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Recently a study came out by the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas in Dallas about marijuana use and the association with a smaller orbital frontal cortex. They found that the orbital frontal cortex decreased in size among heavy marijuana users, along with an increased connectivity in the forceps minor and orbitofrontal cortex network. The study also noted a correlation between lowered IQ and cannabis use.

I paid close attention to the study, and noted some things about it that bothered me.

Sample size

In this study, we have a control group of 62 compared to a group of 48 cannabis users. Of those 48 cannabis users, 27 uses cannabis exclusively. The sample size of control vs. exclusively cannabis users is quite small. The average IQ among the control group was 110, while the average among the exclusively cannabis users was 104. Many articles about the study feature the IQ results prominently, such as this one from the L.A. Times, (http://www.latimes.com/...) but the group itself says that there's not enough data to support a a connection between a smaller OFC and a lower IQ.

Cognitive tests show that chronic marijuana users had lower IQ compared to age-and gender-matched controls but the differences do not seem to be related to the brain abnormalities as no direct correlation can be drawn between IQ deficits and OFC volume decrease.
How the data was acquired

The data gathered for this study was done using MRI, which stands for magnetic resonance imaging. A MRI measures tissue structures in the brain by jiggling the hydrogen atoms present in the water of the tissue. The authors counted the gray matter voxels in the MRI of the control group and compared them to the voxels of the cannabis users and exclusively cannabis users. (Voxels are essentially pixels - a consistent measurement used in MRI.)  However, cannabis acts upon two receptors in the human body - CB1 controls intoxication, which is what gets you high. CB2 controls inflammation and can reduce addictive behaviors in the brain. Reducing inflammation would reduce water content in the tissues of the orbito-frontal cortex, resulting in a smaller looking group of voxels on the MRI scan.

Gray matter is notoriously hard to get an image of, because of its lowered water content compared to white matter. A 3T MRI is the industry standard for best results, but they would have been better off using a 7T MRI, especially if they're basing this study on counting gray matter voxels.

A dysfunctional orbito-frontal cortex

The orbito-frontal cortex provides stimulus-reward associations, and suppresses negative emotions. Dysfunction of the orbitofrontal cortex leads to behavioral problems such as obsessive-compulsive disorders, trichillomania, aggression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, impulse control problems, Tourette's syndrome, and depression. These problems can lead to drug addiction/substance dependence. The later stages of Alzheimer's disease may be impacted by altered connectivity of OFC systems.

If the OFC was truly dysfunctional, these behaviors would be seen more often in marijuana users. However, this is quite the opposite. Marijuana users are less depressed, less stressed, and not at all aggressive. So there's two conclusions to take from all this: either the OFC is really shrinking in marijuana users meaning that we don't understand what the function of that part of the brain is, or that the OFC isn't shrinking, and the imaging techniques used to count the voxels of the gray matter are at fault.

Increased brain connectivity

Here's the really interesting thing - marijuana use increases structural connectivity in the human brain in all four nodes of the brain, such as the bilateral temporal lobe and the bilateral OFC.

Although increased structural wiring declines after six to eight years of continued chronic use, marijuana users continue to display more intense connectivity than healthy non-users, which may explain why chronic, long-term users “seem to be doing just fine” despite smaller OFC brain volumes, Filbey explained.
What does this mean? If the OFC is actually shrinking, marijuana use helps grow neurons in the parts of the brain surrounding that area. If the OFC isn't shrinking, but increased neural connectivity allows the brain to better communicate with itself, then the brain as a whole is a better tuned organ.

All in all, this is a fascinating study, but deeply flawed.

Discuss

Thu Nov 13, 2014 at 11:02 AM PST

Kansas fracking and earthquakes

by Jensequitur

Map of Kansas oil and gas wells, superimposed upon a geological map of the region, with the epicenter of the earthquake marked.

Kansas had an earthquake yesterday on a Richter scale of 4.8. Like many earthquakes in areas that are mostly sedimentary rock, fracking is suspected. However, the state is firmly in denial about the cause of these mysterious earthquakes.

