But the results are quite intriguing and suggest potential applications of biomarkers for diagnosis of schizophrenia and important metabolic pathways associated with the disease.”

The study helps to identify possible contributing factors to schizophrenia. With additional studies, researchers may be able to determine if microbiome changes are a contributing factor to schizophrenia, are a result of schizophrenia or do not have a connection to the disorder.


Journal Reference:

  1. Eduardo Castro-Nallar, Matthew L. Bendall, Marcos Pérez-Losada, Sarven Sabuncyan, Emily G. Severance, Faith B. Dickerson, Jennifer R. Schroeder, Robert H. Yolken, Keith A. Crandall. Composition, taxonomy and functional diversity of the oropharynx microbiome in individuals with schizophrenia and controlsPeer J, August 25th, 2015 [link]

Fungi: Key to tree survival in warming forest (Science Daily)

Date:
July 22, 2015
Source:
Northern Arizona University
Summary:
Much like healthy bacteria in one’s gut supports health of the human body, fungus in soil can be integral to survival of trees, according to a new study.

Pinyon pine test plot east of Flagstaff, Ariz. Credit: Photo by Thomas Whitham

Much like healthy bacteria in one’s gut supports health of the human body, fungus in soil can be integral to survival of trees. Northern Arizona University researcher Catherine Gehring reached this conclusion while studying pinyon-juniper woodlands in northern Arizona, which support nearly 1,000 unique species.

“Just like the human microbiome, plants have a micro biome. It just tends to be fungi instead of bacteria,” Gehring said. “Every tissue of a plant that you look at has fungi inside of it and we are trying to figure out what they do and if they are going to be important for allowing plants to survive climate change.”

Along with a team of researchers, Gehring is studying pinyon pine trees and their susceptibility to severe drought conditions. While many tree species become vulnerable to insects during drought conditions, Gehring’s team discovered a twist: the pinyons that were insect-resistant were not surviving the drought.

“That group of trees had 60 percent mortality and the group susceptible to insects had only 20 percent mortality,” Gehring said.

The answers to this mystery were underground. The group of drought-tolerant trees a different community of beneficial fungi than the trees that died during drought.

Offspring from the two groups, when planted in a greenhouse without fungi, grow to the same size. When the beneficial fungus is included in the soil, the community of fungi associated with drought tolerant trees allowed their seedlings to grow much larger in drought conditions.

Fungi often manifest above ground as mushrooms, but in northern Arizona’s pinyon habitat, the microorganisms are primarily below ground. The species of fungi that are so important during drought are new to science, Gehring said.

There is an interchange after fungi set up residence among roots: fungus gives the tree nutrients and water from the soil and the tree takes sugar from photosynthesis and shares it with the fungi.

Gehring believes understanding the processes and contributions of fungi could have consequences for many species. As warming conditions kill off families of trees, restoration best practices could include replanting and supplementing with fungi-rich soil.

Experiments are conducted in a greenhouse, at field sites and a research garden northwest of Flagstaff.

Theorizing Embodiment and Making Bodies ‘Matter’ (The Disorder of Things)

JULY 17, 2015, GUEST AUTHORS

Bringing to a close our symposium on Bodies of Violence is Lauren’s rejoinder to all our contributors, Kevin McSorleyAli HowellPablo and Antoine.


First, a huge thank you to the (Dis)order of Things and especially Antoine for organizing this forum and to each of the contributors. It’s been a huge honor to have my work read so carefully and responded to so thoughtfully and I welcome the opportunity to try to clarify some of my work and acknowledge where the contributors have pointed out helpful areas for future research.

As Pablo K and others noticed, Bodies of Violence it is not meant to be a general theory of embodiment in IR (I’m not sure such a project is feasible or politically desirable in any event).  It is a more specific intervention with a different ambition: both to speak to ‘mainstream’ concerns about theorizing violence, particularly forms of political violence associated with the ‘war on terror’ and to make not only a theoretical argument about how we might or should theorize embodiment and violence, but also to show that understanding these different ‘modes of violence’ necessitates such an understanding of the relationship between bodies, subjects and violence.  My rationale for using feminist theory to think about the relationship between bodies, subjects and violence in IR was not meant to be exclusive: certainly (other) people working with concepts of biopolitics as well as anti-colonial/anti-racist theorists, disability theorists, phenomenologists and more also have much to say on this topic, some insights of which have been very important in my analysis, if not as fully fleshed out (if you will) as my engagement with feminist theory is.[i] For me, it was a particular reading of feminist theories of embodiment, not solely based on Butler, but on a particular feminist problematic in which women, as a category of those constituted, as Pablo K put it, the “improperly bodied”, are politically disenfranchised and generally excluded from their status as a fully human subject that served as a starting point, but far from an ‘ending’ for thinking about the subject of embodiment.  Rather, it is, as Kevin noted, “the specific tradition of trying to think through women’s subordination in terms of the relationship between bodies, subjects and power” that feminist theory entails that I wanted to use to think about violence and embodiment in ways that I hope will speak not only to feminists in IR but also to other critical and the more pluralistically and trans-disciplinarily minded scholars in IR and beyond as well.

Ana Mendieta, Body Tracks

However, this brings us to some of the drawbacks of feminist approaches to violence and embodiment. Ali’s point about the violence of feminist theory is a particularly good one. Feminists working in IR tend to be quite aware of the uses of feminism for violent aims: the Taliban’s oppression and abuse of women in Afghanistan as a rationale for war by the US and its allies being supported by NOW and the Feminist Majority is a well-known example. Ali’s point about the violence of some feminism(s) against trans-people is also well-taken; though Butler is hardly a ‘TERF’ by any means, her work has been critiqued by trans-theorists for a number of reasons. For the purposes of this book, I don’t necessarily see a conflict between trans-theory and Butler’s theory of the materialization of bodies and the limits of intelligibility as being relevant to the ways in which security practices work to materialize only certain bodies as ‘real,’ often excluding trans- people and constituting them as threats. In general, I agree with Ali that we should welcome feminist scholarship and practice that is less defensive in regards to the ‘mainstream’ of the discipline and more willing to seek alliances and interlocutors from a broader range of scholars, both in the spaces of IR and outside doing work on violence, power and embodiment.[ii]

Forum contributors also provided some excellent provocations for thinking about aspects of embodiment or ways of addressing the thorny question of embodiment that my book did not focus on. Pablo writes, “It is a book thoroughly about bodies, but not therefore necessarily a theory of bodies and embodiment. And it is theory of em-bodies-ment that we may in need of.” On a somewhat different note, Kevin wonders what might happened if the embodied subjects of which I write “could have a more audible place in the analysis.” Of course, it (should) hardly need mentioning the great amount of work influenced by feminist and postcolonial theory that strives to bring the voices and experiences of embodied subjects, particularly of marginalized peoples, into IR as a disciplinary space. I would point, for one example, to the work of Christine Sylvester and others on experience as an embodied concept for theorizing war. However, as Kevin points out, my book has a different, and I would hope, complementary aim: to show the explanatory and critical value of theorizing bodies as both produced by, and productive of, practices of violence in international politics.  It is the last point, that bodies are productive of violence, which speaks more to Pablo’s concern about bodies ‘mattering’.

While Bodies of Violence is perhaps most influenced by Butler’s project, as Kevin, Ali and Pablo K have all noted, theories of embodiment (or at least the relationship between discourse and materiality) such as Elizabeth Grosz’s Volatile Bodiesand Barad’s ‘posthumanist performativity’ as well as Donna Haraway’s work are perhaps more of an influence than appears in the published version of the book, which takes as an overarching frame Butler’s concepts of normative violence and ontological precarity. These other works are concerned, in their own way, with the ways in which matter ‘matters’ or the ways in which embodied subjects exceed their materializations in discourse.[iii]

Marlene Dumas, Measuring Your Own Grave

It is the ‘generative’ or ‘productive’ capacities of bodies that is an engagement with ‘new materialisms’ or ‘feminist materialisms’ if you like. One of the aspects of Barad’s work, whom Pablo mentions, that is most appealing is the insistence of intra-activity, with the implication that we cannot meaningfully separate matter from the discursive, as phenomena only exist by virtue of ongoing assemblages and reassemblages of matter and discourse.  Bodies ‘matter,’ they do things, they have what Diana Coole refers to as ‘agentic capacities’ One reason that Bodies of Violence focuses on actual instances of violence perpetrated on and by bodies in international politics is precisely to take bodies seriously as something other than ‘representations’ or ‘abstractions’ in IR. An example of bodies being ‘productive’ in the book are the ways that bodies ‘speak’ which might exceed the intentions of ‘speaking subjects’. Antoine’s discussion of my work on the hunger striking body in Guantanamo Bay (which I also discussed earlier here on the blog) makes reference to this point: the body in pain as a call for recognition. This is something the body ‘does’ that is not reducible to the intentions of a fully constituted subject nor the words spoken by such subjects (this is in addition to the ways in which hunger striking prisoners such as Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel have spoken eloquently about their experiences). And yet, while this body’s actions may have certain implications, enable certain politics, etc, this cannot be understood without understanding that the body’s capacities are already subject to prior materializations and their reception will also bear the marks of prior political assemblages as well.

A key example of this from the book is the embodiment of drone operators, or perhaps more accurately, the legal/technological drone assemblage.  While this form of embodiment is what might be termed, following Haraway, a ‘material-semiotic actor’, it is a body, or form of embodiment, that is necessary for the kind of ‘death-world’ that enables the killing of suspected militants as well as those people who can only be named innocent or militant in the aftermath. Both bodies of drone operators and the people who are killed by drone strikes are intimately connected in this way: the embodiment of drone pilots is productive of the bodies of targets and the ‘uncountable’ bodies whose deaths remain outside of the epistemological framework enabled by this drone assemblage. Thus, there is less of an explicit engagement with ‘new materialisms’ per se than an acknowledgement (one that has been part of feminist theory for decades) that one cannot determine or write bodies ‘all the way down’ and that, in the words of Samantha Frost and Diana Coole,’ nature ‘pushes back’ in sometimes unexpected ways, but in ways that are nonetheless subject to human interpretation.

Insect swarm picture from wired.com, Lukas Felzmann

Antoine concludes the forum on a forward-looking note that also recalls Ali’s point of the various forms of critical literatures that have much to offer our thinking about bodies and violence beyond feminist literatures: “a growing task of critical scholars in the future may therefore also be that of attentiveness to new forms for the sorting and hierarchizing of bodies, human and otherwise, that are emerging from the production of scientific knowledges.” I agree and (some of) my current research is aimed precisely at the question of gender, queer theory and ‘the posthuman’. While I am wary of certain tendencies within some of the critical literatures of affect theory, ‘new materialisms’ and the like that suggest either explicitly or implicitly that feminist, anti-racial or other such critiques are outmoded, scholars like Rosi Braidotti and Donna Haraway have read the feminist politics the ‘posthuman’ in ways that engage the shifting materialities and discursive constructions of gendered and sexualized bodies. I’m working on a project now that pursues the question of embodiment and ‘drone warfare’ future to consider the politics of the insect and the swarm as inspirations for military technological developments, in the manner that Katherine Hayles describes as a double vision that “looks simultaneously at the power of simulation and at the materialities that produce it” in order to “better understand the implication of articulating posthuman constructions together with embodied actualities” (Hayles 1999, 47). This is to say both discursive constructions of insects/swarms in culture (particularly their association with death, abjection and the feminine) as well as the material capabilities of insects and their role in the earth’s eco-system and its own set of ‘death-worlds’ can and should be thought in tandem. The parameters of this project are yet not fixed (are they ever?) and so I’m grateful for this conversation around Bodies of Violence as I work to further the project of taking embodiment and its relationships with subjectivity and violence seriously in thinking about international political violence in its myriad forms. These contributions are evidence that work on embodiment in IR and related disciplines is becoming a robust research area in which many possibilities exist for dialogue, critique and collaboration.


[i] Also, feminist theorists such as Butler, Grosz, Haraway and Ahmed all engage in a variety of traditions as well, from psychoanalysis, Foucauldian theory, phenomenology, postcolonial theory, and more, so the divisions between ‘feminist theory’ and other kinds of critical theory is far from given, and a much longer piece could be written about this.

[ii] Although see recent work by Rose McDermott and Dan Reiter that seems determined to ignore the advances of decades of scholarship on gender, feminism, and war.

[iii] I agree with Pablo K that Butler’s work is ambiguously situated in relationship to the so-called ‘new materialisms’: I make a brief case in the book that it is not incompatible with her approach at times, but I don’t explore this at length in the final version of the text.

The Skeleton Trade: Life, Death, and Commerce in Early Modern Europe (Objects in Motion: Material Culture in Transition)

JULY 9, 2015

Anita Guerrini, Horning Professor of the Humanities and Professor of History at Oregon State University, discusses the fascinating research which she presented at Objects in Motion: Material Culture in Transition.

Although the human skeleton was well known as a symbol before 1500, the articulated skeleton does not seem to have come into its own as an object – scientific and artistic as well as symbolic – until the time of Vesalius. Curiously ubiquitous, since everyone has one, but yet largely invisible, anatomists revealed the skeleton to view. The well-known illustrations of Vesalius were plagiarized over and over for two centuries after their publication in 1543.

Vesalius, "De humani corporis fabrica", 1543. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Vesalius was the first to give detailed instructions on how to make a skeleton, for although it was a natural object, it was also a crafted object whose construction entailed a lot of work. The human body became an object in motion as it travelled from the scaffold to the dissection table to the grisly cauldron where the bones were boiled to remove their flesh. While artists and anatomists employed skeletons for instruction, little evidence of their collection appears before the mid-seventeenth century, when they begin to appear in cabinets and collections. Both the Royal Society and the Paris Academy of Sciences owned several. At the Paris Academy, André Colson, described as an “ébeniste” or furniture maker, was charged with the making and maintenance of the skeleton room, while the physician Nehemiah Grew, who catalogued the Royal Society’s collections in 1681, may also have made its skeletons. By the end of the seventeenth century, a vigorous skeleton trade flourished across Europe, and they often appear in auction catalogues alongside books, works of art, and scientific instruments. At the same time, relics, both old and new, retained their potency in both Catholic and Protestant countries.

After Vesalius, detailed instructions for making a skeleton appeared in many anatomical texts and manuals as part of the education of a physician or surgeons; in the eighteenth century, William Hunter took it for granted that each of his students would need to construct a skeleton for his own use and in addition procure “several skulls.” While such a process would seem to confer anonymity to the finished skeleton, provenance and even identity often clung to the bones along with religious resonances. Most skeletons were of executed criminals, some of them widely known. The skeleton of the “Thief-taker General” Jonathan Wild, executed in 1725, still hangs in the gallery of the College of Surgeons in London, and Hogarth’s famous 1751 “Fourth Stage of Cruelty” shows the skeletons of other malefactors on display in niches at Surgeons’ Hall while a cauldron awaits the bones of Tom Nero, who is being dissected by the surgeons after his conviction for murder.

William Hogarth's "The Fourth Stage of Cruelty", 1751. Credit: Wikimedia.

