A Case of the Blues? What causes Depression?

Vanessa Kam

I felt dubious about seasonal depression until I moved to England.  Can cold, dark winters really dampen our spirits?  I thought I was immune to these effects until December drew nigh and daylight slumped by 4pm…

 While a number of cross-sectional studies have cast doubt on the existence of seasonal depression, (wittily termed SAD–seasonal effective disorder), the abundance of media coverage on this phenomenon echoes the general ‘down in the dumps’ mood many endure at certain times of the year.  But when does occasionally feeling blue, part of the human condition, toe the line of depression, a debilitating mood disorder?

 With depression being a major risk factor for suicide and suicide among the leading causes of death worldwide, in recognition of National Suicide Prevention Day, we explore what morphs the mind into a ‘bad neighbourhood’.

What is depression?

 Clinically, ‘depression’ encompasses several disorders where patients are absorbed by feelings of sadness, emptiness or irritability, with physical and mental changes which impair everyday functioning.

Major depressive disorder, put simply as depression, is the most common form.  In its manual, the American Psychiatric Association requires the following symptoms to be consistently present for a minimum of two weeks:

Depression 1

Depressed individuals have been shown to possess altered thought processes, falling into subconscious negative self-representations reinforced by biases in attention and memory to negative stimuli.  A key cognitive feature of depression is rumination, with sufferers repeatedly mulling over the causes and consequences of their current state.

Laboratory tests to diagnose depression do not exist, hinting towards a murky understanding of its pathophysiology.  Yet as the second leading cause of disability worldwide, it remains a major global health issue, affecting more than 300 million people.  In England, depression is the most common mental illness, with one in five of 5,450 respondents in a national survey having been diagnosed in 2014, and an estimated £10.96 billion cost to the country in 2010.

Considering its detriment to society and the individual, what is known about the underlying cause of depression?  Is there a single cause?

 

Causes of depression

 The NHS webpage on causes of clinical depression kicks off by saying “There’s no single cause of depression”.

Well, that was easy.

Instead, a combination of biological, psychological and social factors intertwine for each individual, elegantly demonstrated by the diathesis-stress model.

This considers a person’s vulnerability or predisposition (diathesis) alongside both internal or external stresses in precipitating a depressive episode.  Those with a high diathesis require a lower stress level to stimulate depression, while the less-inclined cope with more setbacks.

Depression 2

But what might make someone a severe “diasthetic”?

Genetic components play a role.  Depression has a heritability of about 40%, meaning 40% of the variation in vulnerability amongst individuals is down to differences in genes.  This is comparable to type 2 diabetes, another common illness riddled with lifestyle and genetic factors, but lower than schizophrenia, which has a heritability of about 80%.

Despite this genetic contribution, genome-wide association studies (GWAS) have repeatedly failed to find significant gene variants associated with depression.  One study combed through the genes of 9,240 patients and 9,520 controls–the largest study as of 2012–and came out empty-handed.  Considering the success of GWAS in many other complex human diseases and traits, this points towards an exceptional heterogeneity within depression.

One study which found the tip of the iceberg included subjects with recurrent depression only.  By scrutinising 5,300 Chinese women who suffered repeated bouts of depression, two loci were finally identified.

 Intriguingly, one lies close to a gene required for making mitochondria, in line with recent hypotheses involving mitochondrial dysfunction in depression and findings of increased mitochondrial DNA with increased life adversities in depressed individuals.

 In fact several early life experiences contribute to diathesis.  Childhood abuse is plain to see, but even growing up in a negative environment with constant criticism, rejection or a depressed parent can mould the negative cognitive processes associated with depression.

Personality, largely a product of genetics and early life experiences, also ties in to depression.  A study of female twins over time found neuroticism, a personality trait characterised by moodiness, irritability, anxiety and self-consciousness, to mediate symptoms of anxiety and depression, perhaps due to a common negative bias in information-processing.  More alluringly, researchers have come to view depressed, neurotic individuals as active contributors in snowballing their afflictions, interacting with others in stress-generating ways.

