Wave to the Camera
This Can Be a Real Trial
Any ad consciously attended to is comical.
- Marshall McLuhan
Consciousness Machine Tested
Melbourne - New Zealand hospitals are participating in an international trial that could end the nightmare of patients regaining consciousness during an operation. Melbourne's Alfred Hospital is coordinating the trial of a new brainwave monitoring machine developed in the US. Twenty hospitals in Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong are to test 2,500 patients to find out if the machine can measure their level of consciousness.
The trial will concentrate on patients with a history of consciousness during operations, or those operations where the risk of this is higher. - AAP
Source: one of the two Wellington newspapers about two years ago.
At first, a monitor looked good as a solution...
100 Patients a Day in the USA Wake During Surgery
Sound asleep: the BIS monitor records brainwaves while under anesthesia.
by Robert Davis
Monitoring device could reduce the risk
Anæsthesia failure that allows a patient to wake up during surgery, paralysed and unable to cry for help, occurs 100 times a day in the US, a study reports. The rate is similar to those documented by previous international studies but many doctors have long questioned the prevalence. This is the first time in more than 30 years that the problem has been quantified in US hospitals. These findings, and the results of two similar trials also to be released today, caused the Food and Drug Administration late Friday to broaden its approval of a device it says has reduced the risk of patients waking up during surgery. The BIS monitor, which is used in 1/3 of US hospitals, turns the brain's EEG waves into a number that can tell anæsthesiologists at a glance how deeply a patient is sedated.
Another study of 1,200 patients found that using the BIS monitor reduced the frequency of surgical awareness by 82%. Such study results are viewed as preliminary. "Awareness is clearly a problem, says Jeffrey Apfelbaum, professor and chairman of anæsthesia and critical care medicine at the University of Chicago. "But these studies have not been vetted through the peer-reviewed process. We are all anxious to find away to minimise the incidence of this problem, but we need to do it through sound science."
The makers of the monitor, Aspect Medical Systems of Newton, Massachusetts, financed the studies, which are being presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Anesthesiologists in San Francisco. BlS stands for bispectral index technology. Anæsthesiologists have led the medical profession in patient safety efforts. But many of them have resisted the use of BIS monitors, saying they do not need help determining whether their patients were adequately sedated. "They have their head in the sand," says the study's lead investigator, Peter Sebel, a professor of anæsthesiology at Emory University School of Medicine. "They say they have never had a case in their career. I think they may have, they just don't know about it."
His study of nearly 20,000 surgical patients found that for every 1,000 who receive general anæsthesia, 1 to 2 people become aware of what is happening to them. Half of them feel pain. "I did not feel cutting, but I felt tremendous pulling," says Carol Weihrer, who awoke during eye-removal surgery. "It takes a lot of torque to get an eye out." Since her 45-minute ordeal in 1998, during which she felt surgical tools on her chest, listened to the music played in the surgical suite and felt like gagging because of the tube down her throat, she has become a patient advocate. "It has been described as worse than rape or kidnapping in that you can't squirm or scream," she says. "There is no way to release your fear or your frustration." She and other patient advocates say patients should ask for a BIS monitor.
Source: USA Today Monday 13 October 2003 photo credit Aspect Medical Systems
But over time, the monitor's results were disappointing. In a test conducted by Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis, 2 groups of about 1,000 patients each, all deemed at high risk of waking up during surgery were compared. One group used the brain-monitoring system and the other used an older system. Two from each group reported that they were aware. Each system detected only one of the two.
This is of particular interest to me because I once regained feeling directly after a Ceasarean section - by "directly" I mean before everything had been stuffed back inside, much less sewn up. I discovered that my anæsthesiologist had taken a break out in the hall thinking everything was under control. I discovered only MUCH later that anæsthesiologists have an extraordinarily high rate of drug abuse - they know which drugs cause the most pleasure and have access to practically everything. Perhaps he needed a top up. But right then, so did I!!
Recently I read where anæsthesiologists for non-emergency surgery (that is, scheduled in advance) ask their patients to refrain from taking St John's wort, vitamin E, aspirin, ginko biloba, garlic, and a number of other compounds. (Maybe it was something I ate?)
Maybe I shouldn't be awake...
Source: explodingdog.com (for illustration)
Redheads May Need More Anæsthesia
by Michelle Healy
Redheads' hair colour could be a red flag for pain sensitivity.
In a small study, women with naturally red hair needed about 20% more anæsthesia than women with any other hair colours, researchers told a meting Tuesday of the American Society of Anæsthesiologists. This unexpected finding marks the first time scientists have linked a visible genetic trait to anæsthesia doses, possibly offering insights into how anæsthesia works in people, researchers say.
