Post List

  • July 25, 2011
  • 08:00 AM

I will give you a reason to fear the night

by Zen Faulkes in NeuroDojo

The lion wasn’t roaring.

It was making sounds, all right, while I was sitting next to the lion enclosure in the Melbourne Zoo. Metal fences separated the lions and me when one started vocalizing.

The lion wasn’t growling, either. It’s hard to describe the sound it was making. It was a raspy, open mouthed sound, almost like someone breathing hard after exercise. But the lion was just walking slowly, not in any way winded.

But that sound had so much power.

I think I almost stopped breathing when I heard the lion, and blew out a “Whoa”-like sound when it stopped. The phrase “spine tingling” described the sound and my response to it. You could feel the size of the animal making that sound.

I never felt so vulnerable in my entire adult life.

When I heard that sound, I stopped thinking of myself as a fairly tall man in an urban setting, and suddenly imagined what would be different if that metal didn’t separate us. I understood as I never had before, in that deep in your bones kind of way, how completely helpless a human faced with a lion would be. No wonder that lions made such a deep mark on human culture.

That experience sprung back to my mind when I saw the title of a new paper on lion attacks on humans. The authors compiled over 20 years of data on lion attacks on humans and other animals to figure out when lions pose the greatest threat.

After sorting through over 1,000 attacks in Tanzania – including what must have been a slightly distressing task of following up and doing interviews about 500 of the attacks – Packer and colleagues found a pattern that is surprisingly easy to describe.

First, lions are most likely to attack humans right after sundown.

Second, the risk increases in the nights after the full moon. The authors claim this pattern claim other lion prey suffer elevated risk both before and after the full moon, not just after it as with humans. (This conclusion is based on observations of lions’ belly size rather than actual attack records.)

This part of the research is sold and interesting, albeit perhaps slightly plagued by some strange decisions in the graphics. For instance, Figure 1 has regression lines that the authors say are “only presented to provide a visual guide to the overall trends.” I’m not sure what that means, but I suspect it means those lines are meaningless and could have been left out.

The paper disappoints in the introduction (one paragraph) and discussion (two paragraphs). The paper is a super short four pages, excluding all the supplemental materials, so it’s not as though the authors didn’t have the space to elaborate a little.

The authors make the speculative claim that these results explain two human behaviours: Why humans are afraid of the dark, and why people associate the full moon with trouble.

The first one is certainly the less controversial idea of the two. Let me put it this way. This is not a mistakes our ancestors could not have made if they wanted to survive:

I will note that for centuries, human attacks on other humans were also widely reported to have occurred at night. Any unease with darkness we inherited from our ancestors could certainly have been enhanced by other dangers.

The idea that these patterns might explain why humans associate the full moon with trouble is not well supported. Packer and colleagues rightly note that lions used to have a wider range, but they say:

(T)igers, jaguars and leopards still co-exist with people in Asia, Africa and tropical America.
They are implying that all those big cats are likely to have the same preference for attacking humans in the nights following the full moon, just like lions. But there are no data supporting that. Different species are different. Humans aren’t like other prey species to lions, so it may well be that lions aren’t like other predator species to humans.

Although we are safest from lion attacks during well-lit nights, the full moon accurately indicates that the risks of lion predation will increase dramatically in the coming days.
But that’s not any “attitude” or “superstition” about the full moon that I’ve ever heard. The superstition isn’t that monsters come out after the full moon goes away, it’s that humans act differently during the full moon. It’s rather odd to offer an explanation for attitudes that people don’t believe.

That said, I freely admit I have not completed an exhaustive cross-cultural study of human superstitions regarding the moon. But the paper is rather light on cultural references in that regard, too.

I’m puzzled as to why the authors wanted to play up this strange evolutionary psychology angle to the story. Speculative “just so” stories of adaptation seem so insignificant in a project about humans getting attacked and eaten by lions.

Just like I felt looking across the zoo at that lion.

