Identity of Famous 19th-Century Brain Discovered

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Identity of Famous 19th-Century Brain Discovered

Tia Ghose, LiveScience Staff Writer
Date: 28 January 2013 Time: 12:00 PM ET
The speechless patient called ‘Tan’ who allowed Paul Broca to tie a specific brain region to language has been identified as Louis Leborgne
CREDIT: Nina Dronkers

The identity of a mysterious patient who helped scientists pinpoint the brain region responsible for language has been discovered, researchers report.

The new finding, detailed in the January issue of the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, identifies the famous patient as Monsieur Louis Leborgne, a French craftsman who battled epilepsy his entire life.

Wordless patient

In 1840, a wordless patient

was admitted to the Bicêtre Hospital outside Paris for  aphasia, or an inability to speak. He was essentially just kept there, slowly deteriorating. It wasn’t until 1861 that the man, who came to be known as Monsieur Leborgne, or “Tan,” for his only spoken word, came to the famous physician Paul Broca’s ward at the hospital.

Shortly after the meeting, Leborgne died, and Broca performed his autopsy. During the autopsy, Broca found a lesion in a region of the brain tucked back and up behind the eyes.

Paradigm shift

After doing a detailed examination, Broca concluded that Tan’s aphasia was caused by damage to this region, and that the particular brain region controlled speech. That region of the brain was later renamed Broca’s area in honor of the doctor. [See Photos of Broca’s Brain]

At the time, scientists were debating whether specific areas of the brain performed specific functions, or whether it was an undifferentiated lump that did one task, like the liver, said Marjorie Lorch, a neurolinguist at Birkbeck, University of London, who was not involved in the study.

“Tan was the first patient whose case proved that damage to a specific part of the brain causes specific speech disorders,” said study author Cezary Domanski, a medical historian at the Maria Curie-Sklodowska University in Poland.

Life reconstructed

Yet Tan’s identity remained shrouded in mystery. Most historians believed he was a poor, illiterate laborer, while others said he had gone mad from syphilis and that madness could explain his inability to speak. To discover just who he was, Domanski began to retrace the man’s history.

“It was a challenge, for 150 years no one could even determine the name of the man —the same man whose brain is exhibited in a museum and shown in many books,” Domanski wrote in an email.

But looking through the old medical records, he finally uncovered a death certificate for Louis Victor Leborgne, who was born in 1809 in Moret, France.

Domanski then used archival records to discover that Louis Leborgne was one of seven children of a teacher (his father) and his wife, and that his siblings were educated. He moved to Paris as a child.

Leborgne had apparently suffered epilepsy from childhood. But despite his seizures, he grew up to be a craftsman and a church keeper, and worked there until he was 30 years old, when he lost the ability to speak and was taken to the hospital. Epilepsy likely caused the damage that took away Leborgne’s power of speech. [The 10 Greatest Mysteries of the Mind]

In the hospital, his condition worsened and he eventually became paralyzed and bedridden, and underwent surgery for gangrene. He was dying when Broca first encountered him.

The new discovery gives a very human identity to one of the medical textbooks’ most famous cases, Lorch told LiveScience.

“Language, because it was viewed at that time in Europe as a God-given ability in humans, it was considered part of the soul and therefore not material,” Lorch said. “This case was the case that really established the whole area of research on functional organization of the brain.”


Are Ghosts Real? Science Says No-o-o-o

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Are Ghosts Real? Science Says No-o-o-o

Benjamin Radford, LiveScience Contributor
Date: 29 January 2013 Time: 07:33 PM ET

If you believe in ghosts, you’re not alone: A 2005 Gallup poll found that 37 percent of Americans believe in haunted houses, and about one-third believe in ghosts. Tens of thousands of people around the world actively search for ghosts as a hobby. Researcher Sharon Hill of the Doubtful Newsblog counted about 2,000 active amateur ghost-hunting groups in America.

