April 30, 2007

Chemo Brain

Jane Gross writes in Sunday's New York Times about chemo brain, in which folks who have received chemotherapy also exhibit signs of severe cognitive impairment. Mostly this is women who’ve received aggressive treatment for breast cancer -- one woman found 4 gallons of milk in her fridge after buying a fifth, with no recollection of having purchased the other four gallons.

Gross writes, "There is now widespread acknowledgment that patients with cognitive symptoms are not imagining things, and a growing number of oncologists are rushing to offer remedies, including stimulants commonly used for attention-deficit disorder and acupuncture."

Health: Chemotherapy Fog Is No Longer Ignored as Illusion
By Jane Gross ... Sunday, April 29, 2007
Research is leading to new attitudes about the cognitive side effects of life-saving treatment.

Natasha Mitchell, of Australia's All in the Mind radio programme, reported on chemo brain a few months ago. "[S]hort-term memory loss, foggy thoughts, fatigue - lingering sometimes years after chemotherapy. Could chemo be doing more than killing off cancer cells? New research suggests it may be more toxic to your nerve cells than cancer itself."

Our neurotoxic world (part one): Chemotherapy and the brain, from All In The Mind - 10 February 2007

Interesting stuff.

April 29, 2007

Brain Symmetry in Dogs

There's been lots of research indicating that the left and right sides of human brains serve different functions. Turns out that birds, fish, and dog brains also have similar brain asymmetry, especially in the emotional area.

Sandra Blakeslee reports in the April 24 issue of the New York Times that "[w]hen dogs feel fundamentally positive about something or someone, their tails wag more to the right side of their rumps. When they have negative feelings, their tail wagging is biased to the left."

Blakeslee reports on research published in the March 20 issue of Current Biology, in which Giorgio Vallortigara, a neuroscientist at the University of Trieste in Italy, and two Italian veterinarians, Angelo Quaranta and Marcello Siniscalchi, at the University of Bari, studied the tail wagging response of 30 dogs to known & unknown humans, an unknown cat, and an unknown dog.

"When the dogs saw their owners, their tails all wagged vigorously with a bias to the right side of their bodies, Dr. Vallortigara said. Their tails wagged moderately, again more to the right, when faced with an unfamiliar human. Looking at the cat, a four-year-old male whose owners volunteered him for the experiment, the dogs’ tails again wagged more to the right but in a lower amplitude."

Vallortigara says this "... suggests that the muscles in the right side of the tail reflect positive emotions while the muscles in the left side express negative ones."

Blakeslee cites more examples of how animals use different sides of their brains for important functions -- such as chicks who find food with their left eye and watch for predators with their right eye.

For more information:
A. Quaranta, M. Siniscalchi and G. Vallortigara, "Asymmetric tail-wagging responses by dogs to different emotive stimuli," Current Biology, Volume 17, Issue 6, 20 March 2007, Pages R199-R201. (not even the abstract is free, but if you have Current Biology at your library, try this DOI link.)

If You Want to Know if Spot Loves You So, It’s in His Tail
Sandra Blakeslee
April 24, 2007
New York Times


I don't usually like cute cat photos, but there is an interesting Internet meme going around about krazy kaptions of kat photos.

I first found it on

- Language Log, Kitty Pidgin and asymmetrical tail-wags, which referred me to

- Anil Dash's post Cats Can Has Grammar (see also his MeowChat and PetSpeak), which sent me to

- the Wikipedia entry for lolcat (which apparently is slated for deletion), which led me to these images of cats

- I Can Has Cheezburger?

- lolcats2.com


Phew. I'm exhausted from all that running around. And I still don't much care for kute kat photoz, but this was a fun ramble through an Internet meme.

April 15, 2007

Scents & Sleep

The New York Times article Study Uncovers Memory Aid: A Scent During Sleep says that smells may help us remember things better. They quote a study recently published in Science:

"The smell of roses — delivered to people’s nostrils as they studied and, later, as they slept — improved their performance on a memory test by about 13 percent."