With a foundational vulnerability, what about stress?  What factors may push individuals above the threshold?

Below are some common examples, from major adverse experiences like the loss of a loved one, to cumulative, minor chronic stresses like living with many toddler children.

Depression 3

Of most clinical relevance is co-morbidity.  Those who suffer from chronic physical diseases have higher rates of depression, leading to worse outcomes and significant healthcare costs.  A 2012 report estimated that £1 in every £8 the NHS spent on long-term conditions is linked to poor mental health, pointing towards a need for more holistic attention towards patient health.

But how exactly does stress invite depression?  The prevailing model taught to this day is the monoamine hypothesis, the idea that a chemical imbalance, the depletion of serotonin, noradrenaline and/or dopamine in the central nervous system, produces depressive symptoms.  Indefinite exposure to cortisol in chronic stress increases enzymatic breakdown of these neurotransmitters.  The hypothesis stems from the action of antidepressants like Prozac, which increases the availability of serotonin outside cells to act at synapses.

Yet mounting bad press uncovering the buried data, skewed positives, exaggerated efficacy and hidden harms of antidepressants adds to the list of limitations to this model.  An analysis of 70 trials found suicide ideation and aggression doubled for children and teens on certain antidepressants, an eery finding considering the unadulterated symptoms of depression itself.

As such, researchers are looking into inflammation, cell death in certain brain regions–depressed individuals have smaller hippocampi–and reductions in the already limited generation of neurons in the adult brain, all of which can be linked to chronic stress, as causes.  In the case of depression, despite the phrase being banned in the BMJ, more research is needed.

For the sake of current sufferers and the many to come.

How has our understanding of Mental Health Changed?

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Diego Vieira

The idea of what constitutes health is a product of its time. The essence of this idea has followed humanity throughout time.

Greek philosophers saw the use of reason to contemplate the world, but it was only after some great time, with the thoughts of famous French philosopher René Descartes, that the idea of using reason to improve health and the world was first popularised. This directly opposed older thinking that the rage of gods upon humans was the reason behind the suffering and the rise of diseases and the possibility of a cure was pure fiction. In this world, faith was the first kind of ‘treatment’ that could possibly change what was so called fate, giving people something to do about it other than doing nothing. The exploration of nature and the usage of herbs were brought into consideration and so humans were no longer at the mercy of fate or gods, now having an actual method for fighting disease – being more responsible for their own recovery, the concept of health and prevention/cure growing more prevalent in human society and thinking. Some ages later, the ‘material’ health was considered the only possible reason for evaluation, in other words, what could be seen, could be treated. Much was studied about the human body. Anatomy and Physiology was vastly explored, drawing a path to the field of Psy.

The great contributors in the first steps for the creation of the study of the mind were English and German philosophers and physiologists like Francis Bacon, Ernst Weber, John Stuart Mill, and many others. They helped lead science into the field of the study of the mind that later became Psychology. It’s a matter of fact that even though Psychology was being developed as science, what was studied was how the mind functions, and mental illnesses were not even a concept. Whilst mental illnesses have always existed, our acknowledgement of them and our attempts to deal with them have only recently become mainstream.

Some of the most remarkable research of the human mind was carried out by neurologist Sigmund Freud, founder of Psychoanalysis, which tried to explain the formation of personality based on the conflicts of the conscious and the unconscious mind, and how the human mind is driven by the concept of trieb (German word for instinct, libido). Certainly though, Freud’s work is not without controversy – the debate about its accuracy, if not its findings, is one of great debate. Other memorable researchers included Watson, Skinner, and Pavlov, who studied how external stimulus could influence our behaviour, leading to the development of mental functions.

These two different references approach the study of the mind and the environment to understand how humans live through a psychological perspective, but the actual understanding of mental health wasn’t known to be what it is today. The concept of madness is a historical construction, before the 19th century there was neither the concept of mental illness nor a division between reason and madness. The path of development from the Renaissance era to today is marked by a growing separation between those experiencing mental conditions and the rest of society, with the development of asylums being the most famous example.