Inadequate doses of general anæsthesia can allow people to recall surgery, or even wake up during it, problems that occur in 1% of cases. Investigators theorise that the hair colour/anæsthesia link may have to do with melanin, a pigment responsible for skin and hair colour. The sun triggers a hormone that in turn triggers the production of melanin to form a tan. Redheads seldom tan easily because they have a defective receptor for that hormone - a quirk with this "melanocortin-1 receptor" that also leaves their hair red. Without its intended receptor to dock in, the melanin-producing hormone may cross-react with a related receptor on brain cells that influence pain sensitivity.
Source: USA Today 16 October 2002
The Pain of Being a Redhead
by Tara Parker-Pope
Nobody likes going to the dentist, but redheads may have good reason. A growing body of research shows that people with red hair need larger doses of anæsthesia and often are resistant to local pain blockers like Novocaine. As a result, redheads tend to be particularly nervous about dental procedures and are twice as likely to avoid going to the dentist as people with other hair colours, according to new research published in The Journal of the American Dental Association.
Researchers believe redheads are more sensitive to pain because of a mutation in a gene that affects hair colour. In people with brown, black and blonde hair, the gene, for the melanocortin-1 receptor, produces melanin. But a mutation in the MC1R gene results in the production of a substance called pheomelanin that results in red hair and fair skin. The MC1R gene belongs to a family of receptors that include pain receptors in the brain, and as a result, a mutation in the gene appears to influence the body’s sensitivity to pain. A 2004 study showed that redheads require, on average, about 20% more general anæsthesia than people with dark hair or blond colouring. And in 2005, researchers found that redheads are more resistant to the effects of local anæsthesia, such as the numbing drugs used by dentists. The mutation in the MC1R gene also occurs in brunetttes, although it’s less common. In the latest study, the researchers tested for the MC1R gene variant, finding it in 65 of 67 redheads and in 20 of 77 people with brown or black hair. People with the MC1R gene variant had more dental care–related anxiety and fear of dental pain than those without the gene variant. And they were more than twice as likely to avoid dental care...
Source: well.blogs.nytimes.com 6 August 2009
I Was Awake and Could Feel Everything - but I was Paralysed and Couldn't Speak
by Anna Hodgekiss
Diane Parr could only listen in horror as she heard the surgeon asking for the scalpel. She was lying on an operating table for a tooth extraction due to an abscess - a procedure she'd been assured was routine. Minutes before, the anæsthetist had administered something into a tube in the back of her hand and she felt a woozy, relaxed feeling wash over her. She began to count backwards from 10, as instructed, but as she was wheeled into theatre, she realised she could feel the trolley judder beneath her and hear the voices of the theatre staff. "I thought they were being rude and ignoring me," recalls Diane, 44. "Then I heard the surgeon approach the table and ask the nurse for a metal clamp to keep my mouth open." She screamed - but paralysed by muscle-relaxing drugs, she made no sound. "I could feel the surgeon leaning over me and push down on my body before pulling up. It felt as if my tooth was coming out of my foot, not my mouth. A searing pain shot up my body. 'It's a toughie', I heard him exclaim. I thought I was going to die - not because of the pain, but the fear. I thought I was going to have a heart attack."
At this point, the surgeon realised Diane's tooth was cracked and coming out in pieces. "That was when he asked for the scalpel." As it cut into her gum, Diane passed out with shock. "The next thing I remember is my mouth being stitched up. It was hideous."
It's a story many of us would dismiss as urban myth - an anæsthetic dose being miscalculated so a patient wakes up during surgery or, like Diane, fails to fall asleep at all - but it happens to up to 2,000 patients in the UK every year. Known as anæsthesia awareness, this terrifying phenomenon is the subject of a new Hollywood film, called Awake, to be released next month. In the film, a character played by Hayden Christensen wakes up during an operation as the surgeon is about to cut open his chest. He can feel everything, but cannot move or speak.
Anæsthesia awareness usually occurs when muscle-relaxing drugs are used, rendering the patient paralysed. It is estimated that these are used in 10% of operations. "Anæsthesia awareness has caused some of the most severe cases of post-traumatic stress disorder I have seen," says Professor Michael Wang, a clinical psychologist at the University of Leicester. He says it doesn't matter whether the operation is a major or minor one.