Or this, from the Science magazine abstract:
"Sleep facilitates memory consolidation. A widely held model assumes that this is because newly encoded memories undergo covert reactivation during sleep. We cued new memories in humans during sleep by presenting an odor that had been presented as context during prior learning, and so showed that reactivation indeed causes memory consolidation during sleep. Re-exposure to the odor during slow-wave sleep (SWS) improved the retention of hippocampus-dependent declarative memories but not of hippocampus-independent procedural memories. Odor re-exposure was ineffective during rapid eye movement sleep or wakefulness or when the odor had been omitted during prior learning. Concurring with these findings, functional magnetic resonance imaging revealed significant hippocampal activation in response to odor re-exposure during SWS."

The Times article explains it in plain English, and the article in Science explains the scientific detals.

New York Times article:
Study Uncovers Memory Aid: A Scent During Sleep
By BENEDICT CAREY, March 9, 2007
A familiar scent can help a slumbering brain better remember things that it learned the evening before.

research at Science (subscription required for the full-text, or check your local library)
Odor Cues During Slow-Wave Sleep Prompt Declarative Memory Consolidation
Björn Rasch, Christian Büchel, Steffen Gais, and Jan Born
Science 9 March 2007: 1426-1429.
"In humans, a new memory formed in the presence of an odor is consolidated faster when the odor is used to induce neural activity in the hippocampus during subsequent sleep."

Simmons GSLIS Podcasts

Simmons Graduate School of Library & Information Science is now podcasting some of their events -- yay!

Called GSLIScast, these podcasts present talks given from November 2006 to present, and include some interesting names in the field:

- UMass librarian Isabel Espinel asks Left, Out? Are Progressive Organizations Ignoring the Voices of Librarians Of Color?;
- MIT librarian Nicole Hennig talks about Tech Tools at MIT, a presentation she gave for the Simmons Student Chapter of ASIS&T;
- Mary-Ann Parker-O’Toole, the Director of Information Management and Librarian at non-profit Adaptive Environments describes Building a Human Centered Library.

I haven't listened to any yet, but they are on my iTunes download list ...

April 13, 2007

Hit the Gym and then the Library

Great set of stories in Newsweek a few weeks back on exercise. One article in particular, Can Exercise Make You Smarter?, by Mary Carmichael (March 26, 2007) discusses the relationship between exercise and the brain.

Charles Hillman, of the University of Illinois' Neurocognitive Kinesiology Laboratory, has shown a correlation between physical fitness and performance on statewide standardized tests for 3rd & 5th graders in Illinois (see Castelli, D. M., Hillman, C. H., Buck, S. M., & Erwin, H. E. (in press). "Physical Fitness and Academic Achievement in 3rd and 5th Grade Students." Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology.)

Carmichael asserts that Hillman's study isn't the only research to show this correlation: "... in a landmark paper, researchers announced that they had coaxed the human brain into growing new nerve cells, a process that for decades had been thought impossible, simply by putting subjects on a three-month aerobic-workout regimen." This sounds intriguing -- I'd like to read the research itself (ok, I'd just like to retrieve the article; I'm a librarian, not a researcher), so I wish Newsweek would cite their sources!

Hillman summarizes: "...exercise can affect cognition ... just as it affects muscles." The article describes in layman's terms how this might work, involving the chemical brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) -- which Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey calls "Miracle-Gro for the brain." He adds that a workout will help with "focus, calming down, impulsivity" as well.

And the effect seems to be relatively quick: after a 30-minute workout, Hillman notes that " 'within 48 minutes' your brain will be in better shape." Early results suggest that PE in schools could improve children's test scores: in Naperville, Illinois, "students with poor verbal skills have started taking PE immediately before reading class. Their report cards, says Ratey, are already looking better."

Exercise + education = smarter kids. Carmichael concludes that exercise isn’t enough: "kids have to hit the library as well as the gym."

April 08, 2007

Messy Reptilian Brains

Sharon Begley uses her article April 9, 2007 article in Newsweek, In Our Messy Reptilian Brains to review a new book by Johns Hopkins professor of neuroscience David Linden The Accidental Mind.

In it, Begley quotes Linden as saying that while the brain is impressive in function, in design, the brain is "quirky, inefficient and bizarre ... a weird agglomeration of ad hoc solutions that have accumulated throughout millions of years of evolutionary history."

Begley uses Linden's example of blindsight to explain why the human brain is "essentially a mouse brain with extra toppings." Blindsight is when some blind people are able to sense and describe objects they cannot see. Folks with blindsight, then, have lost their "traditional" vision, located in the traditional visual cortex, but still retain some use of the "amphibian visual system", located in the midbrain. They can sense objects, but "because the midbrain is not connected to higher cognitive regions, they have no conscious awareness of an object's location..."