Ghosts have been a popular subject for millennia, appearing in countless stories, from “Macbeth” to the Bible, and even spawning their own folklore genre: ghost stories. Ghosts are perhaps the most common paranormal belief in the world. Part of the reason is thatbelief in ghosts is part of a larger web of related paranormal beliefs, including near-death experience, life after death, and spirit communication.

The idea that the dead remain with us in spirit is an ancient one, and one that offers many people comfort; who doesn’t want to believe that our beloved but deceased family members aren’t looking out for us, or with us in our times of need? Most people believe in ghosts because of personal experience; they have seen or sensed some unexplained presence.

The science and logic of ghosts

Personal experience is one thing, but scientific evidence is another matter. Part of the difficulty in investigating ghosts is that there is not one universally agreed-upon definition of what a ghost is. Some believe that they are spirits of the dead who for whatever reason get “lost” on their way to The Other Side; others claim that ghosts are instead telepathic entities projected into the world from our minds.

Still others create their own special categories for different types of ghosts, such aspoltergeists, residual hauntings, intelligent spirits and shadow people. Of course, it’s all made up, like speculating on the different races of fairies or dragons: there are as many types of ghosts as you want there to be.


Carol Anne: Hello? What do you look like? Talk louder, I can’t hear you! Poltergeist helped define a paranormal culture in the United States.

There are many contradictions inherent in ideas about ghosts. For example, are ghosts material or not? Either they can move through solid objects without disturbing them, or they can slam doors shut and throw objects across the room. Logically and physically, it’s one or the other. If ghosts are human souls, why do they appear clothed and with (presumably soulless) inanimate objects like hats, canes, and dresses — not to mention the many reports of ghost trains, cars and carriages?

If ghosts are the spirits of those whose deaths were unavenged, why are there unsolved murders, since ghosts are said to communicate with psychic mediums, and should be able to identify their killers for the police. And so on; just about any claim about ghosts raises logical reasons to doubt it.

Ghost hunters use many creative (and dubious) methods to detect the spirits’ presences, often including psychics. Virtually all ghost hunters claim to be scientific, and most give that appearance because they use high-tech scientific equipment such as Geiger counters, Electromagnetic Field (EMF) detectors, ion detectors, infrared cameras and sensitive microphones. Yet none of this equipment has ever been shown to actually detect ghosts.

Other people take exactly the opposite approach, claiming that the reason that ghosts haven’t been proven to exist is that we simply don’t have the right technology to find or detect the spirit world. But this, too, can’t be correct: Either ghosts exist and appear in our ordinary physical world (and can therefore be detected and recorded in photographs, film, video, and audio recordings), or they don’t. If ghosts exist and can be scientifically detected or recorded, then we should find hard evidence of that — yet we don’t. If ghosts exist and cannot be scientifically detected or recorded, then all the photos, videos, and other recordings claimed to be evidence of ghosts cannot be ghosts. With so many basic contradictory theories — and so little science brought to bear on the topic — it’s not surprising that despite the efforts of thousands of ghost hunters on television and elsewhere for decades, not a single piece of hard evidence of ghosts has been found.

Why many believe

Many people believe that support for the existence of ghosts can be found in no less a hard science than modern physics. It is widely claimed that Albert Einstein suggested a scientific basis for the reality of ghosts; if energy cannot be created or destroyed but only change form, what happens to our body’s energy when we die? Could that somehow be manifested as a ghost?

It seems like a reasonable assumption — unless you understand basic physics. The answer is very simple, and not at all mysterious. After a person dies, the energy in his or her body goes where all organisms’ energy goes after death: into the environment. The energy is released in the form of heat, and transferred into the animals that eat us (i.e., wild animals if we are left unburied, or worms and bacteria if we are interred), and the plants that absorb us. There is no bodily “energy” that survives death to be detected with popular ghost-hunting devices.