External links

Other takes on this paper:

Moon wanes, Leo rises by Ed Yong
The lion eats tonight by Scicurious


Packer C, Swanson A, Ikanda D, Kushnir H. 2011. Fear of darkness, the full moon and the nocturnal ecology of African lions. PLoS ONE 6(7): e22285. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0022285

Photo by by on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.... Read more »

  • July 25, 2011
  • 07:02 AM

Mock Jury Research: How do we make it more useful?

by Doug Keene in The Jury Room

The literature on mock juries has been criticized for years for use of convenience samples (i.e., college students). An upcoming issue of the journal Behavioral Sciences and the Law is devoted to examining mock jury research and assessing where we have been and where we need to go. The authors argue that since we are trying [...]

Related posts:Why do the African American mock jurors all sit together?
Should you try online jury research?
The “Nerd Defense”: Redux
... Read more »

Wiener RL, Krauss DA, & Lieberman JD. (2011) Mock Jury Research: Where Do We Go from Here?. Behavioral sciences . PMID: 21706517  

  • July 25, 2011
  • 07:00 AM

July 25, 2011

by Erin Campbell in HighMag Blog

They invade...they proliferate...they destroy. It sounds like the tagline for a terrible summer blockbuster starring Samuel L. Jackson and an animated sidekick voiced by one of the Kardashians, but it’s the tagline of something far more sinister and real. I’m talking about tumors. Today’s image is from a paper showing how a membrane protein called caveolin-1 can support tumor invasion. Caveolin-1 is a membrane protein and a major component of caveolae, which are small membrane invaginations that participate in endocytosis. A recent paper finds that caveolin-1 also functions in cell elongation, migration, and invasion by remodeling a cell’s microenvironment (aka “stroma”). Specifically, Goetz and colleagues found that caveolin-1 affects stromal architecture by regulating the activity of Rho GTPase, a signaling protein frequently involved in actin dynamics. This caveolin-1-inspired remodeling of the stroma is significant for tumor biology, too—the stiffness, contractility, and general architecture of a tumor’s stroma can affect its growth, invasion, and metastasis. In the images above, tumor cells (green) were cultured in a 3D-gels with fibroblast cells (red) that expressed caveolin-1 (top row) or did not express caveolin-1(bottom row). When tumor cells were surrounded by caveolin-1-expressing cells, they were able to invade further into the gel. Goetz, J., Minguet, S., Navarro-Lérida, I., Lazcano, J., Samaniego, R., Calvo, E., Tello, M., Osteso-Ibáñez, T., Pellinen, T., Echarri, A., Cerezo, A., Klein-Szanto, A., Garcia, R., Keely, P., Sánchez-Mateos, P., Cukierman, E., & Del Pozo, M. (2011). Biomechanical Remodeling of the Microenvironment by Stromal Caveolin-1 Favors Tumor Invasion and Metastasis Cell, 146 (1), 148-163 DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2011.05.040Copyright ©2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.... Read more »

Goetz, J., Minguet, S., Navarro-Lérida, I., Lazcano, J., Samaniego, R., Calvo, E., Tello, M., Osteso-Ibáñez, T., Pellinen, T., Echarri, A.... (2011) Biomechanical Remodeling of the Microenvironment by Stromal Caveolin-1 Favors Tumor Invasion and Metastasis. Cell, 146(1), 148-163. DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2011.05.040  

  • July 25, 2011
  • 02:52 AM

Kid’s Behaviour is much worse than it used to be – Discuss!

by Stuart Farrimond in Dr Stu's Science Blog

Ok class, now quieten down. Bryony – how many times do I have to tell you? Mobile phones away! Today we are going to be looking at an important topic: Childhood behaviour. In a moment, we’re going to try to get a serious answer to a controversial question. Oh Jimmy, please put that cigarette lighter … Continue reading »... Read more »

Steer, A. (2009) A review of behaviour standards and practices in our schools. Learning Behaviour: Lessons Leaned. info:other/