Widespread demand and changing scientific contexts expanded the market for skeletons (as well as skulls) beyond Europe to encompass much of the known world by the mid-eighteenth century. The prodigious collector Hans Sloane received skulls and bones from contacts throughout the world, including native bones that his Jamaican contacts apparently stumbled across in caves. Sloane’s meticulous catalogues of his collections allow one to trace the provenance of many of his human specimens though other collectors and agents. Such catalogues, along with account books, advertisements, and illustrations, reveal this worldwide commerce in skeletons alongside a continued trade in skeletal relics. Traveling across time and place, skeletons embodied beauty and deformity, crime and punishment, sin and sanctity, science and colonial power, often simultaneously.

18th-century trade card for the skeleton seller and preparator Nathaniel Longbottom of London. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Can the Bacteria in Your Gut Explain Your Mood? (New York Times)

Eighteen vials were rocking back and forth on a squeaky mechanical device the shape of a butcher scale, and Mark Lyte was beside himself with excitement. ‘‘We actually got some fresh yesterday — freshly frozen,’’ Lyte said to a lab technician. Each vial contained a tiny nugget of monkey feces that were collected at the Harlow primate lab near Madison, Wis., the day before and shipped to Lyte’s lab on the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center campus in Abilene, Tex.

Lyte’s interest was not in the feces per se but in the hidden form of life they harbor. The digestive tube of a monkey, like that of all vertebrates, contains vast quantities of what biologists call gut microbiota. The genetic material of these trillions of microbes, as well as others living elsewhere in and on the body, is collectively known as the microbiome. Taken together, these bacteria can weigh as much as six pounds, and they make up a sort of organ whose functions have only begun to reveal themselves to science. Lyte has spent his career trying to prove that gut microbes communicate with the nervous system using some of the same neurochemicals that relay messages in the brain.

Inside a closet-size room at his lab that afternoon, Lyte hunched over to inspect the vials, whose samples had been spun down in a centrifuge to a radiant, golden broth. Lyte, 60, spoke fast and emphatically. ‘‘You wouldn’t believe what we’re extracting out of poop,’’ he told me. ‘‘We found that the guys here in the gut make neurochemicals. We didn’t know that. Now, if they make this stuff here, does it have an influence there? Guess what? We make the same stuff. Maybe all this communication has an influence on our behavior.’’

Since 2007, when scientists announced plans for a Human Microbiome Project to catalog the micro-organisms living in our body, the profound appreciation for the influence of such organisms has grown rapidly with each passing year. Bacteria in the gut produce vitamins and break down our food; their presence or absence has been linked to obesity, inflammatory bowel disease and the toxic side effects of prescription drugs. Biologists now believe that much of what makes us human depends on microbial activity. The two million unique bacterial genes found in each human microbiome can make the 23,000 genes in our cells seem paltry, almost negligible, by comparison. ‘‘It has enormous implications for the sense of self,’’ Tom Insel, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, told me. ‘‘We are, at least from the standpoint of DNA, more microbial than human. That’s a phenomenal insight and one that we have to take seriously when we think about human development.’’

Given the extent to which bacteria are now understood to influence human physiology, it is hardly surprising that scientists have turned their attention to how bacteria might affect the brain. Micro-organisms in our gut secrete a profound number of chemicals, and researchers like Lyte have found that among those chemicals are the same substances used by our neurons to communicate and regulate mood, like dopamine, serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). These, in turn, appear to play a function in intestinal disorders, which coincide with high levels of major depression and anxiety. Last year, for example, a group in Norway examined feces from 55 people and found certain bacteria were more likely to be associated with depressive patients.

At the time of my visit to Lyte’s lab, he was nearly six months into an experiment that he hoped would better establish how certain gut microbes influenced the brain, functioning, in effect, as psychiatric drugs. He was currently compiling a list of the psychoactive compounds found in the feces of infant monkeys. Once that was established, he planned to transfer the microbes found in one newborn monkey’s feces into another’s intestine, so that the recipient would end up with a completely new set of microbes — and, if all went as predicted, change their neurodevelopment. The experiment reflected an intriguing hypothesis. Anxiety, depression and several pediatric disorders, including autism and hyperactivity, have been linked with gastrointestinal abnormalities. Microbial transplants were not invasive brain surgery, and that was the point: Changing a patient’s bacteria might be difficult but it still seemed more straightforward than altering his genes.

When Lyte began his work on the link between microbes and the brain three decades ago, it was dismissed as a curiosity. By contrast, last September, the National Institute of Mental Health awarded four grants worth up to $1 million each to spur new research on the gut microbiome’s role in mental disorders, affirming the legitimacy of a field that had long struggled to attract serious scientific credibility. Lyte and one of his longtime colleagues, Christopher Coe, at the Harlow primate lab, received one of the four. ‘‘What Mark proposed going back almost 25 years now has come to fruition,’’ Coe told me. ‘‘Now what we’re struggling to do is to figure out the logic of it.’’ It seems plausible, if not yet proved, that we might one day use microbes to diagnose neurodevelopmental disorders, treat mental illnesses and perhaps even fix them in the brain.

In 2011, a team of researchers at University College Cork, in Ireland, and McMaster University, in Ontario, published a study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science that has become one of the best-known experiments linking bacteria in the gut to the brain. Laboratory mice were dropped into tall, cylindrical columns of water in what is known as a forced-swim test, which measures over six minutes how long the mice swim before they realize that they can neither touch the bottom nor climb out, and instead collapse into a forlorn float. Researchers use the amount of time a mouse floats as a way to measure what they call ‘‘behavioral despair.’’ (Antidepressant drugs, like Zoloft and Prozac, were initially tested using this forced-swim test.)

For several weeks, the team, led by John Cryan, the neuroscientist who designed the study, fed a small group of healthy rodents a broth infused with Lactobacillus rhamnosus, a common bacterium that is found in humans and also used to ferment milk into probiotic yogurt. Lactobacilli are one of the dominant organisms babies ingest as they pass through the birth canal. Recent studies have shown that mice stressed during pregnancy pass on lowered levels of the bacterium to their pups. This type of bacteria is known to release immense quantities of GABA; as an inhibitory neurotransmitter, GABA calms nervous activity, which explains why the most common anti-anxiety drugs, like Valium and Xanax, work by targeting GABA receptors.

Cryan found that the mice that had been fed the bacteria-laden broth kept swimming longer and spent less time in a state of immobilized woe. ‘‘They behaved as if they were on Prozac,’’ he said. ‘‘They were more chilled out and more relaxed.’’ The results suggested that the bacteria were somehow altering the neural chemistry of mice.

Until he joined his colleagues at Cork 10 years ago, Cryan thought about microbiology in terms of pathology: the neurological damage created by diseases like syphilis or H.I.V. ‘‘There are certain fields that just don’t seem to interact well,’’ he said. ‘‘Microbiology and neuroscience, as whole disciplines, don’t tend to have had much interaction, largely because the brain is somewhat protected.’’ He was referring to the fact that the brain is anatomically isolated, guarded by a blood-brain barrier that allows nutrients in but keeps out pathogens and inflammation, the immune system’s typical response to germs. Cryan’s study added to the growing evidence that signals from beneficial bacteria nonetheless find a way through the barrier. Somehow — though his 2011 paper could not pinpoint exactly how — micro-organisms in the gut tickle a sensory nerve ending in the fingerlike protrusion lining the intestine and carry that electrical impulse up the vagus nerve and into the deep-brain structures thought to be responsible for elemental emotions like anxiety. Soon after that, Cryan and a co-author, Ted Dinan, published a theory paper in Biological Psychiatry calling these potentially mind-altering microbes ‘‘psychobiotics.’’

It has long been known that much of our supply of neurochemicals — an estimated 50 percent of the dopamine, for example, and a vast majority of the serotonin — originate in the intestine, where these chemical signals regulate appetite, feelings of fullness and digestion. But only in recent years has mainstream psychiatric research given serious consideration to the role microbes might play in creating those chemicals. Lyte’s own interest in the question dates back to his time as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pittsburgh in 1985, when he found himself immersed in an emerging field with an unwieldy name: psychoneuroimmunology, or PNI, for short. The central theory, quite controversial at the time, suggested that stress worsened disease by suppressing our immune system.

By 1990, at a lab in Mankato, Minn., Lyte distilled the theory into three words, which he wrote on a chalkboard in his office: Stress->Immune->Disease. In the course of several experiments, he homed in on a paradox. When he dropped an intruder mouse in the cage of an animal that lived alone, the intruder ramped up its immune system — a boost, he suspected, intended to fight off germ-ridden bites or scratches. Surprisingly, though, this did not stop infections. It instead had the opposite effect: Stressed animals got sick. Lyte walked up to the board and scratched a line through the word ‘‘Immune.’’ Stress, he suspected, directly affected the bacterial bugs that caused infections.

To test how micro-organisms reacted to stress, he filled petri plates with a bovine-serum-based medium and laced the dishes with a strain of bacterium. In some, he dropped norepinephrine, a neurochemical that mammals produce when stressed. The next day, he snapped a Polaroid. The results were visible and obvious: The control plates were nearly barren, but those with the norepinephrine bloomed with bacteria that filigreed in frostlike patterns. Bacteria clearly responded to stress.

Then, to see if bacteria could induce stress, Lyte fed white mice a liquid solution of Campylobacter jejuni, a bacterium that can cause food poisoning in humans but generally doesn’t prompt an immune response in mice. To the trained eye, his treated mice were as healthy as the controls. But when he ran them through a plexiglass maze raised several feet above the lab floor, the bacteria-fed mice were less likely to venture out on the high, unprotected ledges of the maze. In human terms, they seemed anxious. Without the bacteria, they walked the narrow, elevated planks.

Credit: Illustration by Andrew Rae 

Each of these results was fascinating, but Lyte had a difficult time finding microbiology journals that would publish either. ‘‘It was so anathema to them,’’ he told me. When the mouse study finally appeared in the journal Physiology & Behavior in 1998, it garnered little attention. And yet as Stephen Collins, a gastroenterologist at McMaster University, told me, those first papers contained the seeds of an entire new field of research. ‘‘Mark showed, quite clearly, in elegant studies that are not often cited, that introducing a pathological bacterium into the gut will cause a change in behavior.’’

Lyte went on to show how stressful conditions for newborn cattle worsened deadly E. coli infections. In another experiment, he fed mice lean ground hamburger that appeared to improve memory and learning — a conceptual proof that by changing diet, he could change gut microbes and change behavior. After accumulating nearly a decade’s worth of evidence, in July 2008, he flew to Washington to present his research. He was a finalist for the National Institutes of Health’s Pioneer Award, a $2.5 million grant for so-called blue-sky biomedical research. Finally, it seemed, his time had come. When he got up to speak, Lyte described a dialogue between the bacterial organ and our central nervous system. At the two-minute mark, a prominent scientist in the audience did a spit take.

‘‘Dr. Lyte,’’ he later asked at a question-and-answer session, ‘‘if what you’re saying is right, then why is it when we give antibiotics to patients to kill bacteria, they are not running around crazy on the wards?’’

Lyte knew it was a dismissive question. And when he lost out on the grant, it confirmed to him that the scientific community was still unwilling to imagine that any part of our neural circuitry could be influenced by single-celled organisms. Lyte published his theory in Medical Hypotheses, a low-ranking journal that served as a forum for unconventional ideas. The response, predictably, was underwhelming. ‘‘I had people call me crazy,’’ he said.

But by 2011 — when he published a second theory paper in Bioessays, proposing that probiotic bacteria could be tailored to treat specific psychological diseases — the scientific community had become much more receptive to the idea. A Canadian team, led by Stephen Collins, had demonstrated that antibiotics could be linked to less cautious behavior in mice, and only a few months before Lyte, Sven Pettersson, a microbiologist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, published a landmark paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science that showed that mice raised without microbes spent far more time running around outside than healthy mice in a control group; without the microbes, the mice showed less apparent anxiety and were more daring. In Ireland, Cryan published his forced-swim-test study on psychobiotics. There was now a groundswell of new research. In short order, an implausible idea had become a hypothesis in need of serious validation.

Late last year, Sarkis Mazmanian, a microbiologist at the California Institute of Technology, gave a presentation at the Society for Neuroscience, ‘‘Gut Microbes and the Brain: Paradigm Shift in Neuroscience.’’ Someone had inadvertently dropped a question mark from the end, so the speculation appeared to be a definitive statement of fact. But if anyone has a chance of delivering on that promise, it’s Mazmanian, whose research has moved beyond the basic neurochemicals to focus on a broader class of molecules called metabolites: small, equally druglike chemicals that are produced by micro-organisms. Using high-powered computational tools, he also hopes to move beyond the suggestive correlations that have typified psychobiotic research to date, and instead make decisive discoveries about the mechanisms by which microbes affect brain function.

Two years ago, Mazmanian published a study in the journal Cell with Elaine Hsiao, then a graduate student at his lab and now a neuroscientist at Caltech, that made a provocative link between a single molecule and behavior. Their research found that mice exhibiting abnormal communication and repetitive behaviors, like obsessively burying marbles, were mollified when they were given one of two strains of the bacterium Bacteroides fragilis.

The study added to a working hypothesis in the field that microbes don’t just affect the permeability of the barrier around the brain but also influence the intestinal lining, which normally prevents certain bacteria from leaking out and others from getting in. When the intestinal barrier was compromised in his model, normally ‘‘beneficial’’ bacteria and the toxins they produce seeped into the bloodstream and raised the possibility they could slip past the blood-brain barrier. As one of his colleagues, Michael Fischbach, a microbiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, said: ‘‘The scientific community has a way of remaining skeptical until every last arrow has been drawn, until the entire picture is colored in. Other scientists drew the pencil outlines, and Sarkis is filling in a lot of the color.’’

Mazmanian knew the results offered only a provisional explanation for why restrictive diets and antibacterial treatments seemed to help some children with autism: Altering the microbial composition might be changing the permeability of the intestine. ‘‘The larger concept is, and this is pure speculation: Is a disease like autism really a disease of the brain or maybe a disease of the gut or some other aspect of physiology?’’ Mazmanian said. For any disease in which such a link could be proved, he saw a future in drugs derived from these small molecules found inside microbes. (A company he co-founded, Symbiotix Biotherapies, is developing a complex sugar called PSA, which is associated with Bacteroides fragilis, into treatments for intestinal disease and multiple sclerosis.) In his view, the prescriptive solutions probably involve more than increasing our exposure to environmental microbes in soil, dogs or even fermented foods; he believed there were wholesale failures in the way we shared our microbes and inoculated children with these bacteria. So far, though, the only conclusion he could draw was that disorders once thought to be conditions of the brain might be symptoms of microbial disruptions, and it was the careful defining of these disruptions that promised to be helpful in the coming decades.

The list of potential treatments incubating in labs around the world is startling. Several international groups have found that psychobiotics had subtle yet perceptible effects in healthy volunteers in a battery of brain-scanning and psychological tests. Another team in Arizona recently finished an open trial on fecal transplants in children with autism. (Simultaneously, at least two offshore clinics, in Australia and England, began offering fecal microbiota treatments to treat neurological disorders, like multiple sclerosis.) Mazmanian, however, cautions that this research is still in its infancy. ‘‘We’ve reached the stage where there’s a lot of, you know, ‘The microbiome is the cure for everything,’ ’’ he said. ‘‘I have a vested interest if it does. But I’d be shocked if it did.’’