Diane, who lives in St Teath, Cornwall, with her husband, Tim, and daughter, Dawn, 22, says the experience has "ruined" her life. "I changed from an outgoing, laidback person into a woman angry with the whole world," she says. "I couldn't work, I lost friends, and it nearly cost me my marriage." Six years ago, while living in the North of England, Diane was admitted to Hull Royal Infirmary to have 2 teeth extracted under general anæsthetic. "I had absolutely no reservations about the anæsthetic," says Diane, a children's party entertainer. This was simply a 20-minute procedure to take out a couple of teeth." In the theatre prep room, the anæsthetist put a cannula tube in the back of her hand and told her to count backwards. But it later emerged that he administered only a dose of atracurium - a commonly used muscle relaxant. This was because her mouth needed to be clamped open to extract her teeth. "I began to feel floaty, but then I was aware of being wheeled into theatre. I thought 'I'm not asleep', but at the same time I couldn't move. I also couldn't see - I think my eyes had been taped with plasters." The anæsthetist had assumed, wrongly, that because it was a dental operation, the surgeon would apply a local anæsthetic to the mouth. The surgeon, however, had assumed that Diane had already been given a full general anæsthetic.
After 37 minutes, the operation ended and Diane was given another injection to reverse the relaxant. "I shot up, desperate to get the ventilator tube out of my throat. The theatre staff watched in horror. Then shock kicked in and I began to sob. One of the nurses screamed 'Oh, my God, she was awake!', to which I replied: 'Of course I was awake - the whole bloody time!' The anæsthetist ran out of the room."
What is worrying is that had observations of Diane's pulse and blood pressure been done during the operation - in accordance with the Royal College of Anæsthetists' guidelines - staff would have realised what was going on. A hospital inquiry found the anæsthetist negligent and in 2002, Diane received a £15,000 out-of-court settlement. Back home, Diane struggled to get over her ordeal. "I would lie in bed, reliving the event over and over. My daughter left home, and my work and marriage suffered terribly. In the end, I thought it would be better for everyone if I drove my car into a wall."
Professor Wang - who counselled Diane for months after her ordeal - estimates between 50 and 80% of patients who are awake during surgery suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. It is, he says, similar to being tortured. Around 6 million general anæsthetics are administered in the UK each year. According to the Royal College of Anæsthetists (RCA), between 1 and 2 people in 1,000 experience some degree of anæsthetic awareness.
"Anæsthesia is a scientific balancing act," says Dr Keith Myerson, an RCA spokesman and a consultant anæsthetist. "You have to try to ensure pain relief and loss of consciousness while minimising the side-effects of the drugs, such as a reduced supply of oxygen to the blood and the brain. But anæsthetists are highly skilled and while incidents of awareness do happen, they are extremely rare."
One solution is a brain monitor, which measures electrical signals and can identify when a patient is in distress. It is already used in some UK hospitals for high-risk patients. Another option is "isolated forearm" technique. A tourniquet-style band is placed around one arm, cutting off the blood supply from the rest of the body. This means it isn't affected by the muscle relaxant and enables the patient to move their fingers if they're still awake. Professor Wang is calling for the forearm technique to be used routinely, but the RCA is more reserved, stating that patients are constantly monitored during surgery and an anæsthetist will be able to spot a patient in distress.
In 2006, Diane had to undergo another general anæsthetic to remove lumps in her breasts. "I was terrified," she says, but the forearm technique was used and the operation was without incident. "The college says that if patients are monitored, then there's no need for things like the forearm technique, but why shouldn't there be an extra safety net? I'm convinced the reason some people don't survive surgery is because they're awake during it - but they never live to tell the tale."
For more information about anæsthetics, visit rcoa.ac.uk.
Source: dailymail.co.uk 8 April 2008
What if Scientists Could Precisely Measure When Life Begins and Ends?
by David Dobbs
Sometime in the next decade or so, neuroscientists will likely identify the specific neural networks and activity that generate the vague but vital thing we call consciousness. Delineating the infrastructure of awareness is biology's most difficult problem, but a leading researcher like Christof Koch, Gerald Edelman, or Stanislas Dehaene could soon solve it. Science will then possess what might be called a "consciometer" - a set of tests (probably an advanced version of a brain scan or EEG) that can measure consciousness the way kidney or lung function is now measured.
Common sense, law, medicine, and philosophy have long considered consciousness a central aspect of our moral existence as human beings. The ability to precisely detect and measure it promises to alter our struggles with both end-of-life decisions, like those at issue in the Terri Schiavo case, and beginning-of-life decisions involving abortion. In both instances, religious conservatives probably won't be happy about the results.
