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The Mind Readers

On the scientists working to bring consciousness back to patients in vegetative states or comas:

Kate Bainbridge, a 26-year-old schoolteacher, lapsed into a coma three days after she came down with a flu-like illness. Her brain became inflamed, including the primitive region atop the spinal cord, the brain stem, which rules the sleep cycle. A few weeks after her infection had cleared, Kate awoke from the coma but was diagnosed as being in a vegetative state. Luckily, the intensive care doctor responsible for her, David Menon, was also a Principal Investigator at the newly opened Wolfson Brain Imaging Centre in Cambridge, where one Adrian Owen then worked.

Menon wondered if elements of cognitive processing might be retained in patients in a vegetative state and discussed with Owen how to use a brain scanner to detect them. In 1997, four months after she had been diagnosed as vegetative, Kate became the first patient in a vegetative state to be studied by the Cambridge group. The results, published in 1998, were unexpected and extraordinary. Not only did Kate react to faces: her brain responses were indistinguishable from those of healthy volunteers. Her scans revealed a splash of red, marking brain activity at the back of her brain, in a part called the fusiform gyrus, which helps recognise faces. Kate became the first such patient in whom sophisticated brain imaging (in this case PET) revealed ‘covert cognition’. Of course, whether that response was a reflex or a signal of consciousness was, at the time, a matter of debate.

PUBLISHED: April 20, 2014
LENGTH: 32 minutes (8187 words)

High Tech

On the science and tech companies hoping to cash in on cannabis, which has been legalized for recreational use in two states and decriminalized in some form in many others:

For the science and technology set, it’s a classic opportunity to disrupt an industry historically run by hippies and gangsters. And the entire tech-industrial complex is getting in on the action: investors, entrepreneurs, biotechnologists, scientists, industrial designers, electrical engineers, data analysts, software developers. Industry types with experience at Apple and Juniper and Silicon Valley Bank and Zynga and all manner of other companies are flocking to cannabis with the hopes of creating a breakout product for a burgeoning legitimate industry. Maybe it’s the Firefly. Maybe it’s something still being developed in someone’s living room. There’s a truism about the gold rush days of San Francisco: It wasn’t the miners who got rich; it was the people selling picks and shovels. As the legalization trend picks up steam, Silicon Valley thinks it can make a better shovel.

AUTHOR:Mat Honan
SOURCE:Wired
PUBLISHED: April 18, 2014
LENGTH: 20 minutes (5177 words)

This Book Is Now a Pulitzer Prize Winner: An Excerpt from 'Toms River' by Dan Fagin

This year's Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction was awarded yesterday to Dan Fagin, an NYU science journalism professor, for Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation. According to the Pulitzer committee, Fagin's book, which chronicles the effects of chemical waste dumping on a small New Jersey community, "deftly combines investigative reporting and historical research to probe a New Jersey seashore town’s cluster of childhood cancers linked to water and air pollution." Thank you to Fagin and Bantam Books for allowing us to reprint the excerpt here.

AUTHOR:Dan Fagin
SOURCE:Longreads
PUBLISHED: April 15, 2014
LENGTH: 8 minutes (2153 words)

How Malaria Defeats Our Drugs

Anti-malarial drugs are quickly becoming ineffective as Plasmodium parasites from western Cambodia evolve resistance to them. The writer travels to the Thai-Burmese border to interview a French researcher named François Nosten who is working to eliminate malaria before the resistant parasites spread to other countries:

Nosten thinks that without radical measures, resistance will spread to India and Bangladesh. Once that happens, it will be too late. Those countries are too big, too populous, too uneven in their health services to even dream about containing the resistant parasites. Once there, they will inevitably spread further. He thinks it will happen in three years, maybe four. “Look at the speed of change on this border. It’s exponential. It’s not going to take 10 or 15 years to reach Bangladesh. It’ll take just a few. We have to do something before it’s too late.”

Hundreds of scientists are developing innovative new ways of dealing with malaria, from potential vaccines to new drugs, genetically modified mosquitoes to lethal fungi. As Nosten sees it, none of these will be ready in time. The only way of stopping artemisinin resistance, he says, is to completely remove malaria from its cradle of resistance. “If you want to eliminate artemisinin resistance, you have to eliminate malaria,” says Nosten. Not control it, not contain it. Eliminate it.

AUTHOR:Ed Yong
PUBLISHED: April 4, 2014
LENGTH: 21 minutes (5338 words)

Shadows by the Sea

Fifteen years ago, a Charlotte woman was found shot to death on Bald Head Island. Her case has been reopened, but the mystery remains: Did Davina Buff Jones kill herself, or did someone else kill Davina Buff Jones?

