Science Talk

Brain Enhancement: October Issue of Scientific American

In this episode Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina discusses the contents of the October issue of Scientific American, including articles on brain enhancement, lost cities of the Amazon and a century-old plan to make subway rides more entertaining

Podcast Transcription

Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American posted on October 14th, 2009. I am Steve Mirsky. And in this episode, we'll talk about some of the articles featured in the new issue—the October issue of Scientific American magazine. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Mariette DiChristina is the Editor in Chief of Scientific American Magazine. We spoke in her office.

Steve: Hi Mariette.

Mariette: Hi Steve.

Steve: So tell us about some of the highlights in this issue. Of course every page is a highlight, but what are some of the things that really jump out?

Mariette: Well, the first one, when we speak of highlights we have to start with [the] cover story, which in this issue is by Gary Stix, one of our longtime staff editors, and is called "Turbocharging the Brain". And what do we mean by turbocharging? Well, a lot of us are a little older than we used to be.

Steve: I think everybody is a little older than they used to be.

Mariette: Well said, Steve. Well, many [of] you know the big force known as the baby boomers are all rich and, you know, the youngest of us are 45 and the oldest up until the—around the 60s now—and many of us are starting to think about, you know—tough economy, got to keep our edge—and we are thinking, "What are ways we can do that?" And students have been doing this sort of thing for years, as well. People have been taking NoDoz and swigging coffee to get through their all-nighters. But now the question is: Can science actually provide you with a better brain in a pill?

Steve: And that is really the question as opposed to the efforts by a lot of people to sell substances that they say, will enhance your cognitive power. I mean this—based on the article there is some evidence for some enhancement in some cases. But, I mean, if you are a reasonably healthy, intelligent person, can you really boost your brain power whatever that, kind of, means by taking a pill?

Mariette: I think as usual, and as you rightly point out, in science it is never yes/no. Yes you can boost your brain with a pill, but what [do] you mean by boosting and what kind of boost do you need? For some people— maybe I am bad at remembering where I left my car keys, for instance; maybe I would like to boost my brain by having a better memory. Or maybe for other people who are having trouble with focus, they cannot bring, you know, what is called flow to [a] problem that they are trying to work on and they can't really concentrate on it. So when we speak of a better brain or a stronger brain for each of us, I think, it means slightly different things. And for science it also means slightly different things because you can't with a blunt instrument and let us face it a pill that affects one kind of chemical signaling—either production of that chemical signaling or absorption or use of it—one kind of pill cannot solve all of those issues at the same time.

Steve: And a lot of these enhancers, you know, I am going to use enhancers in [air quotes here] seem to work in a similar way: They are basically neurotransmitter uptake inhibitors from one side of the synapse to the other. They are keeping neurotransmitters around.

Mariette: Let's [break] that down for folks, Steve. That's a synapse, right. First of all, what's a neuron and what's a synapse? A neuron is a nerve cell, a cell in the brain, and it is involved in some kind of communication with other fellow nerve cells. The synapse is the gap between those nerve cells and what one's nerve cell does to another is release signaling compounds. They, you know, signaling chemicals that can send messages from one to the next and [it] proceeds down in a chain and that's part of what creates memory processes or attention or focus over the other processes in the brain. The systems that you are talking about are specifically related to a chemical signaler called dopamine which is involved in many of the cognitive enhancers or brain enhancers that we are talking about today. And they work in basically two different ways. One way is you can inhibit the down-the-chain nerve cell from reuptaking that dopamine, that extracellular material, and that lets it stay out there longer so that it can continue to affect the cells around it; another is you can improve on the production of the dopamine. The effect is similar; you've increased the signaling power of that particular chemical.

Steve: What's the problem though? Why wouldn't that just be a great idea and it will work and everybody should take it, not just students who need all-nighters? Why don't we all take it, like why don't all the baseball players do steroids?

Mariette: Well, of course, anytime there is a new advance there are going to be some people [who] say, "Why can't we all take it?" And indeed many scientists and many ethicists have started to explore this question. If everybody has access and if it is relatively harmless, why shouldn't we all have better brains? And one thing I can say—at least about the current state of the technology, whatever you think about doing the best you can with what you are born with, assuming that you are born without a pathology of some kind is—in the case of these particular enhancers that we are talking about, you and I just talked about one chemical signal, dopamine. That is one particular chemical that is used. There are a couple of hundred kinds of chemical signals and kinds of receptors. So any one of these pills is a rather blunt instrument. It is affecting some, but not all. You could think about it this way, if you were playing with a marionette, and you were trying to pull one string, you['d] get a piece of movement on that marionette but not all of it, and it would not be perfectly controlled, and that's how these sorts of drugs are for the brain right now. They have some effect and some people really swear by them. I know people who would tell you—Modafinil, terrific for maintaining focus. I can't [vouch] for that myself and different people are going to have different experiences. And also I should point out that the brain has billions of such cells. So to wash it in some kind of chemicals year in and year out, we don't yet know what kinds of effects that might actually have.