Studies have shown earthquakes can be caused when fluid, which is byproduct of various methods of oil and gas production, is injected into disposal wells. But a panel commissioned by Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback found there wasn't enough evidence to link the Kansas quakes to oil and gas exploration.
Out of curiosity, I went and looked to see what kinds of geological structures are in the area that experienced the earthquake. Just like in Florida and Texas, these earthquakes are happening around geological areas that have a mix of different strata. The earthquake epicenter is not on a fault line, but instead smack-dab in the middle of several different geological regions. Namely the Wellington-McPherson lowlands, the Arkansas river lowlands, and the Red Hills. And just like Florida, the earthquakes are happening near an area that already has a history of sinkholes.
Sinkholes are common features of the Red Hills region. These sinkholes were probably formed by the solution of salt and gypsum beds several hundred feet below the surface. The land above then collasped into the empty space, leaving a dip or sinkhole at the surface. Big Basin and Little Basin are two well-known sinkholes in western Clark County.
Another thing I noticed is that oil and gas wells rarely match up neatly and precisely with the location of an earthquake, but the epicenter of this earthquake is nearly equidistant between several large oil and gas fields. In this case, the Spivey-Grabs-Basil, the Burrton, the Pierce/Koogler/Chesney complex, and the Lost Springs drilling site.

No real surprise that Brownback and his oil, gas and coal cronies are burying their heads in sinkholes instead of admitting the truth - that they'd rather destroy Kansas in the name of short term profit. Ironically, Kansas has always had a bad reputation for extracting mineral reserves without oversight or concern for its residents.

The remains of a long-abandoned coal mine are below the surface of the Cherokee County field Schultz farms for the landowner. The mine's ceilings have been collapsing for years. The front end of a tractor his late father, Robert Schultz, was driving once dropped into a sinkhole. Luckily the big tires on the back of the tractor were wider than the hole, and the disc it was pulling helped stabilize the machine.
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Pretty simple, folks. Texans have had a really hard time this year, especially those on Aetna. The Affordable Care Act forced Aetna to get rid of a lot of the high-risk crappy plans, which is great. However, Aetna then turned around and raised all of their allowed prices on medication, procedures, and tests. They're also denying more care overall. They say this is an attempt to 'manage costs.' For those of us on a high-deductible, low premium plan, this is disastrous.

What this means is that the costs are being forced on to the consumer, which leads to people not taking their medication, not getting treatment, and not getting necessary tests, because they can't afford it. Even though they have insurance, and even though the doctor says this is the best treatment for their illness. Managed care means pushing the cost of expensive medications for rare diseases to the patients who are unfortunate enough to have them. The upshot of all this is that the insurance companies get what they wanted in the first place - not having to pay for medication and treatment for people with rare diseases.

Everybody who has Aetna has to wait until they hear that Aetna will actually pay for it. I'm in debt up to my eyeballs because of all the up-front costs I've had this year.

Those of us jammed in the gap (mind the gap!) between Medicare and a hard place are really struggling. Personally I don't have a choice between Aetna and another company, because insurance is provided by my employer. There are lots of other people like me, who have health care through their employer, but can't afford to go to the doctor. All because there is no regulation of the health insurance or pharmaceutical industry. Accepting Medicare funding in Texas would have also helped, but it wouldn't have solved the basic problem of the cost of health care.

One of the Democratic Party planks this year should be drastic health care industry reform. Costs keep going up for the consumer, while the insurance industry and the pharmaceutical industry are making record profits. If we want to motivate Texans to get to the polls in November, then we need to promise that this will get fixed.

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You know the XKCD cartoon that has a guy typing furiously away on his keyboard while his wife is saying "Come to bed." He replies "I can't. Something is wrong with the Internet."

Well, something is wrong with the Internet. If we're going to throw around words like agnostic, atheist, altruism, and morality, we need to talk about what those words mean. And I have to talk about it before I get ready for work, apparently.

First of all, an agnostic is somebody who's decided that they cannot know if there or is not a deity. They eschew major religions, because like Benjamin Franklin, they think that none of them are adequate. Literally in Greek, a gnostic is somebody who lacks knowledge.

An atheist has decided that there is no deity. The two positions are quite different. Atheists think there's nothing out there, agnostics think there is but we don't know what it is. Literally, lacks deity. I used to call myself an agnostic, because I thought maybe there was something out there. As I've gotten older, I've realized that I don't actually believe there's anything out there, other than the wonderful universe. I find it hard to understand why some people don't think that's enough.