The .40 caliber slug tears through the officer’s skull at nearly 700 miles per hour, shattering bone and ripping gullies into tissue.

It’s minutes before midnight, nine days before Halloween, 1999. Here, beneath the turret of North Carolina’s oldest standing lighthouse, 218 miles from her hometown of Charlotte, the officer takes her final breath.

When someone pulls the trigger on a handgun, it causes a small explosion inside the weapon. The explosion moves a piston that slams a tiny piece of metal, the firing pin, into a bullet. The force of the combustion creates pressure, sending a round hurtling through the barrel of the gun. The entire process takes just a fraction of a second.

How a pistol works is a matter of science and mechanics. It is established fact.

And it is one of the few details of Davina Buff Jones’s death that isn’t still a mystery.

AUTHOR:Adam Rhew
PUBLISHED: April 1, 2014
LENGTH: 35 minutes (8857 words)

What I Want to Know Is Why You Hate Porn Stars

Porn star Conner Habib on the negative beliefs people have against porn actors:

It can't be factual. The reason you hate us, I mean. It's fine, not all emotions have to be based on facts. We're human beings, after all. I just wanted to make sure you knew it couldn't be factual.

You might think the thing that upsets you about us is that we're ruining society. And there are studies. You like to start sentences with the phrase, Studies show that…

But listen. The facts? You're going to have a hard time with them.

Every in-depth study that looks at how porn affects people ends up either supporting porn or rendering it neutral. Now, I know, I know, you're going to say, "But what about THIS one?" and point to a study I've never heard of. It'll say that porn is somehow rearranging our neural pathways or that such-and-such part of the brain lights up when we watch porn. But those studies are routinely debunked. Did you know that most of those anti-porn neuroscience studies don't have much evidence to back them up? Or that they have leap-of-faith conclusions? Don't take my word for it. Just look it up. Not right now? You want to keep reading? Well, all right.

PUBLISHED: March 19, 2014
LENGTH: 21 minutes (5356 words)

The Murderer and the Manuscript

Alaric hunt is writing detective novels, while serving a life sentence for murder, arson, robbery and other charges:

Alaric Hunt turned 44 in September. He last saw the outside world at 19. He works every day at the prison library in a maximum-security facility in Bishopville, S.C., passing out the same five magazines and newspapers to the same inmates who chose the library over some other activity. He discovered his favorite writer, Hemingway, at a library like this one, in a different prison. He found the Greek and the Roman philosophers there too. He rediscovered the science-fiction masters who wowed him as a boy and spurred him to write his own stories. And, one Friday three years ago, he found the listing for the contest that would change his life.

PUBLISHED: Jan. 10, 2014
LENGTH: 11 minutes (2823 words)

Microscopic Menagerie

On microbes and animals as composite beings:

In recent years, research has shown that what people commonly think of as “their” bodies contain roughly 10 microbial cells for each genetically human one. The microbial mass in and on a person may amount to just a few pounds, but in terms of genetic diversity these fellow travelers overwhelm their hosts, with 400 genes for every human one. And a decent share of the metabolites sluicing through human veins originates from some microbe. By these measures, humanity is microbial.

But numbers are just the beginning.

PUBLISHED: Dec. 27, 2013
LENGTH: 9 minutes (2489 words)

The Secret Life of Grief

The writer on losing his mother to cancer, and on the science of grieving:

My mom died on July 18, 2013, of pancreatic cancer, a subtle blade that slips into the host so imperceptibly that by the time a presence is felt, it is almost always too late. Living about 16 months after her diagnosis, she was "lucky," at least by the new standards of the parallel universe of cancer world. We were all lucky and unlucky in this way. Having time to watch a loved one die is a gift that takes more than it gives.

Psychologists call this drawn out period "anticipatory grief." Anticipating a loved one's death is considered normal and healthy, but realistically, the only way to prepare for a death is to imagine it. I could not stop imagining it. I spent a year and a half writing my mother a goodbye letter in my head, where, in the private theater of my thoughts, she died a hundred times. In buses and movie theaters, on Connecticut Avenue and 5th Avenue, on crosswalks and sidewalks, on the DC metro and New York subway, I lost her, again and again. To suffer a loved one's long death is not to experience a single traumatic blow, but to suffer a thousand little deaths, tiny pinpricks, each a shot of grief you hope will inoculate against the real thing.

PUBLISHED: Dec. 3, 2013
LENGTH: 13 minutes (3466 words)