Smart parasites

Last week Fox's hit edge-of-real-science show Fringe featured a virus that was able to manipulate its host's behavior to ensure it's own survival and dispersal among other individuals. For example, the virus was able to realize when it was being contained and could "think" it's way out of the quarantine by directing it's host to jump out of a window or kill other individuals in an attempt to escape into the outside world. This seemed a little far-fetched at the time, but today I discovered that it really isn't all that far from the truth....

Robert Sapolsky, a professor and biological researcher from Stanford University, has studied many different aspects of neuroscience and the body's response to stress for the past 25 years or so and in this interview goes in to detail about real life parasites that are capable of controlling their host's behavior to a remarkable degree. Maybe they can't make anyone jump off tall buildings but Toxoplasma, for example, which found only n the gut of a cat and in their feces is able to cause rats to suddenly not only ignore their innate fear of the smell of a cat but to actually be attracted to it. Quite an interesting interview. Even though it is a little long, it is worth setting aside 30 min of your day to listen to this guy talk.

As a side note, I saw him speak about "why zebras don't get ulcers" when he came to Lafayette a few years ago. He is an amazing and entertaining public speaker and really seems to do research for the love of discovering new and cool things. In his own words: "I love science, and it pains me to think that so many are terrified of the subject or feel that choosing science means you cannot also choose compassion, or the arts, or be awed by nature. Science is not meant to cure us of mystery, but to reinvent and reinvigorate it."


Incredible high jump

Don't worry about not being able to understand the French. Just watch this video for a minute or so and you will see one of the most incredible horse jumps ever. This fence was set at 2.28 m (nearly 7.5 ft)! If you go to 2:25 minutes in you will see a view from the opposite side of the fence as the horse approaches and you really get a sense for how tall this thing is as the horse and rider nearly disappear and then suddenly rise up and over the fence. Unbelievable!


War Horse

What amazing equine art! The show is called "War Horse" and is based on a book of the same name by Michael Morpurgo which tells the story of WWI through a horse's eyes, a horse who was raised on a private farm, got recruited for the British Cavalry and then was captured by the Germans. The way they created these horses for the stage is really incredible; I can't believe all the coordination involved and how realistic they look when it all comes together. Maybe if the show does well enough in London we'll be lucky enough to see it come to the US. Here's another video that shows a little more behind the scenes: War Horse.

Back in the saddle

Yesterday I went riding for the first time in a week and a half. I actually can't believe it's only been that long, it feels like so much longer. It was only me and Agnes (who was working in the office at the time) so I was free to ride the horses on my own for a few hours and I can honestly say that after only 5 minutes I could feel myself relaxing and feeling much happier. It's amazing what a horse can do :)

On a different note one of the mares, a big black thoroughbred, sliced her hind leg open right above the hoof while in turnout earlier in the day so the vet had to come out and stitch her up while I was there. Now, I would never hope that a horse would get hurt and require vet care, but when it does happen - which, let's admit, happens fairly often since for such big animals they are awfully delicate and accident prone - I am fascinated being there and watching everything.

Once again, I was amazed at how quickly a few cc's of anesthetic can drop a 1300-lb animal; within a minute Ginny was swaying on her feet and had to be supported. I then watched as the vet performed a nerve block and proceeded to wash, shave, wash, shave some more, rinse, poke around (luckily, despite all the blood and chunky tissue, the damage didn't reach the joint) and finally suture up the wound before wrapping it up with gauze and lavender oil (supposedly great for promoting healing, minimizing scars and keeping deep as well as superficial tissues clean and healthy). It made me think that maybe I should go to vet school after all. I'd love to learn all of this stuff and be able to actually get my hands dirty and help. Besides, if I knew how to do it myself I wouldn't have to fork over $500 every time my future horses play a little too rough in the field :)


Goose Island's New Brew

In mid-February Chicago's Goose Island Brewery is introducing a new green beer, and no I don't mean color. It's called Green Line Pale Ale and its goal is to raise awareness about making our planet more "green" and reducing Goose Island's own carbon footprint. I'll be anxious to try the "bright and citrusy" ale, even if it means taking another brewery tour since it is likely this beer will take a little while to debut in most bars. The tour, by the way, I highly recommend. Tours run every Sunday at 3:00 and 4:30 and are a pretty hot commodity (reservations required), but that's not unexpected when you consider that $5 buys you a tour of the brewery, tastings of a selection of quality Goose Island beers and a keepsake pint glass. Definitely on my list of "Things you must do in Chicago." Anyway, if my past experience with Goose Island is any basis for comparison I am sure this new addition to the family will meet expectations, although it will be hard to replace the great all-around 312.

Crazy Chicago

Ok, so this is a bit off topic but as I was waiting for my cup of tea and sandwich at Barista today and skimming through the local paper when I came across an interesting headline: Man bit off cop's nipple. Hmmm. I've heard of the infamous Mike Tyson incident and about irate women who bit off their husbands' penises, but nipples are a new one.

