Dear Bellingen Shire
18 May 2021
I am constantly intrigued by all the examples of how nature works in recurring patterns – scaled to different circumstances. People researching artificial intelligence are focussing on Bee’s brains. The honey Bee has about 1 million neurons (nerve cells) in their little brains. We have about 100 billion.
Our brains are not just made up of neurons – there are about 20 to 50 times that number of other cells holding, supporting, feeding, protecting and guiding those little nerve cells. Some of these are nursery cells to allow some “neuroplasticity”. That’s a cool term that means you can remake bits of your brain and heal it even after a certain amount of injury. But you have to work at it for a long time – years. Unfortunately there are also cells that assume the worst and lay down scar tissue in patches badly damaged. A bit like poorly patched potholes, or permanent barricades in a road, that tend to mess up the message.
I mentioned in a previous letter about 19thcentury chauvinist scientists thinking that bigger brains were better, ie male vs female, but who were repeatedly humiliated by reality. Recent research by a certain delightfully enthusiastic scientist (who is scheduled to present at the upcoming Bellingen Readers and Writers festival!) has shown that birds – who we disparagingly call bird brained because their brains are physically small- are actually just a lot more efficient, so that they can be light and fly. They do more with less. Similarly, HIV uses it’s core RNA in multiple layered formats to also do more with less.
So back to the Honey Bee. With just a 100 million neurons they are capable of abstract thought, solving mathematical and geographical problems, medicate themselves and others in the hive, learn and even more fascinating – teach, share a symbolic language, dance, oh and bloody well fly!
There is an initially interesting, then almost impenetrable, article in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of USA, that demonstrates that it is not just about size, or ratio, or density, or even numbers of neurons. Unfortunately the author followed the academic principal of using as many big words and extruded sentences as you can to sound much more clever than your reader. Unfortunately she thereby violated the literary principal of wanting the reader to understand what the hell you’re actually saying! A bit like most government pronouncements and legal publications.
Anyway, it seems the function of brain neurons is not about size, it is all about connectivity. I know, many women reading that statement would say- yeah, Duh!
Each neuron has a cell body where the eating and drinking and repairing goes on while the genetic material is stored. Then they generally have one end that has masses of little fingers called “dendrites” that pick up signals from the toes of loads of other nerves. The signals move along the surface of each cell and then down a long, stockinged leg called an axon. That has little toes, which then pass the message to one, or masses, of the next nerve cells’ dendrites.
At each junction the electricity excites selected little bundles of chemicals to get spat across the gap to the next cell to excite it, and set up another electrical buzz.
So, you have just completed neuroscience 101. Except of course it gets Soooo much more complicated. Still the connectivity is the go. This process of sending electrical and then chemical messages costs, though. It uses up 20% of all your energy. Thinking makes you tired.
When things go awry in this beautiful system we try to intervene to turn them back to a healthy or functional state. Messing with sodium or potassium in your blood and brain (dehydration or worse -oversweating but super hydrating without minerals as in under the influence of amphetamines or ecstasy) will interfere with the electrical charge. We watch these numbers carefully in hospital.
A disease called multiple sclerosis sees something cause one’s immune system to damage the insulation wiring on the long axons. Medicines are focussed on trying to stop the aberrant inflammation.
Mercury and lead exposure kills off numbers of the dendrites. There is research showing that they can reform if the mercury is removed.
Alcohol kills lots of different parts of the nerve, even as it is used as a form of fuel. Yeah, well you know what this means – keep drinking – your brain is shrinking!
Growing brains are exquisitely sensitive to poisons like alcohol.
Antidepressant medications – including some of the herbal forms – change the density of the little chemical parcels between the nerves – hopefully restoring lost concentrations.
Violent impact causes blood to break through around the neurons and squeeze them out of existence.
Partly I am bemused by the head injury topic because of the controversy around the “Magic Round” of Rugby League in Brisbane last week. Fox news is awash with complaints about new rules that players who smash each other in the head at high speed, causing head injuries, will be sent off. The commentators think that it made the game soft, interfering with the flow and entertainment value. I recall watching my brilliant and athletic brother being trained for stateside school boy rugby with the coach over and over shouting – “a bloke can’t run without legs, tackle him proper! Leave the head alone!” I’m not sure why that changed.