The close association of consciousness with life dates only to the last half-century, when doctors learned to sustain heart and lung function long after awareness and will were gone. In the 1980s, legislators responded by establishing whole-brain death as the legal standard of death. At the same time, upper-brain death - the cessation of organised activity in the "thinking" cortex - became a common point at which to authorise the withdrawal of medical treatment. In theory, you can pick any state of health - upper-brain death or paralysis, for example - as your own signal to stop medical care. (Read an intensive-care doctor's description of what happens when there's no such signal.) But in practice most people choose the lack of demonstrable consciousness that doctors call a persistent vegetative state.
The many judges who heard and reviewed Terri Schiavo's case thus focused first on whether she had expressed a desire to end life support if she were in such a state and then, once that was proved, on whether she was in that condition. In a strict legal sense, Schiavo's state of consciousness mattered only because she had apparently designated its loss as the signal to end her life support. In the many appeals of the trial court's decision to remove her feeding tube, however, state and federal courts repeatedly based their decisions on Schiavo's cognitive status, making it the central issue in the case. Congress and the Bush administration similarly framed their efforts to restore Schiavo's feeding tube. And here lies the affair's great irony: Religious conservatives want the law to define life as the existence of a single living cell containing human DNA. Yet their Schiavo campaign bolstered both the acceptance of consciousness as the boundary between life and death and the authority of neuroscience to measure it.
The consciometer will strengthen this authority further. Families won't have to agonise over whether an unresponsive loved one is conscious; the consciometer will tell them. People filling out living wills will be able to specify their wishes based on measurable levels of conscious function. Ethical and legal precepts will rest on a clearly defined framework. Most people may welcome an end to torturous end-of-life ambiguities; religious conservatives probably won't.
The consciometer may also profoundly alter the abortion debate in ways the religious right won't like. Abortion law has long used consciousness as an indicator, if sometimes indirect, of the beginning of morally significant human life. As the Supreme Court noted in its review of abortion-law history in Roe versus Wade, "quickening," or the first clear fœtal movement at about the 16th to 18th week of pregnancy, divided legal abortions from illegal ones until the 19th century. The idea was that quickening suggested willful, independent action consistent with consciousness and reflecting the animation of the soul. Roe replaced the quickening marker with one based on fœtal viability, which typically occurs at about the 23rd week. Before that, the court ruled, abortion is a private matter concerning doctor and patient, while after that point the state has an increasing say. The court's abandonment of quickening was essentially a tactical move. Seeking more solid practical ground on which to base the law, the 7-justice majority exchanged a vague indicator of consciousness (quickening) for a more concrete developmental stage (the baby's ability to live outside the womb).
But now, scientists are getting a better grip on consciousness even as viability is becoming mushier, moving up in the second trimester as medical improvements keep alive ever-younger premature babies. This volatility (and the health problems of tiny preemies) makes viability less attractive as a legal marker. The consciometer, on the other hand, will offer firmer, more stable physiological criteria to determine the start of morally significant human life - the clear dividing line that courts have long sought. And the line will be drawn farther along into pregnancy. As leading neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, a member of President Bush's Council on Bioethics, describes in his book The Ethical Brain, current neurology suggests that a fœtus doesn't possess enough neural structure to harbour consciousness until about 26 weeks, when it first seems to react to pain. Before that, the fœtal neural structure is about as sophisticated as that of a sea slug and its EEG as flat and unorganised as that of someone brain-dead.
The consciometer may not put the abortion issue to rest - given the deeply held religious and moral views on all sides, it's hard to imagine that anything could. But by adding a definitive neurophysiological marker to the historical and secular precedents allowing abortion in the first two-thirds of pregnancy, it may greatly buttress the status quo or even slightly push back the 23-week boundary. There is another possibility. The implications of the consciometer could create a backlash that displaces science as the legal arbiter of when life ends and begins. Such a shift - a rejection of science not because it is vague but because it is exact — would be a strange development, running counter to the American legal tradition. Should a fundamentalist view of life trump rationalist legal philosophy? Roe versus Wade considered this question explicitly and answered no. For non-fundamentalists, that probably still seems right.
David Dobbs, author of Reef Madness, writes on science, medicine, and culture.
Source: slate.msn.com 14 June 2005
Inspiration may be a form of super-consciousness, or perhaps of subconsciousness I wouldn't know.
- Aaron Copland
Personal experience is supported by a growing number of good experiments which show that consciousness and intention have subtle but important effects in the world.
We know that groups of people sometimes experience a special resonance of feelings and ideas, and recent scientific evidence indicates that effects of coherent group consciousness can be detected with appropriate instruments.
