2010年12月29日 星期三

In Pursuit of a Mind Map, Slice by Slice


CAMBRIDGE, Mass — Dr. Jeff Lichtman likes his brains sliced thin — very, very thin.

C.J. Gunther for The New York Times

TEAM LEADER Dr. Jeff Lichtman, with a 3-D image of a section of mouse brain and a magnified section of a dendrite (red), in his office at Harvard.

Science Times Podcast

This week: A road map of the brain, dating for the disabled, and size matters for cockroaches.

Science Update


C.J. Gunther for The New York Times

ILLUMINATING A section of a mouse brain about 30 nanometers thick, ready for an electron microscope at Harvard. Researchers liken the cutting to shaving off the surface of a football field at a thickness of one-hundredth of an inch.

Dr. Lichtman and his team of researchers at Harvard have built some unusual contraptions that carve off slivers of mouse brains as part of a quest to understand how the mind works. Their goal is to run slice after minuscule slice under a powerful electron microscope, develop detailed pictures of the brain’s complex wiring and then stitch the images back together. In short, they want to build a full map of the mind.

The field, at a very nascent stage, is called connectomics, and the neuroscientists pursuing it compare their work to early efforts in genetics. What they are doing, these scientists say, is akin to trying to crack the human genome — only this time around, they want to find how memories, personality traits and skills are stored.

They want to find a connectome, or the mental makeup of a person.

“You are born with your genes, and they don’t change afterward,” said H. Sebastian Seung, a professor of computational neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is working on the computer side of connectomics. “The connectome is a product of your genes and your experiences. It’s where nature meets nurture.”

The task is arduous and years from fruition, and even the biggest zealots acknowledge that their work may not pay off. But connectomics has gotten some meaningful financing: In September, the National Institutes of Health handed out $40 million in grants to researchers at Harvard, Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Minnesota and the University of California, Los Angeles, to pursue connectomics. Together, their research efforts comprise the Human Connectome Project.

Since the 1970s, researchers have only had one connectome to play with — that of a worm with a measly 300 neurons. Now they are trying a mouse brain, with its 100 million neurons. So far the notion of creating a human-scale connectome — which would illuminate all of the connections among more than 100 billion neurons and unravel the millions of miles of wires in the brain — has proved too daunting.

The task at hand is somewhat similar to trying to untangle a bowl of spaghetti. Each individual spaghetti strand may touch tens of other strands as it weaves in a contorted fashion through the bowl. In this case, the researchers want to do the equivalent of seeing where all the strands connect at the atom level.

And because the brain’s wiring is so densely packed, building a connectome stands as one of the most formidable data collection efforts ever concocted. About one petabyte of computer memory will be needed to store the images needed to form a picture of a one-millimeter cube of mouse brain, the scientists say. By comparison, it takes Facebook about one petabyte of data storage space to hold 40 billion photos.

“The world is not yet ready for the million-petabyte data set the human brain would be,” Dr. Lichtman said. “But it will be.”

Neuroscientists say that a connectome could give them myriad insights about the brain’s function and prove particularly useful in the exploration of mental illness. For the first time, researchers and doctors might be able to determine how someone was wired — quite literally — and compare that picture with “regular” brains. Surgeons armed with a connectome might also be able to make more calculated cuts in the brain.

“The connectome project is going to show where all the white matter — all the connecting fibers — are,” said Stanley Klein, a professor of optometry and vision science at the University of California, Berkeley. “The whole goal in something like a surgery for epilepsy is to delicately slice out some of the white matter without removing any cortex.”

Dr. Klein says he has “zero question” that this type of surgery could benefit from developing a connectome.

Other scientists doubt that the results will match the effort. The comparisons to the genome prove haunting, and critics suggest that the connectome fans are wasting valuable research dollars and setting themselves up for a huge letdown.

“There are people that argue we still just don’t know enough about the brain to know where to look for insights,” said Bradley Voytek, a researcher at the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. “They also contend that there is no possible way you can build a full connectome in any realistic time frame.”

What’s more, even if the researchers succeed, they will only produce a static picture of a brain frozen in time, rather than something that shows how a brain responds to different types of stimuli.

Scientists around the world, including Stephen J. Smith, a neuroscience professor at Stanford, and Gerald M. Rubin, a researcher with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, have pushed past the naysayers and developed varying techniques for mapping the brains and nervous systems of human as well as other creatures.

“There are some people who say, ‘Maybe you don’t need this information, and given the expense of it, maybe you should put it off,’ ” said Dr. Lichtman, a professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard. “It’s a fair controversy.”

Harvard recruited Dr. Lichtman to push the connectome quest to its limits by tackling an entire mouse brain at the finest scale and allowed him to set up his own connectome research laboratory, staffed with four other people.

In the basement quarters that house Lichtman Lab, the researchers go to work anesthetizing mice, slicing open their rib cages and using the animals’ circulatory systems to spread concoctions that preserve the flesh and tune it for the electron microscope. Now and again, a researcher will reach into a box of mouse food pellets littered around the lab for sustenance during the tedious work.

“They’re not too bad,” said Bobby Kasthuri, one of the researchers.

With the body prepared, the slicing can begin.

Machines built by Kenneth J. Hayworth, another one of the researchers, can sheer off slices of a mouse brain just 29.4 nanometers thin using a diamond knife blade. To provide a sense of the accomplishment, the researchers liken the cutting to shaving off the entire surface of a football field at a thickness of one-hundredth of an inch.

Mr. Hayworth devised techniques for floating the brain slivers across a tiny puddle of water where surface tension carries them to a clear plastic tape. The tape backing adds some sturdiness to the slivers and makes it possible to place scores of them on a silicon wafer that then goes under the electron microscope.

At Lichtman Lab, the researchers are marching across a mouse brain in linear fashion, gathering the slices, imaging them and then putting the puzzle back together. Once assembled by a computer, the images of the brain are beautiful.

Dr. Lichtman and his colleagues give individual brain cells unique colors, making it easier to follow the wiring of a single neuron’s extensive axon and dendrite branches. The microscopes and computers they use can twist and turn these psychedelic images and zoom in and out at will.

It takes about three days for the researchers to carve 7,000 sections of a mouse’s cerebral cortex.

“The cutting is easy,” Dr. Lichtman said. “The big time sink is imaging.”

Dr. Lichtman estimates it will be several years before they can contemplate a connectome of a mouse brain, but there are some technological advances on the horizon that could cut that time significantly. Needless to say, a human brain would be far more complex and time-consuming.

“Hopefully, we are returning with a burst of new energy to the question of how the brain is wired up,” said Gary S. Lynch, a well-known brain researcher at the University of California, Irvine. “Lacking a blueprint, we’re never going to get anywhere on the most profound and fun questions that drew everyone to neuroscience in the first place: what is thought, consciousness?”

A connectome would provide a far more detailed look at the brain’s inner workings than current techniques that measure blood flow in certain regions. The researchers contend that it would literally show how people are wired and illuminate differences in the brains of people with mental illness.

As Mr. Kasthuri, the Harvard researcher, put it: “It will either be a great success story or a massive cautionary tale.”

