Category Archives: science

Optimal Caffeine Consumption

Whether caffeine serves any purpose other than removing withdrawal symptoms is a topic of study with conflicting results, but if you’re an optimist as well as a fan of caffeine in any of it’s many forms you’re most likely consuming it sub-optimally.

Why not improve your caffeine knowledge and learning about the optimal way of consuming the world’s most-used stimulant; caffeine:

  • Consume in small, frequent amounts: Between 20-200mg per hour may be an optimal dose for cognitive function.
  • Play to your cognitive strengths: Caffeine may increase the speed with which you work, may decrease attentional lapses, and may even benefit recall – but is less likely to benefit more complex cognitive functions, and may even hurt others. Plan accordingly.
  • Play to caffeine’s strengths: Caffeine’s effects can be maximized or minimized depending on what else is in your system at the time.
  • Know when to stop – and when to start again: Although you may not grow strongly tolerant to caffeine, you can become dependent on it and suffer withdrawal symptoms. Balance these concerns with the cognitive and health benefits associated with caffeine consumption – and appropriately timed resumption.

So that’s one cup of regular coffee — with sugar and/or soy milk — every hour when performing relatively simple cognitive tasks.

Labelling Homeopathic Products

Earlier this year the UK’s MHRA opened a consultation to help them decide how homeopathic products should be labelled when sold to the public. As expected, Ben Goldacre — devoted critic of homeopathy, pseudoscience and general quackery — suggested a label of his own and asked his readers for further suggestions.

Some of the suggestions were truly fantastic (and proved that I couldn’t come up with an original joke, no matter how hard I tried), and so Goldacre published some of the best suggestions for homeopathic labelling in his column for The Guardian:

On instructions, we have “take as many as you like”, since there are no ingredients. The proposed belladonna homeopathy pill ingredients label simply reads “no belladonna”, which is a convention the MHRA could adapt for all its different homeopathy labels. Other suggestions include “none”, “belief”, “false hopes”, “shattered dreams”, and “the tears of unicorns”.

For warnings, we have: “not to be taken seriously”, “in case of overdose, consult a lifeguard”, and “contains chemicals, including dihydrogen monoxide“. This, of course, is a scary name for water, which became an internet meme after Nathan Zohner’s school science project: he successfully gathered a petition to ban this chemical on the grounds that it is fatal when inhaled, contributes to the erosion of our natural landscape, may cause electrical failures, and has been found in the excised tumours of terminal cancer patients.

The comments on both articles are real gems for those in need of a laugh today.

via @IrregularShed

The Evolutionary History of the Brain

The development of the human brain is intricately linked with almost every moment of our evolution from sea-dwelling animals to advanced, social primates. That is the the overwhelming theme from New Scientist‘s brief history of the brain.

The engaging article ends with a look at the continued evolution of the human brain (“the visual cortex has grown larger in people who migrated from Africa to northern latitudes, perhaps to help make up for the dimmer light”), and this on why our brains have stopped growing:

So why didn’t our brains get ever bigger? It may be because we reached a point at which the advantages of bigger brains started to be outweighed by the dangers of giving birth to children with big heads. Or it might have been a case of diminishing returns.

Our brains are pretty hungry, burning 20 per cent of our food at a rate of about 15 watts, and any further improvements would be increasingly demanding. […]

One way to speed up our brain, for instance, would be to evolve neurons that can fire more times per second. But to support a 10-fold increase in the “clock speed” of our neurons, our brain would need to burn energy at the same rate as Usain Bolt’s legs during a 100-metre sprint. The 10,000-calorie-a-day diet of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps would pale in comparison.

Not only did the growth in the size of our brains cease around 200,000 years ago, in the past 10,000 to 15,000 years the average size of the human brain compared with our body has shrunk by 3 or 4 per cent. Some see this as no cause for concern. Size, after all, isn’t everything, and it’s perfectly possible that the brain has simply evolved to make better use of less grey and white matter. That would seem to fit with some genetic studies, which suggest that our brain’s wiring is more efficient now than it was in the past.

Others, however, think this shrinkage is a sign of a slight decline in our general mental abilities.

via @mocost

Our Amazing Senses

As neuroscientist Bradley Voytek points out, “we’re used to thinking of our senses as being pretty shite”, and this is mostly thanks to the plethora of animals that can see, hear, smell and taste far better than we can. “We can’t see as well as eagles, we can’t hear as well as bats, and we can’t smell as well as dogs”, he concludes… and that seems to be the consensus on every nature documentary I’ve ever watched.

However our brain is a magnificent construction (and our senses are equally as wondrous), and so Voytek tries to reverse this idea by explaining just how sensitive and amazing our senses really are:

It turns out that humans can, in fact, detect as few as 2 photons entering the retina. Two. As in, one-plus-one. It is often said that, under ideal conditions, a young, healthy person can see a candle flame from 30 miles away. That’s like being able to see a candle in Times Square from Stamford, Connecticut. Or seeing a candle in Candlestick Park from Napa Valley.*

Similarly, it appears that the limits to our threshold of hearing may actually be Brownian motion. That means that we can almost hear the random movements of atoms.

We can also smell as few as 30 molecules of certain substances. […]

These facts suggest that we all have some level of what we’d normally think of as “super human” sensory abilities already.

But what the hell? If I can supposedly see a candle from 30 miles away, why do I still crack my frakkin’ shin on the coffee table when it’s only slightly dark in my living room?

It may not surprise you to hear that the answer to that question is attention.

* For the Europeans among you, that’s more than a fifth longer than the Channel Tunnel‘s underwater section (or Hyde Park to Stansted Airport for the Londoners).

The Brain on Food: Everyday Chemicals

Regarding all the foods that we consume as a drugs is a wondrous way to examine and comprehend the complex interactions and subtle forces behind how everything we put in our mouths affects “how our neurons behave and, subsequently, how we think and feel”.

In a compelling article that suggests our shared evolutionary history with the plants and animals that we eat is the root cause of them having an affect on our body’s behaviour, Gary Wenk, author of Your Brain on Food, briefly describes how some of the chemicals present in ‘drugs’ such as chocolate, bananas, alcohol and nutmeg affect us:

We have all experienced the consequences of our shared evolutionary history with the plants we eat. For example, unripe bananas contain the neurotransmitter serotonin. When you eat an unripe banana, its serotonin is free to act upon the serotonin neurons within your digestive tract. The consequence is likely to be increased activation of the muscles in the wall of your intestines, usually experienced as diarrhea.

Many plants contain compounds that should be able to enhance your brain’s performance. For example, potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplants contain solanine and α-chaconine, substances that can enhance the action of acetylcholine, a chemical in your brain that is vital to memory formation. Your mood might be enhanced slightly by eating fava beans because they contain L-DOPA, a precursor to the production of dopamine, the reward chemical in your brain. Whether these food-borne compounds actually affect your brain depends upon how much you consume and your own personal physiology. This might explain why some people find it quite rewarding to eat potatoes or eggplants.

Morphine-like chemicals capable of acting upon the brain are produced in your intestines when you consume milk, eggs, cheese, spinach, mushrooms, pumpkin, and various fish and grains. Dairy products in particular contain a protein known as casein, which enzymes in your intestines can convert into beta-casomorphin. In newborns, that beta-casomorphin can easily pass out of the immature gut and into the developing brain to produce euphoria.

There’s much more like that in the article, concluded with Wenk arguing that this shared evolutionary history is why plants and animals from other planets will probably not harm or sustain us if we ever travel to distant, Earth-like bodies.