Lyte issues the same caveat. ‘‘People are obviously desperate for solutions,’’ Lyte said when I visited him in Abilene. (He has since moved to Iowa State’s College of Veterinary Medicine.) ‘‘My main fear is the hype is running ahead of the science.’’ He knew that parents emailing him for answers meant they had exhausted every option offered by modern medicine. ‘‘It’s the Wild West out there,’’ he said. ‘‘You can go online and buy any amount of probiotics for any number of conditions now, and my paper is one of those cited. I never said go out and take probiotics.’’ He added, ‘‘We really need a lot more research done before we actually have people trying therapies out.’’

If the idea of psychobiotics had now, in some ways, eclipsed him, it was nevertheless a curious kind of affirmation, even redemption: an old-school microbiologist thrust into the midst of one of the most promising aspects of neuroscience. At the moment, he had a rough map in his head and a freezer full of monkey fecals that might translate, somehow, into telling differences between gregarious or shy monkeys later in life. I asked him if what amounted to a personality transplant still sounded a bit far-fetched. He seemed no closer to unlocking exactly what brain functions could be traced to the same organ that produced feces. ‘‘If you transfer the microbiota from one animal to another, you can transfer the behavior,’’ Lyte said. ‘‘What we’re trying to understand are the mechanisms by which the microbiota can influence the brain and development. If you believe that, are you now out on the precipice? The answer is yes. Do I think it’s the future? I think it’s a long way away.’’

Protein in coffee with effects like morphine discovered in Brazil (EFE)

Published January 25, 2015

Research done by the state University of Brasilia, or UnB, and Brazil’s state-owned agriculture and livestock research company Embrapa have discovered a protein in coffee with effects similar to morphine, scientists said on Saturday.

A communique from Embrapa said that its Genetics and Biotechnology Resources Division and the UnB successfully “identified previously unknown fragments of protein – peptides – in coffee that have an effect similar to morphine, in other words they have an analgesic and sedative activity.”

Those peptides, the note said, “have a positive differential: their effects last longer in experiments with laboratory mice.”

The two institutions applied for patents to Brazilian regulators for the seven “opioid peptides” identified in the study.

The discovery of the molecules came about through the doctorate research work of Felipe Vinecky of the Molecular Biology Department at UnB, who with the consultation of Embrapa was looking to combine coffee genes to improve the quality of the grain.

The studies also have the support of France’s Center for International Cooperation on Agricultural Research and Development, or CIRAD.

The Surprising Link Between Gut Bacteria And Anxiety (Huff Post)

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Posted: 01/04/2015 10:05 am EST 

GUT BACTERIA

In recent years, neuroscientists have become increasingly interested in the idea that there may be a powerful link between the human brain and gut bacteria. And while a growing body of research has provided evidence of the brain-gut connection, most of these studies so far have been conducted on animals.

Now, promising new research from neurobiologists at Oxford University offers some preliminary evidence of a connection between gut bacteria and mental health in humans. The researchers found that supplements designed to boost healthy bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract (“prebiotics”) may have an anti-anxiety effect insofar as they alter the way that people process emotional information.

While probiotics consist of strains of good bacteria, prebiotics are carbohydrates that act as nourishment for those bacteria. With increasing evidence that gut bacteria may exert some influence on brain function and mental health, probiotics and prebiotics are being increasingly studied for the potential alleviation of anxiety and depression symptoms.

“Prebiotics are dietary fibers (short chains of sugar molecules) that good bacteria break down, and use to multiply,” the study’s lead author, Oxford psychiatrist and neurobiologist Dr. Philip Burnet, told The Huffington Post. “Prebiotics are ‘food’ for good bacteria already present in the gut. Taking prebiotics therefore increases the numbers of all species of good bacteria in the gut, which will theoretically have greater beneficial effects than [introducing] a single species.”

To test the efficacy of prebiotics in reducing anxiety, the researchers asked 45 healthy adults between the ages of 18 and 45 to take either a prebiotic or a placebo every day for three weeks. After the three weeks had passed, the researchers completed several computer tests assessing how they processed emotional information, such as positive and negatively-charged words.

The results of one of the tests revealed that subjects who had taken the prebiotic paid less attention to negative information and more attention to positive information, compared to the placebo group, suggesting that the prebiotic group had less anxiety when confronted with negative stimuli. This effect is similar to that which has been observed among individuals who have taken antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication.

The researchers also found that the subjects who took the prebiotics had lower levels of cortisol — a stress hormone which has been linked with anxiety and depression — in their saliva when they woke up in the morning.

While previous research has documented that altering gut bacteria has a similarly anxiety-reducing effect in mice, the new study is one of the first to examine this phenomenon in humans. As of now, research on humans is in its early stages. A study conducted last year at UCLA found that women who consumed probiotics through regularly eating yogurt exhibited altered brain function in both a resting state and when performing an emotion-recognition task.

“Time and time again, we hear from patients that they never felt depressed or anxious until they started experiencing problems with their gut,” Dr. Kirsten Tillisch, the study’s lead author, said in a statement. “Our study shows that the gut–brain connection is a two-way street.”

So are we moving towards a future in which mental illness may be able to be treated (or at least managed) using targeted probiotic cocktails? Burnet says it’s possible, although they’re unlikely to replace conventional treatment.

“I think pre/probiotics will only be used as ‘adjuncts’ to conventional treatments, and never as mono-therapies,” Burnet tells HuffPost. “It is likely that these compounds will help to manage mental illness… they may also be used when there are metabolic and/or nutritional complications in mental illness, which may be caused by long-term use of current drugs.”

The findings were published in the journal Psychopharmacology.

Gut bacteria from a worm can degrade plastic (Science Daily)

Date: December 3, 2014

Source: American Chemical Society

Summary: Plastic is well-known for sticking around in the environment for years without breaking down, contributing significantly to litter and landfills. But scientists have now discovered that bacteria from the guts of a worm known to munch on food packaging can degrade polyethylene, the most common plastic.The finding could lead to new ways to help get rid of the otherwise persistent waste, the scientists say.

Some bacteria from the guts of waxworms could help us eliminate plastic trash. Credit: ACS

Plastic is well-known for sticking around in the environment for years without breaking down, contributing significantly to litter and landfills. But scientists have now discovered that bacteria from the guts of a worm known to munch on food packaging can degrade polyethylene, the most common plastic. Reported in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology, the finding could lead to new ways to help get rid of the otherwise persistent waste, the scientists say.

Jun Yang and colleagues point out that the global plastics industry churns out about 140 million tons of polyethylene every year. Much of it goes into the bags, bottles and boxes that many of us use regularly — and then throw out. Scientists have been trying to figure out for years how to make this plastic trash go away. Some of the most recent studies have tried siccing bacteria on plastic to degrade it, but these required first exposing the plastic to light or heat. Yang’s team wanted to find bacteria that could degrade polyethylene in one step.

The researchers turned to a plastic-eating moth larva, known as a waxworm. They found that at least two strains of the waxworm’s gut microbes could degrade polyethylene without a pretreatment step. They say the results point toward a new, more direct way to biodegrade plastic.

The authors acknowledge funding from the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the National Basic Research Program of China and the Shenzhen Key Laboratory of Bioenergy.

Journal Reference:

  1. Jun Yang, Yu Yang, Wei-Min Wu, Jiao Zhao, Lei Jiang. Evidence of Polyethylene Biodegradation by Bacterial Strains from the Guts of Plastic-Eating WaxwormsEnvironmental Science & Technology, 2014; 48 (23): 13776 DOI: 10.1021/es504038a

Gut microbiota influences blood-brain barrier permeability (Science Daily)

Date: November 19, 2014

Source: Karolinska Institutet

Summary: Our natural gut-residing microbes can influence the integrity of the blood-brain barrier, which protects the brain from harmful substances in the blood, a new study in mice shows. The blood-brain barrier is a highly selective barrier that prevents unwanted molecules and cells from entering the brain from the bloodstream.


Uptake of the substance Raclopride in the brain of germ-free versus conventional mice. Credit: Miklos Toth

A new study in mice, conducted by researchers at Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet together with colleagues in Singapore and the United States, shows that our natural gut-residing microbes can influence the integrity of the blood-brain barrier, which protects the brain from harmful substances in the blood. According to the authors, the findings provide experimental evidence that our indigenous microbes contribute to the mechanism that closes the blood-brain barrier before birth. The results also support previous observations that gut microbiota can impact brain development and function.

The blood-brain barrier is a highly selective barrier that prevents unwanted molecules and cells from entering the brain from the bloodstream. In the current study, being published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, the international interdisciplinary research team demonstrates that the transport of molecules across the blood-brain barrier can be modulated by gut microbes — which therefore play an important role in the protection of the brain.

The investigators reached this conclusion by comparing the integrity and development of the blood-brain barrier between two groups of mice: the first group was raised in an environment where they were exposed to normal bacteria, and the second (called germ-free mice) was kept in a sterile environment without any bacteria.

“We showed that the presence of the maternal gut microbiota during late pregnancy blocked the passage of labeled antibodies from the circulation into the brain parenchyma of the growing fetus,” says first author Dr. Viorica Braniste at the Department of Microbiology, Tumor and Cell Biology at Karolinska Institutet. “In contrast, in age-matched fetuses from germ-free mothers, these labeled antibodies easily crossed the blood-brain barrier and was detected within the brain parenchyma.”

The team also showed that the increased ‘leakiness’ of the blood-brain barrier, observed in germ-free mice from early life, was maintained into adulthood. Interestingly, this ‘leakiness’ could be abrogated if the mice were exposed to fecal transplantation of normal gut microbes. The precise molecular mechanisms remain to be identified. However, the team was able to show that so-called tight junction proteins, which are known to be important for the blood-brain barrier permeability, did undergo structural changes and had altered levels of expression in the absence of bacteria.

According to the researchers, the findings provide experimental evidence that alterations of our indigenous microbiota may have far-reaching consequences for the blood-brain barrier function throughout life.

“These findings further underscore the importance of the maternal microbes during early life and that our bacteria are an integrated component of our body physiology,” says Professor Sven Pettersson, the principal investigator at the Department of Microbiology, Tumor and Cell Biology. “Given that the microbiome composition and diversity change over time, it is tempting to speculate that the blood-brain barrier integrity also may fluctuate depending on the microbiome. This knowledge may be used to develop new ways for opening the blood-brain-barrier to increase the efficacy of the brain cancer drugs and for the design of treatment regimes that strengthens the integrity of the blood-brain barrier.”


Journal Reference:

  1. V. Braniste, M. Al-Asmakh, C. Kowal, F. Anuar, A. Abbaspour, M. Toth, A. Korecka, N. Bakocevic, N. L. Guan, P. Kundu, B. Gulyas, C. Halldin, K. Hultenby, H. Nilsson, H. Hebert, B. T. Volpe, B. Diamond, S. Pettersson. The gut microbiota influences blood-brain barrier permeability in miceScience Translational Medicine, 2014; 6 (263): 263ra158 DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3009759

How the bacteria in our gut affect our cravings for food (Conversation)

November 6 2014, 10.00pm EST

Vincent Ho

Gut bacteria can manufacture special proteins that are very similar to hunger-regulating hormones. Lighthunter/Shutterstock

We’ve long known that that the gut is responsible for digesting food and expelling the waste. More recently, we realised the gut has many more important functions and acts a type of mini-brain, affecting our mood and appetite. Now, new research suggests it might also play a role in our cravings for certain types of food.

How does the mini-brain work?

The gut mini-brain produces a wide range of hormones and contains many of the same neurotransmitters as the brain. The gut also contains neurons that are located in the walls of the gut in a distributed network known as the enteric nervous system. In fact, there are more of these neurons in the gut than in the entire spinal cord.

The enteric nervous system communicates to the brain via the brain-gut axis and signals flow in both directions. The brain-gut axis is thought to be involved in many regular functions and systems within the healthy body, including the regulation of eating.

Let’s consider what happens to the brain-gut axis when we eat a meal. When food arrives in the stomach, certain gut hormones are secreted. These activate signalling pathways from the gut to the brainstem and the hypothalamus to stop food consumption. Such hormones include the appetite-suppressing hormones peptide YY and cholecystokinin.

Gut hormones can bind and activate receptor targets in the brain directly but there is strong evidence that the vagus nerve plays a major role in brain-gut signalling. The vagus nerve acts as a major highway in the brain-gut axis, connecting the over 100 million neurons in the enteric nervous system to the medulla (located at the base of the brain).

Research has shown that vagus nerve blockade can lead to marked weight loss, while vagus nerve stimulation is known to trigger excessive eating in rats.

This brings us to the topic of food cravings. Scientists have largely debunked the myth that food cravings are our bodies’ way of letting us know that we need a specific type of nutrient. Instead, an emerging body of research suggests that our food cravings may actually be significantly shaped by the bacteria that we have inside our gut. In order to explore this further we will cover the role of gut microbes.

Gut microbiota

As many as 90% of our cells are bacterial. In fact, bacterial genes outnumber human genes by a factor of 100 to one.

The gut is an immensely complex microbial ecosystem with many different species of bacteria, some of which can live in an oxygen-free environment. An average person has approximately 1.5 kilograms of gut bacteria. The term “gut microbiota” is used to describe the bacterial collective.

We each have around 1.5kg of bacteria in our guts. Christopher PooleyCC BY

Gut microbiota send signals to the brain via the brain-gut axis and can have dramatic effects on animal behaviour and health.

In one study, for example, mice that were genetically predisposed to obesity remained lean when they were raised in a sterile environment without gut microbiota. These germ-free mice were, however, transformed into obese mice when fed a faecal pellet that came from an obese mouse raised conventionally.

The role of gut microbiota in food cravings

There is growing evidence to support the role of gut microbiota in influencing why we crave certain foods.

We know that mice that are bred in germ-free environments prefer more sweets and have greater number of sweet taste receptors in their gut compared to normal mice. Research has also found that persons who are “chocolate desiring” have microbial breakdown products in their urine that are different from those of “chocolate indifferent individuals” despite eating identical diets.

Many gut bacteria can manufacture special proteins (called peptides) that are very similar to hormones such as peptide YY and ghrelin that regulate hunger. Humans and other animals have produced antibodies against these peptides. This raises the distinct possibility that microbes might be able to directly influence human eating behaviour through their peptides that mimic hunger-regulating hormones or indirectly through antibodies that can interfere with appetite regulation.

Practical implications

There are substantial challenges to overcome before we can apply this knowledge about gut microbiota in a practical sense.

First, there is the challenge of collecting the gut microbes. Traditionally this is collected from stools but gut microbiota is known to vary between different regions of the gut, such as the small intestine and colon. Obtaining bacterial tissue through endoscopy or another invasive collection technique in addition to stool samples may lead to more accurate representation of the gut microbiome.

Second, the type of sequencing that is currently used for gut microbiota screening is expensive and time-consuming. Advances will need to be made before this technology is in routine use.