The Renaissance is regarded as the era of self-realization and the growth of the scientific model. To be a true Renaissance person required on to develops his intellectual, moral, religious, physical, and aesthetic capacities. The Renaissance was strongly characterized by art and literature and men had been upon the grace of culture and internalized the sense of civilization and refinement, meaning that those straying from the circle of culture were excluded and taken out of the sight of the civilization. The criteria used to determine who was or was not eligible to be part of society had no solid fundamentals. For that reason, substance abusers, the homeless, homosexuals, and everyone who were deviant from the “normal” acceptable behavior would be locked in mental asylums, where they had no basic conditions of in-habitation. These disorders were seen as an incapability to handle normal life situations, and so began attempts to understand patterns based on biological and sociological knowledge. This resulted, in 1952, in the creation of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders by the American Psychiatric Association. One major flaw was that there was no divided line between normality and abnormality – this was left up to interpretation.

The creation of a manual to identify mental disorders was to have a large effect of the numbers of diagnosis for mental health, and a need for a standard was pertinent because professionals around the world had their own ways to treat these cases, and unifying the knowledge from different diagnosis explored by different professionals all around the world would serve as standard for a better medical practice and facilitate researches in the field of mental health. The DSM was possible because of commissions that reunited the mental health professionals to create criteria to better understand and deal with the people affected by mental disorders.  Since its creation in 1952, the DSM has gone through 5 revisions to review its findings and increase the number of studied diagnosis that were found in psychiatric researches conducted, for instance, by Robert Spitzer and Emil Kraepelin.

The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health sponsored researches between 1977 and 1979 to test the validity of the diagnosis’s, allowing more knowledge to complement their understandings. With the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems – ICD, created in 1893, further contributions and collaborative work with the DSM.

The DSM in its fifth and most up to date revision from 2013, counting with approximately 300 categories of disorders and is used internationally as an instrument to guide treatment and research into mental health, allowing professionals to correctly approach patients and have an oriented practice, guaranteeing their practices under scientific research and no longer relying on presumptions or personal perspectives, which previously clouded the ability of psychologists to accurately diagnose disorders.

Understanding the Four Forces

Harpreet Thandi

We want to understand the world around us. There are four theorized forces in our universe. These are the nuclear force (weak force), the strong force, gravity, and the electromagnetic force. These all act very differently around us.

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The weak force is responsible for processes such as fission (radioactive decay), particles like muons, leptons, and others with short lifetimes. This is the 3rd strongest force and only stronger than gravity. It counteracts the strong force. With a range of just,10-18m smaller than an atom (10-15m). It exchanges energy with the bosons, the particles that carry charge. The Weak force has a very short lifetime. This seems like a problem. However, due to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle it is possible to have a large amount of energy for a short time.

One way to put this is if you multiply numbers to make 9 or another fixed value like ℏ/2 or higher. We can of course do 3×3; but if one of numbers is bigger let’s say, 3000000 then the other must be 0.000003 to compensate, now we have achieved 3000000×0.000003=9 as before.

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The strong force binds (joins) the nucleus together. This has the 2nd   shortest range of 10-15m. This acts on quarks inside protons and neutrons equally to “glue it together”. The neutrons help control the atom and when they get too close this force keeps them apart. Like a sad romance. An analogy often given involves sellotape. First you feel nothing until, you get close and then it acts sticks “the strong force repels actually”. These two forces act inside of the atom. The outcome of these forces can be seen on the periodic table as the range is the size of a nucleus-this stops atoms from getting too big. In addition to this the larger atoms decay via the weak force.

Gravitation binds the universe together, keeps the planets in orbit, people grounded (well some of us!!), and acts on anything that has considerable mass, like Newton’s apple. In Einstein’s theory of general relativity, gravity causes a distortion of space and time. This is the weakest of the force, but has an infinite range and acts by using gravitons. These have never been observed yet, sadly.