The Global Consciousness Project (GCP) is an international collaboration of researchers extending this research to global dimensions via the Internet. The project uses technology and methods designed to record effects of events that stimulate us to integrate as a world-wide consciousness. Examples include the funeral ceremonies of Princess Diana, the first hour of NATO bombing in Yugoslavia, and a few minutes around midnight on any New Years Eve. We predicted that the turn of the Millennium would have measurable effects on our interconnected, global human consciousness. The results show a strong "spike" for the Y2K moment in several different types of analysis.
The GCP works with a synchronised network of electronic devices (random event generators) which record data at 30 sites around the world and report it via the Internet to central computers. The heart of the system is the server named "Noosphere" after Teilhard de Chardin's idea of a global intelligence. Here, all the data are gathered, processed, and archived. Sophisticated programs create and maintain a growing database generated continuously at a rate of one trial per second at each of the 30 nodes in the network.
Analytical software and integrative algorithms are designed to assess the scientific question whether there is any evidence for a "global consciousness" that can affect our instruments. Displays of the data take various forms, and show current activity as well as a complete historical record beginning in August 1998. Regularly updated tables of statistical information as well as simple and easily understood graphical summaries of several kinds are available. For example, we can see the cumulative departure of data sequences from their expected values, as a composite across all the GCP sites around the world for the past hour or the past day - or during a defined "Global Event".
The Global Consciousness Project is an ongoing, long-term experiment, and the results from nearly 50 events that have been analysed thus far show considerable evidence of a correlation between particular events and the data from our network of random event generators. It is tempting to draw the strong conclusion that a true global consciousness is creating the anomalous effects. Indeed, the probability that we are seeing just chance fluctuation is only about 1 in 10,000.
We believe the data are correct and definitely show anomalous departures from expectation. We can't claim to have proven the existence of a global consciousness, however, and must consider alternative interpretations such as anomalous effects created by the people involved in the project. But thoughtful examination of the accumulated evidence shows something very remarkable, and the most parsimonious and elegant interpretation is that a global consciousness is at work.
The complete database is publicly accessible from the GCP website via the Internet, and this ensures that all claims and conclusions can be independently verified, while providing an opportunity for a wide variety of exploratory analyses. This growing database of continuous, parallel random event sequences provides a rich opportunity for assessment of correlations with natural time-series variables. Some sample explorations include geomagnetic, meteorological and sidereal.
For a quick look at results, a one page summary for the past two years (to August, 2000) is available.
An Update on the Global Consciousness Project
Did 11 September Events Refocus Global Consciousness?
by A S Berman
As the 11 September terrorist attacks plunged the world into confusion, a handful of researchers detected a noticeable ripple in what some believe is an interconnected Web of global consciousness. Nearly 3 months later, they aren't sure what, if anything, it means.
On that day, 37 computers from New Zealand to Israel participating in the Global Consciousness Project were doing just what they've done since August 1998: using random-number-generating devices to "flip" virtual coins. And as before, every five minutes, software on those computers uploaded the results to the project's website. With each computer essentially flipping 200 coins at a time, one would expect the results to be 50-50 - about 100 of those tosses would come up heads, 100 tails. On September 11, however, results from all the project's random number generators appeared to shed their randomness, and lean significantly in the same direction.
Though the project's aim has been to determine whether focusing world attention on a single event somehow interferes with the usual randomness, researchers are hesitant to jump to conclusions. Roger Nelson, of the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research program at Princeton University, also directs the independent Global Consciousness Project. He declined comment, but the site notes that "occasionally there are global-scale events that bring great numbers of us to a common focus and an unusual coherence of thought and feeling." Results on the site suggest the effects of September 11 were the biggest ever.
Dean Radin, who does scientific research on consciousness at the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Petaluma, California, and who has been involved in this project, notes that researchers are wary of publicity, because if attention can affect a random events generator, as some studies suggest, having a mass audience focus on the experiment itself could conceivably skew results. "We're not dealing with something as simple as thoughts affecting the system," Radin maintains. "But there is a correlation, and it's not clear how that comes about."
On September 11, an initial statistical spike was seen right after the collapse of the first tower of the World Trade Center, Radin says; anomalies are noted about every 15 days and not considered unusual. But when he examined the results from an hour 1ater, then six hours later, the numbers still were elevated. It was at that point, he says, that "if you had not known September 11 was unusual, you would've settled on September 11 as being an unusual day," solely on the basis of those results.
Shortly after learning of the World Trade Center's destruction in New York, Mark Pilkington, who covers strange phenomena for the Fortean Times magazine, based in London, says he "went straight to the (project's) site to see if it registered something, and it did." An avowed skeptic on many subjects his magazine covers, Pilkington nevertheless says, "the brain is an electrical device, so it's not inconceivable that it might have an effect on magnetic fields" and electrical equipment.