Achenbach, T., Dumenci, L., & Rescorla, L. (2003) Are American Children's Problems Still Getting Worse? A 23-Year Comparison. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 31(1), 1-11. DOI: 10.1023/A:1021700430364  

  • July 25, 2011
  • 01:48 AM

Social Media Use By US Hospitals

by Dr Shock in Dr Shock MD PhD

Buffer From a structured review of websites of 1800 US hospitals focusing on their Facebook, Twitter and Youtube accounts: 21% used social media More likely to be large, urban hospitals run by nonprofit, nongovernment organisations More likely to participate in graduate medical education Used social media to target a general audience (97%) Provide content about [...]

No related posts.... Read more »

Thaker SI, Nowacki AS, Mehta NB, & Edwards AR. (2011) How U.S. hospitals use social media. Annals of internal medicine, 154(10), 707-8. PMID: 21576547  

  • July 25, 2011
  • 12:58 AM

The Quantum Telegraph

by Graham Morehead in A Mad Hemorrhage

Description of a superluminal communication device... Read more »

  • July 24, 2011
  • 09:48 PM

Female Dolphins Sponge Their Way to Success

by Paul Norris in AnimalWise

After 27 years, scientists finally appear to have unraveled most of the mystery surrounding a very enterprising group of (primarily) female bottlenose dolphins (tursiops aduncus) who live in Shark Bay, off the coast of Western Australia. The story opens in … Continue reading →... Read more »

  • July 24, 2011
  • 03:15 PM

Using the Chronic Pain Acceptance Questionnaire

by Bronwyn Thompson in Healthskills: Skills for Healthy Living

Over the past few months I’ve been using the Chronic Pain Acceptance Questionnaire (CPAQ-8) as part of a battery of questionnaires used at intake and outcome measures.  Along with the CPAQ-8, we use the Tampa Scale for Kinesiophobia, the Depression Anxiety Stress Scale, the Pain Anxiety Symptoms Scale, the Pain  Catastrophising Scale, Pain Self Efficacy … Read more... Read more »

  • July 24, 2011
  • 01:30 PM

Bacteria use slingshots to slice through slime

by aatishb in Empirical Zeal

Bacteria have busy social lives. You might get a glimpse of this the next time you take a shower. The slimy discolored patches that form on bath tiles and on the inside of shower curtains are the mega-cities of the bacterial world. If you zoom into these patches of grime, you’ll find bustling microcosms that are teeming with life at a different scale... Continue reading →... Read more »

Jin F, Conrad JC, Gibiansky ML, & Wong GC. (2011) Bacteria use type-IV pili to slingshot on surfaces. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. PMID: 21768344  

Gibiansky ML, Conrad JC, Jin F, Gordon VD, Motto DA, Mathewson MA, Stopka WG, Zelasko DC, Shrout JD, & Wong GC. (2010) Bacteria use type IV pili to walk upright and detach from surfaces. Science (New York, N.Y.), 330(6001), 197. PMID: 20929769  

  • July 24, 2011
  • 01:01 PM

Blogs/Twitter in Medical Publications: Too Unreliable to Quote or A Change Waiting to Happen?

by Pranab Chatterjee in Scepticemia

Just a few days ago, I was co-authoring a submission for a journal on the issue of handling social media with care and needed to cite a bunch of blogs and non-traditional online sources of information (including Tweets and Friendfeed … Continue reading →... Read more »

Mandavilli A. (2011) Peer review: Trial by Twitter. Nature, 469(7330), 286-7. PMID: 21248816  

  • July 24, 2011
  • 11:59 AM

Seeing double in galaxy mergers

by Emma in we are all in the gutter

How do galaxies grow? One of the most common ways seems to be by merging with other nearby galaxies (a hot research topic that Rita’s talked about in more detail). Seems simple enough, but to really understand how this happens you need to look at a large number of them, at various stages of the [...]... Read more »

R.C. McGurk, C.E. Max, D.J. Rosario, G.A. Shields, K.L. Smith, S.A. Wright. (2011) Spatially-Resolved Spectroscopy of SDSS J0952 2552: a confirmed Dual AGN. Submitted to ApJL. DOI: arXiv:1107.2651  

  • July 24, 2011
  • 06:30 AM

Is There a Placebo Effect – Part II

by Rogue Medic in Rogue Medic

If Daniel Moerman, PhD is correct and the subjective improvement is what is important, then we should pay attention to the following chart of subjective improvement. Subjective improvement is what the patient thinks is real, even if reality does not agree.