Magnetism and Electricity were once thought of as separate concepts. However, after observations and mathematical reasoning were shown to be linked as a single force. Famously, in 1820 Hans Christian Ørsted saw a needle being deflected by a battery cable and James Clerk Maxwell proved the two waves were perpendicular to each other.

Electromagnetism binds atoms and anything else in the universe that has charge e.g. protons, electrons, muons. This is the 2nd strongest force and has an infinite range using photons. Another way of looking at this would be a fridge magnet. This is many magnitudes stronger than gravity-something to think about. These two forces act outside of the atom.

For the last 30 years of his life, Einstein tried to unify gravitation and electromagnetism without success. This seems possible, given the similarities with infinite range and both being the most visible to mankind. This pursuit was driven by a need to have things joined together which exist together. In a 1923 lecture stating “The intellect seeking after an integrated theory cannot rest content with the assumption that there exist two distinct fields totally independent of each other by their nature”. Back in the 1900s only protons, electrons and these two forces were known about. Einstein rejected the new quantum mechanics stating “god does not play dice”.  Over time Einstein became an outsider towards mainstream physics. Rather than using physical intuition “thought experiments” that birthed most of those great works, he now became obsessed with only mathematical understanding. Michio Kaku; professor of theoretical physics at the City College of New York, would consider Einstein to be thinking way ahead of his time. Most of the physics that Einstein would have needed as a base had not been discovered yet.

Physicists today take on this unification challenge. An idea called string theory is required. This requires 10 dimensions to explain the physics, and is a mathematical quest. It is an extension of Einstein’s 5 dimensions. This is hard to prove experimentally. However, researchers are constantly working on translating this into something observable. This is a very different and hard to imagine view of our universe. We must hope there is a way to translate these mathematical predictions into the real world.

 

Brain Altering Parasites

toxoplasma_gondii

Jonathan Cooke

Fans of The Last of Us might be familiar with brain-altering parasites. These little critters and fungi are slowly creeping into the popular imagination thanks in part to media using them as the instigator of the ever-popular zombie apocalypse genre. The ‘bad guy’ of choice in The Last of Us is the parasite Cordyceps; a fungus that is represented by multiple species which ‘zombify’ their hosts, turning them into vessels for their reproduction.

Fortunately for you, Cordyceps; or more precisely Ophiocordyceps only prey on tiny insects found on the forest floor. In fact, they are quite an effective pest control, helping to keep insect populations in check.

Generally, whether or not the parasite kills their host, it will manipulate the host into a situation that is more advantageous for the parasite. For instance, if the current host is merely an intermediary for the parasite can reach their final host they will manipulate the current host’s behaviour to make it more likely they will come into contact with the final host.

Such parasites include the protozoan Toxoplasma gondii; which infect rodents, but reproduce in cats, alter the behaviour of their rodent hosts. Several behavioural experiments have found that rats infected by the parasite are much more likely to take risks than their non-infected counter-parts. This leaves them more susceptible to eaten by their feline predators, thereby continuing the parasites lifecycle.

These behavioural changes are usually brought about by manipulating the hosts brain chemistry, either increasing or decreasing the brains response to signals it is receiving. In the case of the rodents, T.gondii ‘makes’ encourages risk-taking behaviour by ignoring environmental stimuli that work to make them dive for cover, such as the scent of cats. In several experiments that exposed rats to the smell of various different organisms, rats infected with T.gondii tended to frequent areas that smelled of cats and were not scared of cats when they were in the area. This is part of the parasite’s ‘extended phenotype’; where the behaviour of the host changes to maximise the survival chances of the parasites genes.

Again and again these manipulations have been observed in the animal kingdom (although for the most part the actual mechanisms are not fully understood, I should know, I wrote my dissertation on it) but what if they do affect humans?

Are humans manipulated in the same way that others are, to benefit those organisms that are so much smaller than us?

Humans are parasitized by many different organisms, tapeworms being a well-known example. However, most parasites we know steal nutrients from the food we eat, or feed off us directly, like ticks. In both cases, they don’t kill us, and don’t need to do something as energy consuming as manipulating their host’s behaviour.