Past events with a strong world focus have scored interesting, though less dramatic, fluctuations in the project's numbers; these include the funeral for Princess Diana and last year's sinking of Russia's Kursk submarine.
Some experts, however, would question the project's analysis of the September 11 data. A couple of additional statistical adjustments would have to be made determine if there really was a spike in the numbers, says Woollcott Smith, professor of statistics at Temple University in Philadelphia.
In the end, Radin says, it's simply too early to say what it all means.
Source: USA Today Thursday 6 December 2001
Gaia Has Begun to Think
The Potential of Distributed Computing Power
by Lee Bowman
Could your PC help find a cure for Alzheimer's disease or cancer - or perhaps a message from intelligent life on another planet? Hundreds of thousands of home computers already are engaged in such noble causes in their spare time. With about 300 million PCs hooked to the Internet but idle 90% of the time, there's huge potential for scientific projects utilising distributed computing power, researchers argue in a report published in the journal Science.
The most successful collaboration of home computers for science so far has been The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, which uses a screensaver to analyse radio signals collected from outer space in search of patterns that might represent communication, rather than the natural static of stars. The sponsors report that more than 2 million computer users have downloaded the software since the project started three years ago and roughly 500,000 regularly run the SETI program.
"It took a leap of faith to invest in the program, because no one had ever before tried to create a distributed computer network of such size, complexity and sophistication," said Charlene Anderson, associate director of The Planetary Society, which sponsors the project with the University of California Berkeley. "We are amazed and delighted with the results. It has succeeded beyond anything we dared to imagine," although no signals suggestive of ET have been detected.
The amazing thing is that the computers already have processed as much data as it would take a single computer 400,000 years to do. But Vijay Pande and Michael Shirts point out in their Science article that just half of the computers of the world could tackle 300 SETI-sized projects, anything ranging from climate modeling to simulating nuclear reactions. "But perhaps the most exciting possibilities are in the biological realm," they wrote. Molecular biology, structural biology and genomics all require calculations that outstrip the abilities even of the largest supercomputers. "The exciting thing about distributed computing right now is that there are a lot of interesting biological questions that are at the moment too difficult for single computers," Pande said.
One of the first targets is an outgrowth of the effort to map human genes. Genes don't really do anything except hold the blueprints for proteins, which guide all the biochemical reactions of our bodies. The genome project spells out how the DNA is sequenced, but it doesn't explain what each protein does or how it does it. Scientists know that in order to function, proteins have to rearrange themselves into a new shape, a process that takes just a millionth of a second. But if it goes wrong, the result is disease. Alzheimer's, cystic fibrosis, "Mad Cow Disease" and many types of cancer are believed to result from proteins misfolding.
The Stanford researchers wanted to simulate this folding, both to understand disease processes and try to find ways to block or correct them, and to apply the techniques in making synthetic materials with the same properties. So they launched a "Fold" program about two months ago in a bid to calculate how proteins achieve their three-dimensional shapes. The project already has enlisted about 10,000 volunteers, many of them with medical or biological backgrounds, although no scientific expertise is required beyond being able to download and run a simple program.
"Part of our mission is to educate people," Pande said, so the Web site gives a simple tutorial on folding and offers a "folding fact of the day" each time volunteers return to swap data. Pande stresses that it's important to set up distributed programs in such a way that computers can spend a lot of time on the work without inconveniencing the home user. That's why screensavers are ideal. But he also notes that organising data into PC-sized bites is also daunting. "It's like giving someone 100,000 secretaries," he said. "What you need is a way to organise these guys and come up with ways you can actually use all the secretaries. Otherwise, you end up wasting them."
Other biotechnology-distributed computing projects set up recently involve flu vaccine modeling, HIV drug design and cancer treatments.
Source: NandoTines 8 December 2000 © Nando Media and Scripps Howard News Service
by Francisco Varela
I guess I've had only one question all my life. Why do emergent selves, virtual identities, pop up all over the place creating worlds, whether at the mind/body level, the cellular level, or the transorganism level? This phenomenon is something so productive that it doesn't cease creating entirely new realms: life, mind, and societies. Yet these emergent selves are based on processes so shifty, so ungrounded, that we have an apparent paradox between the solidity of what appears to show up and its groundlessness. That, to me, is a key and eternal question.
As a consequence, I'm interested in the nervous system, cognitive science, and immunology, because they concern the processes that can answer the question of what biological identity is. How can you have some kind of identity that simultaneously allows you to know something, allows cells to configure their own relevant world, the immune system to generate the identity of our body in its own way, and the brain to be the basis for a mind, a cognitive identity? All these mechanisms share a common theme.