When we go to a magic show and see a woman being cut in half, we are experiencing subjective reality. The objective reality is that the woman was never really cut in half, even though our subjective experience is that she has been cut in half.

We have been tricked.... Read more »

Wechsler, M., Kelley, J., Boyd, I., Dutile, S., Marigowda, G., Kirsch, I., Israel, E., & Kaptchuk, T. (2011) Active Albuterol or Placebo, Sham Acupuncture, or No Intervention in Asthma. New England Journal of Medicine, 365(2), 119-126. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1103319  

  • July 24, 2011
  • 06:30 AM

Is There a Placebo Effect – Part II

by Rogue Medic in Rogue Medic

If Daniel Moerman, PhD is correct and the subjective improvement is what is important, then we should pay attention to the following chart of subjective improvement. Subjective improvement is what the patient thinks is real, even if reality does not agree.

When we go to a magic show and see a woman being cut in half, we are experiencing subjective reality. The objective reality is that the woman was never really cut in half, even though our subjective experience is that she has been cut in half.

We have been tricked.... Read more »

Wechsler, M., Kelley, J., Boyd, I., Dutile, S., Marigowda, G., Kirsch, I., Israel, E., & Kaptchuk, T. (2011) Active Albuterol or Placebo, Sham Acupuncture, or No Intervention in Asthma. New England Journal of Medicine, 365(2), 119-126. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1103319  

  • July 23, 2011
  • 07:37 PM

Neuro Bliss and Neuro Codeine

by The Neurocritic in The Neurocritic

Lindsay Lohan drinking Neuro Bliss.NEUROBRANDS®, LLC is a company that markets a series of colorful and attractively designed "nutritional drinks", known as Neuro® Drinks.Neuro Gasm Is Part Of The New Neuro CultureFor a company that has great product placement (with many celebrity endorsements), carefully crafted packaging, and regularly issued press releases, they sure are modest about their marketing efforts:"Neuro Drinks® offer consumers an alternative to products that perpetuate our self-medicating caffeine-dependent society. Designed to sustain and enhance your active lifestyle with natural ingredients, each beverage is packed with essential vitamins, minerals, amino acids and botanicals at dosages backed by scientific research. Just real results — no marketing hype."I recently purchased NeuroBliss® from a local store. As with other Neuro products, it's difficult to tell from the packaging what sort of flavor one should expect. From the white milky color it looks like it might be coconut, but smelling the brew yields a citrus-like odor (from citric acid). The taste is vaguely like grapefruit, or rather like grapefruit-flavored fizzy codeine.The NeuroBliss® bottle claims there are no artificial colors or flavors, but I'm not sure which flavor is actually natural (other than chamomile and the generically listed "natural flavors"). There are a lot of vitamins along with chemical stabilizers and preservatives (gum acacia, ester gum, sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate), plus the unproven active ingredients that purportedly make you blissful.Nutritional information for Neuro Bliss.These unproven active ingredients include:"L-Theanine, an amino acid found in green tea which has been clinically proven to help reduce stress, works by altering brain waves, shifting them from the beta spectrum to the alpha spectrum — where a person is focused and alert, but calm. In contrast to this claim, a study by Gomez-Ramirez et al. (2009) found that a 250-mg dose of L-theanine significantly reduced background alpha power during a demanding attentional cueing task. There were no alterations in the cue-related, anticipatory changes in alpha activity. In other words, this compound may be considered activating but not calming. L-theanine is an analog to glutamate, an abundant excitatory neurotransmitter that crosses the blood-brain barrier.Testimonial from consumer Sandra Kiume: "It did make me more alert and aware of the foul taste of the beverage."ReferenceGomez-Ramirez, M., Kelly, S., Montesi, J., & Foxe, J. (2008). The Effects of l-theanine on Alpha-Band Oscillatory Brain Activity During a Visuo-Spatial Attention Task. Brain Topography, 22 (1), 44-51 DOI: 10.1007/s10548-008-0068-zOrigin Of The Term Fight Or Flight With Neuro Bliss-with Marina Orlova!