Manipulating your host’s behaviour typically indicates that you want your host to move somewhere or do something that would be out of the ordinary for them; but is advantageous for you as the parasite, e.g. in the case with Cordyceps, which want their spores to be better distributed, or you want your host to be eaten, such as with T.gondii.

Neither of those strategies would be viable in humans. We don’t tend to get eaten by other organisms until we die naturally and unless the parasite only breeds around beach resorts in Tenerife, there’s not much point in changing our behaviour.

So, what if it’s accidental? What if we get infected by something were not supposed to? How might a parasite, not realising its reached a reproductive dead-end, affect us? Well ever since humanity has been looking after our feline friends we’ve run the risk of accidental infection by T.gondii, although no one is quite clear as what this infection might do to us. Infection rates vary widely across the country and for the vast majority of the population infection is completely asymptomatic, though infection can also trigger toxoplasmosis which can have lethal consequences.

Some observational evidence from studies, seem to suggest that infection has a demonstrable effect on the behaviour of those who have picked up the parasite, although the consequences do differ between males and females. Women seemingly become more intelligent, affectionate, and more likely to follow rules, whilst men tend to mellow out, becoming more loyal and mild-tempered when compared against other males.

The only trait that those who are infected share across both genders is a higher level of neuroticism, being more likely to blame themselves for problems in their lives and to have a high sense of insecurity.

However, these correlations are just that – correlations. No work has been done to prove that T.gondii is what is causing these behavioural changes in people – if they are changes at all.

Perhaps the reverse is happening; those of us with these traits are more prone to getting infected. Very little work – for obvious ethical reasons – has been done to see T.gondii interacts with the human body. However, perhaps we can take small pleasure in the idea that it is going to be convincing us to get eaten by lions anytime soon.

Behaviour altering parasites is a new, emerging field in biology; its effects are rarely documented and even more rarely understood in how they work. For many years, however, there has been a fundamental view that humans are not affected by such parasites and that we are apart from the animal kingdom in this regard.

Perhaps it’s time we address this view?

The ‘Tetris Effect’

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Jess Jarvis

Tetris – a game we’ve all played at some point throughout our childhood. A frustratingly addictive, yet somewhat simplistic game, involving aligning falling blocks in horizontal lines, to gain points.

But whom would’ve thought that a game which stamped out hours of our summer holiday boredom, could hold such valuable, therapeutic properties?

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The BBC reported recently that Tetris may actually be beneficial to our physical and mental health. Helping to ease patient suffering in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), curb cravings for addictive substances and even treat lazy eyes!

Scientists have suggested that it is the captivating and immersive ease of playing Tetris which ‘makes it potentially powerful as a therapeutic tool’.

Prof. Emily Holmes, a previous visiting professor in Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford, has spent many years of her career studying the potential use and effectiveness of Tetris in therapy and medicine. She suggests that it is the visual aspect of Tetris that makes it so absorbing. Unlike other games, the diversity in colour, shape and movement taps into the visual memory. The ‘Tetris Effect’ can be so intense, that people often report seeing the ‘falling blocks in their thoughts and dreams’ after playing.

Easing Suffering in PTSD

Prof. Holmes and her colleagues published a study in 2017, which showed how intrusive memories and ‘flashbacks’ – characteristic of PTSD – could be significantly reduced by playing Tetris. This study was one of the first to look at the use of Tetris as a therapeutic intervention. It suggested that the high ‘visuospatial demands’ of Tetris occupied the sensory elements of memory, preventing the consolidation of traumatic memories in the mind.

6 hours following a motor vehicle trauma, participants were delivered either a control intervention (writing a log for 20 minutes) or a Tetris intervention (20 minutes of game play). A week later, compared to the control group, those whom had played Tetris were significantly less affected by intrusive memories. Furthermore, their incidence of intrusions was significantly lower too!