2010年12月27日 星期一

Edible iPhone treats selling like hot cakes



photoApple Inc.'s iPhone 3GS, left, and an iPhone cookie sold at bakery Green Gables (Asako Hanafusa)photoKumiko Kudo making cookies (Asako Hanafusa)

TOKUSHIMA--Hand-made chocolate cookies in the shape of the iPhone have become the latest must-have accessory for the tech-savvy gourmet.

The biscuits, which are about 12 centimeters long and 6 cm wide, are made by Kumiko Kudo, the 44-year-old owner of bakery Green Gables in Aizumi town, Tokushima Prefecture, replicating Apple Inc.'s iconic device on a chocolate base, with icons nicely drawn in red, green and blue icing.

Kudo said the idea for the biscuits came from one of her customers, who asked her to make a look-a-like of the iPod touch media player for her husband's birthday gift in October 2008.

Kudo mistook the gadget for the very similar iPhone, which had just appeared on the market, but the customer was delighted by the end product.

News of Kudo's creation did not spread widely until a message on the Internet micro-blogging site Twitter in January by the well-known economic critic Kazuyo Katsuma.

A few days before a 42-year-old female company worker in Tokyo had seen the iPhone cookie on the blog of Kudo's bakery and had ordered two to give to Katsuma and singer Komi Hirose, who coauthored a book on Twitter.

Katsuma immediately posted a message on Twitter heralding the "amazing iPhone cookie." Hirose also posted a message about the "edible iPhone."

Their many followers read the messages and news of the cookie spread quickly. Orders began to pour in.

When Kudo was invited to an event held by Softbank Corp. in March, she handed President Masayoshi Son one of biscuits, who had earlier posted his own Twitter message saying: "I want one!" Son was overjoyed: "I'm so happy. I cannot possibly eat this," he said.

Kudo, who makes all her own cakes and biscuits, says she can create no more than 20 iPhone cookies a day. One biscuit is priced at 2,730 yen ($33), including tax.

Kudo has received requests for iPad cookies. She said she has experimented, but "it turned out to be too big, heavy and difficult to make."

Intel, AMD to Unveil Combination Chips

Intel, AMD to Unveil Combination Chips

Chip makers soon will deliver one of biggest advances in years in the technology that powers laptop and desktop computers. But how much consumers—and the chip companies—will benefit is in question.

Chip makers soon will deliver one of biggest advances in years in the technology that powers laptop and desktop computers. But how much it will benefit consumers is still to be determined. WSJ's Don Clark reports on Digits.

The design trend, expected to be the focus of announcements by Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. at the Consumer Electronics Show early next month, is based on bringing together two long-separate classes of products: microprocessors, the calculating engines that run most PC software; and graphics processing units, which render images in videogames and other programs.

Putting the two technologies on one piece of silicon reduces the distance electrical signals must travel and speeds up some computing chores. It also lowers the number of components computer makers need to buy, cutting production costs and helping to shrink the size of computers. Such integrated chips are expected to allow low-priced systems to carry out tasks that currently add hundreds of dollars to the price of a personal computer, such as the ability to play high-definition movies and videogames and to convert video and audio files to different formats quickly.

The approach "is going to change the way people build PCs and buy PCs," Paul Otellini, Intel's chief executive, predicted at an investor conference early this month.

But the benefits won't be measurable until after the CES show, when computer makers are expected to disclose their plans for using the technology. And some industry executives insist that many PC users will continue to seek even better performance by picking systems with separate graphics-processing-unit chips.

Intel, which supplies roughly four-fifths of the microprocessors used in PCs, is using the event to introduce a broad overhaul of its flagship Core product line using a design that is code-named Sandy Bridge. The products add GPU circuitry that Intel has offered in companion chipsets, as well as video-processing features and other undisclosed features aimed at improving the visual experience of using PCs—technologies Intel plans to market as part of a campaign called Visibly Smart.

Mr. Otellini said demand is "very, very strong" for the chips, which are expected to be used in hundreds of new designs for laptop and desktop PCs at various price points. Intel also is expected to offer a new version of a technology known as Wi-Di, which allows laptop users to wirelessly display images on high-definition TV sets.

The trend is at least as important for AMD, perennial underdog to Intel in the microprocessor market. AMD spent $5.4 billion in 2006 to buy ATI Technologies, one of two big makers of GPUs, and vowed then to combine that technology with its microprocessors by early 2009 in an initiative it calls Fusion.

That effort took longer than the company anticipated. AMD is using the CES trade show to introduce microprocessors with GPU circuitry that are targeted at laptops in the $200 to $500 range. But it doesn't expect to offer high-end Fusion chips that could directly compete with Intel's overhauled Core line until the middle of next year.

AMD expects the chips being introduced at the CES show to add much better capabilities for playing games and high-definition videos to a low-end portable category known as netbooks, a market Intel has dominated. "We are bringing just this incredible amount of visual and computing power to segments where it hasn't been seen before," said Rick Bergman, an AMD senior vice president who is general manager of its products group.

The third player affected by the trend is Nvidia Corp. The Silicon Valley company competes fiercely with AMD in sales of GPUs, but agrees with its rival on one point: The graphics circuitry added in Sandy Bridge—though an improvement over Intel's past efforts—still isn't adequate for many applications.

Both companies cite that the new Intel chips don't support a Microsoft Corp. programming technology called DirectX 11, needed for some popular videogames, while their products do. An Intel spokesman responded, saying that many widely used games will work fine using Sandy Bridge, which the company predicts will make GPUs unnecessary in low-end PCs.

Nvidia says many PC makers don't seem to agree with Intel's assertion, with more than 200 forthcoming models based on Sandy Bridge also including its GPUs.

"We have more design wins in Sandy Bridge than any other platform," said Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang.

Mr. Huang says the new Intel chips with built-in graphics, instead of hurting Nvidia, will help the company by driving demand for PCs—largely because of other technology improvements. "I think this is the best microprocessor that's been built for quite a long time," he said.

Intel hasn't disclosed performance estimates for the new chips, which are expected to start with high-end models that have the equivalent of four calculating engines.

One person who has tested the technology is Kelt Reeves, president of the gaming-PC maker Falcon Northwest. While the graphics performance won't satisfy gamers, in Mr. Reeves's opinion, the four processors on Sandy Bridge chips top the performance of six processors on existing Intel products. The chips are "ridiculously good," he said.

Write to Don Clark at don.clark@wsj.com

2010年12月26日 星期日

New shrimp and blue poppies identified



photoThis red-and-white shrimp was identified as a new species. (Yusuke Yamada)photoA new species of blue poppy (Toshio Yoshida)

A tiny red-and-white shrimp and two varieties of blue poppies that were found by Japanese researchers have been identified as new species.

The shrimp, about 1 centimeter long, were found in shallow waters off Okinawa's main island and in the Indian Ocean off Madagascar, nearly 10,000 kilometers away.

Tomoyuki Komai and other researchers at the Natural History Museum and Institute, Chiba, in Chiba, identified the creature as a member of the Alpheidae family.

Their research was reported in Zootaxa, an academic journal published in New Zealand.

"The shrimp appear to live over a wide area of the sea," said Komai. "Perhaps because they are so small, they had not been identified, despite their conspicuous red-and-white color, reminiscent of Santa Claus."