As it turns out there wasn't much more to this story than the headline revealed: upon trying to arrest a Chicago man for inappropriate and drunken behavior a struggle broke out and the man decided his best option for escape was to attack the poor officer with his teeth, effectively slicing through the man's right nipple. Ouch. Although it was still partially (barely) attached when the officer reached the hospital, nipples are such complex little buggers that there was no hope of reattachment without plastic surgery so unfortunately this officer will be left with one less nipple for the rest of his life. Even if it wasn't as small a structure as a nipple, any kind of bite wound makes it infinitely more difficult to reattach a severed body part due to the irregular tearing pattern from teeth and the amount of bacteria that is transferred to the wound from the human mouth.

In the long run, though, does it really matter if this man gets his nipple back? I mean, guys don't really need them....At the very least it will make for an interesting story the next time the man makes an appearance on the beach.


Mona Lisa

Leonardo DaVinci is one of my favorite men in history and I am continually amazed at his contributions and achievements in science and art. The Mona Lisa, perhaps one of his most famous pieces, has been the subject of countless investigations and debates over the years and still remains the center of many unanswered questions. However, one question about her peculiarly enigmatic smile has recently been put to rest: Why does she appear to smile one moment but then that smile fades as soon as you try to examine it up close? Scientists from the Institute of Neuroscience in Alicante, Spain have looked closely into this phenomenon and arrived at a conclusion we all should have expected (after all, this is Leonardo we are talking about): it's science!

When Leonardo painted the image of Mona Lisa, he deliberated painted the edges of her smile in a slightly blurred method known as sfumato while leaving the rest of her mouth in sharp focus. The end result is meant to play with our eyes and the differences between our peripheral vision and central vision within the retina. While the retina allows us to focus directly on objects of interest and thus see them in very high detail, our peripheral vision developed as a way for us to take a general scope of our surroundings. Able to pick up slight movements and changes in our environment as well as general shapes, peripheral vision alerts our brain as to where we should look next but doesn't provide any great focusing ability. By painting the center of Mona Lisa's mouth in clear detail but leaving the edges fuzzy, Leonardo effectively prevents us from seeing the smile when we view the face head on (using our central retinal vision) but allows it to sneak back in when we focus on some other aspect of the piece thus allowing our peripheral vision to take over. Pretty sneaky Leo....

It's too bad that I'm not a professional neuroscientist. These findings were just presented in October of last year at the Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting in Chicago, and it would have been interesting to go. Click here for more information.


In an attempt to find an article on horse anatomy and conformation that I had read a few months ago, I happened to stumble across these illustrations by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins by accident. They come from a book entitled A Comparative view of the Human and Animal Frame which was published in 1860 and which has now been scanned into a web collection by the University of Wisconsin. I was most interested in the two images involving the horse, shown below, but there are many other interesting illustrations including some comparing humans to elephants, lions, antelope and bears within the collection.

 Source: University of Wisconsin Digital Collections

Of course, browsing through that collection led me to another wonderful find as the University also has a great collection of veterinary illustrations by Hermann Dittrich, a German medical/veterinary illustrator from the early 1900s who I've admired for quite awhile (after all, veterinary illustration is one of my interests). A few of my favorites are shown below but it is definitely worth browsing through the entire collection, especially for anyone interested in veterinary illustration. In addition to the horse, the collection includes illustrations of cows, dogs, lions and deer in some of the most detailed and beautiful veterinary illustrations I've seen (click on the images to view larger).

Source: University of Wisconsin Digital Collections


Eye tests and Alzheimer's

According to a new study by scientists at the University College London, retinal cells may be able to offer an early peek at Alzheimer's disease. Since the retina is a direct extension of the brain these scientists believe that by visualizing dying cells in the retina they may be able to extrapolate what's going on in terms of cell death within the brain. It is an interesting idea, although I'm curious to see what happens once human trials start later this year. Since Alzheimer's doesn't affect the same area of the brain in every individual I wonder how accurate it will be. Also, what about people with conditions like macular degeneration, a common eye disease causing retinal cell death in individuals over 50? If the dyes in this new test for Alzheimer's target dead and dying cells in the retina, couldn't this lead to false positives especially since many older people who would be at risk of Alzheimer's also tend to have retinal degeneration as a result of their age?


Blogger #21,758,493...or something like that

Well I've done it. Like becoming a member of the now ubiquitous Facebook (which I was able to successfully ignore, if only for the first six months of it's existence) I have joined the masses and decided to start a blog. Why did I wait so long (and cringe when anyone would bring it up)?
A) I didn't want a diary.
B) Anti-Peer Pressure. If that's a word. Definitely not one of those to join simply because "everyone else is doing it."
C) I'd rather spend my free time riding horses.

And yet, like Facebook, here I am. Hey, it's networking right?

So I am a medical illustrator, or soon will be, as I plan to graduate in May from the University of Illinois Chicago's program in Biomedical Visualization (MS). I am also an equestrian, a neat freak, a musician, a neuroscience major, an animal-lover, and, frankly, a bit of a nerd. So it will be interesting to see how this turns out. A little of this, a little of that, some art, some humor, some science....Happy reading!