All right, morality. Morality is a set of behaviors dictated by our societal structure and codified by the rule of law. We don't follow the morality of the Bible. Why do we then insist that morality comes from religion?

This is why people don't understand what the American Atheist billboards are all about. They're trying to show people that the morality of the Bible is archaic and full of eccentricities, like the owning of slaves or wives. I think the AAs would have much better luck getting their message across if they stopped trying to discredit the use of a historical document. Modern Christians don't use the Bible to support their version of Christianity. Christians in general vary in how much they read and analyze the Bible. Evangelicals are especially bad about actually looking at the Bible. Your average Christian believer is not going to be a Bible scholar. My dad thinks that because he's a Bible scholar, I became an atheist - because I was exposed to too much 'analysis' of the Bible. Phew! How do I go about deconstructing that statement? While it is true that many people who enter the seminary become agnostics or atheists, it's not because they learned too much about the Bible. If a religion can't stand up to a scrutiny of its so-named founding document, then there's something wrong with the religion. There are many people who came out with the opposite result - a stronger faith, rather than a lack of faith. People who lose their belief because they decided to learn more about Christianity built their house on sand, to throw around one of those Biblical metaphors.

Okay, altruism. Altruism at its roots is about helping others. All mammalian species do this. As we learn more about our evolutionary tree and the first mammal, you can look at all mammals in general and get a basic set of characteristics. We help others to get food if they can't reach it. We make friends with other mammals. We get horny. We mourn our dead. As a species, one of our strengths is that we help each other survive. There's a lot of people alive right now because of somebody else's actions. Even if it's just removing that board from the road. You can't tell me that that mouse that moved the barrier so the other mouse could also have a treat is a Christian mouse.

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This was all I could think of as I stared at that picture.

Sorry if you think it's offensive. I do too. I think everything about this disaster in Ferguson is offensive.

Just to clarify - I understand that the original diagram is from the standard autopsy report of a medical examiner. This isn't meant to indicate that the diagram is wrong - it just doesn't tell the whole story.

Feel free to use this anywhere.

Discuss

Mon Jun 30, 2014 at 06:44 PM PDT

Just a little rant about Aetna...

by Jensequitur

I can't go on enough about how much Aetna sucks. Since I've been on the bronze plan this year, I have to go through a $4,000 deductible before Aetna will pay any of my pharmacy costs. Much of my medication has been so expensive that I have to pay cash and forget about the insurance, which means I don't get that money taken out of my deductible. Medication that cost me $37 In 2013 now costs me $181 for 60 days. I can't afford to take the medication that I need to be a functioning, productive worker. Seems kinda counterintuitive.

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I have to say that my enthusiasm for political activism is seriously dampened when I get a e-mail like this.

Dear Jennifer,

I've been keeping an eye on the numbers coming in this month. Here's where you stand on helping us reach our $150,000 November goal:

Name: Jennifer ** (Not Confirmed)
Supporter record: 423434
Support this month: PENDING

Karl Rove and big-money special interests spent more than $719 million to influence elections last year. When they set their sights on Minnesota, and start attacking Al, we need to be ready. And being ready starts when we hit all of our goals.

The end of November is coming up fast. Before you start getting the turkey ready, chip in $5 or more toward our $150,000 goal to help our grassroots network gear up.

Thank you for being such an active member of TeamFranken.

Emily

Emily Mellencamp Smith
Finance Director
Al Franken for Senate 2014

In other words, I've contributed NOTHING to Al Franken's campaign. I love Al. I want him to be elected for a second term. But I will NOT give money to people under duress, and all the e-mails I've gotten from politicians in the last two years have been begging for money. Why do they think I support them? Because I'm very, very poor. I have no money to give. It makes me think my value as a supporter of Al Franken goes way down without cash support.

And this e-mail in particular is using a trick I've seen with other Democratic political organizations. They're framing it like my credit card statement: Your bill is due, pay up or your Texas textbooks will be filled with creationism lies.

And this goes for all the politicians that have sent me e-mails begging for money. They disguise themselves as online petitions to save this, stop that, vote against, support this... But when you sign the petition, the next page that pops up is a DONATE page.

