Photo of the day

From a Big Picture Daily Life gallery.  Indonesian cow racing!

A jockey spurs the cows as they race in Pacu Jawi on Oct. 12, in Batusangkar, Indonesia. This Pacu Jawi (traditional cow racing) is held annually in muddy rice fields to celebrate the end of the harvest season by the Minangkabau people. Jockeys grab the tails of the bulls and skate across the mud barefoot balancing on a wooden plank to show the strength of their bulls who are later auctioned to buyers. (Robertus Pudyanto/Getty Images)

Bacteria on the mind

I’ve blogged plenty about the role of good bacteria in your overall physical health.  But now there’s evidence it may very well play an important role in your mental health as well.  Nice summary of the research from NPR:

Could the microbes that inhabit our guts help explain that old idea of “gut feelings?” There’s growing evidence that gut bacteria really might influence our minds.

“I’m always by profession a skeptic,” says Dr. Emeran Mayer, a professor of medicine and psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles. “But I do believe that our gut microbes affect what goes on in our brains.”

Mayer thinks the bacteria in our digestive systems may help mold brain structure as we’re growing up, and possibly influence our moods, behavior and feelings when we’re adults. “It opens up a completely new way of looking at brain function and health and disease,” he says…

Mayer found that the connections between brain regions differed depending on which species of bacteria dominated a person’s gut. That suggests that the specific mix of microbes in our guts might help determine what kinds of brains we have — how our brain circuits develop and how they’re wired…

But other researchers have been trying to figure out a possible connection by looking at gut microbes in mice. There they’ve found changes in both brain chemistry and behavior. One experiment involved replacing the gut bacteria of anxious mice with bacteria from fearless mice.

“The mice became less anxious, more gregarious,” says Stephen Collins of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, who led a team that conducted the research.

It worked the other way around, too — bold mice became timid when they got the microbes of anxious ones. And aggressive mice calmed down when the scientists altered their microbes by changing their diet, feeding them probiotics or dosing them with antibiotics…

Gut microbes may also communicate with the brain in other ways, scientists say, by modulating the immune system or by producing their own versions of neurotransmitters.

“I’m actually seeing new neurochemicals that have not been described before being produced by certain bacteria,” says Mark Lyte of the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in Abilene, who studies how microbes affect the endocrine system. “These bacteria are, in effect, mind-altering microorganisms.”

This research raises the possibility that scientists could someday create drugs that mimic the signals being sent from the gut to the brain, or just give people the good bacteria — probiotics — to prevent or treat problems involving the brain.

I think that truly understanding the human body as an ecosystem of human plus thousands of bacterial species is going to be the basis for our next series of major medical breakthroughs.  And now it looks like this may well be the case for mental health as well as physical health.  It’s really pretty amazing.  I really do wonder how long this will take.  In the meantime, it’s plenty of Lactobacillus Rhamnosus GG and yogurt for me.  

Inequality in chart form

Nice recent post from John Cassidy on inequality as viewed from a series of charts.  This was my favorite portion because it emphasizes how it is largely about policy choices:

The third chart shows a measure of pre-tax inequality and inequality after taxes and transfers for twenty-two advanced countries. The measure used is a Gini coefficient, which captures inequality on a scale of zero to one, where zero is perfect equality (everybody receives the same income) and one is perfect inequality (the richest person gets all the income). The light lines on the bar chart show pre-tax inequality. The dark lines show inequality after taxes and transfers.

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One striking thing about this chart is that the U.S. figure for pre-tax inequality (0.57) doesn’t really stand out. In fact, according to this metric, the United States has pretty much the same level of pre-tax inequality as Sweden and Denmark, two countries that are usually thought of as highly egalitarian. The United Kingdom, Ireland, and several other countries have pre-tax levels of inequality that are considerably higher than the level seen in the United States.

Where the United States does stand out is in the level of inequality after taxes and transfers. Judged by this metric, the United States is the most unequal of all the twenty-two countries. As Gornick said at the conference, what this means is that, contrary to popular perception, our system of taxes and transfers does less to ameliorate inequality than the systems other countries have. [emphasis mine] Take Ireland, for example, where government interventions reduce the level of inequality from 0.63 to 0.35, a reduction of 0.28. In the United States, the comparable figures are 0.57 and 0.42, a reduction of just 0.15.

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