Corpus Callosum

I know, I know.  Every columnist on earth has written about the differences between men and women, but I still feel the need to dip my oar into this particular literary pond.  But don’t blame me; blame Downton Abbey.

Alert readers (all three of you) will recall that awhile ago, I ditched my office chair and started standing up at work.  This catapulted me into watching House of Cards Season III every night when I came home, in order to  recover  from standing all the time.  This foray into standing all day was followed by working on a treadmill all day but then I had to watch Season III of Nashville every night to recover from walking all the time.  I’m still walking on that treadmill, but a few weeks ago I was faced with the problem of how to maintain my recovery strategy once Nashville Season III ended.  (Damned Netflix!)

downton-abbey

Happily, Signals catalogue came to the rescue.  Over the past several years, every time I leafed through Signals catalogue I would see all this Downton Abbey paraphernalia such as T-shirts, snuff boxes, Keep Calm and Get a PhD in Neuroanatomy coffee mugs, and gold-embossed toilet paper. I kept thinking to myself: “What’s up with all this Downton Abbey paraphernalia?”  So finally, out of sheer curiosity, my wife and I started watching Downton Abbey every night, which is probably why this column is overdue.

For those of you who just emerged after 62 years in an underground nuclear fallout shelter, Downton Abbey is an award-winning British television series which chronicles the saga of the nobility and the servants thereof, who inhabit a gigantic English manor house called Downton Abbey.  The series starts circa 1912 but I don’t know when it ends because Netflix only goes up to Season IV.

Now my point in all this is that back in 1912, especially in England, men and women were still regarded as fundamentally different species, with drastically different proclivities, voting rights and sleeping quarters.  So in order to get to the bottom of this polarization, researchers at that time started peering at human brains (after the owners died) in order to decipher whether any of it had to do with brain structure.

Speaking of brains, I can’t resist putting this in:

ATTORNEY:   Doctor, before you performed the autopsy, did you check for a pulse?

WITNESS:      No.

ATTORNEY:   Did you check for blood pressure?

WITNESS:      No.

ATTORNEY:   Did you check for breathing?

WITNESS:      No.

ATTORNEY:   So, then it is possible that the patient was alive when you began the autopsy?

WITNESS:      No.

ATTORNEY:   How can you be so sure, Doctor?

WITNESS:      Because his brain was sitting on my desk in a jar.

ATTORNEY:   But could the patient have still been alive, nevertheless?

WITNESS:      Yes, it is possible that he could have been alive and practicing law.
Where was I?  Well, as we all know, the brain has two halves or hemispheres.  The right hemisphere, conveniently located in the right side of your skull, is more concerned with verbal skills and intuition, e.g. the right brain might think to itself: “I have a hunch that my lawyer speaks Norwegian.” The left hemisphere, cozily ensconced in the left side of your skull, has more to do with logical thinking, but also football, so the left brain might think to itself: “I just can’t deduce, why in Heaven’s name, the Patriots underinflated all those footballs in the AFC Championship game.”

In addition to the “upstairs” brain in your head, some people including Michael Gershon MD think that the enteric nervous system or ENS, a collection of nervous tissue conveniently located in your midsection, qualifies as a sort of “downstairs” brain.  By the way, this has nothing to do with that other British TV series called “Upstairs Downstairs” which also dealt with the goings-on between British nobility and their servants.    I guess this just goes to show you that there’s nothing new under the stairs, so to speak.