The blue poppies were found growing on a mountain in the southwestern part of China's Sichuan province by plant photographer Toshio Yoshida in August 2009.

Yoshida, 61, spotted the flowers blooming among rocks on a mountain more than 4,000 meters high. The Chinese call the family of blue poppies "phantom flowers."

They were identified as two new species--M. heterandra and M. pulchella--through joint research by Yoshida and scholars at Harvard University in the United States and at the Kunming Institute of Botany at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

More than 40 species of blue poppies are known around the world.

2010年12月25日 星期六

A Scientist, His Work and a Climate Reckoning

Temperature Rising

A Scientist, His Work and a Climate Reckoning

Jonathan Kingston/Aurora Select, for The New York Times

KEEPING WATCH The Mauna Loa Observatory, at an altitude of 11,135 feet above sea level in Hawaii, has been continuously monitoring and collecting data related to climate change since the 1950s. More Photos »

MAUNA LOA OBSERVATORY, Hawaii — Two gray machines sit inside a pair of utilitarian buildings here, sniffing the fresh breezes that blow across thousands of miles of ocean.

Temperature Rising

Tracking the Numbers

Articles in this series are focusing on the central arguments in the climate debate and examining the evidence for global warming and its consequences.


A blog about energy and the environment.

Scripps Institution of Oceanography; U.C. San Diego

THE KEELINGS Charles D. Keeling with his son Ralph in 1989. More Photos »

Readers' Comments

Readers shared their thoughts on this article.

They make no noise. But once an hour, they spit out a number, and for decades, it has been rising relentlessly.

The first machine of this type was installed on Mauna Loa in the 1950s at the behest of Charles David Keeling, a scientist from San Diego. His resulting discovery, of the increasing level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, transformed the scientific understanding of humanity’s relationship with the earth. A graph of his findings is inscribed on a wall in Washington as one of the great achievements of modern science.

Yet, five years after Dr. Keeling’s death, his discovery is a focus not of celebration but of conflict. It has become the touchstone of a worldwide political debate over global warming.

When Dr. Keeling, as a young researcher, became the first person in the world to develop an accurate technique for measuring carbon dioxide in the air, the amount he discovered was 310 parts per million. That means every million pints of air, for example, contained 310 pints of carbon dioxide.

By 2005, the year he died, the number had risen to 380 parts per million. Sometime in the next few years it is expected to pass 400. Without stronger action to limit emissions, the number could pass 560 before the end of the century, double what it was before the Industrial Revolution.

The greatest question in climate science is: What will that do to the temperature of the earth?

Scientists have long known that carbon dioxide traps heat at the surface of the planet. They cite growing evidence that the inexorable rise of the gas is altering the climate in ways that threaten human welfare.

Fossil fuel emissions, they say, are like a runaway train, hurtling the world’s citizens toward a stone wall — a carbon dioxide level that, over time, will cause profound changes.

The risks include melting ice sheets, rising seas, more droughts and heat waves, more flash floods, worse storms, extinction of many plants and animals, depletion of sea life and — perhaps most important — difficulty in producing an adequate supply of food. Many of these changes are taking place at a modest level already, the scientists say, but are expected to intensify.

Reacting to such warnings, President George Bush committed the United States in 1992 to limiting its emissions of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide. Scores of other nations made the same pledge, in a treaty that was long on promises and short on specifics.

But in 1998, when it came time to commit to details in a document known as the Kyoto Protocol, Congress balked. Many countries did ratify the protocol, but it had only a limited effect, and the past decade has seen little additional progress in controlling emissions.

Many countries are reluctant to commit themselves to tough emission limits, fearing that doing so will hurt economic growth. International climate talks in Cancún, Mexico, this month ended with only modest progress. The Obama administration, which came into office pledging to limit emissions in the United States, scaled back its ambitions after climate and energy legislation died in the Senate this year.

Challengers have mounted a vigorous assault on the science of climate change. Polls indicate that the public has grown more doubtful about that science. Some of the Republicans who will take control of the House of Representatives in January have promised to subject climate researchers to a season of new scrutiny.

One of them is Representative Dana Rohrabacher, Republican of California. In a recent Congressional hearing on global warming, he said, “The CO2 levels in the atmosphere are rather undramatic.”

But most scientists trained in the physics of the atmosphere have a different reaction to the increase.

“I find it shocking,” said Pieter P. Tans, who runs the government monitoring program of which the Mauna Loa Observatory is a part. “We really are in a predicament here, and it’s getting worse every year.”

As the political debate drags on, the mute gray boxes atop Mauna Loa keep spitting out their numbers, providing a reality check: not only is the carbon dioxide level rising relentlessly, but the pace of that rise is accelerating over time.

“Nature doesn’t care how hard we tried,” Jeffrey D. Sachs, the Columbia University economist, said at a recent seminar. “Nature cares how high the parts per million mount. This is running away.”

A Passion for Precision

Perhaps the biggest reason the world learned of the risk of global warming was the unusual personality of a single American scientist.

Charles David Keeling’s son Ralph remembers that when he was a child, his family bought a new home in Del Mar, Calif., north of San Diego. His father assigned him the task of edging the lawn. Dr. Keeling insisted that Ralph copy the habits of the previous owner, an Englishman who had taken pride in his garden, cutting a precise two-inch strip between the sidewalk and the grass.

“It took a lot of work to maintain this attractive gap,” Ralph Keeling recalled, but he said his father believed “that was just the right way to do it, and if you didn’t do that, you were cutting corners. It was a moral breach.”

Dr. Keeling was a punctilious man. It was by no means his defining trait — relatives and colleagues described a man who played a brilliant piano, loved hiking mountains and might settle a friendly argument at dinner by pulling an etymological dictionary off the shelf.

But the essence of his scientific legacy was his passion for doing things in a meticulous way. It explains why, even as challengers try to pick apart every other aspect of climate science, his half-century record of carbon dioxide measurements stands unchallenged.

By the 1950s, when Dr. Keeling was completing his scientific training, scientists had been observing the increasing use of fossil fuels and wondering whether carbon dioxide in the air was rising as a result. But nobody had been able to take accurate measurements of the gas.

As a young researcher, Dr. Keeling built instruments and developed techniques that allowed him to achieve great precision in making such measurements. Then he spent the rest of his life applying his approach.

In his earliest measurements of the air, taken in California and other parts of the West in the mid-1950s, he found that the background level for carbon dioxide was about 310 parts per million.

That discovery drew attention in Washington, and Dr. Keeling soon found himself enjoying government backing for his research. He joined the staff of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, in the La Jolla section of San Diego, under the guidance of an esteemed scientist named Roger Revelle, and began laying plans to measure carbon dioxide around the world.

Some of the most important data came from an analyzer he placed in a government geophysical observatory that had been set up a few years earlier in a remote location: near the top of Mauna Loa, one of the volcanoes that loom over the Big Island of Hawaii.

He quickly made profound discoveries. One was that carbon dioxide oscillated slightly according to the seasons. Dr. Keeling realized the reason: most of the world’s land is in the Northern Hemisphere, and plants there were taking up carbon dioxide as they sprouted leaves and grew over the summer, then shedding it as the leaves died and decayed in the winter.