Regarding the subject of biological identity, the main point is that there is an explicit transition from local interactions to the emergence of the "global" property - that is, the virtual self of the cellular whole, in the case of autopoiesis (self-production). It's clear that molecules interact in very specific ways, giving rise to a unity that is the initiation of the self. There is also the transition from nonlife to life. The nervous system operates in a similar way. Neurons have specific interactions through a loop of sensory surfaces and motor surfaces. This dynamic network is the defining state of a cognitive perception domain. I claim that one could apply the same epistemology to thinking about cognitive phenomena and about the immune system and the body: an underlying circular process gives rise to an emergent coherence, and this emergent coherence is what constitutes the self at that level. In my epistemology, the virtual self is evident because it provides a surface for interaction, but it's not evident if you try to locate it. It's completely delocalised.
Organisms have to be understood as a mesh of virtual selves. I don't have one identity, I have a bricolage of various identities. I have a cellular identity, I have an immune identity, I have a cognitive identity, I have various identities that manifest in different modes of interaction. These are my various selves. I'm interested in gaining further insight into how to clarify this notion of transition from the local to the global, and how these various selves come together and apart in the evolutionary dance. In this sense, what I've studied, say, in colour vision for the nervous system or in immune self-regulation are what Dan Dennett would call "intuition pumps," to explore the general pattern of the transition from local rules to emergent properties in life. We have at our disposal beautiful examples to play around with, both in terms of empirical results and in terms of mathematics and computer simulations. The immune system is one beautiful, very specific case. But it's not the entire picture.
My autopoiesis work was my first step into these domains: defining what is the minimal living organisation, and conceiving of cellular-automata models for it. I did this in the early 1970s, way before the artificial-life wave hit the beach. This work was picked up by Lynn Margulis, in her research and writings on the origins of life, the evolution of cellular life, and, with James Lovelock, the Gaia hypothesis. Humberto Maturana and I invented the idea of autopoiesis in 1970. We worked together in Santiago, during the Socialist years. The idea was the result of suspecting that biological cognition in general was not to be understood as a representation of the world out there but rather as an ongoing bringing-forth of a world, through the very process of living itself.
Autopoiesis attempts to define the uniqueness of the emergence that produces life in its fundamental cellular form. It's specific to the cellular level. There's a circular or network process that engenders a paradox: a self-organising network of biochemical reactions produces molecules, which do something specific and unique: they create a boundary, a membrane, which constrains the network that has produced the constituents of the membrane. This is a logical bootstrap, a loop: a network produces entities that create a boundary, which constrains the network that produced the boundary. This bootstrap is precisely what's unique about cells. A self-distinguishing entity exists when the bootstrap is completed. This entity has produced its own boundary. It doesn't require an external agent to notice it, or to say, "I'm here." It is, by itself, a self-distinction. It bootstraps itself out of a soup of chemistry and physics.
The idea arose, also at that time, that the local rules of autopoiesis might be simulated with cellular automata. At that time, few people had ever heard of cellular automata, an esoteric idea I picked up from John von Neumann - one that would be made popular by the artificial-life people. Cellular automata are simple units that receive inputs from immediate neighbors and communicate their internal state to the same immediate neighbours.
In order to deal with the circular nature of the autopoiesis idea, I developed some bits of mathematics of self-reference, in an attempt to make sense out of the bootstrap - the entity that produces its own boundary. The mathematics of self-reference involves creating formalisms to reflect the strange situation in which something produces A, which produces B, which produces A. That was 1974. Today, many colleagues call such ideas part of complexity theory.
This is typical of an autoimmune condition: the system eats itself up. Consequently, it's beginning to dawn on people that looking for AIDS vaccines is a complete waste of time. From my point of view, the right approach is first to understand the nature of this global regulation. One hint of how to do this is to look for ways to reconnect the system. In this regard, autoimmune diseases are seen as a deregulation, a condition that cries for more connectedness, rather than as a condition susceptible to treatment with a vaccine. For example, look at drug addiction in terms of a social disease: drug addicts are in some sense an autoimmune disease of society, because they end up destroying segments of society. What those people need is to be given support, jobs, and family care; you reconnect them back into the society. One approach we study is to provide new, normal antibodies that help to re-create the network. We are researching more sophisticated ways of doing this, but we need to have a pointer on where to go. Vaccines are not the answer.