While most ghost hunters engage in harmless (and fruitless) fun, there can be a darker side. In the wake of popular ghost-hunting TV shows, police across the country have seen a surge in people being arrested, injured, and even killed while looking for ghosts. In 2010, a man died while ghost-hunting with a group of friends hoping to see the ghost of a train that crashed years earlier. The ghost train did not appear — but a real train came around a bend and killed one man.

The evidence for ghosts is no better today than it was a year ago, a decade ago, or a century ago. There are two possible reasons for the failure of ghost hunters to find good evidence. The first is that ghosts don’t exist, and that reports of ghosts can be explained by psychology, misperceptions, mistakes and hoaxes. The second option is that ghosts do exist, but that ghost hunters are simply incompetent. Ultimately, ghost hunting is not about the evidence (if it was, the search would have been abandoned long ago). Instead, it’s about having fun with friends, telling stories, and the enjoyment of pretending they are searching the edge of the unknown. After all, everyone loves a good ghost story.

Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of “Skeptical Inquirer” science magazine and author of six books, including “Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries.” His website is

A ring of illuminated ice crystals encircle an Alaskan moon

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A ring of illuminated ice crystals encircle an Alaskan moon

 A ring of illuminated ice crystals encircle an Alaskan moon

Our sun isn’t the only object in the sky that can produce spectacular optical effects. Take this photograph taken by Sebastian Saarloos on a cold, starlit Alaskan night. This is what’s called a “moondog” — a rainbow-like ring around the moon that’s caused by the reflection of moonlight (which is reflected sunlight) from ice crystals in the upper atmosphere.

The slightly overexposed photograph shows misty mountains in the background, along with an icy halo that surrounds the moon. Interestingly, because all ice crystals tend to have the same hexagonal shape, the moon ring is always the same size; moondogs, also known as paraselanae, are typically seen at an angle of 22 degrees.

Photograph courtesy Sebastian Saarloos. It was taken on January 17, 2013 from Lower Miller Creek, Alaska, USA.




Why You Always Wake Up Early After a Night of Drinking

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Why You Always Wake Up Early After a Night of Drinking

 Why You Always Wake Up Early After a Night of Drinking

Lots of people have a little booze before bed to help them get to sleep — but while a night cap may help in the dozing-off department, too much alcohol can actually do a number on the overall quality of your shuteye. Let’s take a look at some of the important differences between drunk sleep and sober sleep, including why it’s so damn hard to sleep in after a tipple-tastic night on the town.


Most people assume correctly that liquor and beer can actually get your eyelids feeling downright leaden, as anyone who’s had a taste of alcohol has surely experienced its sleep-promoting qualities. The ethanol in your intoxicant of choice acts as a sedative, and for most people one drink is enough to feel its effects. There’s even evidence that capping your intake at one brew, cocktail, or glass of grapes — what most researchers deem a “low dose” of alcohol — can actually up your total sleep time, while decreasing the number of instances you wake during the night.


Speaking of which, it’s important to remember the “one drink” limit is really just a rule of thumb. Drink-ceilings vary from person to person. Plus, a single drink can have different effects even on the same individual — depending, for example, on what he or she’s eaten that day. For a better idea of what your one-drink limit is, try out these handy calculators, courtesy of the NIH. 

Anyway, if you plan on downing more than one drink, you’re looking at some pretty serious bedtime disturbance. In fact, even a single-cocktail nightcap can have an undesired effect on your sleep cycle if you make a habit of it. According to Timothy Roehrs and Thomas Roth — director of research and division head, respectively, of the Sleep Disorders and Research Center in Detroit, MI — the scientific literature shows that among nonalcoholics, the occasional use of alcohol as a sleep aid can improve sleep initially, but that people tend to develop a tolerance for its effects pretty quickly. As tolerance increases, so does your alcohol-intake, and then you’re looking at more serious problems than an inability to get to catch some truly restful winks. Like, you know, a raging case of alcoholism.

