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Aug. 31 2015 3:53 PM

New Study: Testosterone Changes the Brain 

However much we’d like to think of gender as a social construct, science suggests that real differences do exist between female and male brains. The latest evidence: a first-of-its-kind European study that finds that the female brain can be drastically reshaped by treating it with testosterone over time. 

Research has shown that women have the advantage when it comes to memory and language, while men tend to have stronger spatial skills (though this too has been disputed). But due to ethical restrictions, no study had been able to track the direct effect that testosterone exposure has on the brain—until now. Using neuroimaging, Dutch and Austrian researchers found that an increase in this potent hormone led to shrinkage in key areas of the female (transitioning to male) brain associated with language. They presented their findings at last week’s annual meeting of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology in Amsterdam.

For the study, researchers scanned the brains of 18 individuals receiving high doses of testosterone as part of female-to-male gender reassignment surgery before and after hormone treatment. After just four weeks of receiving testosterone, participants had lost gray matter (which mainly processes information) in the regions of the brain that are used for language processing. That change amounted to a “real, quantitative difference in brain structure,” said researcher Rupert Lanzenberger of the Medical University of Vienna.

The study, while small, provides tantalizing new evidence of how hormones can influence brain chemistry. As Lanzenberger says, “these findings may suggest that the genuine difference between the brains of women and men is substantially attributable to the effects of circulating sex hormones.” 

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Aug. 31 2015 3:15 PM

Obama Is a Climate Hypocrite. His Trip to Alaska Proves It. 

On Monday morning President Obama headed to Alaska—the front lines of climate change—for a trip the White House is calling “a spotlight on what Alaskans in particular have come to know: Climate change is one of the biggest threats we face, it is being driven by human activity, and it is disrupting Americans’ lives right now.”

Problem is, those words fall flat when compared with Obama’s mixed record on climate. The widely publicized trip comes at a delicate moment for the president. Barely two weeks ago, his administration gave Royal Dutch Shell final approval to drill for oil offshore Alaska’s northwest Arctic coast—not exactly the sort of thing you’d expect from someone who professes to be “leading by example.”

The leases that allow Shell to drill in the Arctic were awarded by the George W. Bush administration, and the president had limited options to block them. Still, as ThinkProgress notes, Obama could have outright canceled Shell’s lease, or begun a process to declare the region a marine protected area, making future leases nearly impossible. Neither of these actions would be easy to do, but either would have sent a powerful message to industry: Starting now, climate change concerns trump energy exploration, period.

Climate activists vociferously opposed the approval of Shell’s permit: Last month a group of protesters in kayaks briefly blockaded an Arctic-bound Shell support ship while it was in a Portland, Oregon, port. In recent days Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic candidate for president, has also voiced her opposition.

One progressive activist group, Credo Action, has called the unfortunate juxtaposition of Obama’s words and actions his “Mission Accomplished” moment, in reference to Bush’s declaration of victory in the Iraq war. I agree.

“It's such an odd own goal to first hand Shell a shovel and then go for a visit,” climate activist Bill McKibben told me today. Earlier this year McKibben wrote in the New York Times that the president was guilty of “climate denial of the status quo sort” should Shell’s drilling permit be approved. “Even in this most extreme circumstance, no one seems able to stand up to the power of the fossil fuel industry. No one ever says no,” McKibben wrote.

After decades of delay, scientists now say the world—especially countries like the United States with historically high emissions—needs to immediately embark on a radical path of truly bold action on climate change. So far, Obama’s plan for carbon cutting, despite being loudly trumpeted by the administration, has been middling at best. For many environmental activists, Obama’s approval of Shell’s Arctic drilling permit is the icing on an extremely hypocritical cake.

Credo’s Elijah Zarlin, who worked for Obama’s 2008 election campaign, calls the rhetoric from the White House surrounding Obama’s visit to Alaska “stunningly brazen,” given the go-ahead for Shell to drill in the Arctic.  

