This is your amygdala on alcohol

Do you ever wonder why that drunk guy continued to trash-talk some muscle-bound guy in a bro tank at the bar, when he clearly should have been running away? I mean, didn’t Drunk Guy notice that Bro Tank looked really angry, that he kept getting angrier and angrier?

In reality, Drunk Guy’s brain might not have been able to tell just how angry Bro Tank was, due to alcohol-induced disruptions in his drunk brain.

New research from the University of Illinois, Chicago, suggests that acute alcohol consumption affects the ability of the brain to process simple social cues, like the important facial expressions such as anger or fear. In an experiment involved 10 college-age men and 2 college-age women who reported an average of 7.8 age “binge drinking episodes per month,” researchers found that under the influence of alcohol, the participants could not identify faces that were fearful or angry.

Half the participants received a 16% alcoholic beverage (this is just a tad stronger than wine) and half received a placebo. In an fMRI machine, the participants were shown a target face, either happy, fearful, angry, or neutral, and had to match it to one of two faces shown below the target face.

Researchers found that under the influence of alcohol, neural pathways between the amygdala and important parts of the prefrontal cortex were interrupted. The amygdala, responsible for processing emotions, is an almond shaped bundled of neurons deep within the brain. The prefrontal cortex is extremely important for social and emotional processing and decision making.

From UIC Professor of psychiatry, K. Luan Phan (via Newswise):

This research gives us a much better idea of what is going on in the brain that leads to some of the maladaptive behaviors we see in alcohol intoxication including social disinhibition, aggression and social withdrawal.

The alcohol also disrupted the important amygdala function of detecting a dangerous situation, which could explain why Drunk Guy had no idea he was about to get punched by Bro Tank.

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What the heck happened to the New York Times yesterday, you ask? Syrian hacktivists happened

If you were devastated to find out that  you weren’t able to use up your 20 free articles from the New York Times website yesterday, blame Syria.

Well, not all of Syria, but a pro Bashad al-Assad hacktivist group that calls itself the Syrian Electronic Army. Via Twitter, they claimed responsibility for a complex online attack that felled not only NYT, but also UK’s Twitter site and the Huffington Post.

From NYT:

Marc Frons, chief information officer for The New York Times Company, issued a statement at 4:20 p.m. on Tuesday warning employees that the disruption — which appeared to be affecting the Web site well into the evening — was “the result of a malicious external attack.” He advised employees to “be careful when sending e-mail communications until this situation is resolved.”

How did the hacktivists accomplish such a feat? Stacey Higginbotham from Gigaom reached out to Cory Von Wallenstein, the CTO of Dyn, a cloud-based Domain Name System provider for private companies. He explains the three types of attacks that hackers use, the third type being the most complicated and the one used by the SEA:

According to von Wallenstein, the third form of attack — and the one used by the SEA on Tuesday — is to take over the registration of a domain and change the authoritative DNS servers. The attack isn’t on the domain name system, but on the registrars, in this case MelbourneIT. It’s the most time consuming attack to undo, because while you can make the changes to the authoritative DNS servers pretty quickly, the recursive DNS servers can cache information for a full day unless the operators perform a manual purge.

For huge sites like Twitter, the New York Times and The Huffington Post, ISPs are likely to notice the attack and make the effort to clear their DNS servers’ cache, but if an attack of this nature takes out a smaller site it could leave them down for a day or even longer. And if the SEA’s recent activity is any guide, we could see a lot more of these types of attacks.

I’m not an internet expert, so I had to get some help from my more competent friends to get what was going on. Basically, a Domain Name System is the service that translates URLs into numeric IP address (or, the phone numbers of the internet). Big companies, like Melbourne IT, is a registrar for several different DNSs, including the ones for NYT and Twitter. The SEA hacked MelbourneIT and changed the instructions.

It’s like if you hacked into the United States Postal Service (or simply strolled into a post office) and filled out a change of address form of your enemy, so all his mail got sent somewhere else.

Here’s another good explanation from the Huffington Post:

As a registrar of domain names, Melbourne IT is a critical player in making the Internet work. The company helps translate the long string of digits that make up a website’s IP address, into a domain name that is easy for people to remember. Melbourne IT, which has more than 350,000 customers, is essentially one of the largest keepers of the Internet’s phone book.

On Tuesday, hackers made changes to that phone book, impacting The New York Times and possibly other websites, according to reports. The New York Times reported that the attack against Melbourne IT left its website unavailable to many visitors for several hours, though the paper continued publishing stories through another site – http://news.nytco.com.

As of right now (5:30 PM PST), nytimes has not been restored.

University of Washington scientist controls fellow scientist’s body movements…with his mind

Image

(Photo via University of Washington)

 

A thought, a signal, a movement: a scientist at the University of Washington was able to elicit a simple, involuntary movement in another researcher across campus, using only his mind, some basic technology, and of course, the internet. This is the first time human-to-human brain interface technology has ever been accomplished.

Rajesh Rao, computer scientist and engineer at UW, has been studying brain-to-computer interfacing for a decade, having even authored a textbook on the subject. He was sitting in his office, hooked up to some relatively common technology, thinking about moving his right hand. Across campus, assistant professor of psychology Andrea Stocco’s right index finger moved involuntarily.

Stuck to Rao’s head were electrodes that picked up EEG readings. Electroencephalography, or EEG as it’s more commonly known, records and measures the brain’s electrical impulses in a non-invasive way. Rao was playing a computer game with his mind, sitting in his office in the Neural Systems Laboratory in the Computer Science & Engineering building on the UW campus.

Stocco, an assistant professor of psychology, was in front of a computer in his own office in the Cognition & Cortical Dynamics Laboratory. Covering his head was a device using transcranial magnetic stimulation, a device used to elicit small motor responses. It was placed directly over his left motor cortex, which controls hand movements in his right hand.

Rao thought about moving his right hand, a thought which, in the game he was playing, fired a virtual cannon. The signal was sent over the internet to the TMS device on Stocco’s head, which stimulated his left motor cortex, resulting in an involuntary jerk of his right index finger, causing it to hit the space bar of a computer keyboard in front of him.

An experiment like this has been done before, but not between two humans. Duke University researchers were able to wire two brains of living rats together via the internet. When one rat was stimulated to hit a lever in front of it, the second rat also moved its paw, but completely involuntarily.

Though it seems a little sci-fi now, there could be relevant applications for the future of this technology:

Stocco said years from now the technology could be used, for example, by someone on the ground to help a flight attendant or passenger land an airplane if the pilot becomes incapacitated. Or a person with disabilities could communicate his or her wish, say, for food or water. The brain signals from one person to another would work even if they didn’t speak the same language.

Until then though, we’ll keep the mind-melding up to the scientists.

See a video of the experiment here.