From analysing previous research, Tetris seems to be the only game which has a positive effect on preventing intrusive memories following trauma. Not only is the intervention extremely effective, it is also very simple and helpful for people to use. It is low in intensity and the game itself, creates minimal distress. It reduces the symptoms of PTSD, whilst still allowing the ability to make sense of the event.

Further studies with more participants could show whether Tetris might have a real impact on the quality of life for sufferers following trauma. This research is only in the early stages though, and has a long way to go before it can be implemented into clinical situations.

Curbing Addiction and Cravings

Scientists from Plymouth University and Queensland University of Technology, have said playing Tetris can also help control cravings for addictive substances.

31 students took part in this experience sampling study. They were sent text messages throughout the day which asked them to rate their current level of cravings for drugs (e.g. cigarettes), food and drink (e.g. coffee, alcohol), and activities such as exercise and sex.

Half of the students were given a device to play short games of Tetris throughout the day. This mini intervention showed Tetris to have an effect, whereby cravings reduced more in those who played the game.

Prof. Jackie Andrade believes Tetris has an effect on curbing addictive cravings, because cravings involve imagining an intense experience of indulging in the use of a particular substance. Therefore, the demanding nature of Tetris on the sensory mental processes in the brain, makes it extremely difficult to imagine cravings vividly and make sense of them, whilst playing Tetris at the same time.

Treating a Lazy eye (Amblyopia)

Dr. Robert Hess, from McGill University in Canada (2013), completed a small study to see whether Tetris could help treat a condition known as lazy eye or amblyopia.

Previous treatments have only focused on retraining the ‘lazy eye’ alone. In the past doctors had recommended “covering the “good” eye with a patch to make the “lazy” one work harder.”

However, it became apparent to the researchers that the only way to help solve amblyopia was to solve the disruption to binocular vision and encourage the two eyes to work together.

Dr. Robert Hess, used headset-video goggles to display an adapted version of Tetris. Through these goggles Tetris was displayed dichoptically, ‘where one eye was allowed to see only the falling objects, and the other eye was allowed to see only the ground plane objects.’ This adaptation required the eyes to work simultaneously.

Results showed half of the participants played regular Tetris with the stronger eye patched up, while the other half of the participants played the adapted game with both eyes open. At the end of the study both groups improved, but those who used both eyes and played the game through the headset, showed a dramatic improvement.

Many people play Tetris just to pass the time. However, it seems as though Tetris may have therapeutic benefits; showing an amazing and captivating effect on the mental and physical processes in the body and enabling interventions for many kinds of disorders and conditions.

 

The Science of Sexuality

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Sintija Jurkevica and Jonathan James

The struggle of understanding sexuality begins to muddle even before sexual orientation can be defined. Some sources describe it as a person’s capacity to have erotic experiences and responses. However, in general, sexual orientation or preference, can be defined as “the sex (biological aspects of maleness and femaleness) of those whom one feels romantically and sexually attracted to”, where one’s sexual orientation may be categorised as heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, queer, pansexual, asexual or among others. However, categorisation of identifiable preferences is more nuanced than it appears; whilst some research may describe orientation as discrete categories, substantial evidence backs up the existence of a sexual continuum or spectrum.

But how does one develop a sexual preference? This riddle is a classic psychological argument of nature versus nurture: do the genes, the environment, or a mixture of them both influence one’s sexual attraction to others? This is obviously an ongoing debate and a matter of significantly more research. A recent September publication, composed by a psychology researcher Michael Bailey and his colleagues in the peer-reviewed journal of Psychological Science in the Public Interest, has been created with the intention of objectively reviewing previous scientific research on sexual orientation to draw impartial conclusions on the topic, without preconceptions of scientific biases and political influences.

Bailey’s review paper concluded that the non-social causes, such as the individual’s genetic make-up, play a larger role than environmental influences in establishment of one’s sexuality. The evidence, supporting such a claim, includes the genetic influences in twin studies and unchanged sexual orientation of infant boys after they are surgically or socially “converted” into girls. Bailey and colleagues also argue against the commonly assumed environmental causes of homosexuality to be weak and distorted in comparison to alternative explanations.

