COP15 Highlights, day 2 - december 9, 2009

Watch highlights from day 2 of the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009 (COP15) - recorded on December 9, 2009
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Rewriting fearful memories by bringing them back to mind [Not Exactly Rocket Science]

Bringing an old memory back to mind would, you might think, strengthen it. But not so - when memories are recalled, they enter a surprisingly vulnerable state, when they can be reshaped or even rewritten. It takes a while for the memory to become strengthened anew, through a process called reconsolidation. Memories aren't just written once, but every time we remember them.

Manwithoutfear.jpgThis system allows us to rapidly update our memories with new information, for a more flexible and adaptable brain. It also means that the very act of remembering provides a valuable window of opportunity, during which memory can be manipulated. Now, a group of US scientists have done just that, exploiting this window to remove a simple fearful memory using fresh information, rather than drugs or invasive surgery.

Daniela Schiller from New York University trained volunteers to fear a coloured square by pairing it with a mild electric shock (the "acquisition" part of the graph below). The next day, Schiller reactivated their fear memories by once again showing them the shocking squares. When they did, their skin betrayed their nervousness by becoming better at conducting electricity, a sure sign that they were sweating.

Schiller then tried to extinguish their fearful responses with "extinction trials", where they repeatedly saw the square without any shocks. This procedure ought to break the first day's conditioning and it did temporarily (the "extinction" part of the graph below). But fear memories are harder to banish than that. On the third day, the volunteers were once again exposed to the scary squares, which, once again, sent most of them into a nervous sweat (the "re-extinction" part).

The only exceptions were the people whose memories of their conditioning had been reactivated 10 minutes before they went through the extinction training. If Schiller left a gap of 6 hours, or if she took the recruits straight into the extinction trials, they still reacted nervously to the squares. These results fit with the idea of reconsolidation, where remembering a memory provides a short window of opportunity for overwriting it. Doing so produces an anti-fear blockade that lasts much longer than 24 hours.


Schiller invited her volunteers back a year later, and 19 out of 65 returned. She gave them four shocks and showed them the coloured squares again - a powerful procedure that should have dramatically reinstated the fears they had been conditioned with a year before. But those whose fear memories had been overwritten didn't succumb, while volunteers who previously belonged to the 6-hour or the no-reminder groups quickly started to get nervous again.

Best of all, Schiller found that the effect of the fear blockade was very specific. In a second experiment, she paired two squares of different colours (CSa and CSb in the graph below) with electric shocks. But she only reminded her volunteers about one of them before trying to wipe their fears away. And as predicted, a day later, only the fear memory that had been reactivated had been eventually blocked. While this is a fairly simplistic scenario, the specific nature of the effect is a must if any realistic application is to come of this one day. In real life, scary memories are associated with many possible triggers and not just coloured squares.


This study is a sequel. Earlier this year, Joseph Le Doux, whose lab Schiller works in, published similar results showing that the same technique was successful in rats. They conditioned rats to link a tone with electric shocks and then erased that memory in the same way that they did for the human volunteers - they reminded the rats of the tone to open the reconsolidation window, and then used the time to overwrite their conditioning using a shock-free tone. As with humans, the timing was crucial.

Other studies have used drugs to the same ends but many of these have been toxic. The only promising drug, the beta-blocker propanolol, was the star of a media circus earlier this year. Merel Kindt showed that propanolol could erase the emotional sting of a fearful memory. The research exploited reconsolidation windows, just as Schiller's study did. By giving propanolol to people before they recalled a scary spider memory, Kindt could erase the fearful response it triggered.

Schiller says that it would be better to use methods that don't involve drugs because of any potential side effects. But Kindt isn't entirely convinced by these new experiments. She told me that a person's sweaty skin tells you about whether they expect something bad to happen but not whether they're afraid of it. In her experiment, she measured fearful responses by looking at the startle reflex - how strongly people blink to the terror in question.