Steve: Yeah absolutely. There is an interesting thing that comes up repeatedly in the article that I just wanted to bring up. It's in our little box of key concepts. "Questions remain about whether any drug that tinkers with basic mental functioning will be sufficiently safe and effective to be consumed like coffee or tea." But aren't coffee and tea both also drugs that are neuro-enhancers—well they are not neuro-enhancers—but they are certainly stimulants.

Mariette: Well, they are stimulants. And many of the neuro-enhancers and cognitive enhancers, or brain boosters, that we are talking about are also stimulants. Things like Ritalin, which is used to help both kids with ADHD focus and adults—they do have that problem—and they are stimulants. They help that focus be retained rather than be scattered [and] short. So they work slightly differently, but they are all boosting the brain or boosting activity in the brain at some level. But let's talk about since you raised it, you know, whether things are safer or not safe. Some of the things you can do to improve your cognition day-to-day—so you want to be a better thinker you don't necessarily want to take a drug or maybe you find this intriguing, the drugs aren't out there yet, what can you do in the meantime. Well, you're going to laugh at me Steve, but it's going to be like doctor's orders here. You can get a decent night sleep, you can try to do that, and also very important and increasingly shown to be so through lots and lots—tons and tons of studies—is the effect of exercise and regular aerobic activity on the brain. So if you—that has been shown definitively from studies dating back to the 1970s, that if you have some kind of regular aerobic activity—could be just brisk walking several times a week—it will improve your mental focus and memory and it may even [thwart] illnesses such as Alzheimer's.

Steve: But, that's not as easy as taking a pill.

Mariette: No it's not, but it also you know taking a pill is not necessarily going to improve your figure either, so you can do both at the same time if you take a nice walk.

Steve: It's interesting. So do you think that 50 years from now, we will be disqualifying certain Nobel Prize nominees because they had performance-enhancing activity in their past?

Mariette: What an interesting question! I don't know that that's part of the Nobel criteria nowadays and, you know, I don't know about the future. But I can say that 50 years from now, those 200 or so different kinds of receptors and signaling, you know, signaling compounds that the brain uses will be better understood and maybe 50 years from now we will be able to say, "Well, today maybe my focus is a little off, and I want to take a pill to help myself get through the next few hours" and know for a fact that that's what it will give you.

Steve: And on a serious, a really serious note, of course it's also the hope that that they will be able to use some of these same ideas to really help people with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.

Mariette: Absolutely, I mean, of course, many people in the public are intrigued by brain boosters for themselves because it's something that all of us maybe feel like we could use now and again. But the real goal of such therapies would be to help people whose lives are irreparably damaged by various kinds of dementia or memory disorders. And you know, indeed back to the exercise again that I mentioned earlier, if you do get regular routine activity in your day, even if you are starting in your 30s or 40s and haven't done it sooner, it has been shown to be one way to [thwart]things like Alzheimer's and kinds of dementia, so again there is something you can do about it today.

Steve: Let us talk about another really fascinating article in the issue. The title is "Lost Cities of the Amazon" by Michael Heckenberger and the idea here is that we have this—it's sort of a parochial view of the Amazon as this Eden, this unsullied natural landscape, but the article says that the reality is what we are looking at now in the Amazon is what's left after this civilization had really lived there for hundreds, over [a] thousand years and had really settled it extensively. The thing that they did not do is leave a lot of stone structure like we find in the ruins in other parts of the world. So we sort of didn't appreciate that a lot of people lived here and managed the landscape.

Mariette: Yeah, this is the article you were speaking about, "'Lost Cities of the Amazon" by Michael Heckenberger of the University of Florida. and one of the great surprises as we look at the—and this takes place in Brazil; this article these are various sites in an area of Brazil—is that surprisingly so, although today it looks like untouched jungle, and we think about it as being, well those areas that are untouched jungle I should say; it actually was the site of dozens of dozens of what I want to call garden cities in the Amazon, where people lived in rather dense maybe 20 times as dense as the population is in there today in clusters of towns. The towns had as many as a 1,000 people living in them and they were networked with roads. You could think about it as a kind of a pod network or something where there are little nexuses of people connected by roads between them and these people rather intensively managed that area around them. They did it in a number of ways: They grew manioc and they added, you know, human refuse to enrich the soil, so the soils are more enriched than the natural Brazilian jungle soils would be.

