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In recent years, bioethicists and neurological surgeons have been troubled by accounts of a controversial surgery being widely performed in China.  The procedure in question consists of surgically destroying the pleasure center of the brain in order to prevent opium addicts and alcoholics from relapsing into their addictions.  As you might imagine, destroying the physiological structure responsible for one of the most fundamental human motivations does frequently solve addiction problems.  Unfortunately, the surgery also tends to do away with longing, joy, and basic motivation to do anything.  The Chinese authors of the papers put a more positive spin on these results and described the post-operative subjects as “mildness oriented” (i.e. compliant).

3D Brain image (Nucleus Accumbens in red)

3D Brain image (Nucleus Accumbens in red)

This surgical procedure is technically known as “ablation of the nucleus accumbens” and involves cutting open a subject’s skull and using heat to destroy small portions of the brain (which are recursively located in both hemispheres of the brain). Time Magazine (in this useful article) describes the two nucleus accumbens as regions of the brain “saturated with neurons containing dopamine and endogenous opioids, which are involved in pleasure and desire related both to drugs and to ordinary experiences like eating, love and sex.” This procedure is performed while subjects (one shies away from saying “patients”) are awake and conscious in order to minimize damage to other regions of the brain responsible for speech, memory, and movement.

Painting by Mariko Vaughan (acrylic on canvas)

Painting by Mariko Vaughan (acrylic on canvas)

The western medical/scientific community is trying to figure out how to approach this procedure.  General consensus seems to be that the procedure is “horribly misguided” (apparently a medical euphemism for “a crime against humanity”), however a number of American and European doctors recommend publishing the results of these experimental surgeries in order to further understanding of the human brain–while not actually recommending the procedure.  While the surgery does result in a recovery-rate from addition a few percentage points higher than counseling or other non-surgical therapies, it also frequently results in loss of memory, radical personality change, and other emotional problems (not to mention occasional serious problems such as death or coma which are an inherent danger of brain surgery).

braincrpd

A while ago I read a science fiction novel set in the far future.  People who were anxious or miserable could volunteer for Radical Anxiety Termination—a procedure which fully eliminated depression, fear, and suffering, albeit at the cost of all personal volition.  The Radical Anxiety Termination participants immediately became slaves who were sold and traded for whatever uses their masters desired.  The novel was predictably troubling. It does not seem like the Chinese medical establishment has yet perfected Radical Anxiety Termination but they are on the dark road to such an outcome and they need to leave that twisted path immediately.  Just as lobotomies performed in Europe and the United States during the early 20th century proved to be a therapeutic dead end (and a terrible, terrible mistake) so too this surgery is a collective degradation to emotionally ill victims and a fundamental attack on human dignity.

During the 1950’s, astronomers using the first radio telescopes started discovering a mysterious class of heavenly objects.  Certain discreet points in the sky blazed brightly with low-frequency electromagnetic radiation–yet when the scientists looked at the spots through conventional optic telescopes, it was impossible to discover a source for this energy.  Some of these radio flares came from incredibly faint smudges and some issued from what seemed like empty space. Astronomers called the mystery flares “quasi-stellar radio sources” (QUASAR) because they believed such discreetly focused energy must come from stellar-like objects.  Further study revealed that the photons issuing from quasars were red-shifted, which meant that the quasars were rushing away from the solar system at high velocities.

An Artist's interpretation of a Quasar

Only in the 60’s did optical telescopes become powerful enough to associate certain quasars with the cores of extremely distant galaxies.  The reason no luminous objects were initially associated with quasars was because quasars turned out to be profoundly distant—the closest were billions of light years away.  They were visible to early radio telescopes only because of their immense energy output and their beam-like focus.

An X-ray image shows the quasar PKS 1127-145 (credit: NASA)

Scientific consensus concerning these massive energy flares did not fully coalesce until the 1980s.  Today astronomers believe that quasars are powered by accretion of material into super-massive black holes which lie at the center of dynamic young galaxies.  Such phenomena are called “active galactic nuclei” (AGN). As radio telescopes and time-space modeling grew more sophisticated it became obvious that quasars (which produce low-frequency radiation) were not the only energy flares associated with AGN.  Giant beams of different spectrums of electromagnetic radiation are possible depending on the galaxy.  Quasars and their ilk produce incomprehensible amounts of energy—the most luminous active galactic nuclei radiate exotic energy at a rate that can exceed the output of an average galaxy by a thousand times (equivalent to the energy from two trillion suns).  To produce such energy the brightest known quasars consume roughly 1000 solar masses of matter within an earth year (which is equivalent to swallowing/burning 600 Earths per minute).

Yikes

Galaxies change as they age. Today the Milky Way Galaxy is a mostly responsible middle aged galaxy (which only occasionally cuts lose with something crazy like the luminous blue hypergiant Eta Carinae) however there are reasons to think that in the past the Milky Way was a deeply troubled teen-aged galaxy ablaze with self-destructive fury just like the AGN galaxies we see at the far edges of space.  Assuming they exist, alien astronomers in galaxies billions of light years away probably see our galaxy as a blazing quasar–because they are looking at its distant violent past.

Active Galaxies Collide (painting by Don Dixon for "Scientific American")

Of course galaxies are not always quiescent.  Some astrophysicists theorize that in 3 to 5 billion years, when the Andromeda Galaxy collides with the Milky Way, the black holes in the center of one or both galaxies could begin swallowing up matter (or could merge) reigniting a super bright fountain of high energy particles again visible throughout the universe.

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