Probably the greatest challenge in gut microbiota research is the establishment of a strong correlation between gut microbiota patterns and human disease. The science of gut microbiota is in its infancy and there needs to be much more research mapping out disease relationships.

Probiotics contain live microorganisms. Quanthem/Shutterstock

But there is reason to be hopeful. There is now strong interest in utilising both prebiotics and probiotics to alter our gut micro biome. Prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrates that trigger the growth of beneficial gut bacteria, while probiotics are beneficial live microorganisms contained in foods and supplements.

Faecal transplantation is also now an accepted treatment for those patients that have a severe form of gut bacterial infection called Clostridium difficile, which has been unresponsive to antibiotics.

The use of such targeted strategies is likely to become increasingly common as we better understand how gut microbiota influence our bodily functions, including food cravings.

Change your walking style, change your mood (Science Daily)

Date: October 15, 2014

Source: Canadian Institute for Advanced Research

Summary: Our mood can affect how we walk — slump-shouldered if we’re sad, bouncing along if we’re happy. Now researchers have shown it works the other way too — making people imitate a happy or sad way of walking actually affects their mood.

Man walking (stock image). Subjects in this study who were prompted to walk in a more depressed style, with less arm movement and their shoulders rolled forward, experienced worse moods than those who were induced to walk in a happier style. Credit: © connel_design / Fotolia

Our mood can affect how we walk — slump-shouldered if we’re sad, bouncing along if we’re happy. Now researchers have shown it works the other way too — making people imitate a happy or sad way of walking actually affects their mood.

Subjects who were prompted to walk in a more depressed style, with less arm movement and their shoulders rolled forward, experienced worse moods than those who were induced to walk in a happier style, according to the study published in theJournal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry.

CIFAR Senior Fellow Nikolaus Troje (Queen’s University), a co-author on the paper, has shown in past research that depressed people move very differently than happy people.

“It is not surprising that our mood, the way we feel, affects how we walk, but we want to see whether the way we move also affects how we feel,” Troje says.

He and his colleagues showed subjects a list of positive and negative words, such as “pretty,” “afraid” and “anxious” and then asked them to walk on a treadmill while they measured their gait and posture. A screen showed the subjects a gauge that moved left or right depending on whether their walking style was more depressed or happier. But the subjects didn’t know what the gauge was measuring. Researchers told some subjects to try and move the gauge left, while others were told to move it right.

“They would learn very quickly to walk the way we wanted them to walk,” Troje says.

Afterward, the subjects had to write down as many words as they could remember from the earlier list of positive and negative words. Those who had been walking in a depressed style remembered many more negative words. The difference in recall suggests that the depressed walking style actually created a more depressed mood.

The study builds on our understanding of how mood can affect memory. Clinically depressed patients are known to remember negative events, particularly those about themselves, much more than positive life events, Troje says. And remembering the bad makes them feel even worse.

“If you can break that self-perpetuating cycle, you might have a strong therapeutic tool to work with depressive patients.”

The study also contributes to the questions asked in CIFAR’s Neural Computation & Adaptive Perception program, which aims to unlock the mystery of how our brains convert sensory stimuli into information and to recreate human-style learning in computers.

“As social animals we spend so much time watching other people, and we are experts at retrieving information about other people from all sorts of different sources,” Troje says. Those sources include facial expression, posture and body movement. Developing a better understanding of the biological algorithms in our brains that process stimuli — including information from our own movements — can help researchers develop better artificial intelligence, while learning more about ourselves in the process.


Journal Reference:

  1. Johannes Michalak, Katharina Rohde, Nikolaus F. Troje. How we walk affects what we remember: Gait modifications through biofeedback change negative affective memory bias. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 2015; 46: 121 DOI: 10.1016/j.jbtep.2014.09.004

Guy Debord e a clandestinidade da vida privada. (Prólogo de “O Uso dos Corpos” de Giorgio Agamben) (Obeissance est morte)

Outubro 13, 2014

Foi este mês lançado em Itália “L’Uso dei Corpi” de Giorgio Agamben. Com este volume Agamben termina a sua série “Homo Sacer”, iniciada em 1995 com a publicação de “Homo Sacer: O Poder Soberano e a Vida Nua”. Deixamos aqui uma tradução apressada do seu prólogo, um olhar extremamente lúcido sobre a figura de Guy Debord. 

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1. É curioso como em Guy Debord uma consciência lúcida da insuficiência da vida privada era acompanhada pela mais ou menos consciente convicção de que existia, na sua própria existência ou na dos seus amigos, algo de único e de exemplar, que exigia ser recordado e comunicado. Já em Critique de La séparation Debord evoca, enquanto algo de certo modo intransmissível, “essa clandestinidade da vida privada sobre a qual nunca temos mais do que documentos derisórios”; E todavia nos seus primeiros filmes e ainda em Panégyrique não cessam de desfilar os rostos dos seus amigos um após outro, o de Asger Jorn, o de Maurice Wyckaert, o de Ivan Chtcheglov, e finalmente a sua própria cara, junto às das mulheres que amou. E não só, em Panégyrique surgem também as casas que habitou, o nº 28 da via delle Caldeie em Florença, a casa de campo em Champot, o Square des missions étrangères em Paris (na verdade o nº 109 da rue du Bac, o seu último endereço parisiense, na sala do qual uma fotografia de 1984 o retrata sentado num divã de couro inglês que parecia agradar-lhe).

Dá-se aqui uma contradição central, que os situacionistas não conseguiram superar e, simultaneamente algo de precioso que exige ser retomado e desenvolvido: talvez a obscura e inconfessada consciência de que o elemento genuinamente político consiste exactamente nesta incomunicável e quase ridícula clandestinidade da vida privada. Já que mesmo essa – a vida clandestina, a nossa foma-de-vida – é tão intima e próxima, que se a tentamos capturar nos deixa nas mãos apenas a impenetrável e tediosa quotidianidade. E todavia talvez seja mesmo esta homónima, promíscua e sombria presença a custodiar o segredo da política. A outra face do arcanum imperii na qual naufraga toda a biografia e toda a revolução. E Guy, que era tão hábil e perspicaz quando tinha de analisar e descrever as formas alienadas da existência na sociedade espectacular, é então assim tão cândido e impotente quando tenta comunicar a forma da sua vida e quando tenta olhar na cara e explodir a clandestinidade com a qual partilhou a viagem até ao último momento.

2. In Girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978) abre com uma declaração de guerra contra o seu tempo e prossegue com uma análise inexorável das condições de vida que a sociedade mercantil no estádio supremo do seu desenvolvimento instaurou sobre a totalidade do planeta. Inesperadamente a meio do filme a descrição detalhada e impiedosa cessa para dar lugar à evocação melancólica e quase débil das memórias e eventos pessoais que antecipam a intenção declaradamente autobiográfica dePanégyrique. Guy recorda a Paris da sua juventude, que já não existe, em cujas ruas e cafés tinha partido com os seus amigos em obstinada busca desse “Graal nefasto, que ninguém deseja”. Embora o Graal em questão, “fugazmente vislumbrado”, mas nunca “encontrado”, tivesse indiscutivelmente um significado político, já que os que o procuravam “se encontraram capazes de compreender a vida falsa à luz da verdadeira”, o tom da comemoração, marcado por citações da Eclisiastes, de Omar Khayyan, de Shakespeare e de Bossuet, é no entanto indiscutivelmente nostálgico e sombrio: “a meio do caminho da verdadeira vida, fomos rodeados por uma melancolia escura, expressa por palavras tristes e de escárnio, no café da juventude perdida”. Desta juventude perdida, Guy recorda a desordem, os amigos e os amores (“como não recordar os bandidos charmosos e as prostitutas orgulhosas com quem habitei esses ambientes duvidosos”), enquanto no ecrã surgem imagens de Gil J. Wolman, de Ghislain de Marbaix, de Pinot-Gallizio, de Attila Kotanyi e de Donald Nicholson-Smith. Mas é no fim do filme que o impulso autobiográfico reaparece com mais força e a visão de Florença quando era livre se entrança com as imagens da vida privada de Guy e das mulheres com quem viveu nessa cidade na década de setenta. Veem-se depois passar rapidamente as casas onde Guy viveu, o Impasse de Clairvaux, a rue St Jacques, a rue St. Martin, uma igreja em Chianti, Champot e, mais uma vez, os rostos dos amigos, enquanto se escutam as palavras da canção de Gilles em Les Visiteurs du soir: “Tristes enfants perdus, nous errions dan la nuit…”. E, poucas sequências antes do final, os retratos de Guy aos 19, 25, 27, 31, e 45. O nefasto Graal, do qual os situacionistas partiram em busca, concerne não apenas a política, mas de certo modo também a clandestinidade da vida privada, da qual o filme não hesita em exibir, aparentemente sem pudor, os “documentos ridículos”.

3. A intenção autobiográfica estava, de resto, já presente no palíndromo que dá nome ao filme. Logo após invocar a sua juventude perdida, Guy acrescenta que nada expressa melhor o dispêndio do que esta “antiga frase construída letra após letra como um labirinto sem saída, de modo a recordar perfeitamente a forma e o conteúdo da perda: in girum imus nocte et consumimur igni ‘Andamos em circulo pela noite e somos devorados pelo fogo’”.

A frase, definida por vezes como o “verso do diabo”, provém, na verdade, segundo uma cursiva indicação de Heckscher, da literatura emblemática e refere-se às traças inexoravelmente atraídas pela chama da vela que as consumirá. Um emblema é composto por uma impresa – uma frase ou um mote – e por uma imagem; nos livros que pude consultar, a imagem da traça devorada pelo fogo surge frequentemente, nunca associada ao livro em questão mas sim a frases que se referem à paixão amorosa (“assim o prazer vivo conduz à morte”, “assim de bem amar porto tempestuoso”) ou, em casos mais raros, à imprudência na política ou na guerra (“non temere est cuiquam temptanda potentia regis”, “temere ac periculose”). Nos Amorum emblemata de Otto van Veen (1608), a contemplar as traças que se precipitam em direção à chama da vela está um amor alado e a impresa diz: brevis et damnosa voluptas.

É provável, então, que Guy, escolhendo o palíndromo enquanto título, paragonasse a si próprio e aos seus companheiros às traças, que amorosamente e temerariamente atraídas pela luz estão destinadas a perder-se e a consumir-se no fogo. Na Ideologia Alemã – uma obra que Guy conhecia perfeitamente – Marx evoca criticamente a mesma imagem: “e é assim que as borboletas noturnas, quando o sol do universal se põe, procuram a luz de lâmpada do particular”. Tanto mais singular é que, apesar desta advertência, Guy tenha continuado a seguir esta luz, a espiar obstinadamente a chama da existência singular e privada.

4. No final dos anos noventa, nas bancas de uma livraria parisiense, o segundo volume dePanégyrique, contendo a iconografia, estava exposto – por acaso ou por intenção irónica do livreiro – ao lado da autobiografia de Paul Ricouer. Nada é mais instrutivo do que comparar o uso das imagens em ambos os casos. Enquanto as fotografias do livro de Ricoeur retratam o filósofo exclusivamente no decurso de convénios académicos, como se ele não tivesse tido outra vida fora deles, as imagens de Panégyrique pretendiam um estatuto de verdade biográfica que observava a existência do autor em todos os seus aspectos. “A ilustração autêntica”, adverte a curta promessa, “ilumina o discurso verdadeiro… saberemos finalmente então qual a minha aparência em diferentes idades; e que tipo de rostos sempre me rodearam; e que lugares habitei…”. Uma vez mais, não obstante a evidente insuficiência e banalidade dos seus documentos, a vida – a vida clandestina – está em primeiro plano.

5. Uma noite, em Paris, Alice, quando lhe disse que muitos jovens em Itália continuavam interessados nos escritos de Guy e que esperavam dele uma palavra, repondeu: “Existimos, deveria ser-lhes suficiente”. Que queria dizer “existimos”? Nesses anos viviam isolados e sem telefone entre Paris e Champot, de certo modo com os olhos postos no passado, e a sua “existência” estava, por assim dizer, totalmente achatada na “clandestinidade da vida privada”.

No entanto, ainda um pouco antes do seu suicídio em novembro de 1994, o titulo do seu último filme preparado para o Canal Plus: Guy Debord, son art, son temps não parece – apesar do esse son art realmente inesperado – de todo irónico na sua intenção biográfica e, antes de se concentrar com extraordinária veemência no horror do “seu tempo”, esta espécie de testamento espiritual reitera com o mesmo candor e as mesmas velhas fotografias a evocação nostálgica da vida transcorrida.

O que significa então “existimos”? A existência – este conceito fundamental na primeira filosofia do ocidente – terá talvez constituitivamente a ver com a vida. “Ser”, escreve Aristóteles, “para os vivos significa viver”. E, alguns séculos depois, Nietzsche precisa: “ser: não temos outra representação que viver”. Trazer à luz – fora de qualquer vitalismo – o intimo cruzamente de ser e existir: esta é certamente hoje a tarefa do pensamento (e da política)

6. A Sociedade do Espectáculo abre com a palavra “vida” (“Toda a vida das sociedades nas quais reinam as condições modernas de produção se anuncia como uma imensa acumulação de espectáculos) e até ao último momento as análises do livro não cessam de pôr em causa a vida. O espectáculo, onde “tudo o que era directamente vivido se distancia numa representação”, é definido enquanto uma “inversão concreta da vida”. “Quanto mais a vida do homem se torna no seu produto, tanto mais ele é separado da sua vida”. A vida nas condições espectaculares é uma “falsa vida”, uma “sobrevivência” ou um “pseudo-uso da vida”. Contra esta vida alienada e separada, é postulado algo que Guy chama “vida histórica”, que surge logo no renascimento como uma “ruptura alegre com a eternidade”: “na vida exuberante das cidades italianas… a vida é conhecida enquanto um disfrute da passagem do tempo”. Anos antes, em Sur le passage de qualques personnes e em Critique de la séparation, Guy afirma de si e dos seus companheiros que “queriam reinventar tudo todos os dias, tornar-se patrões e donos da sua própria vida”, e que os seus encontros eram como “sinais provenientes de uma vida mais intensa, que nunca foi verdadeiramente encontrada”.

O que fosse esta vida “mais intensa”, o que era arruinado ou falsificado no espectáculo ou simplesmente o que deve ser entendido por “vida na sociedade” não é esclarecido em qualquer momento; e no entanto seria demasiado fácil censurar ao autor incoerência ou imprecisão terminológica. Guy não faz que repetir uma postura constante na nossa cultura, na qual a vida não é nunca definida enquanto tal, mas é recorrentemente dividida em Bios e Zoè, vida politicamente qualificada e vida nua, vida pública e vida privada, vida vegetativa e vida de relação, num modo em que nenhuma das partições é determinável senão na sua relação com a outra. E é talvez em última análise exactamente o indecidível da vida que faz com que ela seja sempre de novo decidida singular e politicamente. E a indecisão de Guy entre a clandestinidade da sua vida privada – que, com o passar do tempo, devia parecer-lhe mais fugidia e indocumentável – e a vida histórica, entre a sua vida individual e a época obscura e irrenunciável na qual ela esteve inscrita, traduz uma dificuldade que, pelo menos nas condições presentes, ninguém se pode iludir de ter resolvido de uma vez por todas. De qualquer modo, o Graal obstinadamente procurado, a vida que inutilmente se consome na chama, não era reduzível a nenhum dos termos opostos, nem à idiotez da vida privada nem ao incerto prestígio da vida pública, revogando assim a questão da própria possibilidade de as distinguir.