I'm interested in establishing empirical correlations between a long-standing interest in Buddhist practice and scientific work. Western tradition has avoided the idea of a selfless self, of a virtual self. This egolessness, or selflessness, is truly the core of Buddhism. Over the past 2000 years, the Buddhists have developed philosophical, phenomenological, and epistemological sophistication, and they have invoked this intuition in a very hands-on way. We can use these insights much like people in the Renaissance used Greek philosophy to try to understand the science of Galileo.
Buddhism is a practice, not a belief, and every Buddhist is, in some way, lay clergy - involved in the way a scientist is involved in his or her work, or in the way a writer's mind is involved in writing, present in the background, all the time. People today have the leisure and sophistication to practice what before was only practical for monks. Buddhism affects Western culture through the individuals who practice it, through people who occasionally take it up as an escape. Buddhist ideas are prevalent throughout our culture - in physics and biology, for example, the basic ideas are Buddhism in disguise.
My view of the mind has been influenced by my interest in Buddhist thought. Buddhists are specialists in understanding this notion of a virtual self, or a selfless self, from the inside, as lived experience. This is what fascinates me about that tradition. Dan Dennett, incidentally, has come to the same conclusion in his own way. But while Dan focuses on the cognitive level, my own approach is to think about several biological levels, as I have mentioned, perhaps because I'm influenced by the broad idea of nonrepresentationalist knowledge. In my reality, knowledge coevolves with the knower and not as an outside, objective representation.
I see the mind as an emergent property, and the very important and interesting consequence of this emergent property is our own sense of self. My sense of self exists because it gives me an interface with the world. I'm "me" for interactions, but my "I" doesn't substantially exist, in the sense that it can't be localised anywhere. This view, of course, resonates with the notions of the other biological selves I mentioned, but there are subtle and important differences. An emergent property, which is produced by an underlying network, is a coherent condition that allows the system in which it exists to interface at that level - that is, with other selves or identities of the same kind. You can never say, "This property is here; it's in this component." In the case of autopoiesis, you can't say that life - the condition of being self-produced - is in this molecule, or in the DNA, or in the cellular membrane, or in the protein. Life is in the configuration and in the dynamical pattern, which is what embodies it as an emergent property.
I find it fascinating to apply this same line of analysis to my own mind, in the cognitive domain. My own sense of self, "me," can be seen in the same light. I have to be relentless to hold on to my identity. These ideas help us to come to a real appreciation of what it means to have an identity - to comprehend what we think of as our own mind. My mind has the quality of "being here" so I can relate to others. For example, I interact; but when I try to grasp it, it's nowhere - it's distributed in the underlying network.
Let me add that this emergence and nonlocality has nothing to do with the current hype about quantum mechanics and the brain. That stuff is perhaps an interesting hypothesis to entertain, but it has no scientific evidence behind it. On the other hand, I'm talking about thirty years' worth of results in cognitive science. I'd go one step further and dispute the typical physicist, who believes that he or she is dealing with fundamental reality. A physicist will say that we're made of atoms. Such statements, while true, are irrelevant. The statement "You're looking at me" doesn't have the same weight as statements concerning the cellular level. There is a reality of life and death, which affects us directly and is on a different level from the abstractions. We have to abandon the enormous deadweight of the materialism of the Western tradition, and turn to a more planetary way of thinking.
Francisco Varela [1946 - 2001] died on 28 May at his home in Paris. According to his friend and collaborator Evan Thompson "I am told he died completely calm and at peace. I spent several days last week with him and his family. I will always cherish the strength of spirit, intelligence, and kindness he continued to manifest in his last days, despite his illness. He will be deeply missed."
Francisco, an experimental and theoretical biologist, studied what he termed "emergent selves" or "virtual identities." His was an immanent view of reality, based on metaphors derived from self-organisation and Buddhist-inspired epistemology rather than on those derived from engineering and information science. He presented a challenge to the traditional AI view that the world exists independently of the organism, whose task is to make an accurate model of that world - to "consult" before acting. His nonrepresentationalist world - or perhaps "world-as-experienced" - has no independent existence but is itself a product of interactions between organisms and environment. He first became known for his theory of autopoiesis ("self production"), which is concerned with the active self-maintenance of living systems whose identities remain constant while their components continually change. Varela is tough to categorise. He was a neuroscientist who became an immunologist. He was well informed about cognitive science and was a radical critic of it, because he was a believer in "emergence" - not the vitalist idea promulgated in the 1920s (that of a magical property that emerges inexplicably from lower mechanical operations) but the idea that the whole appears only as a result of the dynamics of its component parts. He thought that classic computationalist cognitive science is too simplemindedly mechanistic. He was knowledgeable and romantic at the same time.
Source: edge.org Edge 86 - 5 June 2001
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