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Best of the Web

Best of the web: Brain switches and bad drugs

Best of the web: Brain switches and bad drugs

(Copyright: Thinkstock)

Enjoy the pick of the week’s science and technology stories from around the web, as selected by Bob Trevelyan, editor of The Browser.

Controlling brains with a flick of a light switch
Amy Barth | Discover | 25 September 2012

Karl Deisseroth has been conducting some extraordinary research. His technique, known as optogenetics, uses lights to switch specific neural pathways in the brain on or off. So far, he's shown that he can control the behaviour of mice via optical fibres implanted in the cortex. The possible applications for humans are stupendous. They could include cures for drug addiction and mental illness and a treatment for Parkinson's disease. This engrossing piece explains how the process works.

The drugs don't work: A modern medical scandal
Ben Goldacre | Guardian | 21 September 2012

How much do you and your doctor know about the drugs you take? This account suggests "not enough". Says Goldacre: "Drugs are tested by the people who manufacture them, in poorly designed trials, on hopelessly small numbers of weird, unrepresentative patients, and analysed using techniques that are flawed by design, in such a way that they exaggerate the benefits of treatments. Unsurprisingly, these trials tend to produce results that favour the manufacturer. When trials throw up results that companies don't like, they are perfectly entitled to hide them from doctors and patients, so we only ever see a distorted picture of any drug's true effects."

Proportion control
Steven Strogatz | New York Times | 24 September 2012

"No other number attracts such a fevered following as the golden ratio,” says Strogatz. “Approximately equal to 1.618 and denoted by the Greek letter phi, it’s been canonized as the 'Divine Proportion.' Its devotees will tell you it’s ubiquitous in nature, art and architecture. And there are plastic surgeons and financial mavens who will tell you it’s the secret to pretty faces and handsome returns." Here’s everything you need to know about the golden ratio.

Deconstructing recommender systems
Joseph Konstan & John Riedl | IEEE Spectrum | 24 September 2012

Have you ever wondered what you look like to Amazon, Netflix and others? "Here is the cold, hard truth: You are a very long row of numbers in a very, very large table. This row describes everything you’ve looked at, everything you’ve clicked on, and everything you’ve purchased on the site; the rest of the table represents the millions of other Amazon shoppers. Your row changes every time you enter the site, and it changes again with every action you take while you’re there. That information in turn affects what you see on each page you visit and what e-mail and special offers you receive from the company."

Tricks foods play
Janet Raloff | Science News | 24 September 2012

"Most people would never equate downing a well-dressed salad or a fried chicken thigh with toking a joint of marijuana." But new research suggests that the comparison holds up, in at least one key respect. Certain foods can trick your brain into over-eating, by converting a constituent of vegetable oil into natural compounds called endocannabinoids, which heighten appetite. Many cannabis users will have experienced "getting the munchies"; now we know how something similar can affect non-cannabis users too.

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