Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Silver Linings, epigenetics and our environment

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

After watching ‘Silver Linings Playbook‘ based on a book with the same title (the movie received eight Academy Award nominations and Jennifer Lawrence got one Oscar for her amazing performance as Tiffany) I just figured: Whom can we call as a normal person? I think that to a level we are all screwed up in the mind. We all tweak our mind to live in society; we all have our little “OCDness” and bipolarity. ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ touches something that society prefers to keep in a safe; it is ugly to say that you or a family member has any kind of mental illness. However, the world today is somehow bipolar. We all need to handle a “wired” world and be successful in all tasks at work, at home, etc. We all are scrutinized by society in a daily basis.  Who can handle that? I really liked the way the director of the movie approached mental illness, showing how family support is very important and anybody can be happy (yes, it is a love story with a happy ending) even with lots of “ups” and “downs”. Well, the environment can play a significant role in metal illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorders and other mood disorders. In the movie, the character played by Bradley Cooper (also nominated for an Oscar) “Pat” would always have a nervous breakdown in stressful situations or when hearing a song that reminded him of bad experiences in his life. These are all “environmental triggers”, and medication can indeed help to keep these symptoms dormant. A recent essay by Elyn R. Saks in the NYTimes (see the article “Successful and Schizophrenic”) shows that anybody with mental disorders could be happy, married and successful. Elyn writes that when she was diagnosed with schizophrenia her prognosis was “grave” and she would never live independently, hold a job, find a loving partner, or get married. Well, guess what?! She is married now, holds a Ph.D. and is a successful tenured Law Professor at the University of Southern California. She has also written books about her illness. Of course in her essay she mentions that it was never easy, with lots of treatment and medication during the course of her life. Scientifically, two fields of study – epigenetics and how the environment affects genetic profiles – have been trying to understand and study people with mental illness; cases such as Elyn that somehow control her illness and also people that have very grave symptoms without a “normal” life. Epigenetics is a field that deals with how changes in our environment could modify our molecular profiles based on our lifestyle, what we eat, where we live, if we smoke or not, etc. Studies have been showing that genetic or epigenetic differences cause discordance between monozygotic twins as a clue to a molecular basis for mental disorders (for more details check the article by Kato et al Genetic or epigenetic difference causing discordance between monozygotic twins as a clue to molecular basis of mental disorders”). This study points that genetics is not enough to cause and/or maintain a “mental illness state”. Interestingly, the environment can modify our genetic profile in different ways, which is mainly through epigenetics – gene expression control and phenotypic changes in our brain cells. For bipolar disorders, for example, epigenetic mechanisms might be relevant to the pathophysiology based on several lines of evidence such as the relatively high degree of discordance in monozygotic twins, characteristic age at onset, parent-of-origin effects, and fluctuation of the disease course (see the article “Epigenetics and bipolar disorder: New opportunities and challenges”). Even though there are lots of complexity involved in understanding mental illness, since all of them are classified as complex diseases and have multiple factors involved, research from the last decade pointed towards epigenetic mechanisms and the environment as factors to explain the differences in the symptoms that people have during their lifetime. Coming back to the movie ‘Silver Linings Playbook’, it is clear that mental illness is a serious condition and can have extreme impacts in a person’s life, but it is not a death sentence or a way for society to exclude these individuals completely. The take home message of the movie is that everybody during their lives will have to deal with bad and good situations and the big difference is the attitude that these individuals will have towards these events. Thus, as “Pat” says in the movie, “this is what I believe to be true; you have to do everything you can, you have to work your hardest and if you stay positive, you have a shot at a silver lining…”I see silver linings and happiness as environmental triggers that could change anybody’s life in a good way. The truth is that we all want to have the big shot at a silver lining! (Image Source: Wired Magazine)