Various genetic hypotheses had been proposed to explain differences in sexuality. In several studies, it was found that a several different genetic markers (i.e. genetic elements) were more likely to be found in gay men in comparison to their straight counterparts. When this news was first published, it caused an outpouring in the media of the discovery of the so called ‘gay gene’, but the media failed to report one significant factor – genetic influences themselves cannot be used to determine predisposition to a trait. In other words, simply having a genetic element doesn’t automatically result in these individual’s sexual orientation. To make matters more complicated, scientists were unable to reproduce these findings in women for same sex attraction, suggesting that sexual orientation is a lot more complex than a few genetic differences.

Other scientists have conducted studies considering the seemingly well establish theory that each additional older brother increases the odds of a male being gay by approximately 33%, with something like 1 in 7 gay males holding their sexual orientation because of having older male siblings. These findings have been controversial, not least because there are several scientific studies that support these proposals, and several that have not found a link.

One attempt to explain this apparent causation is through the maternal immune response. Male fetuses produce H-Y antigens (small proteins) that play a role in sexual development in the womb (i.e. the development of male sex organs). In response to these antigens, the mother will sometimes produce an immune response, which gets stronger with each successive male fetus, resulting in decreased activity of these antigens in later males. One suggestion is that this results in less ‘mascularization’ of the male brain, resulting in the development of same sex attraction. The major flaw with this explanation is simple – the occurrence of the mother’s immune response is significantly lower than the prevalence of homosexuality, suggesting it cannot be the major cause.

The truth of the matter is, despite several attempts to better understand the genetics behind human sexual orientation, scientist know very little about what causes it, or even the true significance of any environmental factors. As Bailey concludes in his paper however, “Sexual orientation is an important human trait, and we should study it without fear, and without political constraint,” Bailey argues. “The more controversial a topic, the more we should invest in acquiring unbiased knowledge and science is the best way to acquire unbiased knowledge.” Therefore, we should look forward to developing a better understanding in the future, in the hope that a better understanding of ourselves, results in a better understanding of each other.

 

 

Alan Turing – The Father of Computer Science

alan turing*Image reproduced with the Permission of James Evans Illustration.

Sintija Jurkevica

Could a computer ever be able to enjoy strawberries and cream? Could a computer ever make a human fall in love with it? These are types of questions Alan Turing (1912-1954) might ask one whole-heartedly at a dinner party, thereby unfolding the eccentricity of the genius himself. By profession, Turing was a distinguished British mathematician, logistician and philosopher, who pioneered the field of computer science, whilst his persona has been characterized as petulant and reserved, concealing a world of innocence and passion for nature and truth.

In the celebration of the 50 year milestone reached after the development of Sexual Offences Act 1967, highlighted in this article are some of the most influential Turing’s achievements, followed by a short biography on his personal life as a man who found himself attracted to other men at a time when same-sex attraction was illegal.

    #1: The Universal Turing Machine

Suppose a world in which computation, crudely defined as a mathematical calculation, is only carried out by humans. This almost begs one to ask the seemingly obvious question: could a physical machine be engineered to carry out simple calculations? And yet, at the technological limits of 20th century, this was not so obvious. Turing was fascinated by the possibility of building such a machine and in 1936 he conceptualised a mathematical model of a computer, named the Turing Machine.

The Turing Machine was conceived as an infinitely long paper tape divided into squares with erasable digits written on it which would act as storable memory of an output. The digits on the tape would be recognised and printed or erased by a read and print tape. Hypothetically, when given an instruction, as simple as the calculation of 2 + 2, the machine would read the digits individually and alter them appropriately following the set rules until the calculation is finished. For example the Turing Machine would re-read the tape of digits until it finds a solution of 4 when instructed to calculate 2 + 2.