“The hypocrisy just speaks for itself when you hear him saying things like ‘this is our wakeup call,’ given his record on oil, gas, and coal extraction,” Zarlin said. “His words [on climate change], which are powerful, just ring more and more hollow. Ultimately, it just makes me sad, because I believed in the guy.”

On the trip, Obama will become the first sitting American president to visit the Alaskan Arctic. He’ll travel to the coastal village of Kotzebue, where Shell has some drilling equipment stationed, to view the effects of rising seas and melting permafrost firsthand. He’ll also film an episode of Running Wild With Bear Grylls, in which he will discuss climate change and receive a “crash course in survival techniques,” according to a statement from NBC.

The effects of global warming in Alaska continue to accelerate. This year’s off-the-charts wildfire season was a recordbreaker, burning through even the permafrost. Just last week, another startling “haul-out” of walruses was observed as thousands of animals were forced ashore by the lack of sea ice in the Alaskan Arctic, not far from where Obama will visit. On Sunday the administration announced that Alaska’s Mt. McKinley would be officially renamed Denali. What the president didn’t emphasize enough: Denali is losing its glaciers at a rapid clip.

In his weekly address on Saturday, Obama addressed the Shell controversy, saying “we don’t rubber-stamp permits.” But what the president seems to miss is that environmental activists aren’t as concerned with the potentially devastating impacts of an oil spill in the Arctic as the message it sends to the rest of the world: Bold action on climate change doesn’t look so different from the status quo. In reality, the scale of action that climate science demands is far beyond what Obama has put in place. America can’t solve climate change on its own, but it could offer a truly heroic leader. It just doesn’t seem like Obama is the person for the job.

Aug. 31 2015 1:30 PM

Fear Canada?

Continuing to grope his way toward a semi-coherent immigration policy, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker suggested Sunday that the idea of building a fence along America’s 5,525-mile border with Canada is a “legitimate issue.” Walker has stuck with his ridiculous position, saying he’s responding to concerns he’s heard from law enforcement.

The border fence idea may be Trump-inspired lunacy, but Walker is hardly the first U.S. politician to draw attention to the threat emanating from America’s neighbor to the north. The U.S.-Canada border was once described as the longest undefended border in the world, but that’s been increasingly inaccurate since 9/11, with tougher entry requirements, thousands more customs agents deployed from both governments, and a new $70 billion high-tech surveillance system announced last year including thermal imaging and drones.

Much of the “thickening” of the U.S.-Canada border is driven by concerns over terrorism. Here, security hawks actually have a case to make, but only up to a point. While American politicians often conflate the issues of immigration and terrorism by hyping the threat of al-Qaida or ISIS operatives entering the U.S. from Mexico, U.S. homeland security officials have described the Canadian border as a bigger counterterrorism concern than the U.S.-Mexico border. Unlike Mexico, Canada has had major recent attacks linked to international Islamist terrorism, and a significant number of citizens who have traveled to fight with ISIS. There has been at least one major terrorist plot in the U.S. involving someone crossing illegally into the U.S. from Canada—the attempted “Millennium Plot” to bomb several targets, including LAX airport. 

But the Canadian terrorist threat has also been overhyped. For one thing, U.S. politicians including Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and former Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano keep repeating the persistent but inaccurate claim that the 9/11 hijackers entered the U.S. from Canada. All  the hijackers entered via U.S. airports from non-North American countries. The vast majority of terrorist suspects entering the United States have done so through airports, not the border. The threat can also go both ways—a California man looking to travel to Syria to fight with ISIS was arrested crossing into Canada from Washington last year. (Despite this, don’t expect a chorus of support for Walker’s proposal from Canadian officials trying to keep out dangerous Americans.)

While the threat may be exaggerated, the consequences of the border security changes are real. A 2012 report by the Fraser Institute, a conservative Canadian think tank, found that trips by Americans to Canada dropped 53 percent from 2000 to 2009 thanks to post-9/11 security measures. The U.S. and Canada have the largest bilateral trade relationship in the world, but security measures have taken a toll. The Fraser Institute estimated that the combined drop in trade and tourism may cost Canada about $19.3 billion per year. This is one reason why Stephen Harper’s government, even as it has invested in new surveillance and security measures, has lobbied the U.S. to loosen border controls. U.S. exports to Canada also declined sharply after 9/11 following years of post-NAFTA growth.