I don’t have a lot of space here to get into it, but the enteric nervous system is thought to be responsible for helping the colonic flora (aka microbiome) decide whether or not to have a second helping of dessert, and the ENS helps decide whether the 16-mega-roll Chamomile-scented pack of Charmin toilet paper is a better deal than the 48-roll pack of unscented steerage-class toilet paper.  I guess it all depends on whether or not you like Chamomile and possibly whether or not you’re out of sandpaper.

gershon-book

But let’s get back to when researchers started peering at the “upstairs” brain in earnest.  A  long  time ago, somebody decided that it was probably a good idea if information could pass efficiently between the right and left halves of the brain, so the corpus callosum was invented.  The corpus callosum (Latin for “tough body”) is a tough, wide, flat bundle or body of nerve fibres (several hundred million if you’re counting) which connects the two hemispheres, sort of like an I-80 for nerve impulses.  I-80 is actually a great choice for a simile because it runs East-West across the United States.  (All East-West interstates end in even numbers whereas all North-South interstates end in odd numbers, in case you were wondering.  Speaking strictly on my own behalf, I would really like to know who decides these things.)

After a bit of peering at brains, these researchers managed to convince themselves that the corpus callosum in women is bigger than the corpus callosum in people who aren’t women.  So for decades the corpus callosum shouldered a lot of the blame for silly stereotypes such as how women are supposedly better at multi-tasking, communicating with other human beings, and devising ever more complicated schemes for sorting laundry, whereas men are supposedly better at giving intense focus to tasks like fixing the adaptive optics on the Gemini Planet Imager telescope out in the Atacamba desert in Chile.  (That is, when they aren’t hiding out in their man-caves, thinking about nothing in particular, especially not how they feel.)

In 1992 the noted astronomer John Gray PhD wrote an entire book about male-female behaviour differences and their relationship to brain structure entitled “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.” This book generated a storm of interest, and even spawned a line of MarsVenus dietary supplements.  Then in 1997, Dave Barry PhD, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, astronomer and musician wrote a book entitled “Dave Barry is From Mars And Venus.”  He did not, to my knowledge, develop a line of dietary supplements, but you never know.

Unfortunately, we will probably have to wait until the Mars Mission slated for sometime in the 2030’s to figure out exactly who is from what planet, but meanwhile, we’re starting to get a better grip on our neuroanatomy.

The results of recent well-designed research, involving detailed magnetic resonance imaging of the brains of large numbers of (living) males and females of all ages is taking some heat off the corpus callosum.  Turns out there are definite gender differences in the shape of the darned thing but these differences may not mean a whole lot.  Instead we’re starting to look at general brain wiring patterns: how much traffic is on I-80 (left-to-right) and how much is on I-75 (front to back if you’re facing north), regardless of gender.  Turns out we’re all different: some people have more cross-brain wiring and some people are wired for more communication within each hemisphere.  Any given man or woman can have a unique blend of both “wiring diagrams” which may have more to do with early experience, genetics and what sign of the Zodiac you were born under.  (I may have made this last bit up.)

I could go on at length here, but I’m tired of writing about this topic, and even if I wasn’t tired of it, I can’t really think of anything else to say.  I’m also feeling a bit jumpy: I can’t decide if I should walk on the treadmill some more, sort some laundry, or fix the adaptive optics in my telescope.

Satchel Paige, the immortal Major League baseball pitcher (or possibly it was Winnie the Pooh) once said:

“Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits.”

I think I’ll just sit and stare blankly into space (pun intended) for a while. Or maybe I’ll make a spot of tea.  I hear they do that a lot at Downton Abbey.

downton-abbey-tea

Topology for Beginners

One day in June 2015, my wife Jeanette and I found ourselves sitting in an outdoor bar in downtown Austin, Texas, sharing a table with two very nice people named Tom and Kathleen.  Tom is a triathlete (among other things) and his wife Kathleen is a Pilates instructor. Austin on the other hand, is well known for the large number of free-tailed bats which spend part of each year living under the Congress Avenue bridge downtown, and having a lot of babies, most of them bats.

batsFor the record, bats are not “flying mice.” They’re actually part of the Chiroptera order which is related to primates including lemurs,  monkeys, apes and humans.  Flying monkeys might be closer to the mark.  I might have more to say about these bats later, but right now I want to point out that the four of us humans yakked for about two hours that night, covering a wide range of topics.  A good bit of the conversation revolved around the burgeoning  field of Microbiomes.

microbiome
Definitely not candy!