Back to bee brains. And the Fractal nature of the universe. “Fractals” are mathematical equations, which, when graphed, recreate the same patterns over and over. The further you draw back for the bigger picture – the more you see the same pattern. Snow flakes are like that. Look it up on the net – the pictures can be mesmerising.
Tiny one, or few cell, organisms have similar patterns in the way they communicate, and protect themselves. Insects have more cells but they operate in the same principles for each individual. The individual services and communicates in the larger body – the hive. The hives separate and interact to help their species survive. The hives are an essential part of the communication that goes on in the larger ecosystem.
Then there are humans, who think we are just too clever. Yet societies function so much on systems that follow a nervous system pattern. While we interconnect – then information flows, protective and prosperity mechanisms happen.
For some years such interconnections were quietly happening between some Israelis and their Palestinian neighbours in health and welfare activities. But then you get interference, violent events, miscommunication, the defence system attacking perceived “ Them”, claiming to protect “Us”, and the damage will be leaving massive dysfunctional scar tissue.
So, you may ask what the hell this ramble has to do with an update on the Covid19 pandemic, and the much reported vaccine rollout.
Kinda another tortured segue really. As individual and clever we think we are as individual citizens, or as NSW, or as island Australia, we are desperately interconnected. Nothing in the last week’s news on Covid19 has offered me any reason to change tack and think that we are out of danger from the pandemic. Instead there is still an urgency in the vaccine program. I was just looking for a way to not sound too boring and repetitious.
The vaccine rollout is way behind schedule. Lots of people have stated that they wonder if they should wait for the next greatest thing, as the government announces a new deal to get more Pfizer and then Moderna mRNA vaccines. Unfortunately the miscommunication allows the fine print to get lost – ie it may be the end of the year before we see these vaccines available for the general public.
And that may be too late. We are living the consequence of modern marketing – “ What you just bought isn’t good enough anymore, and you really need to line up for the new model.”
Some UK very large post marketing studies in the last couple of weeks have reported that differences in safety and efficacy between the 2 vaccines that our TGA has approved are turning out to be actually less and less significant. Post Marketing is the incident/ infection rate/ effectiveness reporting and follow up of hundreds of thousands of people vaccinated and then exposed during the last big breakout, vs those not vaccinated at the same time. That’s good news! It makes the perceived choice issue between brands mean much less. We are back to the principal that the best vaccine is the one that is available, now. Anyway, we will all probably still need boosters from each different type in the next year as the “variant of concern” strains evolve and dominate.
But that means that the hive needs each of us beautifully individual little bees, with our clever learning, memory, problem solving, dancing brains with 100 000 times more neurons and billions of more connections than a honey bee, to think a bit like we have a hive to protect. The only long-term option we have is to get our baseline vaccinations out of the way – asap. Even the government post budget is getting pessimistic about when we can open borders and recover freedoms – dependent on the level of vaccination in this hive.
Because, what infectious diseases really like is to have lots of fresh outliers, who are vulnerable, to set up a cluster of infections which can shed billions of virus particles around, and keep mutating.
Over a billion doses of vaccines have been administered worldwide so far. Another 6 billion to go.
The Coffs Harbour Hospital hub is now inviting all under 50y olds, who are health or disability workers (and anyone under 50 remaining in the “1a or 1B “ list on the federal health eligibility checker) to make contact and book a Pfizer Vaccine.
Phone there is 6691 1200.
All over 50s – will continue to be offered the AZ vaccine though your local GP clinics and the Coffs Hospital hub. As mentioned, the practical difference in safety and effectiveness is being shown to be minimal now. Availability is still challenging.
Please remember that this is only one perspective from a Beeing suffering lifelong wing envy. Please check any detail with your own local Busy Bee GP. Or the proceedings of the national academy of science if you can stay with it, and the government websites, or SBS who seem to still really care that what they say is understood, in a variety of languages.
Dr Trevor Cheney