He had discovered that the earth itself was breathing.

A more ominous finding was that each year, the peak level was a little higher than the year before. Carbon dioxide was indeed rising, and quickly. That finding electrified the small community of scientists who understood its implications. Later chemical tests, by Dr. Keeling and others, proved that the increase was due to the combustion of fossil fuels.

The graph showing rising carbon dioxide levels came to be known as the Keeling Curve. Many Americans have never heard of it, but to climatologists, it is the most recognizable emblem of their science, engraved in bronze on a building at Mauna Loa and carved into a wall at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington.

By the late 1960s, a decade after Dr. Keeling began his measurements, the trend of rising carbon dioxide was undeniable, and scientists began to warn of the potential for a big increase in the temperature of the earth.

Dr. Keeling’s mentor, Dr. Revelle, moved to Harvard, where he lectured about the problem. Among the students in the 1960s who first saw the Keeling Curve displayed in Dr. Revelle’s classroom was a senator’s son from Tennessee named Albert Arnold Gore Jr., who marveled at what it could mean for the future of the planet.

Throughout much of his career, Dr. Keeling was cautious about interpreting his own measurements. He left that to other people while he concentrated on creating a record that would withstand scrutiny.

John Chin, a retired technician in Hawaii who worked closely with Dr. Keeling, recently described the painstaking steps he took, at Dr. Keeling’s behest, to ensure accuracy. Many hours were required every week just to be certain that the instruments atop Mauna Loa had not drifted out of kilter.

The golden rule was “no hanky-panky,” Mr. Chin recalled in an interview in Hilo, Hawaii. Dr. Keeling and his aides scrutinized the records closely, and if workers in Hawaii fell down on the job, Mr. Chin said, they were likely to get a call or letter: “What did you do? What happened that day?”

In later years, as the scientific evidence about climate change grew, Dr. Keeling’s interpretations became bolder, and he began to issue warnings. In an essay in 1998, he replied to claims that global warming was a myth, declaring that the real myth was that “natural resources and the ability of the earth’s habitable regions to absorb the impacts of human activities are limitless.”

Still, by the time he died, global warming had not become a major political issue. That changed in 2006, when Mr. Gore’s movie and book, both titled “An Inconvenient Truth,” brought the issue to wider public attention. The Keeling Curve was featured in both.

In 2007, a body appointed by the United Nations declared that the scientific evidence that the earth was warming had become unequivocal, and it added that humans were almost certainly the main cause. Mr. Gore and the panel jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize.

But as action began to seem more likely, the political debate intensified, with fossil-fuel industries mobilizing to fight emission-curbing measures. Climate-change contrarians increased their attack on the science, taking advantage of the Internet to distribute their views outside the usual scientific channels.

In an interview in La Jolla, Dr. Keeling’s widow, Louise, said that if her husband had lived to see the hardening of the political battle lines over climate change, he would have been dismayed.

“He was a registered Republican,” she said. “He just didn’t think of it as a political issue at all.”

The Numbers

Not long ago, standing on a black volcanic plain two miles above the Pacific Ocean, the director of the Mauna Loa Observatory, John E. Barnes, pointed toward a high metal tower.

Samples are taken by hoses that snake to the top of the tower to ensure that only clean air is analyzed, he explained. He described other measures intended to guarantee an accurate record. Then Dr. Barnes, who works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, displayed the hourly calculation from one of the analyzers.

It showed the amount of carbon dioxide that morning as 388 parts per million.

After Dr. Keeling had established the importance of carbon dioxide measurements, the government began making its own, in the early 1970s. Today, a NOAA monitoring program and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography program operate in parallel at Mauna Loa and other sites, with each record of measurements serving as a quality check on the other.

The Scripps program is now run by Ralph Keeling, who grew up to become a renowned atmospheric scientist in his own right and then joined the Scripps faculty. He took control of the measurement program after his father’s sudden death from a heart attack.

In an interview on the Scripps campus in La Jolla, Ralph Keeling calculated that the carbon dioxide level at Mauna Loa was likely to surpass 400 by May 2014, a sort of odometer moment in mankind’s alteration of the atmosphere.

“We’re going to race through 400 like we didn’t see it go by,” Dr. Keeling said.

What do these numbers mean?

The basic physics of the atmosphere, worked out more than a century ago, show that carbon dioxide plays a powerful role in maintaining the earth’s climate. Even though the amount in the air is tiny, the gas is so potent at trapping the sun’s heat that it effectively works as a one-way blanket, letting visible light in but stopping much of the resulting heat from escaping back to space.

Without any of the gas, the earth would most likely be a frozen wasteland — according to a recent study, its average temperature would be colder by roughly 60 degrees Fahrenheit. But scientists say humanity is now polluting the atmosphere with too much of a good thing.

In recent years, researchers have been able to put the Keeling measurements into a broader context. Bubbles of ancient air trapped by glaciers and ice sheets have been tested, and they show that over the past 800,000 years, the amount of carbon dioxide in the air oscillated between roughly 200 and 300 parts per million. Just before the Industrial Revolution, the level was about 280 parts per million and had been there for several thousand years.

That amount of the gas, in other words, produced the equable climate in which human civilization flourished.

Other studies, covering many millions of years, show a close association between carbon dioxide and the temperature of the earth. The gas seemingly played a major role in amplifying the effects of the ice ages, which were caused by wobbles in the earth’s orbit.

The geologic record suggests that as the earth began cooling, the amount of carbon dioxide fell, probably because much of it got locked up in the ocean, and that fall amplified the initial cooling. Conversely, when the orbital wobble caused the earth to begin warming, a great deal of carbon dioxide escaped from the ocean, amplifying the warming.

Richard B. Alley, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University, refers to carbon dioxide as the master control knob of the earth’s climate. He said that because the wobbles in the earth’s orbit were not, by themselves, big enough to cause the large changes of the ice ages, the situation made sense only when the amplification from carbon dioxide was factored in.

“What the ice ages tell us is that our physical understanding of CO2 explains what happened and nothing else does,” Dr. Alley said. “The ice ages are a very strong test of whether we’ve got it right.”

When people began burning substantial amounts of coal and oil in the 19th century, the carbon dioxide level began to rise. It is now about 40 percent higher than before the Industrial Revolution, and humans have put half the extra gas into the air since just the late 1970s. Emissions are rising so rapidly that some experts fear that the amount of the gas could double or triple before emissions are brought under control.

The earth’s history offers no exact parallel to the human combustion of fossil fuels, so scientists have struggled to calculate the effect.

Their best estimate is that if the amount of carbon dioxide doubles, the temperature of the earth will rise about five or six degrees Fahrenheit. While that may sound small given the daily and seasonal variations in the weather, the number represents an annual global average, and therefore an immense addition of heat to the planet.

The warming would be higher over land, and it would be greatly amplified at the poles, where a considerable amount of ice might melt, raising sea levels. The deep ocean would also absorb a tremendous amount of heat.

Moreover, scientists say that an increase of five or six degrees is a mildly optimistic outlook. They cannot rule out an increase as high as 18 degrees Fahrenheit, which would transform the planet.

Climate-change contrarians do not accept these numbers.