Science and Technology as Human Endeavors

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

Science is a system of knowledge based on repeatable observation and experimentation to test different hypothesis. Technology is the application of the knowledge acquired by science to practical aims of human endeavors. Both science and technology are often interconnected. Scientific accomplishments help facilitate our daily lives, since we have evolved as rational humans. For example, the military, all businesses in general, and even the common citizen have always been interested in the advantages that scientific and technological accomplishments can bring to our homes and even to protect our countries (in the case of military research). It is common knowledge that most scientific work is funded by different federal agencies such as The National Institutes of Health (NIH), The National Science Foundation (NSF), The Department of Energy (DOE) and several others in the United States (taking the United States as an example). Liberation of human potential is something we should seek and it implies certain confidence about our nature and the value of just what the human potential is. Plato, the Greek philosopher, mathematician and student of Socrates, believed that we are human to the extent that we are rational, can think, analyze and take conclusions based on the observations of the world around us. Liberal education (geared toward leadership) and vocational training (geared towards career development) have guided curricula away from the chancy investment in someone’s possible leadership potential and toward the less speculative trainability of a person to fill a slot in the scientific culture to become a scientist. I believe that in a “healthy” society, leadership involves confrontation with the perpetual mystery of the future in concert with single-minded exploration of alternatives for adaptive change. But tragically, we are usually asked to choose and specialize prematurely in our careers; if relevance of education is equated with the ability to satisfy basic human needs; in other words, if we wish a goal-directed focus and direct engagement of practical problems, a world–vocational training is the obvious choice. If we wish to engage broad social, intellectual, or ethical problems and if we want to help provide our culture in society with the enlarged spectrum of alternatives provided by open discovery in science and technology, then liberal education is indeed the obvious choice. Alienation from either science or technology is very unhealthy for a society. The United States, for example, have been though “the atomic age” with the development of the atomic bomb, the “telecom” age with fundamental advancements in telecommunications and technology, the “space age” with the man landing in the moon in the 1960’s and nowadays we are in the “medicine and health care age” with the advances in technologies such as genomics and personalized medicine. The world is changing with globalization and faster information flow, but science and technology are still behind in transforming discoveries in products or solutions to daily problems for common citizens (specially in medicine with the development of new drugs for diseases), mainly because of the increasing lack of funding by the federal agencies lately and less career driven education for students that have great potential to become extraordinary scientists. We desperately need changes in the educational system in the United States for kids with intellectual potential and interest in becoming scientists to develop new technologies and discover cures for diseases, because in the end, science and technology are the moving gear of our society.

How social networks are reshaping our society

Thursday, June 28th, 2012

Spreading ideas and news in the web are becoming more common with the emergence of social networks. As long as one person is able to connect to the internet and express their view about a situation or simply about an idea, then the information will get out into the world. In addition, the speed that the information reaches other people is faster than in any other time in humanity. Examples include the earthquakes that rocked the countries of Haiti and Tokyo in Japan; not only were images from these countries being seen around the world but also commentaries and opinions of what people were seeing have been read and heard in real time. Portals such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others are allowing people to share ideas on news, products and services. Needless to say, social media has forever changed the connections of individuals in our society, whether it’s the sharing of an idea, the communication of news, or the availability of a product or service. Society is on the verge of a new way of existing with a level of connectivity and instantaneous access to news and ideas never experienced before. No longer will people from one side of the world be really able to say that they are unable to communicate with someone from the other side of the world. As long as there is a person who wishes to express their opinion or share their content to another human being in another country or culture, social networks will allow them to do so. Societies are changing with the advances in information technology and web-based tools giving more power to the citizens worldwide as exemplified for its impact in presidential campaigns and marketing in politics. One example includes the Obama presidential campaign in 2008 that was highly successful due to social media. Another technological breakthrough that has increased the impact of social networks in society is the emergence of mobile phones (or smart phones) and tablets. These devices have been exponentially used to share information. This is mainly done by text message exchange, video conference and other media tools such as applications (apps) specifically designed to provide information and solutions in different fields, thus facilitating the spread of information and data globally. Examples in the health care sector include the use of mobile devices in nurse-patient communication relationships and to monitor health outcomes in chronic and complex disease inside institutions by health care professionals. Innovative applications of mobile technology are expected to increase over time providing tools to manage complex diseases such as cancer, heart disease, asthma and diabetes the same way it is impacting information exchange in media, commerce and other services. An upcoming breakthrough in mobile technology will be to track patient’s health using these devices in real time. We are indeed living in the most exciting time in information technology. Now we have to wait and see what comes next in this evolving field…

Sharing results in science – a new revolution?