I know it's politics. Politicians are used to drumming up fear to gain donations for their next campaign. Ted Cruz did it. But when I see Nancy Pelosi's name on something like this, or Barbara Boxer, or my president, Barack Obama, I instantly don't give a rat's ass.

Keep in mind, those of you that help organize finances for politicians, that most of us have no money. We would love to contribute our talents to help the politicians we like get elected, but when we're ranked according to how much money we give, it just means this country slips further into oligarchy.

Discuss

Found this on Motley Fool - guess I shouldn't be surprised by now at the garbage that passes for interest-story journalism these days.

America's energy boom has unlocked abundant sources of inexpensive natural gas. That's just one of the many reasons why homeowners should look to invite more natural gas into their homes this year. So, the next time an appliance dies or the furnace needs to be replaced consider exchanging it for one that's fueled by natural gas.
So here's ten reasons why maybe natural gas isn't the best choice...

1) Gas keeps your home warm.  Especially when there's a natural gas explosion.  Plus it takes out the entire house - none of this tedious digging through the wreckage for your belongings.

2) Lint trapped in your dryer vent becomes a wonderful way to ignite your freshly dried, clean clothing.

3) Natural gas is abundant and cheap, so that's an excellent reason to burn it all away. We've got plenty to burn! Until we don't. Take advantage of cheap natural gas and convert all your appliances to gas, which will be great when we actually run out of gas, and you have to buy all new electric appliances.

4) If you feel like scalding your skin with incredibly hot water, you're in luck! Natural gas has that covered.

5) It's a fossil fuel, but the cleanest-burning fossil fuel. That's like saying it's a nude bar, but it's a 'classy' nude bar.

6) It's American-made! Help support America's own Chesapeake, which has specialized in fracking and drilling processes that create groundwater contamination and small earthquakes. Even if you never signed a piece of paper, there's still a fracking operation on your corner extracting valuable natural gas from a fault and replacing it with non-potable salt water mixed with surfactants and other nastiness. So if you want to feel patriotic, go and light your tapwater on fire.

7) Great for grilling! Who wants to burn nasty old mesquite or pecan wood when you could cook your food with dinosaur farts?

8) And it's great for cooking too - you'll never burn your hand, because there's obviously a giant blue ring of flame right there. You'd be a fool (a Motley Fool, perhaps?) to stick your hand in there.

9) So invest in natural gas today, because there's nothing like sinking your money into a finite energy source that supports big business. Motley Fool can guide you toward three energy companies that will help you burn your money. Don't bother investing in sustainable sources of power like solar and wind, because we'll just run out of that - and we've got to have wind to power our windbags.

10) Celebrate America's energy BOOM and use natural gas today! This is an explosive new market that you should take advantage of while the deal is hot... if you know what I mean.

Discuss

Mon Aug 05, 2013 at 05:11 PM PDT

Managed health care gets you dead.

by Jensequitur

Since most of the other health care reform provisions have not been delayed, several aspects of our existing plans would still need to be changed for 2014 to meet the new federal requirements. In addition, given our employee demographics and our significant 2014 medical premium increase, we believe the new plan designs are important to manage ongoing and increasingly expensive health care costs and will provide another savings vehicle to help you prepare for future retiree health care costs.
This was the letter I received from my company about our 2014 health plan.

Let me tell you about 'managing' your health care costs. In January of this year, I went to the ER with severe stomach pain. They diagnosed me with acute appendicitis and I had an appendectomy. Simple in-out operation, less than 24 hours. That cost me around $2,500. When I went to the ER, I thought it was going to be my gall bladder - I already knew that it had to come out at some point. So I put off having my gall bladder out, because I've been trying to pay off the appendectomy, and my hubby's stent.

Fast forward to March, and more severe stomach pain. I thought for sure this was my gall bladder this time. We called 911 and I went to the ER. After a long night of vomiting and pain, they released me, still undiagnosed, with a prescription for Phrenergan and one for Bentyl. And a bill for $810. Plus a bill from Medstar for $637. This was the same hospital that had diagnosed my previous stomach pain as appendicitis.