The Internet has given rise to a vocal cadre of challengers who question every aspect of the science — even the physics, worked out in the 19th century, that shows that carbon dioxide traps heat. That is a point so elementary and well-established that demonstrations of it are routinely carried out by high school students.

However, the contrarians who have most influenced Congress are a handful of men trained in atmospheric physics. They generally accept the rising carbon dioxide numbers, they recognize that the increase is caused by human activity, and they acknowledge that the earth is warming in response.

But they doubt that it will warm nearly as much as mainstream scientists say, arguing that the increase is likely to be less than two degrees Fahrenheit, a change they characterize as manageable.

Among the most prominent of these contrarians is Richard Lindzen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who contends that as the earth initially warms, cloud patterns will shift in a way that should help to limit the heat buildup. Most climate scientists contend that little evidence supports this view, but Dr. Lindzen is regularly consulted on Capitol Hill.

“I am quite willing to state,” Dr. Lindzen said in a speech this year, “that unprecedented climate catastrophes are not on the horizon, though in several thousand years we may return to an ice age.”

The Fuel of Civilization

While the world’s governments have largely accepted the science of climate change, their efforts to bring emissions under control are lagging.

The simple reason is that modern civilization is built on burning fossil fuels. Cars, trucks, power plants, steel mills, farms, planes, cement factories, home furnaces — virtually all of them spew carbon dioxide or lesser heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere.

Developed countries, especially the United States, are largely responsible for the buildup that has taken place since the Industrial Revolution. They have begun to make some headway on the problem, reducing the energy they use to produce a given amount of economic output, with some countries even managing to lower their total emissions.

But these modest efforts are being swamped by rising energy use in developing countries like China, India and Brazil. In those lands, economic growth is not simply desirable — it is a moral imperative, to lift more than a third of the human race out of poverty. A recent scientific paper referred to China’s surge as “the biggest transformation of human well-being the earth has ever seen.”

China’s citizens, on average, still use less than a third of the energy per person as Americans. But with 1.3 billion people, four times as many as the United States, China is so large and is growing so quickly that it has surpassed the United States to become the world’s largest overall user of energy.

Barring some big breakthrough in clean-energy technology, this rapid growth in developing countries threatens to make the emissions problem unsolvable.

Emissions dropped sharply in Western nations in 2009, during the recession that followed the financial crisis, but that decrease was largely offset by continued growth in the East. And for 2010, global emissions are projected to return to the rapid growth of the past decade, rising more than 3 percent a year.

Many countries have, in principle, embraced the idea of trying to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, feeling that any greater warming would pose unacceptable risks. As best scientists can calculate, that means about one trillion tons of carbon can be burned and the gases released into the atmosphere before emissions need to fall to nearly zero.

“It took 250 years to burn the first half-trillion tons,” Myles R. Allen, a leading British climate scientist, said in a briefing. “On current trends, we’ll burn the next half-trillion in less than 40.”

Unless more serious efforts to convert to a new energy system begin soon, scientists argue, it will be impossible to hit the 3.6-degree target, and the risk will increase that global warming could spiral out of control by century’s end.

“We are quickly running out of time,” said Josep G. Canadell, an Australian scientist who tracks emissions

In many countries, the United States and China among them, a conversion of the energy system has begun, with wind turbines and solar panels sprouting across the landscape. But they generate only a tiny fraction of all power, with much of the world’s electricity still coming from the combustion of coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel.

With the exception of European countries, few nations have been willing to raise the cost of fossil fuels or set emissions caps as a way to speed the transformation. In the United States, a particular fear has been that a carbon policy will hurt the country’s industries as they compete with companies abroad whose governments have adopted no such policy.

As he watches these difficulties, Ralph Keeling contemplates the unbending math of carbon dioxide emissions first documented by his father more than a half-century ago and wonders about the future effects of that increase.

“When I go see things with my children, I let them know they might not be around when they’re older,” he said. “ ‘Go enjoy these beautiful forests before they disappear. Go enjoy the glaciers in these parks because they won’t be around.’ It’s basically taking note of what we have, and appreciating it, and saying goodbye to it.”

On Dec. 11, another round of international climate negotiations, sponsored by the United Nations, concluded in Cancún. As they have for 18 years running, the gathered nations pledged renewed efforts. But they failed to agree on any binding emission targets.

Late at night, as the delegates were wrapping up in Mexico, the machines atop the volcano in the middle of the Pacific Ocean issued their own silent verdict on the world’s efforts.

At midnight Mauna Loa time, the carbon dioxide level hit 390 — and rising.

German researchers develop ice-free windshield

German researchers develop ice-free windshield

It's what most European drivers are dreaming of these days: a farewell to
ice-scraping. But drivers need some patience: the new technology is not
ready for the market yet, the German researchers say.

The DW-WORLD.DE Article

You Can Have the Placebo Effect, Even If You Know It's a Placebo


Patients taking placebos don't have to think they're getting real drugs to enjoy the placebo effect. A new study published in the journal PLoS reports on patients who had irritable bowel syndrome and were told they were being given a placebo as part of a novel experiment. They took pills from a big bottle clearly marked "placebo"—and got better, anyway. "In addition to the bogus medication, the volunteers were given a true story—the story of the placebo effect," Steve Silberman explains explains on the PLoS blog. "The combination of the story and a supportive clinical environment were enough to prevail over the knowledge that there was really nothing in the pills. People in the placebo arm of the trial got better—clinically, measurably, significantly better—on standard scales of symptom severity and overall quality of life. In fact, the volunteers in the placebo group experienced improvement comparable to patients taking a drug called alosetron, the standard of care for IBS." Scientists believe the remarkable findings are the result of the body's "powerful self-healing network," which can be activated by "nothing more or less than a belief that one is receiving effective treatment." And while placebos aren't going to replace pharmaceuticals any time soon, Silberman calls the development "good news to anyone but investors in Pfizer, Roche, and GlaxoSmithKline."

Read original story in PLoS | Thursday, Dec. 23, 2010

Meet the Ethical Placebo: A Story that Heals

Irving Kirsch, photo by Bo Tenberg

Irving Kirsch at the University of Hull, photo by Bo Tenberg

A provocative new study called “Placebos Without Deception,” published on PLoS One today, threatens to make humble sugar pills something they’ve rarely had a chance to be in the history of medicine: a respectable, ethically sound treatment for disease that has been vetted in controlled trials.

The word placebo is ancient, coming to us from the Latin for “I shall please.” As far back as the 14th Century, the term already had connotations of fakery, sleaze, and deception. For well-to-do Catholic families in Geoffrey Chaucer’s day, the custom at funerals was to offer a feast to the congregation after the mourners sang the Office for the Dead (which contains the phrase placebo Domino in regione vivorum, “I shall please the Lord in the land of the living”). The unintended effect of this largesse was to inspire distant relatives and former acquaintances of the departed to crawl out of the woodwork, weeping copiously while praising the deceased, then hastening to the buffet. By the time Chaucer wrote his Canterbury Tales, these macabre freeloaders had been christened “placebo singers.”