Walker’s fence idea doesn’t seem like a particularly serious or well-thought-out proposal, but it suggests that American politicians are still willing to trade on highly exaggerated fears at the expense of America’s literally closest international relationship.

Aug. 31 2015 1:26 PM

Republicans Love Joe Biden, Really Want Him to Run

Asked whether Joe Biden should run for president, Dick Cheney didn’t miss a beat on Monday. “I’d love to see Joe get in the race,” the former vice president told CNN, the faint smile on his lips underscored by the audible laughter of his daughter, Liz, who was sitting beside him. CNN’s production team, though, kept a straight face. “NEW DEVELOPMENTS,” the on-screen chyron blared, “CHENEY SUPPORTS JOE BIDEN PRESIDENTIAL BID.”

Cheney’s far from the first Republican to try to nudge Biden into the race—though given he’s currently on tour promoting his new book that takes explicit aim at Biden’s boss, his go-for-it-Joe encouragement rings even more hollow than most. “I think there's a lot of support for him in the Democratic Party,” Cheney said. “I think it would stir things up. They're short candidates on their side, so I'd urge Joe to have a shot at it."

The Biden bubble owes its current size to a number of sources. The political press would prefer the illuminating drama of a contested primary to the boredom of a coronation. Anybody-but-Clinton liberals are eager for an alternative they believe would be more viable in the general election than Bernie Sanders. And even some Democratic powerbrokers would welcome an establishment-friendly Plan B in the event that Clinton’s campaign is ultimately felled by her email scandal or something else that pops up between now and next summer. Each of those groups has its own rationale, but all are at least making their respective cases in somewhat good faith.

Not the Republicans. Consider who was among the first to cheer on Biden this summer: Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus, a man whose chief priority is putting a Republican in the White House. Biden, Priebus said earlier this month, is “far more likeable” than Clinton. “I think he’s probably tougher,” he said on the Today show. “Hillary Clinton has a lot of problems. I think she is an opponent that’s easy to define.” Such Biden’s-the-better-candidate sentiments have since been echoed on the right to varying degrees by everyone from The Donald to the Drudge Report.

But make no mistake, conservatives don’t think Joe is a better candidate than Hillary—they think he’ll make her a worse one. They hope a Biden bid would force the Democratic front-runner to dip deep into her war chest in the primary, and divide the party’s establishment and donor base ahead of the general. You can’t blame Cheney and company for trying to make that dream a reality—but you shouldn’t believe what they’re saying either. If they really thought Hillary was a fatally flawed candidate, they wouldn’t be vocally calling for Biden to get in the race this summer—they’d be silently waiting to knock Clinton out of it come the next one.

Aug. 31 2015 11:54 AM

The Tallest Mountain in North America Is Now Called Denali 

President William McKinley never traveled to Alaska. But in 1896 a gold prospector named William Dickey heard that McKinley had just won the Republican presidential nomination, and decided to dub North America’s tallest mountain peak in his honor. McKinley would go on to become our 25th president, and the mountain would thenceforth be known throughout the land as Mount McKinley.

The problem was that this particular peak already had a name. Far before it became Mount McKinley, members of the Native American Koyukon tribe had dubbed the 20,000-foot mountain Denali, which fittingly means “the high one” in the tribe’s Athabascan language. And Sunday, on the heels of his historic trip to highlight climate change in the Arctic, President Obama announced that he was changing it back.

“With our own sense of reverence for this place, we are officially renaming the mountain Denali in recognition of the traditions of Alaska Natives and the strong support of the people of Alaska,” Obama’s Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement.

Not everyone is pleased, including House Speaker John Boehner, who issued this statement:

There is a reason President McKinley’s name has served atop the highest peak in North America for more than 100 years, and that is because it is a testament to his great legacy. McKinley served our country with distinction during the Civil War as a member of the Army. He made a difference for his constituents and his state as a member of the House of Representatives and as Governor of the great state of Ohio. And he led this nation to prosperity and victory in the Spanish-American War as the 25th President of the United States. I’m deeply disappointed in this decision.