In typical Begley style, she compares the brain and musical technology: "the brain is like an iPod built around an eight-track cassette player."

Read on for more fun, and check out Linden's book for even more fun!

Science Blogs

Science Librarian pal Naka Ishii receommended a cog sci blog I hadn't known about, which leads me to post this short list of science blogs new to me, and maybe to you.

Naka points me to Mind Matters, a cognitive science blog by Scientific American. Here's what they say: "Sciam.com's 'seminar blog' on the sciences of mind and brain. Each week, top researchers in neuroscience, psychology and psychiatry explain and discuss the research driving their fields."

It looks really good, but I will have to print the articles out & read them offline. Apparently my brain can't process science online! The brain charts are great -- clear and easy to understand.

The New York Times has a relatively new blog called TierneyLab. They say: "John Tierney always wanted to be a scientist but went into journalism because its peer-review process was a great deal easier to sneak through. ... [H]e's using TierneyLab to check out new research and rethink conventional wisdom about science and society." He's covered topics like Saturn's hexagon and peregrine falcons. Not exclusively cog sci, like Mind Matters, but it does cover some interesting things. Also lists a nice blogroll of science blogs.

Finally, my science reporter heroine, Sharon Begley, is now writing for Newsweek rather than the Wall Street Journal, and she's blogging there, too. Called Lab Notes, the blog inclusive science, which is to say, not exclusively cognitive science, but that doesn’t make it bad. Since starting the blog last month, she's written about insomnia, hormones, and cancer therapy. Keep an eye on her column in Newsweek -- the April 9 issue has a good review about "messy reptilian brains" which I'll recap shortly.

Libraries Need A Good Publicist

I've been on a tear recently about the lack of library advertising & promotion.

We should PROMOTE THE H*LL OUT OF LIBRARIES -- our services, our resources (full-text of the New York Times online? Baltimore Sun? Contra Costa Times? We've got it: free!!), our books (x thousands, millions + interlibrary loan) ...

Why don't people know we have all these great resources? Because we don't TELL THEM!! Here are some humble -- if expensive -- ideas for how we could / should promote ourselves:

- Advertise on billboards at local ball games (hockey, soccer, baseball):
    * "want to find out more about your favorite player? find out @ the library!"
    * "want to improve your bowling skills? learn how @ the library"
    * "want to read about games you missed? read back issues of *your local paper* @ the library"

- Advertise in airports (train stations, bus terminals):
    * "read thousands of travel books @ your library"
    * "borrow your next novel @ your library -- and save money!"
    * "help your kid do his homework @ your library"
    [some cities even have branch libraries in train stations!!! MORE of this, please!]

- Advertise on facebook:
    * "save time! find articles faster @ your library"
    * "borrow books, DVDs, games, CDs [whatever you offer!] @ your library"
    * "get books, articles from ANYWHERE without paying a cent @ your library"

We have to get over this horrible resistance we have to promotion, marketing, advertising. We also have to be ready to provide good service, and we have to find the money for this. Ideally it would be a national campaign -- whatever we do to promote libraries in general will benefit small public libraries, school libraries, academic libraries, and probably even corporate / special libraries.


April 06, 2007

Favorite Reference Sources?

This is an informal poll, for the LIS crowd.

If you were stranded on a desert isle, and you were lucky enough to continue doing reference for your current constituents, what 5 reference sources would you want to have on hand? You're lucky enough to have both high-speed Internet access as well as a safe, climate-controlled space for up to 5 reference works. :-)


- Statistical Abstract of the United States.
- The Statesman’s Year Book.
- Dorling Kindersley Ultimate Visual Dictionary.
- MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (and its cousins, Turabian & the APA Style guide) not for favoriteness, necessarily, but definitely for usefulness.

And I reserve one player to be named later.

April 04, 2007

The L Team

This makes me glad I'm a librarian. Another great Nick Baker library video.

Let There Be Light

All in the Mind has done it again, this time providing a two-part series on the Blind Brain. I've only listened to part one, but I could barely concentrate on driving because the story was so fascinating.