... Read more »

  • July 23, 2011
  • 06:30 PM

Explaining Joshua Bell

by Sam McNerney in Why We Reason

In January of 2007, the Washington Post asked world-renown violinist Joshua Bell to perform the 43-minute piece Bach piece “Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin,” in the L’Enfant Plaza subway station – one of D.C.’s busiest subway stations – during the … Continue reading →... Read more »

  • July 23, 2011
  • 03:09 PM

Viruses hitch-hike through your body along the immune cell highway

by Connor Bamford in The Rule of 6ix

Nipah virus. 
Imagine this: Rhinoviruses - one of the culprits responsible for the common cold - enter our body through the upper respiratory tract yet here it stays; the initial and generally the only site of replication is the nasal epithelium. This is how we get a runny/stuffed nose. Contrast this with a virus like nipah virus - a deadly and re-emerging pathogen spread by bats and found across South-east Asia that also enters our body via the upper respiratory tract yet leads to infection and disease in a number of our organs, including the kidneys, blood vessels and the brain, resulting in fatal encephalitis.

How come one virus remains localised while the other goes systemic? And, more specifically how does it transport itself throughout the body?

Well, virus infection of a host is a complex multi-step process involving initial contact and entry into the organism (through the nose) , early replication in particular easy-to-access tissues (upper respiratory tract) and then in some cases the spread to specific tissue sites throughout the body (brain). It is these two stages of replication that most often or not lead to the development of disease yet just how does the virus traverse the gap between the two tissue sites - especially given the minute size of a virus particle?

There are probably three hypotheses of virus spread that could be correct here: lots and lots of virus particles could be released directly into circulation (lymph fluid and blood) from the early site of replication and our blood circulation could do the work for it; the virus could infect those immune cells that cluster around sites of virus infection - or are present naturally in the initial site; or finally, the virus could basically cling on to those highly motile immune cells and be trafficked around the body and effectively transfer infection to the blood vessels and other organs.

Could your white blood cells transport virus throughout your body?

One group has recently asked this question with reference to nipah virus (read the paper here) and has discovered that this virus doesn't infect human immune cells although it does bind to them and this virus/cell  interaction facilitates infection of other cells and may allow systemic spread.

They initially came at this problem at an in vitro level - albeit using cells taken directly from the blood of healthy volunteers. The group must have initially thought that nipah must directly infect white blood cells and this is how it spread - after all this is fairly common for other related viruses, such as measles. To determine exactly which cells supported virus replication they added a green fluorescent protein (GFP) - expressing virus to a panel of white blood cells derived from the blood of the healthy humans and specifically assayed for virus-mRNA synthesis, GFP expression and how much virus was released into the culture medium. Surprisingly only one cell type - dendritic cells (DC's) - an antigen-presenting cell - supported  any kind of replication and even then it wasn't great (see below).

GFP-nipah virus infects control neuronal U373 cells but not human immune cells - except DC's to an extent

So how come nipah isn't so good at infecting these cells? Is it a receptor issue? Well the group looked at the mRNA levels of the two nipah virus receptors (Ephrin B2 and B3) in all the cells under investigation and found little correlation between their expression and the ability of nipah to infect them. For example, even the dendritic cell which had the lowest level of both receptors is able to support entry and replication while the other cells (macrophages and monocytes) that express higher levels of it fail to do so. The authors hypothesize that the DC's are engulfing nipah virus particles via a process known as macropinocytosis instead of via virus/receptor binding.