The mountain’s name has been a source of tension between Alaskans and lawmakers in McKinley’s (and Boehner’s) home state of Ohio, who have clung tightly to the name ever since it was formally passed in 1917. Alaskans continue to refer to the peak as Denali, and have had a standing request to officially change the name back since 1975, when the state’s legislature passed a resolution but saw its efforts thwarted by an Ohio congressman.

So it’s no surprise that Ohio lawmakers are angry today. But some Native leaders aren’t all that pleased with the president either. That’s because even as he preaches a respect for natural resources and has finally made this name change a reality, Obama just this month gave the OK for more oil and gas drilling offshore. Now the Times reports that Native leaders, along with conservationists and climate activists, are gathering to protest Arctic drilling as Obama arrives in Anchorage on Monday.

Aug. 31 2015 10:03 AM

Legionnaires’ Outbreak Strikes San Quentin, Sends Inmates to Hospital

Six inmates at California's San Quentin prison have been diagnosed with Legionnaires' disease, and dozens more with symptoms are under observation, the Associated Press reports. Authorities have sharply limited the use of water from an onsite 3 million–gallon supply to avoid further spread of the disease while they search for the source of contamination in the facility, which holds about 3,700 inmates.

CBS affiliate KPIX reports that more than 50 inmates are in the prison's medical ward and several others have been moved to outside hospitals, but so far there are no signs of illness among the prison's 1,800 employees. Officials from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation have instituted a number of precautions to combat the disease, which infects people who inhale steam or mist from water containing Legionella bacteria and can lead to fatal cases of pneumonia. From KPIX:

Inmates are eating boxed meals and taking showers in portable shower units. Prison officials have had bottled water and water tanks delivered to keep inmates hydrated. [...]
All volunteer programs and family visiting has been cancelled, CDCR officials said. New inmate intake has also been halted at the prison, which serves as a reception center for new inmates to California’s prison system, according to CDCR officials.

Legionella bacteria are naturally present at low levels in most sources of water but can multiply to dangerous levels under the right conditions. While cooling systems on large buildings are the most frequent cause of infection, at least one previous outbreak has been attributed to bacteria in pipes that became airborne as steam in showers. The disease is not transmitted by contact with an infected person.

California's corrections officials applauded the prison's quick response to the crisis, pointing to the agency's "contingency plans for all types of emergencies." While the prison was intially cut off from all water, use of toilets in prisoners' cells was later deemed safe. Once the source of the Legionella is established, the Associated Press says, the prison will sanitize water and equipment with "higher than normal" concentrations of chlorine to kill the bacteria.

Legionnaires' disease was in the headlines this summer when an outbreak traced to a hotel's air conditioning equipment killed 12 and sickened more than 100 others in the South Bronx area of New York City. A total of 348 Legionnaires' cases were reported in California in 2014, the Los Angeles Times reports, and 82 people in the state died from the infection between 2009 and 2012.

Aug. 30 2015 10:21 PM

Horror Film Legend Wes Craven Dies at 76

Wes Craven, the director of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, died Sunday afternoon of brain cancer, his family said in a statement. "It is with deep sadness we inform you that Wes Craven passed away," the family said, according to the Associated Press. "Our hearts are broken." He was 76.

Craven will be most remembered for two things: keeping legions of kids and teenagers up at night with his legendary Freddy Krueger character and reviving the moribund horror movie genre with Scream. The Ohio native directed, wrote, and edited his first feature film, The Last House on the Left in 1972.

Craven’s true rise to fame came in 1984 when he reinvented the teen horror genre with A Nightmare on Elm Street, which he wrote and directed. “Craven claimed to have gotten the idea for Elm Street when living next to a cemetery on a street of that name when growing up in the suburbs of Cleveland,” notes the Hollywood Reporter. The film was also notable for introducing the public to a then-unknown Johnny Depp, points out Deadline. Although others were responsible for directing most of the sequels, Craven was forever considered the father of the hit franchise.