According to Wikipedia, a Microbiome is the collective genome or assemblage of DNA  of the microorganisms that reside in an environmental niche, although most folks don’t distinguish between the DNA, and the actual critters (microbiota)  that live in the niche.  A lot of researchers these days are particularly interested in the various human microbiomes, and are busy peering intently into places like your nostrils, ear canals, mouth and other nooks and crannies, to see what lives there.

One of the nooks and crannies receiving major airtime is the large intestine or colon, in particular the distal colon or the end closest to your Nethermost Bodily Aperture (NBA).  The distal colon happens to be home to a thriving community of bacteria, fungi, bacteriophages (viruses which prey on bacteria) and worms, not to mention tiny Radiofrequency Identification or RFID chips implanted in all of us by agents of The Department of Environmental Niches.  It is estimated that there are at least 100-trillion bacterial cells down there amongst the RFID chips.

To put this into the proper perspective, you need to know that the average adult only has about 10- trillion bodily or somatic cells.  That brings up the question of exactly who is the host and who is the colonizer.  So while you’re pondering THAT, this is as good a place as any to also think briefly about Topology.

Topology is the branch of Mathematics concerned with “the study of geometric properties and spatial relations unaffected by the continuous change of shape or size of figures”  and it comes in handy when you need to answer riddles like “What do a doughnut and a coffee cup have in common?”  Well, if you have a doughnut made of Play DohTM and you take a graduate-level course in Topology, you eventually can figure out that you can squish and deform the doughnut into a coffee cup, as long as you don’t mess around  too much with the hole.  (A cardinal rule of Topology!)  Or you could just ask any three-year-old and they would set you straight after giggling a bit and looking at you like you suddenly grew two more heads.

doughnut

This is all relevant, since a human being is essentially a long tunnel (with a few side branches)  extending from the mouth to the NBA, surrounded by 10-trillion somatic cells.  So all of us, including agents of The Department of Environmental Niches, are basically topologically equivalent to a 10-trillion-cell doughnut covered by a layer of icing made up of 30-or-so-trillion bacterial cells.  This is a highly disturbing thought and actually I don’t even know why I brought it up.

doughnut

Turns out that this thriving 30-to-40-trillion-cell colony of organisms seems to be involved in pretty much every aspect of our existence including, but not limited to: energy harvesting, clearance of toxins, immune function, mood, political preference, favorite animal and so on, although the details of how this happens are still being sorted out.

The thing a rational person is going to ask themselves at this point is: what happens if you take a sample of bacteria from the colon of one person and transplant it into the colon of another person?  That is a great question, and you wouldn’t be the first person to ask it.  Turns out that these fecal transplants, as they are called, have been carried out to cure intractable diarrhea in people suffering from an overgrowth of a rogue bacterium known as Clostridium Difficile.

An even more interesting question you could ask yourself is: what happens if you take some bacteria from the distal colon of a skinny person and transplant them into the distal colon of a not-so-skinny person?  This has already been done in mice and the not-so-skinny mice lost weight without doing anything different such as eating  Paleo or taking up kickboxing.

I don’t recommend that you try this at home just yet, although you probably could, using just a few common household implements such as a blender and a turkey baster.  Who knows where all this is headed?  Maybe people will start having fecal-transplant parties, sort of like Tupperware parties, or those parties from the 1950’s all the Moms brought their kids to so they (the kids) could get chickenpox at the same time.

turkey-baster

If you decide to go ahead with this, you should probably try to find a donor who is a triathlete and looks like he is 30 even though he is actually 83, or maybe someone who is a Pilates instructor who can eat anything she wants for her entire life without gaining a microgram, thereby earning the undying hatred of most of the women on this planet, and maybe even women from other planets.

female-alien

But if you want to restrict your search for a donor to this planet,  Austin might be a great place to start. Just watch out for the flying monkeys.

flying-monkeys