In modern medicine, placebos are associated with another form of deception — a kind that has long been thought essential for conducting randomized clinical trials of new drugs, the statistical rock upon which the global pharmaceutical industry was built. One group of volunteers in an RCT gets the novel medication; another group (the “control” group) gets pills or capsules that look identical to the allegedly active drug, but contain only an inert substance like milk sugar. These faux drugs are called placebos.

Inevitably, the health of some people in both groups improves, while the health of others grows worse. Symptoms of illness fluctuate for all sorts of reasons, including regression to the mean. Since the goal of an RCT, from Big Pharma’s perspective, is to demonstrate the effectiveness of a new drug, the return to robust health of a volunteer in the control group is considered a statistical distraction. If too many people in the trial get better after downing sugar pills, the real drug will look worse by comparison — sometimes fatally so for the purpose of earning approval from the Food and Drug Adminstration.

For a complex and somewhat mysterious set of reasons, it is becoming increasingly difficult for experimental drugs to prove their superiority to sugar pills in RCTs, which was the subject of an in-depth article I published in Wired called “The Placebo Problem,” recipient of this year’s Kavli/AAAS Science Journalism of the Year award for a magazine feature.

Only in recent years, however, has it become obvious that the abatement of symptoms in control-group volunteers — the so-called placebo effect — is worthy of study outside the context of drug trials, and is in fact profoundly good news to anyone but investors in Pfizer, Roche, and GlaxoSmithKline. The emerging field of placebo research has revealed that the body’s repertoire of resilience contains a powerful self-healing network that can help reduce pain and inflammation, lower the production of stress chemicals like cortisol, and even tame high blood pressure and the tremors of Parkinson’s disease.

Jumpstarting this network requires nothing more or less than a belief that one is receiving effective treatment — in the form of a pill, a capsule, talk therapy, injection, IV, or acupuncture needle. The activation of this self-healing network is what we really mean when we talk about the placebo effect. Though inert in themselves, placebos act as passwords between the domain of the mind and the domain of the body, enabling the expectation of healing to be translated into cascades of neurotransmitters and altered patterns of brain activity that engender health.

That’s all well and good, but what does it mean in the real world of people getting sick? You can hardly expect the American Medical Association to issue a wink and a nod to doctors, encouraging them to prescribe sugar pills for seriously disabling conditions like chronic depression and Parkinson’s disease. Meanwhile, more and more studies each year — by researchers like Fabrizio Benedetti at the University of Turin, author of a superb new book called The Patient’s Brain, and neuroscientist Tor Wager at the University of Colorado — demonstrate that the placebo effect might be potentially useful in treating a wide range of ills. Then why aren’t doctors supposed to use it?

The medical establishment’s ethical problem with placebo treatment boils down to the notion that for fake drugs to be effective, doctors must lie to their patients. It has been widely assumed that if a patient discovers that he or she is taking a placebo, the mind/body password will no longer unlock the network, and the magic pills will cease to do their job.

Now, however, a group of leading placebo researchers — including Irving Kirsch at the University of Hull in England (who I interview at length below) and Ted Kaptchuk at Harvard — has produced a little bombshell of a study that makes these assumptions obsolete. For “Placebos Without Deception,” the researchers tracked the health of 80 volunteers with irritable bowel syndrome for three weeks as half of them took placebos and the other half didn’t. A painful, chronic gastrointestinal condition, IBS is serious business. It’s one of the top ten reasons why people seek medical care worldwide, accounting for millions of dollars a year in health care expenditures and lost work-hours.

In a previous study published in the British Medical Journal in 2008, Kaptchuk and Kirsch demonstrated that placebo treatment can be highly effective for alleviating the symptoms of IBS. This time, however, instead of the trial being “blinded,” it was “open.” That is, the volunteers in the placebo group knew that they were getting only inert pills — which they were instructed to take religiously, twice a day. They were also informed that, just as Ivan Pavlov trained his dogs to drool at the sound of a bell, the body could be trained to activate its own built-in healing network by the act of swallowing a pill.

In other words, in addition to the bogus medication, the volunteers were given a true story — the story of the placebo effect. They also received the care and attention of clinicians, which have been found in many other studies to be crucial for eliciting placebo effects. The combination of the story and a supportive clinical environment were enough to prevail over the knowledge that there was really nothing in the pills. People in the placebo arm of the trial got better — clinically, measurably, significantly better — on standard scales of symptom severity and overall quality of life. In fact, the volunteers in the placebo group experienced improvement comparable to patients taking a drug called alosetron, the standard of care for IBS.

Meet the ethical placebo: a powerfully effective faux medication that meets all the standards of informed consent.

The study is hardly the last word on the subject, but more like one of the first. Its modest sample size and brief duration leave plenty of room for followup research. (What if “ethical” placebos wear off more quickly than deceptive ones? Does the fact that most of the volunteers in this study were women have any bearing on the outcome? Were any of the volunteers skeptical that the placebo effect is real, and did that affect their response to treatment?) Before some eager editor out there composes a tweet-baiting headline suggesting that placebos are about to drive Big Pharma out of business, he or she should appreciate the fact that the advent of AMA-approved placebo treatments would open numerous cans of fascinatingly tangled worms. For example, since the precise nature of placebo effects is shaped largely by patients’ expectations, would the advertised potency and side effects of theoretical products like Placebex and Therastim be subject to change by Internet rumors, requiring perpetual updating?


100% pure placebo

Even at this preliminary stage in the research, however, it’s clear that it’s time to flip our ideas about fake pills upside down. It’s common to use the word “placebo” as a synonym for “scam.” Economists talk about placebo solutions to our economic catastrophe (tax cuts for the rich, anyone?). Online skeptics mock the billion-dollar herbal-medicine industry by calling it Big Placebo. The fact that our brains and bodies respond vigorously to placebos given in warm and supportive clinical environments, however, turns out to be very real.

We’re also discovering that the power of narrative is embedded deeply in our physiology. Perhaps that’s not surprising. In the long centuries before doctors discovered antibiotics, they often had little else but an observant eye, a listening ear, and a bag of nostrums with names like decoction of barley and compound infusion of roses to offer their desperately ill patients.

In an age of computerized diagnostics, talking about the power of storytelling in health care seems like a throwback to those medical Dark Ages. After reading the new study, however, one of the pioneers of placebo research, anthropologist Dan Moerman at the University of Michigan, noted how much even the volunteers who didn’t get placebos benefited from the support and attention of clinicians.

“I was really surprised at how well the non-placebo group did,” Moerman says in email. “Note I don’t call them a ‘no treatment group’ because they, and everyone else, received exemplary treatment here: they were listened to, examined, encouraged, supported. They were able to talk with, and be taken seriously by, people who understood their issues, things they probably had serious difficulty discussing with their own families. I think it likely that the effectiveness of the placebos above and beyond all the other treatment would have been diminished without the whole system of compassionate care.”

At the same time, as Kirsch explains in our interview, the volunteers who took placebos felt significantly better than those who didn’t. The act of taking the pills made a difference.