Steve: That's one way they could tell that it was cultivated.

Mariette: That's one way. Another way is they grew orchards and they can see the remains of those orchards, and they had a sort of the earthen curbs against the sides of the roads to mark them and also the cities themselves had these low walls that help them discover this now very overgrown area of jungle.

Steve: And by the way when we say roads, we are not talking about some trail that has been, you know, blazed through the deep growth—some of these roads were as wide as a four-lane highway.

Mariette: Yeah, it's quite remarkable that they could do this without all the asphalt that we are so accustomed to thinking about or the stones of the Roman roads for instance that we think about in other areas but just because they are different it doesn't make them less advanced.

Steve: So you know we Westerners tend to think of ruins as being always something stony and hard and concrete, and these guys in the Amazon with the cellulosic building materials; but the techniques are still being used today, and so it's really kind of an interesting experiment because you can track how people are living there now, and you can see evidence for how some of the things that the archaeologists are finding probably came to be. And they talked about, you know, even if I say a thatched hut you probably think of something that's, you know, 15 feet across—we are talking about building thatched huts that had living areas of a thousand square meters.

Mariette: Yes and routinely even, they had 250 square meters that was for a chief that you are mentioning, Steve. But even routinely those people have. [And] another way to look at the Kuikuro who are still there, is that here is a lifestyle in the jungle that was so successful that they are still able to do it thousands years later and are still able to live within the land, so again a great tip for sustainability for us. And as far as the thatched roofs go, it's quite extraordinary to me that they could build these in such a—when you say open area, it isn't big open area that they've managed to get this kind of half a dome-like structure up in, and those people still ongoing with those practices today can give us many lessons about, you know, how that could be used.

Steve: So we have [a] few astrophysics fans. There's an article about the fact that there are some really strange entities out that are not black holes but black stars.

Mariette: So what happens—you know, a black hole is something of such infinite density that it creates a pocket in space where everything is sucked in to it.

Steve: Even light.

Mariette: Even light. But black stars are rather close to that but not quite to that level of singularity, and this is an alternative theory about black stars and how they could differ from black holes.

Steve: And we have got something on boosting vaccines. There's all kinds of research that's going on right now to try to get vaccines to be more effective so that you can basically use less of them, and that's a really promising area of enquiry.

Mariette: Yeah, huge area of enquiry. You probably all remember—folks who are listening and Steve—the early discussion about the H1N1 vaccine and whether or not you might need two of them to make that vaccine work properly. Well, vaccines boost our immune system but sometimes they are not quite strong enough. So there is a new area of research into additions to vaccines—it's like a booster for your booster shot—called adjuvants. It's from the Latin word adjuvare which means "to help" and help these vaccines to be more effective. And if we had adjuvants in those H1N1 vaccines for use in the U.S., it wouldn't have been a question about whether you needed one of them or two of them, you would have known that one would have been sufficient. So, enormously promising area of research to improve what has already been an amazing public health benefit—vaccines.

Steve: Some really interesting shorter pieces in the magazine—there is a piece about urban cycling and how just by examining the ratio of female to male cyclists in a community, you can tell what kind of success you are having in getting a significant percentage of people out of cars and on to bicycles. Well, there's my column [in] which I tried to find a scientific explanation for why some people have really grasped on to the belief that the president of the United States was not born in the United States. And I've got to tell you that one is worth reading, just [so] you can read the comments people have put up on the Web site. And finally—what, did you want to say something about that?

Mariette: I was just going to say and of course, you know, Michael Schemer always looking at belief systems issues in and issue out—you can't get enough of what some people will believe.

Steve: It's an amazing world out there, folks. And one of our favorite spaces in the magazine: "50, 100 and 150 years ago".

Mariette: I have a letter I would love to read to you Steve. It is from Rodger Cunningham in Pippa Passes, Kentucky and Rodger, responding to "50 and 100" said, "I feel [impelled] to tell you that a long anticipated moment in my life arrive[d] this month when I opened the latest Scientific American to "50, 100 and 150 years ago" and saw the cover illustration from August 1959, the first issue of my subscription when I was at 11, I remember imagining a moment like this 50 years ago when I read this feature for the first time and the thought had began to occur to me again lately. It is still a striking experience to come up on the illustration which rang such a bell with my memory. [S.A.'s] covers were tamer in the Gerard Piel days—that's the former editor folks—the prose [was] more formal and people were still called "man". This little entry is a window for me on a whole set of changes I have [lived] through the past half century. And I wanted to say to Mr. Cunningham, thank you very much for your loyal patronage to Scientific American.