Craven’s success soared again in 1996 when he released Scream, a movie that once again reinvented the teen horror genre and was a huge hit, grossing more than $100 million domestically.  In between Scream 2 and Scream 3, Craven directed Music of the Heart in 1999* with Meryl Streep, which earned her an Oscar nomination. And that was the year he also wrote his first novel, Fountain Society.

In a piece for the Daily Beast last year, Craven listed his 10 favorite scary movies and explained he didn’t watch films as a kid because his “family was a member of a church that didn’t think movies were a good thing—they thought they were the work of the devil.”

Although his health deteriorated over the past three years, he continued working on several projects and had recently signed a television deal with Universal Cable Productions, notes Vanity Fair.

His death comes a week after New York published an interview with Quentin Tarantino in which he criticized Craven’s directorial chops on Scream. “I thought he was the iron chain attached to its ankle that kept it earthbound and stopped it from going to the moon,” Tarantino said.

*Correction, Aug. 30, 2015: This post originally misstated the release year of Music of the Heart as 1993. It came out in 1999.

Aug. 30 2015 1:06 PM

Scott Walker: Building a Wall Along Canadian Border is a “Legitimate Issue”

A nation surrounded by walls. That seems to be what some Republican presidential hopefuls think might help the United States become safer. On Sunday, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker said that building a wall along the U.S. border with Canada is a “legitimate issue for us to look at” and needs to be examined further.

To be fair, Walker only brought up the issue because NBC’s Chuck Todd asked him “why are we always talking about the southern border?” But the governor said it was not the first time he had heard about the issue. Law enforcement officials in New Hampshire brought it up as a concern during a recent town hall meeting, Walker said.

A potential problem with this idea? The sheer massiveness of the northern border. While the U.S. has 1,989 miles of border with Mexico, the border with Canada is 5,525 miles long, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Walker also said it was a distraction to talk about birthright citizenship, or any other immigrant-related issue, “until we secure the border and enforce the laws.” The governor has given conflicting answers on the issue in the past. Earlier this month he said he would eliminate birthright citizenship only to backtrack and say he wouldn’t advocate changing the 14th Amendment that automatically grants citizenship to anyone born in the United States. He seemed to stick to that position on Sunday saying that he’s “not talking about changing the Constitution.”

Aug. 30 2015 10:33 AM

Oliver Sacks, Renowned Neurologist and Author, Dies at 82

Oliver Sacks, the eminent neurologist and bestselling author, died at his home in New York on Sunday. He was 82. The doctor who used unusual mental disorders to talk about larger themes of the human condition died of cancer, his longtime personal assistant told the New York Times. As a writer with more than one million copies of his book in print in the United States alone, Sacks had a level of popularity that was almost unparalleled in the scientific world and reportedly received about 10,000 letters a year.

His death hardly comes as a surprise. In February, Sacks wrote an op-ed piece for the Times in which he announced that he had a rare type of cancer that had metastasized in his liver and he had months to live.

“Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts,” Sacks wrote. “This does not mean I am finished with life. On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.”

A professor of neurology at New York University School of Medicine, Sacks wrote more than a dozen books, most of which were about unusual medical conditions, including The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat and The Island of the Colourblind. One of the London-born academic’s first books, Awakenings, about how he used an experimental drug to awaken patients who had been in a coma-like state for years was turned into a movie starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams and was nominated for three Academy Awards, including best picture. In a video posted on his YouTube channel, Saks explained that "the act of writing, when it goes well, gives me a pleasure, a joy, unlike any other."

As a prolific writer who was able to make science accessible to masses of readers, Sacks was adept at using the range of human experience to try to explain how the brain worked. The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani writes of Sacks:

[He] was a polymath and an ardent humanist, and whether he was writing about his patients, or his love of chemistry or the power of music, he leapfrogged among disciplines, shedding light on the strange and wonderful interconnectedness of life — the connections between science and art, physiology and psychology, the beauty and economy of the natural world and the magic of the human imagination.