I mentioned earlier that the virus doesn't actually need to infect the cells to use them as an effective means of transportation - it can really get by through binding to the outer membrane of the cell much like a microbial hitch-hiker. So they looked at how much nipah virus was associated with each cell following stringent washes and surprisingly all the cells looked at were able to bind nipah virus particles even when they failed to get infected themselves. 
But what exactly is blocking infection when the cells bind virus AND express receptor molecules on their surface - something is inhibiting entry. The paper doesn't really address this issue but points to a role of a virus receptor-independent molecule that binds to nipah virus particles yet prevents internalization and engulfment. And even more interestingly, these virus-laden cells were able to efficiently transfer the infectious particles to other cells - as shown with the DC's and PBL's below and this ability to 'trans-infect' was retained over a couple of days (see below).

Transfer of infection with virus bound to immune cells overlaid  on top of other cells
OK, so all this work really paints a nice picture of virus infection in the host through the interactions with certain white blood cells that stably bind to - yet fail to get infected themselves - and hence are able to transfer these infectious particles to other cells throughout the body. But this is all cell culture work - no animals have been worked on here so how are we to know if this actually occurs during infection in vivo? Well, the group performed an experiment where-by the mixed nipah with hamster white blood cells and then injected these virus/cells back in to the animals and finally observed whether disease occurred and if so, how bad was it?

Hamster infections with nipah or nipah bound immune cells.
As you can see opposite, by just re-introducing the white blood cells into the animals no death occurred while directly injecting virus into them resulted in 100% mortality but then when the virus/cell mixture was added, these cells were able to transfer the infection to the hamsters with 50% mortality following acute neurological disease ... Read more »

Mathieu, C., Pohl, C., Szecsi, J., Trajkovic-Bodennec, S., Devergnas, S., Raoul, H., Cosset, F., Gerlier, D., Wild, T., & Horvat, B. (2011) Nipah Virus Uses Leukocytes for Efficient Dissemination within a Host. Journal of Virology, 85(15), 7863-7871. DOI: 10.1128/JVI.00549-11  

  • July 23, 2011
  • 01:55 PM

Can Human Metabolism Produce Sugar from Fat?

by Michael Long in Phased

Computational studies suggest that human metabolism can produce glucose from fatty acids. This may explain why the Atkins diet isn't quickly lethal, and why the Inuit aren't inherently obese.... Read more »

Kaleta, C., de Figueiredo, L. F., Werner, S., Guthke, R., Ristow, M., & Schuster, S. (2011) In Silico Evidence for Gluconeogenesis from Fatty Acids in Humans. PLoS Computational Biology, 7(7). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1002116  