So now I had an ER bill for nothing, basically, as well as the bill for the appendectomy and the bill for the stent. I thought that they had missed something. I kept having vomiting and stomach pain attacks. I went to my primary and started the process of getting scheduled for a choleostomy (gall bladder removal.)  I met the doctor, went to a different hospital, and had the gall bladder removed.  The doctor told me it was 'nasty.'  Apparently I had a gangrenous gall bladder from having postponed the surgery so long.

So 'managing' my health care by postponing a necessary surgery just about got me dead.  Is this what they mean by managing my health care?  What do they expect me to do?  How can I save on necessary surgeries?  Do it myself?  I hear they sell a home lobotomy kit - basically it's a bottle of whiskey and an ice pick.

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Hadn't seen this diaried yet.  Wendy Davis will be filibustering SB5, a bill being pushed through by Texas legislators during a special session called by Rick Perry.  This is the bill that limits abortions to 20 weeks.  It will also close down almost all of the 42 abortion clinics currently operating in Texas.  

The earliest they can bring it up for debate is 11 am Friday, which means Davis will have to filibuster for 13 hours. Much better than the 36-hour filibuster that Republicans expected.

The second filibuster of her career — which could stretch as long as 13 hours — is likely to further stoke Davis’ persona as a potential Democratic candidate for governor or other statewide office. Davis is currently running for re-election in her Tarrant County Senate district but has not ruled out interest in a future statewide race.
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I propose that we change the way we select representatives to serve in the House of Representatives.  

Instead of filling it with duly elected people from each state, why not make it like jury duty?  Fill the House randomly with registered voters every two years, and you know we'll eliminate the money puppets.  Once you've served in the House of Representatives, you're done - you will not be asked to serve again.  We couldn't do worse than 36 randomly selected people from the state of Texas, for example.  It would be far better than the current group.  I would hate to lose Eddie Bernice Johnson and Marc Veasey, for example.  They've done great work.  But on the other hand, we'd lose Steve Stockman.  That's a win right there.

Maybe this is a pipe dream.  But I can think of no better way to make sure that each state is fairly represented in the House.  No mysterious campaign contributions, no lobbyists (what's the point of buying off somebody who'll be gone in two years?) Just people trying to make the life of the people in their state better.  That's what a government is supposed to do.

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Wed Jun 05, 2013 at 12:52 PM PDT

Red meat flags

by Jensequitur

Considering how knee-jerk reactionary the Republican party is to anything that the Democrats suggest, why don't we fight for more drastic goals?  This will keep them busy and off balance, rushing from one hot-button issue to the other.  The more distracted we can keep them, the less time they'll spend blocking things that are actually important.

Besides, if you want the Moon, ask for the Earth.  When they 'compromise,' then you can 'settle' for the Moon.  If they don't compromise, we've lost nothing - except to stand up for what we believe in.

Some suggested red meat flags for the GOP:

Equal rights for all human beings.  This includes gay, straight, transgender, illegal immigrants, native Americans, the mentally ill - every human being within the United States.

Voting rights and assisted voting programs.  I'm horrified by the recent attempts of the Republican party to keep the poor and minorities from voting.  We need GOTV volunteers in all areas, not just for national elections. We need a voting registration drive to get everybody registered and able to vote. We need to form another agency like ACORN that will organize nationwide. And you know what would really rile up the GOP?  Buses to gather voters who don't have vehicles to get them to the polls.

Federal assistance programs should be expanded, not cut for the sake of austerity.  Let's fight to get Medicaid and Medicare for all, even through the protests of the right-wing governors.  We need more food programs like SNAP.  We need either federal money or state money for CHiP.

Expedited immigration reform.  We need to make this process faster and easier for all immigrants that want to become citizens of the United States.

Buy American. Rick Perry recently vetoed a bill that would have required the government of Texas to buy American products.  Apparently a certain group of Republicans think that buying overseas products is important.  Thanks, Rick!  We should enact tariffs on overseas products that could be bought here in the US.  We should have tariffs for all companies that outsource their labor overseas.

Stop the tax dodges, stop the subsidies.  This is a no-brainer.  We eed to reform the tax code, make it impossible to dodge taxes with an overseas bank account, and stop subsidizing companies that make an obscene profit.

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