The Rebound Effect

But even moderate alcohol consumption can ruin a good night’s sleep. According to Roehrs and Roth, a modest dose of alcohol (defined as inducing a Blood Alcohol Content in the range of 0.06–0.08) within an hour of bedtime may knock you right out — but it’ll exact a serious toll on your body during the second half of your normal sleep period, during what’s called a “rebound effect” (emphasis added):

The term “rebound effect” means that certain physiological variables (e.g., sleep variables, such as the amount of REM sleep) change in the opposite direction to the changes induced by alcohol and even exceed normal levels once alcohol is eliminated from the body. This effect results from the body’s adjustment to the presence of alcohol during the first half of the sleep period in an effort to maintain a normal sleep pattern. Once alcohol is eliminated from the body, however, these adjustments result in sleep disruption.

Given that the average person metabolizes alcohol at a rate of around 0.01% to 0.02% per hour, a person with a BAC in the range of 0.06—0.08 immediately before dozing off will finish processing the sauce in his or her system after about four or five hours. Ever woken up bright and early after a rowdy bout of late-night/early-morning boozing? Now you know why: the clearance of alcohol from your body probably triggered a rebound effect, ripping you right out of the deepest period of your sleep cycle.



“Your deep sleep is when body restores itself, and alcohol can interfere with this,” says John Shneerson, head of Papworth Hospital’s Resipiratory Support & Sleep Center, the largest sleep facility in the UK.

“As the alcohol starts to wear off, your body can come out of deep sleep and back into REM sleep, which is much easier to wake from. That’s why you often wake up after just a few hours sleep when you’ve been drinking.”

So how best to ensure a restful night’s sleep? Try to time it so that most of the alcohol in your system has been metabolized before you hit the hay. If you’re on the cusp of being good to drive (i.e. right around a BAC of 0.08 — true for all 50 states and D.C. as of January, 2013), you’ll want to quit hitting the sauce no less than four hours before bedtime. Easier in theory than in practice, we know, but at least now you know the rules your body is playing by.

For tons more info on alcohol’s effects on sleep, check out this exhaustive overview at The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Images via Shutterstock

Venus Can Have’Comet-Like’ Atmosphere

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Venus Can Have’Comet-Like’ Atmosphere

by Miriam Kramer, Staff Writer
Date: 30 January 2013 Time: 07:00 AM ET
When the solar wind dies down, an outer layer of Venus’s atmosphere billows outward (illustrated on right), making the second planet from the sun look like a comet.
CREDIT: ESA/Wei et al.

The planet Venus sometimes looks less like a planet and more like a comet, scientists say.

Scientists with the European Space Agency have discovered that a part of the upper atmosphere of Venus— its ionosphere — acts surprisingly different depending on daily changes in the sun’s weather. The side of Venus’ ionosphere that faces away from the sun can billow outward like the tail of a comet, while the side facing the star remains tightly compacted, researchers said.

The discovery was made using ESA’s Venus Express spacecraft, which observed Venus’s ionosphere during a period of low solar wind in 2010 to see exactly how the sun affects the way the planet’s atmosphere functions. In 2013, the sun is expected to reach the peak of its 11-year solar activity cycle.

“As this significantly reduced solar wind hit Venus, Venus Express saw the planet’s ionosphere balloon outwards on the planet’s ‘downwind’ nightside, much like the shape of the ion tail seen streaming from a comet under similar conditions,” ESA officials said in a statement today (Jan. 29).

It only takes 30 to 60 minutes for the planet’s comet-like tail to form after the solar wind dies down. Researchers observed the ionosphere stretch to at least 7,521 miles (12,104 kilometers) from the planet, said Yong Wei, a scientist at the Max Planck Institute in Katlenburg, Germany who worked on this research.

Earth’s ionosphere never becomes comet-like largely because the planet has its own magnetic field that balances out the sun’s influence on the way the atmospheric layer is shaped. Venus, however, doesn’t have its own magnetic field and is therefore subject to the whims of the sun’s solar wind.

Researchers think that Mars behaves in much the same way. The Red Planet doesn’t have a magnetic field to mitigate the influence of the sun’s wind either.