Ivan Illich observou que a noção corrente de vida (não “uma vida”, mas “a vida” em geral) é percecionada enquanto “facto científico”, que não tem já qualquer relação com a experiência do vivente singular. A vida é algo anónimo e genérico, que pode designar tanto um espermatozoide, uma pessoa, uma abelha, um urso ou um embrião. Deste “facto científico”, tão genérico que a ciência renunciou a procurar-lhe uma definição, a Igreja fez o último recetáculo do sagrado, e a bioética o termo chave da sua impotente absurdez.

Assim como nessa vida se insinuou um resíduo sacro, a outra, a clandestina, que Guy seguia, tornou-se ainda mais indescritível. A tentativa situacionista de restituir a vida à política esbarra com uma dificuldade posterior, mas não é por isso menos urgente.

O que significa que a vida privada nos acompanhe enquanto uma vida clandestina? Acima de tudo, que está separada de nós como está um clandestino, e do mesmo modo que é de nós inseparável no modo como, enquanto clandestino, partilha subrepticiamente a vida connosco. Esta cisão e inseparabilidade definem tenazmente o estatuto da vida na nossa cultura. A vida é algo que pode ser dividido – e no entanto sempre articulado e reunido numa máquina médica, filosófico-teológica ou biopolítica. Assim não é apenas a vida privada que nos acompanha enquanto clandestina na nossa breve ou longa viagem, mas a própria vida corpórea e tudo o que tradicionalmente se inscreve na esfera da chamada “intimidade”: a nutrição, a digestão, o urinar, o defecar, o sono, a sexualidade… E o peso desta companheira sem cara é tão forte que todos o procuramos partilhar com um outro – e todavia a estranheza e a clandestinidade nunca desaparecem e permanecem irresolúveis até na mais amorosa das convivências. A vida aqui é verdadeiramente como a raposa roubada que o rapaz esconde sob as suas roupas e não pode confessar ainda que lhe dilacere atrozmente a carne.

É como se cada um sentisse obscuramente que a própria opacidade da vida clandestina encerra em si um elemento genuinamente político, e como tal por excelência partilhável – e todavia, se o tentamos partilhar, foge obstinadamente à sua prisão e não deixa senão um resíduo ridículo e incomunicável. O castelo de Silling, no qual o poder político não tem outro objecto que a vida vegetativa dos corpos é neste sentido a figura da verdade e, do mesmo modo, o fracasso da política moderna – que é na verdade uma biopolítica. Ocorre mudar a vida, levar a política ao quotidiano – e no entanto, no quotidiano, o político não pode senão naufragar.

E quando, como sucede hoje, o eclipse da política e da esfera pública não deixa subsistir senão o privado e a vida nua, a vida clandestina, que se torna a única dona do campo, deve, enquanto privada, publicitar-se e tentar comunicar os seus próprios já não risíveis (e todavia ainda tais) documentos que coincidem agora imediatamente com ela, com as suas jornadas indistintas filmadas ao vivo e transmitidas pelos ecrãs aos outros, uma após a outra.

E, no entanto, apenas se o pensamento for capaz de encontrar o elemento político que se escondeu na clandestinidade da existência singular, apenas se para lá da cisão entre público e privado, política e biografia, zoè e bios, for possível delinear os contornos de uma forma de vida e de um uso comum dos corpos, a política poderá sair do seu mutismo e da biografia individual da sua idiotez.

Doing math with your body (Science Daily)

Date: October 2, 2014

Source: Radboud University

Summary: You do math in your head most of the time, but you can also teach your body how to do it. Researchers investigated how our brain processes and understands numbers and number size. They show that movements and sensory perception help us understand numbers.


In this example the physically largest number (2) is the smallest in terms of meaning. It was harder for test subjects to identify a 2 as the physically largest number then it was for them to identify a 9 as the largest number. Credit: Image courtesy of Radboud University

You do math in your head most of the time, but you can also teach your body how to do it. Florian Krause investigated how our brain processes and understands numbers and number size. He shows that movements and sensory perception help us understand numbers. Krause defends his thesis on October 10 at Radboud University.

When learning to do math, it helps to see that two marbles take up less space than twenty. Or to feel that a bag with ten apples weighs more than a bag with just one. During his PhD at Radboud University’s Donders Institute, Krause investigated which brain areas represent size and how these areas work together. He concludes that number size is associated with sizes experienced by our body.

Physically perceived size

Krause asked tests subjects to find the physically largest number in an image with eighteen numbers. Sometimes this number was also the largest in terms of meaning, but sometimes it wasn’t. Subjects found the largest number faster when it was also the largest in terms of meaning. ‘This shows how sensory information about small and large is associated with our understanding of numbers’, Krause says. ‘Combining this knowledge about size makes our processing of numbers more effective.’

More fruit, more force

Even very young children have a sensory understanding of size. In a computer game, Krause asked them to lift up a platform carrying a few or many pieces of fruit by pressing a button. Although the amount of force applied to the button did not matter — simply pressing it was adequate — children pushed harder when there was a lot of fruit on the platform and less hard when there was little fruit on the platform.

Applications in education

Krause believes his results can provide applications in math education. ‘If numerical size and other body-related size information are indeed represented together in the brain, strengthening this link during education might be beneficial. For instance by using a ‘rekenstok’ which makes you experience how long a meter or ten centimeter is when holding it with both hands. This general idea can be extended to other experiencable magnitudes besides spatial length, by developing tools which make you see an amount of light or hear an amount of sound that correlates with the number size in a calculation.’

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola (Slate)

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Photo by John Moore/Getty ImagesSuspected Ebola patient Finda “Zanabo” prays over her sick family members before being admitted to the Doctors Without Borders Ebola treatment center on Aug. 21, 2014, near Monrovia, Liberia. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

As the Ebola epidemic in West Africa has spiraled out of control, affecting thousands of Liberians, Sierra Leonians, and Guineans, and threatening thousands more, the world’s reaction has been glacially, lethally slow. Only in the past few weeks have heads of state begun to take serious notice. To date, the virus has killed more than 2,600 people. This is a comparatively small number when measured against much more established diseases such as malaria,HIV/AIDS, influenza, and so on, but several factors about this outbreak have some of the world’s top health professionals gravely concerned:

  • Its kill rate: In this particular outbreak, a running tabulation suggests that 54 percent of the infected die, though adjusted numbers suggest that the rate is much higher.
  • Its exponential growth: At this point, the number of people infected is doubling approximately every three weeks, leading some epidemiologists to projectbetween 77,000 and 277,000 cases by the end of 2014.
  • The gruesomeness with which it kills: by hijacking cells and migrating throughout the body to affect all organs, causing victims to bleed profusely.
  • The ease with which it is transmitted: through contact with bodily fluids, including sweat, tears, saliva, blood, urine, semen, etc., including objects that have come in contact with bodily fluids (such as bed sheets, clothing, and needles) and corpses.
  • The threat of mutation: Prominent figures have expressed serious concerns that this disease will go airborne, and there are many other mechanisms through which mutation might make it much more transmissible.

Terrifying as these factors are, it is not clear to me that any of them capture what is truly, horribly tragic about this disease.

The most striking thing about the virus is the way in which it propagates. True, through bodily fluids, but to suggest as much is to ignore the conditions under which bodily contact occurs. Instead, the mechanism Ebola exploits is far more insidious. This virus preys on care and love, piggybacking on the deepest, most distinctively human virtues. Affected parties are almost all medical professionals and family members, snared by Ebola while in the business of caring for their fellow humans. More strikingly, 75 percent of Ebola victims are women, people who do much of the care work throughout Africa and the rest of the world. In short, Ebola parasitizes our humanity.

More than most other pandemic diseases (malaria, cholera, plague, etc.) and more than airborne diseases (influenza, swine flu, H5N1, etc.) that are transmitted indiscriminately through the air, this disease is passed through very minute amounts of bodily fluid. Just a slip of contact with the infected party and the caregiver herself can be stricken.

The images coming from Africa are chilling. Little boys, left alone in the street without parents, shivering and sick, untouchable by the throngs of people around them. Grown men, writhing at the door to a hospital, hoping for care as their parents stand helplessly, wondering how to help. Mothers and fathers, fighting weakness and exhaustion to move to the edge of a tent in order to catch a distant, final glimpse of a get-well video that their children have made for them.

If Ebola is not stopped, this disease can destroy whole families within a month, relatives of those families shortly thereafter, friends of those relatives after that, and on and on. As it takes hold (and it is taking hold fast), it cuts out the heart of family and civilization. More than the profuse bleeding and high kill rate, this is why the disease is terrifying. Ebola sunders the bonds that make us human.

Aid providers are now working fastidiously to sever these ties themselves, fighting hopelessly against the natural inclinations that people have to love and care for the ill. They have launched aggressive public information campaigns, distributedupdates widely, called for more equipment and gear, summoned the military, tried to rein in the hysteria, and so on. Yet no sheet of plastic or latex can disrupt these human inclinations.

Such heroic efforts are the appropriate medical response to a virulent public health catastrophe. The public health community is doing an incredible job, facing unbelievable risks, relying on extremely limited resources. Yet these efforts can only do half of the work. Infected parties—not all, to be sure, but some (enough)—cannot abide by the rules of disease isolation. Some will act without donning protective clothing. Some will assist without taking proper measures. And still others will refuse to enter isolation units because doing so means leaving their families and their loved ones behind, abandoning their humanity, and subjecting themselves to the terror of dying a sterile, lonely death.

It is tempting, at these times, to focus on the absurd and senseless actions of a few. One of the primary vectors in Sierra Leone is believed to have been a traditional healer who had been telling people that she could cure Ebola. In Monrovia a few weeks back, angry citizens stormed a clinic and removed patients from their care. “There is no Ebola!” they are reported to have been shouting. More recently, the largest newspaper in Liberia published an article suggesting that Ebola is a conspiracy of the United States, aimed to undermine Africa. And, perhaps even more sadly, a team of health workers and journalists was just brutally murdered in Guinea. It is easy, in other words, to blame the spread on stupidity, or illiteracy, or ritualism, or conspiracy theories, or any number of other irrational factors.

Photo by John Moore/Getty ImagesA man checks on a very sick Saah Exco, 10, in a back alley of the West Point slum on Aug. 19, 2014, in Monrovia, Liberia. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

But imagine: You are a parent whose child has suddenly come ill with a fever. Do you cast your child away and refuse to touch him? Do you cover your face and your arms? Stay back! Unclean! Or do you comfort your child when he asks for you, arms outstretched, to make the pain go away?

Imagine: You live in a home with five other family members. Your sister falls ill, ostensibly from Ebola, but possibly from malaria, typhoid, yellow fever, or the flu. You are aware of the danger to yourself and your other family members, but you have no simple means to move her, and she is too weak to move herself. What do you do?

Imagine: You are a child of 5 years old. Your mother is sick. She implores you to back away. But you are scared. What you need, more than anything, is a hug and a cry.

Who can blame a person for this? It is a terrible, awful predicament. A moral predicament. To stay, comfort, and give love and care to those who are in desperate need, or to shuttle them off into an isolation ward, perhaps never to see them again? What an inhumane decision this is.

What makes the Ebola virus so terrifying is not its kill rate, its exponential growth, the gruesome way in which it kills, the ease of transmission, or the threat of mutation, but rather that people who care can do almost nothing but sit on the sidelines and watch.

* * *

Many have asked whether Ebola could come here, come West. (The implication, in its way, is crass—as if to suggest that we need not be concerned about a tragedy unless it poses a threat to us.) We have been reassured that it will never spread widely here, because our public health networks are too strong, our hospitals too well-stocked. The naysayers may be right about this. But they are not right that it does not pose a threat to us.

For starters, despite the pretense, the West is not immune from absurd, unscientific thinking. We have our fair share of scientific illiteracy, skepticism, ritualism, and foolishness. But beyond this, it is our similarities, not our differences, that make us vulnerable to this plague. We are human. Every mechanism we have for caring—touching, holding, feeding, playing, warming, comforting, caressing—every mechanism that we use to bind us to our families and our neighbors, is preyed upon by Ebola. We cannot seal each other into hyperbaric chambers and expect that once we emerge, the carnage will be over. We are humans, and we will care about our children and our families even if it means that we may die in doing so.

The lesson here is a vital one: People do not give up on humanity so very easily. Even if we persuade all of the population to forgo rituals like washing the dead, we will not easily persuade parents to keep from holding their sick children, children from clinging to their ailing parents, or children from playing and wrestling and slobbering all over one another. We tried to alter such behaviors with HIV/AIDS. A seemingly simple edict—“just lay off the sex with infected parties”—would seem all that is required to halt that disease. But we have learned over the decades that people do not give up sex so readily.

If you think curtailing sex is hard, love and compassion will be that much harder. Humans will never give this up—we cannot give this up, for it is fundamental to who we are. The more that medical personnel require this of people without also giving them methods to manifest care, the more care and compassion will manifest in pockets outside of quarantine. And the more humanity that manifests unchecked, the more space this virus has to grow. Unchecked humanity will seep through the cracks and barriers that we build to keep our families safe, and if left to find its own way, will carry a lethal payload.

The problem is double-edged. Ebola threatens humanity by preying on humanity. The seemingly simple solution is to destroy humanity ourselves—to seal everything off and let the disease burn out on its own. But doing so means destroying ourselves in order to save ourselves, which is no solution at all.

Photo by John Moore/Getty ImagesA medical worker in a protective suit works near Ebola patients in a Doctors Without Borders hospital on Sept. 7, 2014, in Monrovia, Liberia. Photo by Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images

We must find a method of caring without touching, of contacting without making contact. The physiological barriers are, for the time being, necessary. But we cannot stop people from caring about one another, so we must create, for the time being, mechanisms for caring. Since we will never be able to beat back humanity, we must coordinate humanity, at the family level, the local level, and the global level.

The only one way to battle a disease that affixes itself parasitically to our humanity is to overwhelm it with greater, stronger humanity. To immunize Africa and the rest of the world with a blast of humanity so powerful that the disease can no longer take root. What it will take to beat this virus is to turn its most powerful vehicle, our most powerful weapon, against it.

Here are some things we can do:

Donate to the great organizations that are working tirelessly to bring this disease under control. They need volunteers, medical supplies, facilities, transportation, food, etc. Share information about Ebola, so people will learn about it, know about it, and know how to address it when it comes. And inform and help others. It is natural at a time of crisis to call for sealing the borders, to build fences and walls that separate us further from outside threats. But a disease that infects humanity cannot easily be walled off in this way. Walling off just creates unprotected pockets of humanity, divisions between us and them: my family, your family; that village, this village; inside, outside.

* * *

One final thing.