  • July 23, 2011
  • 01:36 PM

Parasitic wasps turn ladybirds into their bodyguards

by Africa Gomez in BugBlog

I have covered the ladybird parasitoid Dinocampus coccinellae before in BugBlog. Some recent research, however, has uncovered some fascinating aspects of this little wasp's manipulation of its host behaviour worth posting about. The parasitoid wasp, below, injects a single egg on a ladybird using its ovipositor (visible in the top photo of a just emerged D. coccinellae).After hatching, the larva feeds on its host internal organs, and after about 20 days, she emerges from the ventral plates of the ladybird to pupate. She spins a cocoon that tethers the ladybird to the substrate (top photo) and pupates inside. Unlike many parasitoids, Dinocampus does not kill its host. But the ladybird cannot escape, not only she is tethered, in addition, before emerging from the ladybird's body, the larva is thought to produced some chemicals that affect the ladybird's brain and compels it to sit still, and to twitch when disturbed. The parasitized ladybird colours and twitching were through to afford the parasitoid some protection from predators while in the cocoon. Fanny Maure and her collaborators provided the much needed evidence for this hypothesis in some laboratory experiments. They infected ladybirds - Coleomegilla maculata, a Canadian species - with Dinocampus coccinellae, and once the cocoons were spun under the ladybirds, they split the coccoons into three groups. In the first group of cocoons, they removed the ladybird, in the second, they killed the ladybird and in the third they left the ladybird untouched in the usual position on top of the cocoon. Then they exposed their cocoons to a predator, third instar green lacewing larvae Chrysoperla carnea and counted how many cocoons were predated in each group.Percentage of Dinocampus coccinellae cocoons eaten by larval green lacewing, Chrysoperla carnea, when parasitoid cocoons were exposed alone, covered by a dead ladybird (Coleomegilla maculata), or attended by a living ladybird. Probabilities were obtained using the Fisher exact test, ***p , 0.0001. Numbers refer to sample sizes (from Maure et al 2011).Parasitoid cocoons alone or sheltered with a dead ladybird suffered significantly more predation by lacewing larvae that did those protected by living ladybirds, supporting the hypothesis that the parasitoids manipulate the ladybird's behaviour to their own advantage, effectively converting them into their own bodyguards. The ladybird protective colours made little difference, although these are thought to protect against bird, not insect, predators.  Presumably, there must be a cost to the larvae to manipulate the ladybird. She must left the ladybird alive and produce chemicals to make it into her bodyguard. Maure and coworkers also tested this, by measuring the relationship between the ladybird lifespan once the parasite emerged and the survival and fecundity of the parasite. Their results show a significant negative correlation between the ladybird lifespan - 25% survived the parasitoid emergence - and the number of mature eggs the parasitoids had in their bodies after emergence as adults. This suggest that indeed there is a cost to making your host into a bodyguard. Overall, though, it must compensate the parasite to shield itself with the live ladybird in terms of predator avoidance.ReferenceMaure F, Brodeur J, Ponlet N, Doyon J, Firlej A, Elguero E, & Thomas F (2011). The cost of a bodyguard. Biology letters PMID: 21697162... Read more »

Maure F, Brodeur J, Ponlet N, Doyon J, Firlej A, Elguero E, & Thomas F. (2011) The cost of a bodyguard. Biology letters. PMID: 21697162  

  • July 23, 2011
  • 10:13 AM

Famed Farinelli's Flawed Frontalis

by Kristina Killgrove in Powered By Osteons

In 2006, archaeologists exhumed the remains of the legendary 18th century castrato, Carlo Maria Broschi, better known as Farinelli.  As a boy, Farinelli showed talent as an opera singer and, when their father died young, his elder brother Riccardo made the decision to have Farinelli castrated, an illegal operation at the time, in order to preserve his voice.  Farinelli became quite famous by the 1720s and sang daily until his death at the age of 78.  An analysis of the bones has just been published in the Journal of Anatomy by Belcastro, Fornaciari, and Mariotti, with the most salient finding being that Farinelli's castration led to hormonal changes that likely caused him to develop internal frontal hyperostosis (or hyperostosis frontalis interna, depending on what side of the Atlantic you're from), a thickening of the frontal bone in the cranial vault that is found almost exclusively in postmenopausal women.

Farinelli's bones, circled
(credit: Belcastro et al., Fig. 1)

Crush fraction of an L vert
(credit: Belcastro et al., Fig. 5)
Farinelli's bones were eventually moved to the grave of his great-niece, Maria Carlotta Pisani, and placed at her feet (see photo).  The bones were unfortunately not at all well-preserved.  Belcastro and colleagues could only estimate sex based on the narrow sciatic notch and the absence of a preauricular sulcus. In terms of age, they found evidence of fused cranial sutures, porosity of the auricular surface, trabecular thinning, degenerative changes in the vertebrae, and a compression fracture of one of the lumbar vertebrae, all pointing to an advanced age for this individual.  Interestingly, they noticed incomplete obliteration of the epiphyseal lines on the medial border of the left scapula and the left iliac crest.  While epiphyseal lines can persist into adulthood, they almost never persist past about 35 years old.  Based on the length of the right ulna, they estimate his stature at 6'3".  Of the 14 teeth that could be properly examined, there was evidence of caries in two, leading them to conclude he had good oral hygiene.