Steve: Awesome in Pippa Passes, Kentucky. That's great. So I was just going to talk about our "50, 100 and 150 years ago" column, and I was thinking of something that predates Rodger by another 50 years. Because there is a fabulous item in the 1909 section, a 100 years ago, called subway entertainment. So get a load of this and, seriously, they got to resurrect this idea. A hundred years ago [we wrote:] "Moving pictures are produced, as is well known, by a film traveling with intermittent motion before a projector or lantern which throws successive views on the screen. The same results could be obtained if the pictures were stationary and the audience itself were in motion so as to view the picture successfully." So, [let's] really whip the audience around. But, what they say is: "An ingenious inventor has hit upon the screen to relieve the monotony of subway travel. He proposes to mount a continuous band of pictures at each side of the subway and have these pictures successively illuminated by means of lamps placed behind them on the subway wall." You would have, basically, a galloping horse—stills of a galloping horse but as you're sitting on the subway looking at the window the horse appears to be running. It's great. Of course what they didn't foresee the advent of 100 years ago was the iPhone, because there's no such thing as subway monotony anymore. Everybody on the subway is fooling around with some electronic gadget and missing their stop. But it's a great idea and I hope somebody does it somewhere. There is another great item from a 150 years ago; a very optimistic item which I am not sure I agree with, but it's called "Power of the Press", and we wrote in October of 1859: "From ancient history we learn that several nations—Egyptians, Assyrians, Greeks and Romans—accomplished, at successive periods, great works and became great powers. They exhibited much intellectual and physical activity during their dominance, and then they became sluggish and finally degraded. By reposing on their laurels, they soon sunk into senility. We think no fears of such a result need be entertained in the present age of progress." That's a really hubristic statement. "The printing-press" they wrote, "will prevent this; it is the mighty agent which keeps the public mind in fermentation and prevents it from stagnating." I don't think they really thought about what the printing press was going to be busy printing.

Mariette: Not just that, but I was thinking about the successor to the printing press, the electronic 24/7 world of the Internet, and goodness knows people are only using the Internet for worthwhile intellectual adventures.

Steve: Absolutely. It's keeping the nation strong, engaged and intellectually vigorous.

Mariette: What can we say?

Steve: Now it's time to play TOTALLY……. Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories; only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: It's not exactly the Loch Ness monster but a new species has been discovered in the Loch, a species of blue-green algae.

Story number 2: Italian researchers are developing a robotic spider that will examine a patient's colon.

Story number 3: An analysis of 10,000 online passwords found that the most common password was the simple "123456".

And story number 4: Just being able to look at a photo of a loved one can decrease pain.

Time is up.

Story number 4 is true. Gazing at the image of a loved one can decrease pain, for example, during a medical procedure. That finding is in the journal Psychological Science. It had been known that the presence of a loved one could decrease pain but the new research finds that just having their picture available helps, too.

And story number 3 is true. Sixty-four e-mail accounts of the 10,000 analyzed used "123456" as the password. Many people use "password" as the password. I actually got into another Scientific American staffer's computer by trying "password" as the password, so at least make it a bit harder on hackers by coming up with a decent password, something like "password123456" even.

Story number 2 is true. The robotic spider is a tiny remote control camera with legs for an alternative to conventional colonoscopy; it would be, you know, inserted and then walk on its own up the intestine and send back pictures. The major advantage over a real spider is it does not lay eggs.

All of which means that story number 1, about a new species of algae discovered in Loch Ness is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. But they did find something unusual in the loch. Researchers looking for any signs of a big sea creature instead discovered thousands of golf balls. In camera views the balls appeared to possibly be strange mushrooms but mushrooms don't have Titleist or Top-Flite written on them. Seems that some people practiced their driving on the beach on the lake and many of the balls have settled in at the bottom, over 700 feet deep. The field of submerged golf balls would make an excellent hiding place for any monster to lay eggs.

Well that's it for this episode of Science Talk. Check out for the latest science news, including our special package on all the science-related Nobel Prizes that were awarded last week and this. For Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

In this episode Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina discusses the contents of the October issue of Scientific American, including articles on brain enhancement, lost cities of the Amazon and a century-old plan to make subway rides more entertaining.

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