When Prince Prospero, ill-fated protagonist of Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Masque of the Red Death,” locked himself in his castle to avoid a contagion that was sweeping his country—a disease that caused “profuse bleeding at the pores”—he assumed mistakenly that the only reasonable solution to his problem was to remove himself from the scene. For months he lived lavishly, surrounded by courtiers, improvisatori, buffoons, musicians, and wine, removed from danger while the pestilence wrought havoc outside.

As with much of Poe’s writing, Prospero’s tale does not end well. For six months, all was calm. He and his courtiers enjoyed their lives, secure and isolated from the plague laying waste to the countryside. Then, one night during a masquerade ball, the Red Death snuck into the castle, hidden behind a mask and a cloak, to afflict Prospero and his revelers, dropping them one by one in the “blood-bedewed halls.” Prospero’s security was a façade, leaving darkness and decay to hold “illimitable dominion over all.” The eventual intrusion that would be his undoing foretells of a danger in believing that we can keep the world’s ills at bay by keeping our distance.

If we seek safety by shutting out the rest of the world, we are in for a brutally ugly awakening. Nature is a cruel mistress, but Ebola is her cruelest, most devious trick yet.

Benjamin Hale is associate professor of philosophy and environmental studies at the University of Colorado–Boulder. He is vice president of the International Society of Environmental Ethics and co-editor of the journal Ethics, Policy & Environment.

Certain gut bacteria may induce metabolic changes following exposure to artificial sweeteners (Science Daily)

Date: September 17, 2014

Source: Weizmann Institute of Science

Summary: Artificial sweeteners have long been promoted as diet and health aids. But breaking research shows that these products may be leading to the very diseases they were said to help prevent: scientists have discovered that, after exposure to artificial sweeteners, our gut bacteria may be triggering harmful metabolic changes.


This image depicts gut microbiota. Credit: Weizmann Institute of Science

Artificial sweeteners — promoted as aids to weight loss and diabetes prevention — could actually hasten the development of glucose intolerance and metabolic disease, and they do so in a surprising way: by changing the composition and function of the gut microbiota — the substantial population of bacteria residing in our intestines. These findings, the results of experiments in mice and humans, were published September 17 in Nature. Dr. Eran Elinav of the Weizmann Institute of Science’s Department of Immunology, who led this research together with Prof. Eran Segal of the Department of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics, says that the widespread use of artificial sweeteners in drinks and food, among other things, may be contributing to the obesity and diabetes epidemic that is sweeping much of the world.

For years, researchers have been puzzling over the fact that non-caloric artificial sweeteners do not seem to assist in weight loss, with some studies suggesting that they may even have an opposite effect. Graduate student Jotham Suez in Dr. Elinav’s lab, who led the study, collaborated with lab member Gili Zilberman-Shapira and graduate students Tal Korem and David Zeevi in Prof. Segal’s lab to discover that artificial sweeteners, even though they do not contain sugar, nonetheless have a direct effect on the body’s ability to utilize glucose. Glucose intolerance — generally thought to occur when the body cannot cope with large amounts of sugar in the diet — is the first step on the path to metabolic syndrome and adult-onset diabetes.

The scientists gave mice water laced with the three most commonly used artificial sweeteners, in amounts equivalent to those permitted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These mice developed glucose intolerance, as compared to mice that drank water, or even sugar water. Repeating the experiment with different types of mice and different doses of the artificial sweeteners produced the same results — these substances were somehow inducing glucose intolerance.

Next, the researchers investigated a hypothesis that the gut microbiota are involved in this phenomenon. They thought the bacteria might do this by reacting to new substances like artificial sweeteners, which the body itself may not recognize as “food.” Indeed, artificial sweeteners are not absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract, but in passing through they encounter trillions of the bacteria in the gut microbiota.

The researchers treated mice with antibiotics to eradicate many of their gut bacteria; this resulted in a full reversal of the artificial sweeteners’ effects on glucose metabolism. Next, they transferred the microbiota from mice that consumed artificial sweeteners to “germ-free,” or sterile, mice — resulting in a complete transmission of the glucose intolerance into the recipient mice. This, in itself, was conclusive proof that changes to the gut bacteria are directly responsible for the harmful effects to their host’s metabolism. The group even found that incubating the microbiota outside the body, together with artificial sweeteners, was sufficient to induce glucose intolerance in the sterile mice. A detailed characterization of the microbiota in these mice revealed profound changes to their bacterial populations, including new microbial functions that are known to infer a propensity to obesity, diabetes, and complications of these problems in both mice and humans.

Does the human microbiome function in the same way? Dr. Elinav and Prof. Segal had a means to test this as well. As a first step, they looked at data collected from their Personalized Nutrition Project (www.personalnutrition.org), the largest human trial to date to look at the connection between nutrition and microbiota. Here, they uncovered a significant association between self-reported consumption of artificial sweeteners, personal configurations of gut bacteria, and the propensity for glucose intolerance. They next conducted a controlled experiment, asking a group of volunteers who did not generally eat or drink artificially sweetened foods to consume them for a week, and then undergo tests of their glucose levels and gut microbiota compositions.

The findings showed that many — but not all — of the volunteers had begun to develop glucose intolerance after just one week of artificial sweetener consumption. The composition of their gut microbiota explained the difference: the researchers discovered two different populations of human gut bacteria — one that induced glucose intolerance when exposed to the sweeteners, and one that had no effect either way. Dr. Elinav believes that certain bacteria in the guts of those who developed glucose intolerance reacted to the chemical sweeteners by secreting substances that then provoked an inflammatory response similar to sugar overdose, promoting changes in the body’s ability to utilize sugar.

Prof. Segal states, “The results of our experiments highlight the importance of personalized medicine and nutrition to our overall health. We believe that an integrated analysis of individualized ‘big data’ from our genome, microbiome, and dietary habits could transform our ability to understand how foods and nutritional supplements affect a person’s health and risk of disease.”

According to Dr. Elinav, “Our relationship with our own individual mix of gut bacteria is a huge factor in determining how the food we eat affects us. Especially intriguing is the link between use of artificial sweeteners — through the bacteria in our guts — to a tendency to develop the very disorders they were designed to prevent; this calls for reassessment of today’s massive, unsupervised consumption of these substances.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Jotham Suez, Tal Korem, David Zeevi, Gili Zilberman-Schapira, Christoph A. Thaiss, Ori Maza, David Israeli, Niv Zmora, Shlomit Gilad, Adina Weinberger, Yael Kuperman, Alon Harmelin, Ilana Kolodkin-Gal, Hagit Shapiro, Zamir Halpern, Eran Segal, Eran Elinav. Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota. Nature, 2014; DOI: 10.1038/nature13793

Physicists, alchemists, and ayahuasca shamans: A study of grammar and the body (Cultural Admixtures)

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Are there any common denominators that may underlie the practices of leading physicists and scientists, Renaissance alchemists, and indigenous Amazonian ayahuasca healers? There are obviously a myriad of things that these practices do not have in common. Yet through an analysis of the body and the senses and styles of grammar and social practice, these seemingly very different modes of existence may be triangulated to reveal a curious set of logics at play. Ways in which practitioners identify their subjectivities (or ‘self’) with nonhuman entities and ‘natural’ processes are detailed in the three contexts. A logic of identification illustrates similarities, and also differences, in the practices of advanced physics, Renaissance alchemy, and ayahuasca healing.

Physics and the “I” and “You” of experimentation

physics-physicists-wallpaper-physics-31670037-530-425

A small group of physicists at a leading American university in the early 1990s are investigating magnetic temporality and atomic spins in a crystalline lattice; undertaking experiments within the field of condensed matter physics. The scientists collaborate together, presenting experimental or theoretical findings on blackboards, overhead projectors, printed pages and various other forms of visual media. Miguel, a researcher, describes to a colleague the experiments he has just conducted. He points down and then up across a visual representation of the experiment while describing an aspect of the experiment, “We lowered the field [and] raised the field”. In response, his collaborator Ron replies using what is a common type of informal scientific language. The language-style identifies, conflates, or brings-together the researcher with the object being researched. In the following reply, the pronoun ‘he’ refers to both Miguel and the object or process under investigation: Ron asks, “Is there a possibility that he hasn’t seen anything real? I mean is there a [he points to the diagram]“. Miguel sharply interjects “I-, i-, it is possible… I am amazed by his measurement because when I come down I’m in the domain state”. Here Miguel is referring to a physical process of temperature change; a cooling that moves ‘down’ to the ‘domain state’. Ron replies, “You quench from five to two tesla, a magnet, a superconducting magnet”.  What is central here in regards to the common denominators explored in this paper is the way in which the scientists collaborate with certain figurative styles of language that blur the borders between physicist and physical process or state.

The collaboration between Miguel and Ron was filmed and examined by linguistic ethnographers Elinor Ochs, Sally Jacoby, and Patrick Gonzales (1994, 1996:328).  In the experiment, the physicists, Ochs et al illustrate, refer to ‘themselves as the thematic agents and experiencers of [the physical] phenomena’ (Osch et al 1996:335). By employing the pronouns ‘you’, ‘he’, and ‘I’ to refer to the physical processes and states under investigation, the physicists identify their own subjectivities, bodies, and investigations with the objects they are studying.

In the physics laboratory, members are trying to understand physical worlds that are not directly accessible by any of their perceptual abilities. To bridge this gap, it seems, they take embodied interpretive journeys across and through see-able, touchable two-dimensional artefacts that conventionally symbolize those worlds… Their sensory-motor gesturing is a means not only of representing (possible) worlds but also of imagining or vicariously experiencing them… Through verbal and gestural (re)enactments of constructed physical processes, physicist and physical entity are conjoined in simultaneous, multiple constructed worlds: the here-and-now interaction, the visual representation, and the represented physical process. The indeterminate grammatical constructions, along with gestural journeys through visual displays, constitute physicist and physical entity as coexperiencers of dynamic processes and, therefore, as coreferents of the personal pronoun. (Ochs et al 1994:163,164)

When Miguel says “I am in the domain state” he is using a type of ‘private, informal scientific discourse’  that has been observed in many other types of scientific practice (Latour & Woolgar 1987; Gilbert & Mulkay 1984 ). This style of erudition and scientific collaboration obviously has become established in state-of-the-art universities given the utility that it provides in regards to empirical problems and the development of scientific ideas.

What could this style of practice have in common with the healing practices of Amazonian shamans drinking the powerful psychoactive brew ayahuasca? Before moving on to an analysis of grammar and the body in types of ayahuasca use, the practice of Renaissance alchemy is introduced given the bridge or resemblance it offers between these scientific practices and certain notions of healing.

Renaissance alchemy, “As above so below”

khunrath-amphitheatrum-engraving

Heinrich Khunrath: 1595 engraving Amphitheatre

Graduating from the Basel Medical Academy in 1588, the physician Heinrich Khunrath defended his thesis that concerns a particular development of the relationship between alchemy and medicine. Inspired by the works of key figures in Roman and Greek medicine, key alchemists and practitioners of the hermetic arts, and key botanists, philosophers and others, Khunrath went on to produced innovative and influential texts and illustrations that informed various trajectories in medical and occult practice.

Alchemy flourished in the Renaissance period and was draw upon by elites such as Queen Elizabeth I and the Holy Emperor of Rome, Rudolf II . Central to the practices of Renaissance alchemists was a belief that all metals sprang from one source deep within the earth and that this process may be reversed and every metal be potentially turned into gold. The process of ‘transmutation’ or reversal of nature, it was claimed, could also lead to the elixir of life, the philosopher’s stone, or eternal youth and immortality. It was a spiritual pursuit of purification and regeneration which depended heavily on natural science experimentation.

Alchemical experiments were typically undertaken in a laboratory and alchemists were often contracted by elites for pragmatic purposes related to mining, medical services, and the production of chemicals, metals, and gemstones (Nummedal 2007). Allison Coudert describes and distills the practice of Renaissance alchemy with a basic overview of the relationship between an alchemist and the ‘natural entities’ of his practice.

All the ingredients mentioned in alchemical recipes—the minerals, metals, acids, compounds, and mixtures—were in truth only one, the alchemist himself. He was the base matter in need of purification from the fire; and the acid needed to accomplish this transformation came from his own spiritual malaise and longing for wholeness and peace. The various alchemical processes… were steps in the mysterious process of spiritual regeneration. (cited in Hanegraaff 1996:395)

The physician-alchemist Khunrath worked within a laboratory/oratory that included various alchemical apparatuses, including ‘smelting equipment for the extraction of metal from ore… glass vessels, ovens… [a] furnace or athanor… [and] a mirror’. Khunrath spoke of using the mirror as a ‘physico-magical instrument for setting a coal or lamp-fire alight by the heat of the sun’ (Forshaw 2005:205). Urszula Szulakowska argues that this use of the mirror embodies the general alchemical process and purpose of Khunruth’s practice. The functions of his practice and his alchemical illustrations and glyphs (such as his engraving Amphitheatre above) are aimed towards various outcomes of transmutation or reversal of nature. Khunruth’s engravings and illustrations,  Szulakowska (2000:9) argues:

are intended to excite the imagination of the viewer so that a mystic alchemy can take place through the act of visual contemplation… Khunrath’s theatre of images, like a mirror, catoptrically reflects the celestial spheres to the human mind, awakening the empathetic faculty of the human spirit which unites, through the imagination, with the heavenly realms. Thus, the visual imagery of Khunrath’s treatises has become the alchemical quintessence, the spiritualized matter of the philosopher’s stone.

Khunrath called himself a ‘lover of both medicines’, referring to the inseparability of material and spiritual forms of medicine.  Illustrating the centrality of alchemical practice in his medical approach, he described his ‘down-to-earth Physical-Chemistry of Nature’ as:

[T]he art of chemically dissolving, purifying and rightly reuniting Physical Things by Nature’s method; the Universal (Macro-Cosmically, the Philosopher’s Stone; Micro-Cosmically, the parts of the human body…) and ALL the particulars of the inferior globe. (cited in Forshaw 2005:205).

In Renaissance alchemy there is a certain kind of laboratory visionary mixing that happens between the human body and the human temperaments and ‘entities’ and processes of the natural world. This is condensed in the hermetic dictum “As above, so below” where the signatures of nature (‘above’) may be found in the human body (‘below’). The experiments involved certain practices of perception, contemplation, and language, that were undertaken in laboratory settings.

The practice of Renaissance alchemy, illustrated in recipes, glyphs, and instructional texts, includes styles of grammar in which minerals, metals, and other natural entities are animated with subjectivity and human temperaments. Lead “wants” or “desires” to transmute into gold; antimony feels a wilful “attraction” to silver (Kaiser 2010; Waite 1894). This form of grammar is entailed in the doctrine of medico-alchemical practice described by Khunrath above. Under certain circumstances and conditions, minerals, metals, and other natural entities may embody aspects of ‘Yourself’, or the subjectivity of the alchemist, and vice versa.

Renaissance alchemical language and practice bares a certain level of resemblance to the contemporary practices of physicists and scientists and the ways in which they identify themselves with the objects and processes of their experiments. The methods of physicists appear to differ considerably insofar as they use metaphors and trade spiritual for figurative approaches when ‘journeying through’ cognitive tasks, embodied gestures, and visual representations of empirical or natural processes. It is no coincidence that contemporary state-of-the-art scientists are employing forms of alchemical language and practice in advanced types of experimentation. Alchemical and hermetic thought and practice were highly influential in the emergence of modern forms of science (Moran 2006; Newman 2006; Hanegraaff 2013).