Schiller may have more work to do to convince her critics but, at the very least, her study provides more evidence that reconsolidation is something that could be manipulated to treat anxiety disorders or PTSD. Drugs don't have to be the solution - earlier this year, British researchers showed that playing Tetris can stop traumatic memories from consolidating in the first place. Perhaps the famously addictive game could be used to interfere with reconsolidation too.

Ironically enough, studies like these often provoke fear and panic that they will fall into the wrong hands. Outraged editorials often follow, chiding us that fearful memories are useful things to have because they remind us not to poke that tiger or touch that flame. Indeed, there's evidence that our brain actively protects such memories, shielding them in a net of guardian molecules. Manipulating such systems is to play God with people's mind.

But such criticisms miss the point. For a start, the benefits of remembering fearful experiences can often lead to the extreme drawbacks of anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. But perhaps most importantly, the entire point of reconsolidation is to allow the brain to incorporate new data into its existing framework. All these studies are doing is to give it the right information at the right time, nothing more than an advert or a classroom seeks to do.

Reference: Nature doi:10.1038/nature08637

More on memories:

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See original: ScienceBlogs Select Rewriting fearful memories by bringing them back to mind [Not Exactly Rocket Science]

Mackenzie Cowell: h+ Magazine - Winter 2009 - diybio: a growing movement takes on aging - by parijata mackey

Mackenzie Cowell
h+ Magazine - Winter 2009 - diybio: a growing movement takes on aging - by parijata mackey -
also see the following article by Andrew Hessel on PinkArmy. PDFs available at - Mackenzie Cowell

See original: FriendFeed - search Mackenzie Cowell: h+ Magazine - Winter 2009 - diybio: a growing movement takes on aging - by parijata mackey

Sarah Palin, edited [The Island of Doubt]

Dear Ms. Palin,

Re: "Copenhagen's political science" as published in the Washington Post. As the Post didn't see fit to edit or fact-check your piece, I thought I'd save you any embarrassment that might result if you see fit to publish it elsewhere.

I will begin with this paragraph:

The e-mails reveal that leading climate "experts" deliberately destroyed [deleted copies of] records, manipulated adjusted data to "hide the decline" in global select North American temperatures [tree-ring proxy data that conflicted with observational records], and tried to silence [challenge] their [non-expert] critics' by preventing them from publishing [competency and the wisdom of allowing flawed papers to appear] in peer-reviewed journals. What's more, [T]he documents show that there was no a real consensus even within the CRU crowd. [While s]ome scientists had strong doubts about the accuracy of estimates reliability of temperatures [proxy data] from centuries ago [the last three decades, estimates used to back claims that more recent temperatures are rising at an alarming rate, [the observational data since 1850 only confirms the science behind anthropogenic climate change].

Hmm. On second thought, that took too much work for a single paragraph, and now it says nothing very interesting. In any case, I don't have the time to conduct a similarly rigorous edit of the rest of the essay. Sorry to get your hopes up. Recommend you start over from square one. An introductory course in climatology would be a good idea before tackling this issue again.

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Also check out the featured ScienceBlog of the week: Neurotopia

See original: ScienceBlogs Select Sarah Palin, edited [The Island of Doubt]

We Have a Real Emergency

Published: December 9, 2009 in the NY Times

As the climate change summit meeting moves forward in Copenhagen, it is increasingly clear that more than just the environment is at stake. The global environmental crisis is at the heart of practically all the problems now confronting us, including the need to create a global economic model grounded in the public good.

It is directly linked to security issues and to increasingly dangerous ethnic and international conflicts; to mass migrations and displacements of people, which are already destabilizing politics and economics; to growing poverty and social inequality; to the water crisis and energy and food shortages.

Excuses and pretexts for not taking action on the environment, and assertions that there are more important problems, are simply no longer credible. If we fail on this problem, we’ll fail on all the others.

Saving our planet should be a task shared by governments, the business and scientific communities, and civil society. Each stakeholder in this noble cause has a role to play. The main burden of responsibility, however, lies with governments and their institutions.

Governments can set firm standards and norms that are indispensable to fighting climate change. Only the state is capable of mobilizing the resources and incentives to implement cutting-edge technologies. Only the state can help those who are the most vulnerable to climate change.