Placebo expert Amir Raz at McGill University observes that the new study follows up on a groundbreaking experiment conducted in 1964 by Lee Park and Uno Covi, who administered “open” placebos to 15 patients from a psychiatric clinic and tracked similar levels of improvement in their anxiety. In a paper slated to be published in the April 2011 issue of the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, Raz will talk to many physicians who doubt that one has to lie to patients for placebos to be effective. In fact, in the real world of doctoring, many physicians prescribe medications at dosages too low to have an effect on their own, hoping to tap into the body’s own healing resources — though this is mostly acknowledged only in whispers, as a kind of trade secret.

Kirsch’s 2010 book The Emperor’s New Drugs caused a huge stir by claiming that the effectiveness of antidepressants — one of the top-selling classes of drugs in the world — may be entirely dependent on the placebo effect. Before spending time with him at a placebo workshop hosted at McGill in July, I was frankly expecting to meet a fiery anti-pharma avenger – albeit one with a compelling argument backed up by data.

Instead, Kirsch is a soft-spoken, modest, diligent, boyishly handsome 67-year-old psychologist who thoroughly understands why his notions are so upsetting to people who insist that their lives have been turned around by Paxil or Lexapro. He also has an intriguing personal history that includes organizing against the Vietnam War with Bertrand Russell, producing a Grammy-nominated comedy album in 1973 with the editors of National Lampoon, and playing violin in the Toledo Symphony behind Aretha Franklin. Kirsch is currently working on a new book about the potential of placebo therapy.

Silberman: What’s the most subversive aspect of this new study?

Kirsch: Simply that placebos work even when you tell people that they’re placebos. To me that’s fascinating. As is the fact that patients can experience substantial and clinically meaningful improvement of the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome when given placebos.

One of the assumptions that we made in this study, however, is that you have to offer the patients a convincing rationale to use placebos as well as giving them a pill. That’s the next thing we have to test.

Silberman: What kinds of ailments are amenable to placebo treatment?

Kirsch: Depression, anxiety disorders, and pain; pain in particular is highly responsive to placebo therapy. Irritable bowel syndrome — we’ve shown that not only in this study, but in one published in the British Medical Journal a couple of years ago. Parkinson’s Disease, ulcers, and asthma too. There’s a long list of conditions treatable with placebos that have some subjective component and can be intensified by conditions like stress.

Silberman: If all of these ailments have a subjective component, does that mean they share a set of neurological mechanisms?

Kirsch: I’m afraid that’s outside my area of expertise. But I know what these conditions don’t share in common. The kinds of effects you see in the brain when people respond to a placebo depends on the condition you’re supposed to be treating. So if you take a placebo analgesic, you get reductions in activity in the brain’s pain matrix. If you take a placebo antidepressant, you get changes in brain activity in areas related to depression.

Silberman: Does the placebo response tell us anything about how active medicines work?

Kirsch: For any condition susceptible to placebos, the placebo effect is a component of the response to active medication. In most cases, placebo effects and drug effects are additive — the net response to the medication is larger because of placebo effects than it would be on its own.

Silberman: You’ve done a lot of work analyzing placebo effects in antidepressant therapy, which you write about in your book The Emperor’s New Drugs. Has your opinion of antidepressants evolved at all?

Kirsch: The more I learn, the more convinced I become that the benefits of drugs for depression are not biologically driven, but driven by the placebo effect. The thing that convinces me most is that nearly all drugs for depression — despite having very different chemical compositions — are of equal benefit. In other words, you have drugs that are completely different in what they do chemically — even drugs that operate by opposing mechanisms — creating the same level of effect.

The most commonly employed antidepressants are supposed to increase the amount of serotonin in synapses in the brain, but there are also antidepressants that decrease the level of serotonin in the brain, and they both have the same effect therapeutically. The effects of these drugs seem to be completely independent of their chemical composition.

Silberman: Dan Moerman mentioned to me in an email that he was surprised by how well the non-placebo group did in your study.

Kirsch: That’s true. We said that we compared open label placebo to a no-treatment control group, but actually, the ”no-treatment” description is not entirely accurate in this case. The patients in the control group met with the clinician before being given the pills and midway between the beginning and end of the study. Both visits were in the context of a warm, supportive, patient-practitioner relationship. Like many other researchers, we assume that the therapeutic relationship is an important component of the placebo effect.

But many people — including doctors — think that the therapeutic relationship entirely accounts for the placebo effect. Our data show that this is not true. If the placebo effect was entirely due to the therapeutic relationship — the time, attention, warmth, and enthusiasm communicated by the doctor — then our placebo pill would not have produced any effect beyond that seen in our “no-treatment” control condition, because the no-treatment control patients received the same level of therapeutic relationship as that received by patients in the placebo pill condition. That tells us two things –one, that giving patients the placebo pill improved their condition, and two, that the difference in improvement was due to getting the pill. It was not due to the therapeutic relationship.

Silberman: One of the ways that you prepped the volunteers in this trial was that you informed them that placebo effects work via conditioning, like Pavlov’s dogs being trained to salivate at the sound of a bell. What trains people all over the world to respond to act of taking a pill?

Kirsch: The existence of successful treatments. People come to expect and believe that they’re going to get better if they take medication. The whole process of going to a physician and being treated reinforces this belief. That constitutes the basic aspects of classical conditioning. Eventually, the pill alone is enough to produce a placebo effect, whether it contains an active drug or not.

Silberman: Does direct-to-consumer advertising also play a role? In America, when you open a magazine, the good-looking jock playing with puppies in the sun is the formerly depressed patient on Zoloft.

Navigating the road ahead with Abilify

Advertisement for Abilify, used to treat depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and autism-related irritability

Kirsch: No doubt about it. One thing that’s clear is that the placebo effect of antidepressants has gotten stronger over the years as these drugs have been more widely accepted, touted, and advertised. The response to them in general has increased because of the additivity I was talking about before.

Silberman: What would a world in which placebos were given openly by doctors look like?

Kirsch: Our study points to something that a number of people have suspected, but has been hard to demonstrate under controlled conditions: We have the capacity for healing physical conditions through psychological means. First, we have to accept that. Studies of placebo effects are great demonstrations of it.

You might think of this healing capacity as a self-regulatory mechanism. Then the question then becomes how best to unlock it. This kind of research shows the potential of our being able to treat certain conditions without drugs — particularly in cases where we don’t have effective drugs, and/or where the drugs we have are not much more effective than what we can accomplish with placebos. And especially in cases where the drugs carry serious risks.

Silberman: A lot of very smart people dismiss homeopathy, acupuncture, and other alternate treatments as nothing more than quackery for dullards — “woo,” as P.Z. Myers or Ben Goldacre might put it. But couldn’t the placebo response play the role of being, in a sense, the “active principle” of woo? For example, I recently saw a controlled trial of homeopathic therapy for rheumatoid arthritis that concluded that the effectiveness of the therapy was due to the homeopathic consultation process, not the little pills themselves. Your colleague Ted Kaptchuk spoke to me for my Wired article about the importance of “therapeutic ritual” in eliciting the placebo response, and homeopathic consultation — even if the notion that pills containing a few molecules at most of an active ingredient seems obviously ridiculous — is a good example of an elaborate therapeutic ritual. I think the door is still open on whether acupuncture does more than jump-start the placebo response…

Map of Acupuncture Meridians

Traditional map of 经络, the acupuncture meridians

Kirsch: That door is closing. I think the effects of acupuncture are largely placebo effects, if not entirely. It’s a very good placebo effect; a really healthy and large placebo effect. The last study we did on IBS was with placebo acupuncture — sham acupuncture. Sham acupuncture does as much good as real acupuncture. You can do it without needles and still get the same effect. Practitioners of acupuncture, homeopathy, and other alternative and complimentary medicines do an excellent job of eliciting and bolstering placebo effects.