Ayahuasca shamanism and shapeshifting

ayahuasca-visions_023

Pablo Amaringo

In the Amazon jungle a radically different type of practice to the Renaissance alchemical traditions exists. Yet, as we will see, the practices of indigenous Amazonian shamans and Renaissance alchemists appear to include certain similarities — particularly in terms of the way in which ‘natural entities’ and the subjectivity of the practitioner may merge or swap positions — this is evidenced in the grammar and language of shamanic healing songs and in Amazonian cosmologies more generally.

In the late 1980s, Cambridge anthropologist Graham Townsley was undertaking PhD fieldwork with the indigenous Amazonian Yaminahua on the Yurua river. His research was focused on ways in which forms of social organisation are embedded in cosmology and the practice of everyday life. Yaminahua healing practices are embedded in broad animistic cosmological frames and at the centre of these healing practices is song. ‘What Yaminahua shamans do, above everything else, is sing’, Townsley explains, and this ritual singing is typically done while under the effects of the psychoactive concoction ayahuasca.

The psychoactive drink provides shamans with a means of drawing upon the healing assistance of benevolent spirit persons of the natural world (such as plant-persons, animal-persons, sun-persons etc.) and of banishing malevolent spirit persons that are affecting the wellbeing of a patient. The Yaminahua practice of ayahuasca shamanism resembles broader types of Amazonian shamanism. Shapeshifting, or the metamorphosis of human persons into nonhuman persons (such as jaguar-persons and anaconda-persons) is central to understandings of illness and to practices of healing in various types of Amazonian shamanism (Chaumeil 1992; Praet 2009; Riviere 1994).

The grammatical styles and sensory experiences of indigenous ayahuasca curing rituals and songs bare some similarities with the logic of identification noted in the sections on physics and alchemy above. Townsley (1993) describes a Yaminahua ritual where a shaman attempts to heal a patient that was still bleeding several days after giving birth. The healing songs that the shaman sings (called wai which also means ‘path’ and ‘myth’ orabodes of the spirits) make very little reference to the illness in which they are aimed to heal. The shaman’s songs do not communicate meanings to the patient but they embody complex metaphors and analogies, or what Yaminahua call ‘twisted language’; a language only comprehensible to shamans. There are ‘perceptual resemblances’ that inform the logic of Yaminahua twisted language. For example, “white-collared peccaries” becomes fish given the similarities between the gills of the fish and designs on the peccaries neck. The use of visual or sensory resonance in shamanic song metaphors is not arbitrary but central to the practice Yaminahua ayahuasca healing.

Ayahuasca typically produces a powerful visionary experience. The shaman’s use of complex metaphors in ritual song helps him shape his visions and bring a level of control to the visionary content. Resembling the common denominators and logic of identification explored above, the songs allow the shaman to perceive from the various perspectives that the meanings of the metaphors (or the spirits) afford.

Everything said about shamanic songs points to the fact that as they are sung the shaman actively visualizes the images referred to by the external analogy of the song, but he does this through a carefully controlled “seeing as” the different things actually named by the internal metaphors of his song. This “seeing as” in some way creates a space in which powerful visionary experience can occur. (Townsley 1993:460)

The use of analogies and metaphors provides a particularly powerful means of navigating the visionary experience of ayahuasca. There appears to be a kind of pragmatics involved in the use of metaphor over literal meanings. For instance, a shaman states, “twisted language brings me close but not too close [to the meanings of the metaphors]–with normal words I would crash into things–with twisted ones I circle around them–I can see them clearly” (Townsley 1993:460). Through this method of “seeing as”, the shaman embodies a variety of animal and nature spirits, or yoshi in Yaminahua, including anaconda-yoshi, jaguar-yoshi and solar or sun-yoshi, in order to perform acts of healing and various other shamanic activities.

While Yaminahua shamans use metaphors to control visions and shapeshift (or “see as”), they, and Amazonians more generally, reportedly understand shapeshifting in literal terms. For example, Lenaerts describes this notion of ‘seeing like the spirits’, and the ‘physical’ or literal view that the Ashéninka hold in regards to the practice of ayahuasca-induced shapeshifting.

What is at stake here is a temporary bodily process, whereby a human being assumes the embodied point of view of another species… There is no need to appeal to any sort of metaphoric sense here. A literal interpretation of this process of disembodiment/re-embodiment is absolutely consistent with all what an Ashéninka knowns and directly feels during this experience, in a quite physical sense. (2006, 13)

The practices of indigenous ayahuasca shamans are centred on an ability to shapeshift and ‘see nonhumans as they [nonhumans] see themselves’ (Viveiros de Castro 2004:468). Practitioners not only identify with nonhuman persons or ‘natural entities’ but they embody their point of view with the help of psychoactive plants and  ‘twisted language’ in song.

Some final thoughts

Through a brief exploration of techniques employed by advanced physicists, Renaissance alchemists, and Amazonian ayahuasca shamans, a logic of identification may be observed in which practitioners embody different means of transcending themselves and becoming the objects or spirits of their respective practices. While the physicists tend to embody secular principles and relate to this logic of identification in a purely figurative or metaphorical sense, Renaissance alchemists and Amazonian shamans embody epistemological stances that afford much more weight to the existential qualities and ‘persons’ or ‘spirits’ of their respective practices. A cognitive value in employing forms of language and sensory experience that momentarily take the practitioner beyond him or herself is evidenced by these three different practices. However, there is arguably more at stake here than values confined to cogito. The boundaries of bodies, subjectivities and humanness in each of these practices become porous, blurred, and are transcended while the contours of various forms of possibility are exposed, defined, and acted upon — possibilities that inform the outcomes of the practices and the definitions of the human they imply.

 References

Chaumeil, Jean-Pierre 1992, ‘Varieties of Amazonian shamanism’. Diogenes. Vol. 158 p.101
Forshaw, P. 2008 ‘”Paradoxes, Absurdities, and Madness”: Conflicts over Alchemy, Magic and Medicine in the Works of Andreas Libavius and Heinrich Khunrath. Early Science and Medicine. Vol. 1 pp.53
Forshaw, P. 2006 ‘Alchemy in the Amphitheatre: Some considerations of the alchemical content of the engravings in Heinrich Khunrath’s Amphitheatre of Eternal Wisdom’ in Jacob Wamberg Art and Alchemy. p.195-221
Gilbert, G. N. & Mulkay, M. 1984 Opening Bandora’s Box: A sociological analysis of scientists’ discourse. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 
Hanegraaff, W. 2012 Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected knowledge in Western culture. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press
Hanegraaff, W. 1996 New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought. New York: SUNY Press
Latour, B. & Woolgar, S. 1987 Laboratory Life: The social construction of scientific facts. Cambridge, Harvard University Press
Lenaerts, M. 2006, ‘Substance, relationships and the omnipresence of the body: an overview of Ashéninka ethnomedicine (Western Amazonia)’ Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, Vol. 2, (1) 49 http://www.ethnobiomed.com/content/2/1/49
Moran, B. 2006 Distilling Knowledge: Alchemy, Chemistry, and the Scientific Revolution. Harvard, Harvard University Press
Newman, W. 2006 Atoms and Alchemy: Chymistry and the Experimental Origins of the Scientific Revolution. Chicago, Chicago University Press
Nummedal, T. 2007 Alchemy and Authroity in the Holy Roman Empire. Chicago, Chicago University Press
Ochs, E. Gonzales, P., Jacoby, S. 1996 ‘”When I come down I’m in the domain state”: grammar and graphic representation in the interpretive activities of physicists’ in Ochs, E., Schegloff, E. & Thompson, S (ed.)Interaction and Grammar. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press
Ochs, E. Gonzales, P., Jacoby, S 1994 ‘Interpretive Journeys: How Physicists Talk and Travel through Graphic Space’ Configurations. (1) p.151
Praet, I. 2009, ‘Shamanism and ritual in South America: an inquiry into Amerindian shape-shifting’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Vol. 15 pp.737-754
Riviere, P. 1994, ‘WYSINWYG in Amazonia’. Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford. Vol. 25
Szulakowska, U. 2000 The Alchemy of Light: Geometry and Optics in Late Renaissance Alchemical Illustration. Leiden, Brill Press
Townsley, G. 1993 ‘Song Paths: The ways and means of Yaminahua shamanic knowledge’. L’Hommee. Vol. 33 p. 449
Viveiros de Castro, E. 2004, ‘Exchanging perspectives: The Transformation of Objects into Subjects in Amerindian Ontologies’.Common Knowledge. Vol. 10 (3) pp.463-484
Waite, A. 1894 The Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Aureolus Philippus Theophrastrus Bombast, of Hohenheim, called Paracelcus the Great. Cornell University Library, ebook

Your Brain on Metaphors (The Chronicle of Higher Education)

September 1, 2014

Neuroscientists test the theory that your body shapes your ideas

Your Brain  on Metaphors 1

Chronicle Review illustration by Scott Seymour

The player kicked the ball.
The patient kicked the habit.
The villain kicked the bucket.

The verbs are the same.
The syntax is identical.
Does the brain notice, or care,
that the first is literal, the second
metaphorical, the third idiomatic?

It sounds like a question that only a linguist could love. But neuroscientists have been trying to answer it using exotic brain-scanning technologies. Their findings have varied wildly, in some cases contradicting one another. If they make progress, the payoff will be big. Their findings will enrich a theory that aims to explain how wet masses of neurons can understand anything at all. And they may drive a stake into the widespread assumption that computers will inevitably become conscious in a humanlike way.

The hypothesis driving their work is that metaphor is central to language. Metaphor used to be thought of as merely poetic ornamentation, aesthetically pretty but otherwise irrelevant. “Love is a rose, but you better not pick it,” sang Neil Young in 1977, riffing on the timeworn comparison between a sexual partner and a pollinating perennial. For centuries, metaphor was just the place where poets went to show off.

But in their 1980 book, Metaphors We Live By,the linguist George Lakoff (at the University of California at Berkeley) and the philosopher Mark Johnson (now at the University of Oregon) revolutionized linguistics by showing that metaphor is actually a fundamental constituent of language. For example, they showed that in the seemingly literal statement “He’s out of sight,” the visual field is metaphorized as a container that holds things. The visual field isn’t really a container, of course; one simply sees objects or not. But the container metaphor is so ubiquitous that it wasn’t even recognized as a metaphor until Lakoff and Johnson pointed it out.

From such examples they argued that ordinary language is saturated with metaphors. Our eyes point to where we’re going, so we tend to speak of future time as being “ahead” of us. When things increase, they tend to go up relative to us, so we tend to speak of stocks “rising” instead of getting more expensive. “Our ordinary conceptual system is fundamentally metaphorical in nature,” they wrote.

What’s emerging from these studies isn’t just a theory of language or of metaphor. It’s a nascent theory of consciousness.

Metaphors do differ across languages, but that doesn’t affect the theory. For example, in Aymara, spoken in Bolivia and Chile, speakers refer to past experiences as being in front of them, on the theory that past events are “visible” and future ones are not. However, the difference between behind and ahead is relatively unimportant compared with the central fact that space is being used as a metaphor for time. Lakoff argues that it isimpossible—not just difficult, but impossible—for humans to talk about time and many other fundamental aspects of life without using metaphors to do it.

Lakoff and Johnson’s program is as anti-Platonic as it’s possible to get. It undermines the argument that human minds can reveal transcendent truths about reality in transparent language. They argue instead that human cognition is embodied—that human concepts are shaped by the physical features of human brains and bodies. “Our physiology provides the concepts for our philosophy,” Lakoff wrote in his introduction to Benjamin Bergen’s 2012 book, Louder Than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning. Marianna Bolognesi, a linguist at the International Center for Intercultural Exchange, in Siena, Italy, puts it this way: “The classical view of cognition is that language is an independent system made with abstract symbols that work independently from our bodies. This view has been challenged by the embodied account of cognition which states that language is tightly connected to our experience. Our bodily experience.”

Modern brain-scanning technologies make it possible to test such claims empirically. “That would make a connection between the biology of our bodies on the one hand, and thinking and meaning on the other hand,” says Gerard Steen, a professor of linguistics at VU University Amsterdam. Neuroscientists have been stuffing volunteers into fMRI scanners and having them read sentences that are literal, metaphorical, and idiomatic.

Neuroscientists agree on what happens with literal sentences like “The player kicked the ball.” The brain reacts as if it were carrying out the described actions. This is called “simulation.” Take the sentence “Harry picked up the glass.” “If you can’t imagine picking up a glass or seeing someone picking up a glass,” Lakoff wrote in a paper with Vittorio Gallese, a professor of human physiology at the University of Parma, in Italy, “then you can’t understand that sentence.” Lakoff argues that the brain understands sentences not just by analyzing syntax and looking up neural dictionaries, but also by igniting its memories of kicking and picking up.

But what about metaphorical sentences like “The patient kicked the habit”? An addiction can’t literally be struck with a foot. Does the brain simulate the action of kicking anyway? Or does it somehow automatically substitute a more literal verb, such as “stopped”? This is where functional MRI can help, because it can watch to see if the brain’s motor cortex lights up in areas related to the leg and foot.

The evidence says it does. “When you read action-related metaphors,” says Valentina Cuccio, a philosophy postdoc at the University of Palermo, in Italy, “you have activation of the motor area of the brain.” In a 2011 paper in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Rutvik Desai, an associate professor of psychology at the University of South Carolina, and his colleagues presented fMRI evidence that brains do in fact simulate metaphorical sentences that use action verbs. When reading both literal and metaphorical sentences, their subjects’ brains activated areas associated with control of action. “The understanding of sensory-motor metaphors is not abstracted away from their sensory-motor origins,” the researchers concluded.

Textural metaphors, too, appear to be simulated. That is, the brain processes “She’s had a rough time” by simulating the sensation of touching something rough. Krish Sathian, a professor of neurology, rehabilitation medicine, and psychology at Emory University, says, “For textural metaphor, you would predict on the Lakoff and Johnson account that it would recruit activity- and texture-selective somatosensory cortex, and that indeed is exactly what we found.”

But idioms are a major sticking point. Idioms are usually thought of as dead metaphors, that is, as metaphors that are so familiar that they have become clichés. What does the brain do with “The villain kicked the bucket” (“The villain died”)? What about “The students toed the line” (“The students conformed to the rules”)? Does the brain simulate the verb phrases, or does it treat them as frozen blocks of abstract language? And if it simulates them, what actions does it imagine? If the brain understands language by simulating it, then it should do so even when sentences are not literal.

The findings so far have been contradictory. Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, of the University of Southern California, and her colleagues reported in 2006 that idioms such as “biting off more than you can chew” did not activate the motor cortex. So did Ana Raposo, then at the University of Cambridge, and her colleagues in 2009. On the other hand, Véronique Boulenger, of the Laboratoire Dynamique du Langage, in Lyon, France, reported in the same year that they did, at least for leg and arm verbs.