The Venus Express spacecraft launched in 2005 and has been orbiting the second planet from the sun since 2006. The spacecraft is equipped with seven instruments to study the atmosphere and surface of Venus in extreme detail. The spacecraft is currently in an extended mission slated to last until 2014 .

Why Do Air Traffic Control Towers Have Slanted Windows?

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Why Do Air Traffic Control Towers Have Slanted Windows?

By: Benjamin Radford, Life’s Little Mysteries Contributor
Date: 29 January 2013 Time: 02:23 PM ET

Large airports are slightly different all over the world, but one constant is the ubiquitous air traffic control tower, which always has windows that slope toward the tower at the base. Many people assume that they are designed that way to prevent the sun’s reflection or glare from blinding incoming pilots.

But this explanation doesn’t fly, because surrounding buildings (and the airport terminals themselves) have vertical windows.

File:Air Traffic Control Tower KCI.jpg

In fact the benefit is not for those outside the tower but those inside it. Ordinarily, we see (and ignore) reflections in glass all the time, for example from computer monitors or car windows. But air traffic controllers must not have any distracting reflections as they monitor flights. By tilting the glass away, any errant light from inside the tower (such as video screens, lights, etc.) are reflected up onto the ceiling, which is painted black.

That way, the glow from a wristwatch across the room won’t be mistaken for an incomingUFO.

The Dimensions of Air Traffic Control Towers

As a freestanding structure, the Suvarnabhumi Airport control tower is the tallest in the world today. It stands 434 feet or 132.2 meters high. The Vancouver Harbour Air Control Tower in Canada is also considered one of the highest control towers in the world. However, it is high because it is located on top of the 200 Granville Square within the City of Vancouver in British Columbia, which is a skyscraper standing 465.88 feet or 142 meters tall.

Another notable control tower is found within the Vienna International Airport in Austria. This structure is 357.61 feet or 109 meters high. Aside from this, there is also the control tower of the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Washington. It has an overall height of 269 feet or 82 meters. In Norway, you can find the Oslo Airport, which has a control tower measuring 300 feet or 90 meters high.

Additional Facts and Other Interesting Details

Within an airport, the control tower is usually the tallest structure, which rises high over other buildings. For medium-traffic airports, only one controller is necessary for a control tower to operate. In addition, such towers do not need 24-hour operations. On the other hand, busierairports need several controllers and support staff in order for their control towers to function efficiently. Unlike less busy airports, these towers need to operate 24-hours all year long.

Control towers usually have common features like an impact-resistant cab glass, pressure and wind gauges as well as light guns for communication purposes. At the same time, these structures have strip boards that allow Flight Progress Strips, reliable telephone systems and radio communications. Aside from these, they may also have computerized systems for briefing, flightdata and meteorological information.

These towers can also help controllers with the aid of surface movement radars, which are highly efficient against poor visibility especially come nighttime. Controllers can easily see flying aircraft within the vicinity of the airport with the aid of aerodome traffic monitors.

Why Do Blood Types Differ?

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Why Do Blood Types Differ?

By: Ben Mauk, Life’s Little Mysteries Contributor
Date: 29 January 2013 Time: 03:43 PM ET

Perhaps you know your own blood type, and perhaps you know those types with which you’re compatible to give to and receive from. You might also sense that there’s more to blood than a mere mark on your medical records.

Blood consists of red and white blood cells, platelets and plasma (the goop in which everything sits). Antigens and various proteins float in the plasma and on red blood cells. An antigen is any substance that causes the immune system to produce antibodies — certain proteins — to fight it off.

The ABO grouping system refers to the genetically-determined individual differences in the presence of two antigens (A and B), which stimulate the production of different antibodies. Type-O blood has both the antibodies produced in type-A and type-B, whereas type-AB has neither.

“Polymorphism” describes a stable coexistence of different genetic forms within a species, and the reason for blood group polymorphism is not known.