We know from our research the things that make a difference: how much time you spend with a patient, how supportive and empathic you are, how well you listen, and how confident you are in being able to help. Complimentary and alternative medicine practitioners are particularly good at these things. These are obviously things that physicians can do as well, and some are very good at eliciting placebo effects.

But those qualities are becoming more rare in conventional medical practice. Certainly here in the UK, it’s very uncommon to have a good placebo intervention in primary care, because the standard visit with the doctor is ten minutes at most.

Silberman: Ten minutes sounds long to me. If I see my doctor for three minutes as she rushes around, it’s a good day.

Kirsch: In the IBS study we did in 2008, we maximized the amount of time spent in the initial interview, and other qualities of listening and empathy, and got much more substantial placebo effects.

Silberman: These days, however, the emphasis is increasingly on data-driven medicine — blood tests, genome and proteome scans, and the search for biomarkers. Studies like this suggest that narrative medicine as it was practiced in the 19th century — the doctor listening to the patient, hearing the story of the symptoms, and reframing it as a story of how the patient will get better — also plays a crucial role in healing.

Kirsch: We’re breaking the boundary between the two approaches. The reason we do studies like this is to make placebo research data-driven. We’re starting to build up a database on the effects of enhancing patient-physician contact, and on the administration of placebos openly and honestly, without deception.

Silberman: Have you had any hostile responses to your book from people who worry that by telling depressed people that antidepressants are really placebos, the pills will stop working?

Photo of Irving Kirsch by Bo Tenberg

Photo of Irving Kirsch by Bo Tenberg

Kirsch: Definitely. People have suggested that I take a line comparable to “don’t ask, don’t tell.” They say, “OK, so the placebo effect is doing most or all of the work. We don’t want to ruin that. We have nothing else to give our patients!” Well, now we know that the placebo effect still works even when people know they’re taking placebos. That’s one of the nice things we’ve learned from this study. Plus, there’s an ethical problem when you keep secret the fact that you’re giving someone a drug that barely works — especially when the drug has harmful effects as well.

Silberman: Has your research changed the way you think about taking medicine?

Kirsch: Interesting question. It has made me more wary. It certainly makes me less likely to talk to my doctor about getting an antidepressant if I’m feeling down or sad.

Silberman: What kinds of follow-up studies are needed now?

Kirsch: We know that open placebo treatment works for IBS. Does it also work for depression? How crucial is telling patients about the placebo effect? Might placebo therapy work even without giving patients a convincing rationale? My guess would be that it wouldn’t, but I don’t really know for sure.

Silberman: One interesting aspect of this study is that it suggests that are two layers of belief in the brain — one that knows there’s nothing in this pill, and another that knows that a placebo can be an effective treatment. It’s as if the brain can entertain two different notions of the effectiveness of a pill at once.

Kirsch: Yes, but they’re not contradictory notions. I believe in both. I know that this pill does not contain a physically active ingredient, and I also understand the conditioning process. I know that the placebo effect is real, so I understand that this inert pill might help trigger that healing response within me. We need to recognize and understand that patients are active agents in their treatment, not passive. The placebo effect does not come from the pill. It comes from the patient.

2010年12月24日 星期五








  不過,iPhone4則可輕鬆地將電池拆下來。一拉寫有「Authorized Service Provider Only」的標籤,被墊在電池下面的薄膜就被拉起來,電池也隨之翹起。觀察拆下電池後的外殼發現,只有電池的外側一週是通過雙面膠固定的。







  此前,蘋果公司一直採用不以部件更換為前提的設計,例如通過雙面膠和黏合劑來固定電池等。因此,修理和更換電池時,只好整個更換手機。而在 iPhone4中,卻可以輕鬆地將電池和部件拆下來。是為了通過部件的回收利用來降低成本?還是為了突出減少了對環境的負荷?雖然蘋果公司的真正意圖尚不 清楚,但從此次的iPhone4來看可以肯定的是蘋果出現了一些變化。









「iPhone 4」將於6月24日在日上市,軟銀移動獨家銷售


【記者部落格】iPhone 4的A4和iPad的A4

「iPhone 4」將於6月24日在日上市,軟銀移動獨家銷售

Scientists produce 'world's smallest Christmas card'

smallest Christmas card graphic Glasgow University provided this graphic to demonstrate how small the card is

Scientists have produced what they believe is the world's smallest Christmas card.

It was created by nantotechnologists at the University of Glasgow and is so small it could fit on to the surface of a postage stamp 8,276 times.

The image, which measures 200x290 micro-metres, features a Christmas tree and is etched on a tiny piece of glass.

The team behind the project said the technology could eventually be used in products such as TVs and cameras.

The university's school of engineering drew up the design to highlight its "world-leading" nanotechnology expertise.

Prof David Cumming said: "Our nanotechnology is among the best in the world but sometimes explaining to the public what the technology is capable of can be a bit tricky.

"We decided that producing this Christmas card was a simple way to show just how accurate our technology is.

"The process to manufacture the card only took 30 minutes. It was very straightforward to produce as the process is highly repeatable - the design of the card took far longer than the production.

Human hair

Prof Cumming added: "The card is 200 micro-metres wide by 290 micro-metres tall.

"To put that into some sort of perspective, a micro-metre is a millionth of a metre; the width of a human hair is about 100 micro-metres.

"You could fit over half a million of them on to a standard A5 Christmas card - but signing them would prove to be a bit of a challenge."

The colours were produced by a process known as plasmon resonance in a patterned aluminium film made in the university's James Watt Nanofabrication Centre.

Although the Christmas card example is a simple demonstration, the university said the underlying technology had important real-world applications.

The electronics industry is taking advantage of micro and nano-fabrication technology by using it in bio-technology sensing, optical filtering and light control components.

The applications are critical in the future development of the digital economy and could eventually find their way into cameras, television and computer screens to reduce the manufacturing cost.

世界最小耶誕卡 兩根頭髮寬


鏤 刻在一小塊玻璃上的這張全球最小耶誕卡片,上面圖案是一棵耶誕樹。格拉斯哥大學的科學家之所以要設計這張耶誕卡,是要向該校獨步全球的奈米技術致敬。該校 教授康明說,他們的奈米科技在全世界數一數二,但有時要向大眾解釋該科技並非易事,「我們決定製造這張耶誕卡,以顯示我們的技術有多精準。」

康 明說,製作這張迷你耶誕卡只花了三十分鐘,反倒是設計卡片圖案花了比較長的時間;這張卡片寬兩百微米、高兩百九十微米,而一微米等於一公尺的一百萬分之 一。至於人類一根頭髮的寬度,大約是一百微米;若要填滿一張標準A5大小的耶誕卡,得用上超過五十萬張迷你耶誕卡,但要在卡片上簽名落款就麻煩了。