Thickening of Farinelli's frontal bone
(credit: Belcastro et al., Fig. 8)
When Belcastro and colleagues reconstructed some of the cranial fragments, they discovered extreme thickening of the vault (see photo), up to 21mm at the thickest.  As the area around the sagittal sulcus was unaffected, the authors conclude that the thickening is internal frontal hyperostosis rather than Paget's, acromegaly, fibrous dysplasia, or meningioma.  The etiology of IFH is not actually very clear, but the fact that it's found almost exclusively in post-menopausal women and men with hormonal disturbances (e.g., Klinefelter's syndrome) points to a problem with the body's hormonal balance.  Belcastro and colleagues succinctly review the clinical literature on IFH in men and conclude that Farinelli's IFH is most likely related to his castration.  Interestingly, castration can also explain his height (due to delayed epiphyseal fusion) and the finding of unfused epiphyses in his skeleton.

It's no secret that I am not a fan of digging up famous dead Italians, but in this case, Belcastro and colleagues have published the only osteological analysis of a castrato or eunuch.  Granted, the identification of this skeleton with Farinelli is not 100% clear because of the condition of the remains, but it's reasonable to assume that they did indeed find the man.

Portrait of Farinelli
(credit: Wikimedia commons)
The question remains, though, what effect IFH would have had on Farinelli's life, or on the lives of the numerous women who are also affected by this condition?  The clinical literature suggests that IFH is basically asymptomatic - because the disease has such a slow progression, over the span of decades, even the most severe cases of cranial thickening are assumed to pose no problem for the individual, whose brain can compensate little by little to the change in skull shape.  A short New Scientist piece, though, quotes Israel Hershkovitz as claiming that IFH is linked to "behavioral disorders, headaches, and neurological diseases like Alzheimer's."  Because of this quote, New Scientist ran with the headline "Lack of testes gave castrato superstar headaches."  Belcastro and colleagues, of course, didn't say anything about headaches, but apparently New Scientist thinks that discovering osteological evidence of a hormonal imbalance in the skeleton of a castrato isn't interesting enough for their readers.

I'll have to look into the claim that IFH does produce symptoms like headaches, though, as I'm quite interested in the pathology.  IFH is often not noticed in a bioarchaeological population unless the skulls are broken in just the right places.  Bioarchaeologists don't tend to have enough money to xray or CT hundreds of individuals as we collect data, so I suspect that we miss quite a few ancient cases of this condition.  I looked at a couple hundred skeletons from Imperial Rome and found one case of IFH (below), and I looked at a couple dozen skeletons from Gabii and found another case.

IFH in an Imperial Roman woman in her early 40s
(credit: Killgrove 2010)
A project that I would like to undertake in the future deals with understanding the lives of post-menopausal women in Rome.  These women were often seen as second-class citizens, even more so than women in general, because they were past their reproductive prime.  Looking at the prevalence of IFH w... Read more »

  • July 23, 2011
  • 09:00 AM

Tips to help survivors of youth camp shooting in Norway

by Eva Alisic in Trauma Recovery

My thoughts go out to those in Norway who have been affected by the tragic events in the past days, both in Oslo and Utøya. I can’t imagine the scale of this tragedy, and wish survivors all the strength and time needed to come to terms with the experience and the loss of loved ones. This blog describes tips based on posttraumatic stress research and provides links to these resources. ... Read more »

Bisson, J., Brayne, M., Ochberg, F., & Everly, G. (2007) Early Psychosocial Intervention Following Traumatic Events. American Journal of Psychiatry, 164(7), 1016-1019. DOI: 10.1176/appi.ajp.164.7.1016  

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