Natasha Mitchell spoke with three scientists deeply involved in the areas of vision, the brain, and plasticity:
- Australian psychologist Zoltan Torey, whom New Yorker readers will remember from the 2003 Oliver Sacks story "The Mind's Eye; What the blind see" as a blind man who replaced his own roof. Torey speaks in detail about how he 'sees' after having been blinded over 50 years ago.
- MIT's Pawan Sinha, who runs Project Prakash, whose goal is to "...help curably blind children, especially in India, access the surgery they need to see, and study how their progress in the effort to gain insights into how the brain learns to see." Fascinating insight into how people can regain sight (mostly those born with curable vision problems), and what happens in the brain when they do.
- Harvard's Amir Amedi, who is studying "brain stimulation techniques to study the brains of blind people" along with Alvaro Pascual-Leone (who's written / studied a lot about brain plasticity).

Absolutely *fascinating* research all around. The All in the Mind site includes the audio version of the show (streaming & a downloadable mp3), a print transcript, brief info. about the show, and links to research by all three of the episode's guests.

If I were a grading kind of girl, I'd give this show an A.

Library Journal's Best Sci-Tech Books, 2006

Interesting list of the Best Sci-Tech books of 2006 in the March 1, 2007 issue of Library Journal:

Science's Big Picture // Best Sci-Tech Books 2006
By Gregg Sapp — March 1, 2007
"From our prehistoric past to the promise and perils of our future, the top science titles of 2006 offer plenty to ponder."

The list includes some titles of interest to armchair cognitive scientists, such as (links to WorldCat; reviews on the LJ site):

April 03, 2007

Difference Between the Future & the Past?

New Scientist reports on several studies which suggest that there may not be such a difference between the future and the past, at least in our brains. From the free abstract on the New Scientist web site, author Jessica Marshall writes:

"IMAGINE your next vacation. You are relaxing on a beach, waves lapping at the shore, a cool breeze wafting through the trees and the sun caressing your skin. Fill in the details. What else do you see? Now, remember yesterday's commute. Again, a picture emerges. You are on the train or in your car, or maybe just wandering from your kitchen to your desk. Can you remember what you were wearing? Perhaps you have forgotten that part already.

"Without breaking sweat, you can hurtle yourself backwards or forwards in time in your mind's eye - what is known as 'mental time travel'. One of these visions really happened and the other was fantasy, yet the act of conjuring them up probably felt very similar. It's as if, embedded somewhere in your brain, there is a time machine that can take you forwards and backwards at will."

Turns out that fMRI's show very little difference in the brain when people are thinking of something in the past or imagining something in the future.

From an evolutionary perspective, this might make sense, according to University of Toronto neuroscientist Endel Tulving: "It is hard to imagine how personal recall alone might be evolutionarily useful, but if remembering how cold and hungry you were last winter helps you realise the benefits of putting food away for the next one, or convinces you to plant a few of your grains instead of eating them all, you stand a much better chance of surviving than someone who cannot project themselves backwards and forward in time. 'I cannot imagine how civilisation could emerge from brains that cannot imagine the future,' Tulving says."

Fascinating in its own right, but this has implications for reference librarians faced with patrons who mis-remember dates, names, and other essential components of their reference question. Marshall paraphrases Harvard psychologist Daniel Schacter: "False memories are not memory deficits at all but by-products of a normal, healthy memory." Not only are our patrons not intentionally misleading us, perhaps their mis-remembering is actually normal -- and even evolutionarily based.

At a minimum, it might make me more sympathetic as I try to help people who swear the article was published in 1990 or 1991 -- when it turns out to have been published in 1988.

Future recall: your mind can slip through time - being-human by Jessica Marshall in the March 24 2007 issue of New Scientist. Available through LexisNexis in your library, or for a fee on their web site.

Peeps Show

It's that time of year again, kids — the peep emails are filling up the in-box. Here are some of my favorites:

Peep Surgery in which the Peeps get anaesthetized and have reconstructive plastic surgery, and we learn that Peeps are made of fluffathelium.

Peep Research in which the Peeps go to the library at Millikin University, and we learn that they read The Journal of Peep Studies and Peeple.

A Peep into the Conservation Lab in which the Peeps are able to help in many areas of conservation, and we learn that "'No Food or Drink' policies are discriminatory, and are strongly discouraged."

Happy spring holiday!

April 01, 2007

Librarian Essentials: beverages, food, and ...

Lovely video about librarian migratory habits, created by Williams College librarian Nick Baker. I met him at the most recent librarian gathering event in Baltimore.