Although some have accused Sacks of exploiting his own patients for profit, he wrote about his subjects with a “capacious 19th-century humanity,” wrote Lisa Appignanesi in the Guardian earlier this year. In reviewing what would turn out to be his last book, the autobiography On the Move, Appignanesi writes:

His heroes are not Balzac’s provincials on the make in the glittering capital of corruption, but autistic boys with a genius for drawing or prime numbers; or a man afflicted by the tics and uncontrollable swearing of Tourette syndrome; or Dr P, a distinguished musician who has lost the ability to recognise faces but sees them where they are not.
For all their lacks and losses, or what the medics call “deficits”, Sacks’s subjects have a capacious 19th-century humanity. No mere objects of hasty clinical notes, or articles in professional journals, his “patients” are transformed by his interest, sympathetic gaze and ability to convey optimism in tragedy into grand characters who can transcend their conditions. They emerge as the very types of our neuroscientific age.

Instead of simply seeing his patients or cases as victims, Sacks often chose to focus "on how a neural abnormality can create surprising ability," notes Bloomberg. A man with Tourette syndrome was a great jazz drummer, a woman with autism was able to design humane slaughterhouses and a painter who lost his ability to see color suddenly found new creative powers when he was only able to see in black and white, to name a few examples. Other times, supposed cures made things worse. The Associated Press points out how Sacks famously wrote about a blind man who became "very disabled and miserable" when he suddenly regained sight. Later in life, Sacks began to study hallucinations, in part inspired by his experimentation with LSD when he was young.

In a moving New York Times essay published in August about his relationship with his family’s Orthodox upbringing, Sacks wrote about how his parents reacted when he admitted he liked men. “You are an abomination. I wish you had never been born,” her mother told an 18-year-old Sacks. “The matter was never mentioned again, but her harsh words made me hate religion’s capacity for bigotry and cruelty.” The ending of the essay was the most poignant though, giving the reader an insight into how the writer and scientist was coming to peace with his own demise:

And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.

Aug. 30 2015 9:09 AM

Carson Emerges as Trump’s Biggest Iowa Competitor, Sanders Closes in on Clinton

Support for Donald Trump has surged in Iowa over the past few months, soaring to a comfortable first place with the backing of 23 percent of likely Republican caucus participants, according to the latest Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics Iowa poll. That marks quite a boost from the four-percent support that the real estate magnate received in May. But retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson isn’t far behind, receiving the support from 18 percent of likely caucus participants. And, significantly, when first and second choices are added together Carson and Trump are tied at 32 percent. All the other candidates have single-digit support with Ted Cruz and Scott Walker tied at eight percent and Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio at six percent.

Although Carson may be five points behind Trump, he has him beat in the favorability rating with 79 percent saying they view him favorably while only eight percent have negative feelings about him. Trump’s favorability rating, however, is nothing to sneer at with 61 percent seeing him positively and 35 percent negatively. That is quite a contrast from the May poll that showed 63 percent of likely Republican caucusgoers viewing the real estate magnate negatively.

"Wow," Kedron Bardwell, a political science professor at Simpson College, tells the Des Moines Register. "This poll will have Republican consultants shaking heads in bewilderment. Not since 1992 has anti-establishment sentiment been this strong."

Five months from the Iowa caucuses, the anti-establishment sentiment that many had predicted would pass appears to be getting stronger. That could be significant if it pushes more people to attend the caucus, which is a key part of Trump’s campaign strategy.

On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders has also seen his support increase in the past few months and he is now within seven points of Hillary Clinton. While Clinton retains the lead with the backing of 37 percent of likely Democratic caucusgoers, 30 percent say they would pick Sanders. It was the first time Clinton fell below the 50-percent mark in the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics Iowa poll. Vice President Joe Biden, who has not announced his candidacy, would receive 14 percent support in the caucus, according to the poll. Without Biden as a choice, Clinton’s support rises slightly to 43 percent.

"These numbers would suggest that she can be beaten," said Steve McMahon, a Virginia-based Democratic strategist.