Representatives of governments are meeting in Copenhagen to open a new stage in international cooperation on climate change. Whether it will be a strong and convincing start or a weak, disappointing one is up to them.

The latest scientific research on climate change is extremely disturbing. We have a real emergency. Yet the gap between science and policy keeps widening, as does the gap between the negotiations and the urgency of the issue.

Science indicates that the global temperature increase should be limited to 1 or 2 degrees Celsius. World leaders endorsed this view at the G-8 meeting in Italy in July. Even with that limit, major destruction, including the disappearance of most of the world’s coral reefs, is likely.

Yet policy compromises agreed to by negotiators involved in the Copenhagen talks virtually guarantee a temperature increase of around 4 degrees Celsius — well into the catastrophic risk range.

Why is this happening? For several reasons, including the inertia of the existing economic model, one based on hyperprofits and excessive consumption; political and business leaders’ failure to think long term; and concern that reducing carbon emissions will undercut economic growth. Those who don’t want any change are exploiting that concern.

As the global financial crisis has made abundantly clear, efforts to make the world sustainable for present and future generations do not undermine the economy. The culprit is something quite different: reckless pursuit of profit at any price, blind faith in the “invisible hand of the market,” and government inaction.

What’s needed is a search for new engines of growth and incentives to economic development. Transitioning to a low-carbon, low-waste economy will create qualitatively new, green industries, technologies and jobs.

A low-carbon economy is just part of a new economic model, one the world needs as badly as the air we breathe.

Overnight changes to the economic model that has prevailed for a half century are not realistic. The transition to a new model requires a shift in values.

The global economy must be reoriented toward the public good. It must emphasize issues like a sustainable environment, healthcare, education, culture, equal opportunities and social cohesion — including reducing the glaring gaps between wealth and poverty.

Society needs this, and not just as a moral imperative. The economic efficiency of emphasizing the public good is enormous, even though economists have not yet learned how to measure it. We need an intellectual breakthrough if we are to build a new economic model.

We also need a moral realignment of the business community. Companies and their C.E.O.s tend to define their positions on environmental issues according to the short-term or at best medium-term bottom line. Socially and environmentally responsible business is still the exception rather than the rule. Change is needed in the entire system of taxes, subsidies and incentives.

Civil society must also play a larger role. It must become not just a stakeholder but a full participant in making decisions that will shape the environment and the economy for decades to come.

In Copenhagen, we will closely watch the political leaders. More than 60 heads of state will take a personal leadership test there. We have seen how easy it would be to fail. The weeks and months ahead offer them a chance to show that they can truly lead.

Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union, is founding president of

See original: Climate Change Task Force We Have a Real Emergency

O.K. So what is twitter good for? Some thoughts after a 3 week period. [The World's Fair]

Well, it's been about three weeks since I signed up for a personal account on twitter (you can follow me here if you're interested - my handle is @dnghub), and threw out my first "tweet."


Since then, I've found myself fully immersed in the web tool, and feel like I can say a few intelligent things about it, especially if you're reading this as someone who is resisting signing on, or someone who just wants to know a little more about it.

It might help if I first start off with a bit of context.

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See original: ScienceBlogs Select O.K. So what is twitter good for? Some thoughts after a 3 week period. [The World's Fair]

iLoveMyXO Accessories And You Should Too

We've made a few improvements over here -

First, we recently made the replacement parts available on Amazon. We are hoping that this will allow more people to know that replacement parts are available [versus finding us, the needle in the haystack].

Second, we created a "New" Travel Pack for the OLPC XO Laptop. The "New" Travel Pack now includes the XO Power Adapter and the Laptop Bag. The battery can be added on at a discounted price; not sure how it will go, but we thought it might be worth a try.
The "Original" Travel Pack for the OLPC XO Laptop is still available in limited numbers through our Name Your LinkAmazon storefront

Thank you, thank you for your continued support!

See original: One Laptop Per Child News iLoveMyXO Accessories And You Should Too