In 2013, Desai and his colleagues tried to settle the problem of idioms. They first hypothesized that the inconsistent results come from differences of methodology. “Imaging studies of embodiment in figurative language have not compared idioms and metaphors,” they wrote in a report. “Some have mixed idioms and metaphors together, and in some cases, ‘idiom’ is used to refer to familiar metaphors.” Lera Boroditsky, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California at San Diego, agrees. “The field is new. The methods need to stabilize,” she says. “There are many different kinds of figurative language, and they may be importantly different from one another.”

Not only that, the nitty-gritty differences of procedure may be important. “All of these studies are carried out with different kinds of linguistic stimuli with different procedures,” Cuccio says. “So, for example, sometimes you have an experiment in which the person can read the full sentence on the screen. There are other experiments in which participants read the sentence just word by word, and this makes a difference.”

To try to clear things up, Desai and his colleagues presented subjects inside fMRI machines with an assorted set of metaphors and idioms. They concluded that in a sense, everyone was right. The more idiomatic the metaphor was, the less the motor system got involved: “When metaphors are very highly conventionalized, as is the case for idioms, engagement of sensory-motor systems is minimized or very brief.”

But George Lakoff thinks the problem of idioms can’t be settled so easily. The people who do fMRI studies are fine neuroscientists but not linguists, he says. “They don’t even know what the problem is most of the time. The people doing the experiments don’t know the linguistics.”

That is to say, Lakoff explains, their papers assume that every brain processes a given idiom the same way. Not true. Take “kick the bucket.” Lakoff offers a theory of what it means using a scene from Young Frankenstein. “Mel Brooks is there and they’ve got the patient dying,” he says. “The bucket is a slop bucket at the edge of the bed, and as he dies, his foot goes out in rigor mortis and the slop bucket goes over and they all hold their nose. OK. But what’s interesting about this is that the bucket starts upright and it goes down. It winds up empty. This is a metaphor—that you’re full of life, and life is a fluid. You kick the bucket, and it goes over.”

That’s a useful explanation of a rather obscure idiom. But it turns out that when linguists ask people what they think the metaphor means, they get different answers. “You say, ‘Do you have a mental image? Where is the bucket before it’s kicked?’ ” Lakoff says. “Some people say it’s upright. Some people say upside down. Some people say you’re standing on it. Some people have nothing. You know! There isn’t a systematic connection across people for this. And if you’re averaging across subjects, you’re probably not going to get anything.”

Similarly, Lakoff says, when linguists ask people to write down the idiom “toe the line,” half of them write “tow the line.” That yields a different mental simulation. And different mental simulations will activate different areas of the motor cortex—in this case, scrunching feet up to a line versus using arms to tow something heavy. Therefore, fMRI results could show different parts of different subjects’ motor cortexes lighting up to process “toe the line.” In that case, averaging subjects together would be misleading.

Furthermore, Lakoff questions whether functional MRI can really see what’s going on with language at the neural level. “How many neurons are there in one pixel or one voxel?” he says. “About 125,000. They’re one point in the picture.” MRI lacks the necessary temporal resolution, too. “What is the time course of that fMRI? It could be between one and five seconds. What is the time course of the firing of the neurons? A thousand times faster. So basically, you don’t know what’s going on inside of that voxel.” What it comes down to is that language is a wretchedly complex thing and our tools aren’t yet up to the job.

Nonetheless, the work supports a radically new conception of how a bunch of pulsing cells can understand anything at all. In a 2012 paper, Lakoff offered an account of how metaphors arise out of the physiology of neural firing, based on the work of a student of his, Srini Narayanan, who is now a faculty member at Berkeley. As children grow up, they are repeatedly exposed to basic experiences such as temperature and affection simultaneously when, for example, they are cuddled. The neural structures that record temperature and affection are repeatedly co-activated, leading to an increasingly strong neural linkage between them.

However, since the brain is always computing temperature but not always computing affection, the relationship between those neural structures is asymmetric. When they form a linkage, Lakoff says, “the one that spikes first and most regularly is going to get strengthened in its direction, and the other one is going to get weakened.” Lakoff thinks the asymmetry gives rise to a metaphor: Affection is Warmth. Because of the neural asymmetry, it doesn’t go the other way around: Warmth is not Affection. Feeling warm during a 100-degree day, for example, does not make one feel loved. The metaphor originates from the asymmetry of the neural firing. Lakoff is now working on a book on the neural theory of metaphor.

If cognition is embodied, that raises problems for artificial intelligence. Since computers don’t have bodies, let alone sensations, what are the implications of these findings for their becoming conscious—that is, achieving strong AI? Lakoff is uncompromising: “It kills it.” Of Ray Kurzweil’s singularity thesis, he says, “I don’t believe it for a second.” Computers can run models of neural processes, he says, but absent bodily experience, those models will never actually be conscious.

On the other hand, roboticists such as Rodney Brooks, an emeritus professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have suggested that computers could be provided with bodies. For example, they could be given control of robots stuffed with sensors and actuators. Brooks pondered Lakoff’s ideas in his 2002 book, Flesh and Machines, and supposed, “For anything to develop the same sorts of conceptual understanding of the world as we do, it will have to develop the same sorts of metaphors, rooted in a body, that we humans do.”

But Lera Boroditsky wonders if giving computers humanlike bodies would only reproduce human limitations. “If you’re not bound by limitations of memory, if you’re not bound by limitations of physical presence, I think you could build a very different kind of intelligence system,” she says. “I don’t know why we have to replicate our physical limitations in other systems.”

What’s emerging from these studies isn’t just a theory of language or of metaphor. It’s a nascent theory of consciousness. Any algorithmic system faces the problem of bootstrapping itself from computing to knowing, from bit-shuffling to caring. Igniting previously stored memories of bodily experiences seems to be one way of getting there. And so may be the ability to create asymmetric neural linkages that say this is like (but not identical to) that. In an age of brain scanning as well as poetry, that’s where metaphor gets you.

Michael Chorost is the author of Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human (Houghton Mifflin, 2005) and World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machines, and the Internet (Free Press, 2011).

Gut bacteria that protect against food allergies identified (Science Daily)

Date: August 25, 2014

Source: University of Chicago Medical Center

Summary: The presence of Clostridia, a common class of gut bacteria, protects against food allergies, a new study in mice finds. The discovery points toward probiotic therapies for this so-far untreatable condition. Food allergies affect 15 million Americans, including one in 13 children, who live with this potentially life-threatening disease that currently has no cure, researchers note.

Artist’s rendering of bacteria (stock illustration). Credit: © zuki70 / Fotolia

The presence of Clostridia, a common class of gut bacteria, protects against food allergies, a new study in mice finds. By inducing immune responses that prevent food allergens from entering the bloodstream, Clostridia minimize allergen exposure and prevent sensitization — a key step in the development of food allergies. The discovery points toward probiotic therapies for this so-far untreatable condition, report scientists from the University of Chicago, Aug 25 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Although the causes of food allergy — a sometimes deadly immune response to certain foods — are unknown, studies have hinted that modern hygienic or dietary practices may play a role by disturbing the body’s natural bacterial composition. In recent years, food allergy rates among children have risen sharply — increasing approximately 50 percent between 1997 and 2011 — and studies have shown a correlation to antibiotic and antimicrobial use.

“Environmental stimuli such as antibiotic overuse, high fat diets, caesarean birth, removal of common pathogens and even formula feeding have affected the microbiota with which we’ve co-evolved,” said study senior author Cathryn Nagler, PhD, Bunning Food Allergy Professor at the University of Chicago. “Our results suggest this could contribute to the increasing susceptibility to food allergies.”

To test how gut bacteria affect food allergies, Nagler and her team investigated the response to food allergens in mice. They exposed germ-free mice (born and raised in sterile conditions to have no resident microorganisms) and mice treated with antibiotics as newborns (which significantly reduces gut bacteria) to peanut allergens. Both groups of mice displayed a strong immunological response, producing significantly higher levels of antibodies against peanut allergens than mice with normal gut bacteria.

This sensitization to food allergens could be reversed, however, by reintroducing a mix of Clostridia bacteria back into the mice. Reintroduction of another major group of intestinal bacteria, Bacteroides, failed to alleviate sensitization, indicating that Clostridia have a unique, protective role against food allergens.

Closing the door

To identify this protective mechanism, Nagler and her team studied cellular and molecular immune responses to bacteria in the gut. Genetic analysis revealed that Clostridia caused innate immune cells to produce high levels of interleukin-22 (IL-22), a signaling molecule known to decrease the permeability of the intestinal lining.

Antibiotic-treated mice were either given IL-22 or were colonized with Clostridia. When exposed to peanut allergens, mice in both conditions showed reduced allergen levels in their blood, compared to controls. Allergen levels significantly increased, however, after the mice were given antibodies that neutralized IL-22, indicating that Clostridia-induced IL-22 prevents allergens from entering the bloodstream.

“We’ve identified a bacterial population that protects against food allergen sensitization,” Nagler said. “The first step in getting sensitized to a food allergen is for it to get into your blood and be presented to your immune system. The presence of these bacteria regulates that process.” She cautions, however, that these findings likely apply at a population level, and that the cause-and-effect relationship in individuals requires further study.

While complex and largely undetermined factors such as genetics greatly affect whether individuals develop food allergies and how they manifest, the identification of a bacteria-induced barrier-protective response represents a new paradigm for preventing sensitization to food. Clostridia bacteria are common in humans and represent a clear target for potential therapeutics that prevent or treat food allergies. Nagler and her team are working to develop and test compositions that could be used for probiotic therapy and have filed a provisional patent.

“It’s exciting because we know what the bacteria are; we have a way to intervene,” Nagler said. “There are of course no guarantees, but this is absolutely testable as a therapeutic against a disease for which there’s nothing. As a mom, I can imagine how frightening it must be to worry every time your child takes a bite of food.”

“Food allergies affect 15 million Americans, including one in 13 children, who live with this potentially life-threatening disease that currently has no cure,” said Mary Jane Marchisotto, senior vice president of research at Food Allergy Research & Education. “We have been pleased to support the research that has been conducted by Dr. Nagler and her colleagues at the University of Chicago.”


Journal Reference:

  1. A. T. Stefka, T. Feehley, P. Tripathi, J. Qiu, K. McCoy, S. K. Mazmanian, M. Y. Tjota, G.-Y. Seo, S. Cao, B. R. Theriault, D. A. Antonopoulos, L. Zhou, E. B. Chang, Y.-X. Fu, C. R. Nagler. Commensal bacteria protect against food allergen sensitization. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2014; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1412008111

Our Microbiome May Be Looking Out for Itself (New York Times)

A highly magnified view of Enterococcus faecalis, a bacterium that lives in the human gut. Microbes may affect our cravings, new research suggests.CreditCenters for Disease Control and Prevention

Your body is home to about 100 trillion bacteria and other microbes, collectively known as your microbiome. Naturalists first became aware of our invisible lodgers in the 1600s, but it wasn’t until the past few years that we’ve become really familiar with them.

This recent research has given the microbiome a cuddly kind of fame. We’ve come to appreciate how beneficial our microbes are — breaking down our food, fighting off infections and nurturing our immune system. It’s a lovely, invisible garden we should be tending for our own well-being.

But in the journal Bioessays, a team of scientists has raised a creepier possibility. Perhaps our menagerie of germs is also influencing our behavior in order to advance its own evolutionary success — giving us cravings for certain foods, for example.

Maybe the microbiome is our puppet master.

“One of the ways we started thinking about this was in a crime-novel perspective,” said Carlo C. Maley, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, San Francisco, and a co-author of the new paper. “What are the means, motives and opportunity for the microbes to manipulate us? They have all three.”

The idea that a simple organism could control a complex animal may sound like science fiction. In fact, there are many well-documented examples of parasites controlling their hosts.

Some species of fungi, for example, infiltrate the brains of ants and coax them to climb plants and clamp onto the underside of leaves. The fungi then sprout out of the ants and send spores showering onto uninfected ants below.

How parasites control their hosts remains mysterious. But it looks as if they release molecules that directly or indirectly can influence their brains.

Our microbiome has the biochemical potential to do the same thing. In our guts, bacteria make some of the same chemicals that our neurons use to communicate with one another, such as dopamine and serotonin. And the microbes can deliver these neurological molecules to the dense web of nerve endings that line the gastrointestinal tract.

A number of recent studies have shown that gut bacteria can use these signals to alter the biochemistry of the brain. Compared with ordinary mice, those raised free of germs behave differently in a number of ways. They are more anxious, for example, and have impaired memory.

Adding certain species of bacteria to a normal mouse’s microbiome can reveal other ways in which they can influence behavior. Some bacteria lower stress levels in the mouse. When scientists sever the nerve relaying signals from the gut to the brain, this stress-reducing effect disappears.

Some experiments suggest that bacteria also can influence the way their hosts eat. Germ-free mice develop more receptors for sweet flavors in their intestines, for example. They also prefer to drink sweeter drinks than normal mice do.

Scientists have also found that bacteria can alter levels of hormones that govern appetite in mice.

Dr. Maley and his colleagues argue that our eating habits create a strong motive for microbes to manipulate us. “From the microbe’s perspective, what we eat is a matter of life and death,” Dr. Maley said.

Different species of microbes thrive on different kinds of food. If they can prompt us to eat more of the food they depend on, they can multiply.

Microbial manipulations might fill in some of the puzzling holes in our understandings about food cravings, Dr. Maley said. Scientists have tried to explain food cravings as the body’s way to build up a supply of nutrients after deprivation, or as addictions, much like those for drugs like tobacco and cocaine.

But both explanations fall short. Take chocolate: Many people crave it fiercely, but it isn’t an essential nutrient. And chocolate doesn’t drive people to increase their dose to get the same high. “You don’t need more chocolate at every sitting to enjoy it,” Dr. Maley said.

Perhaps, he suggests, the certain kinds of bacteria that thrive on chocolate are coaxing us to feed them.

John F. Cryan, a neuroscientist at University College Cork in Ireland who was not involved in the new study, suggested that microbes might also manipulate us in ways that benefited both them and us. “It’s probably not a simple parasitic scenario,” he said.

Research by Dr. Cryan and others suggests that a healthy microbiome helps mammals develop socially. Germ-free mice, for example, tend to avoid contact with other mice.

That social bonding is good for the mammals. But it may also be good for the bacteria.

“When mammals are in social groups, they’re more likely to pass on microbes from one to the other,” Dr. Cryan said.

“I think it’s a very interesting and compelling idea,” said Rob Knight, a microbiologist at the University of Colorado, who was also not involved in the new study.

If microbes do in fact manipulate us, Dr. Knight said, we might be able to manipulate them for our own benefit — for example, by eating yogurt laced with bacteria that would make us crave healthy foods.

“It would obviously be of tremendous practical importance,” Dr. Knight said. But he warned that research on the microbiome’s effects on behavior was “still in its early stages.”

The most important thing to do now, Dr. Knight and other scientists said, was to run experiments to see if microbes really are manipulating us.

Mark Lyte, a microbiologist at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center who pioneered this line of research in the 1990s, is now conducting some of those experiments. He’s investigating whether particular species of bacteria can change the preferences mice have for certain foods.

“This is not a for-sure thing,” Dr. Lyte said. “It needs scientific, hard-core demonstration.”