Whilst each Turing Machine can only follow a single set of rules, namely a single program, a Universal Turing Machine can hypothetically compute an infinite amount of programs when its sets of instructions have been changed, or re-programmed. This concept of a universal, programmable computer has laid the foundation of the modern theory of computation, where a single machine can carry out the task of interpreting and obeying a program, just like, in essence, a standard digital computer does. Only 9 years later did the electronic technology evolve to transfer Turing’s mathematical concepts and logical ideas into practice engineering to demonstrate the feasibility and usefulness of such a device.

Upon a closer philosophical enquiry, one realises that Turing’s arguments for building the UTM connects logical instruction, something regarded as cognitive, with materiality of a physical machine; this is arguably Turing’s most significant legacy to the world that will influence the many generations after him. Throughout his lifetime, Turing would also relate his mathematical work to the functioning of the mind. For example, he regarded the building of UTM as “building a brain”, and has written an influential philosophical paper titled Computing Machinery and Intelligence, that has inspired the field of Artificial Intelligence.

    #2: Cracking the Unbreakable Enigma

During the Second World War, Turing worked at Bletchley Park, the British cryptanalytic headquarters. There, he designed and helped to build a functioning decryption system called the Turing-Welchman “Bombe”, which initially read the German Luftwaffe air force signals. Later, the codes, deemed as impossible to decrypt, generated by the German “Enigma” machine used in German naval communications, were cracked by Turing in 1939. Turing’s section ‘Hut 8’ deciphered Naval and U-boat messages on an industrial scale, and its influence has been argued to contribute towards the Allied victory over The Axis.

   #3: Work on Non-Linear Dynamic Theory

During his childhood, Turing was fascinated by nature and showed curious philosophical enquiry, exercising his ability to make connections between seemingly unrelated concepts. He would make degree level notes on the theory of relativity at school and pondered whether quantum-mechanical theory could explain the relationship between mind and physical matter during his undergraduate years at Cambridge.

In his older years working at Manchester University, Turing used the computers developed there to explain universal patterns in nature by mathematics, and published another classic paper titled ‘The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis’ in 1952. His theory of growth and form in biology explains how the so called Turing patterns, such as leopard stripes and the spirals of snail shells, emerge from an initial mass of uniform matter.

   Turing’s Relationships

It was during his years at a boarding school in Dorset where he would find himself attracted to another able student, Christopher Morcom, who inspired young Alan to communicate more and pursue an academic path. Their intellectual companionship would leave a significant imprint on Turing after Morcom’s sudden death from tuberculosis, which inspired him to examine the problem of the mind and matter throughout his lifetime.

And it would around his undergraduate years at Cambridge when Turing realised that his attraction to men was a significant part of his identity, as he sought intimacy with an occasional lover, James Atkins, at the time a fellow mathematician. Only with years, he would become more outspoken about his sexual preference, leaving sexual conformity behind him. Curiously, when working at Bletchley Park, Turing had proposed to one of his female colleagues, Joan Clarke, who accepted the arrangement. However, Turing ended up retracting as he informed her of his true feelings.

On 31st March 1952, Turing was arrested and trialled for sexual indecency after police learnt of Turing’s intimacy with a young man from Manchester. As a man who honoured the truth, Turing would not deny his “illegal acts”, but admitted to no wrong-doing. As a severe consequence, Turing chose to undergo the year-long hormonal treatment – which in essence was chemical castration, over a prison sentence. In the light of Turing’s “indecency”, his security clearance was revoked, ending his ongoing work with the government and leaving him as a man with highly classified information who had to endure intrusive police searches.

Turing was found dead of a cyanide poisoning in 1954, administered from an apple. The coroner’s verdict was suicide.

Throughout his life, not only did Turing display an exceptionally profound mathematical and logical reasoning, his curiosity of nature allowed him to establish links between seemingly unrelated topics to lay the first solid foundations of computer science. Without Turing’s contributions, it would have taken another prodigy and a questionable amount of time to pioneer the age of computing which has developed the strong human reliance on smart devices existing today.

Alan Turing was a man who has, and continues to transform the world- regardless of his sexual preference.