Thursday, December 29th, 2011

Science is generally a closed society organized into little circles of highly trained specialists, meaning that only a few specific minds engage to solve any given problem. The system is closed and is shaped in part by the force of tradition, but the larger challenge is that most scientific data is proprietary and the scientists are competing for the first place. A scientist works long and hard to generate original data, and then expects to get the reward in the form of publishing the first research paper to describe some new phenomenon. The researcher is not going to share his data with others, particularly strangers, any more than say, an investigative reporter would want to share his notes before a story has been written and published in the front page of The New York Times. Harnessing non-scientists to help in specific scientific problems requires sending your data out into the world – something that science is afraid to do. The scientist’s interest in keeping things private and getting credit, in other words, is directly opposed to society’s interest in tackling some problems with the help of the best minds. There are exceptions, such as large astronomical and biological data sets that are available for anyone. For example, particle accelerators have produced a new collaborative working model for science and globalization, with hundreds of specialists all over the globe working to solve a specific problem in physics. Most data generated by these experiments are stored in the “cloud”, using the advent of cloud computing. Biological databases that are supported by the US government, such as the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), store data from whole genomes of several organisms (including our genome) and are opened to the general public – something unusual. However, in the last 10 years, there has been a boom in technology that allows large numbers of people to do amazing and cooperative things with information, but the scientific establishment has taken only baby steps toward figuring out ways to share it productively. According to the former theoretical physicist Michael Nielsen that wrote the book “Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science”, sharing in science will become something more common than we expect, specially now that social media is reshaping society. To encourage this shift, the federal government, which funds the United States research, has been pressuring scientists to work more cooperatively, in groups, and share more of what they find faster. In addition, there are nascent efforts within academia in order to identify ways that scientists might be recognized for their contributions to the community as a whole, beyond the publication of their individual discoveries. Scientists need to get rewards for what they are able to share – this will be the new trend in science. Cloud computing, the emergence of different types of social media and the possibility to transfer and share data faster and more reliably will open new ways of doing collaborative science. Society will gain a lot with this trend in science and technology. I believe that contemporary science will be all about sharing information. We might be experiencing now what will become the “open science” era. That is my hope…

Geniuses and creativity

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

What it takes to be a genius and put your mark in history? How can we account for the sudden appearance of dazzling artists and scientists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Mozart, Shakespeare, Darwin, or Einstein? How can we define a genius? And what conditions or personality traits seem to produce exceptionally creative people in the history of humankind such as Abraham Lincoln, Vincent van Gogh, Salvador Dali, Howard Hughes, and others? Several research groups trying to understand not just the environment, life history and other personality features of famous geniuses, but also the brain of these people, have raised these questions. Famous artists, painters and people that created technologies that disrupted specific fields have strange personality and most lived isolated from society. Scientists have started to shed some light on why these historical figures are remembered in their fields. Geniuses have the ability to legate an impressive and influential body of work to future generations. However, strong creativity could be a link between genius and mental illness (Darwin was emotionally and mentally ill), high incidence of childhood trauma, especially loss of a parent, and genetic defects that are the cause of rare genetic diseases. An example is the american inventor and entrepreneur Howard Hughes. He was later diagnosed with a type of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) that probably explains his obsession with perfection in designing airplanes. He was also known for his strong and strange personality. There is indeed a link between geniality and insanity. For instance, Darwin was a very lonely person with psychological distress. Vincent Van Gogh was also an eccentric person and socially awkward. The history of humanity has shown that the advancement of specific fields is accompanied by geniuses that are able to do things that disrupt the “status quo” of that time. Most of these individuals have some psychological problem, and science started to show that this could be explained by genetic defects and the presence of rare genetic diseases. Some studies claim that Salvador Dali had a mental disease that could be very similar to schizophrenia. Even Albert Einstein was not very comfortable with the impact that the relativity theory could cause to society. Einstein was a very isolated person and had sparks of depression late in his career. Interesting examples from our times include personalities such as Steve Jobs, Michael Phelps and Mark Zuckerberg. Steve Jobs, the CEO and founder of Apple, was adopted early in life. Jobs was extremely obsessed with product design and perfection as a response to childhood abandonment. This was probably a way to prove to the world that even with these personal problems he would succeed. An interesting example on how a genetic defect can give advantages to the person carrying it instead of being deleterious is the case of the swimmer Michael Phelps. He was diagnosed with a rare genetic disease named Marfan Syndrome (see article “Marfan’s Syndrome: Michael Phelps’ Blessing or Curse?“) which is characterized with long limbs and a different structure of the body compared to a regular person; features that were crucial for his 8 gold medal win in the last Olympics in China. The last example is Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook. Zuckerberg was elected person of the year by the TIME Magazine and has changed the “status quo” of social media in the internet. However, some analysts and scientists believe, mainly based on the way he talks and look at cameras in interviews, that his success could be attributed to a mild form of Asperger’s Syndrome. This genetic disease is in the spectrum of the diseases related to autism. The diagnosis was not confirmed yet, but Zuckerberg has several characteristics of a person with this disease. Well, to impact society and humanity with new forms of arts, technologies, theories, etc in a way that you will never be forgotten is something of a genius. The fact is that, as shown by the examples I gave, we need the “geniuses” in our society to improve fields such as arts, technology and science. If we look at the paintings from Van Gogh (illustration shown in this blog post), listen to songs from Mozart, analyze the planes that Howard Hughes designed, watch Michael Phelps swim and Zuckerberg create technologies that will impact in our society, we can conclude that humanity definitely needs a touch of a genius.