Study Reveals the Transformative Quality of Beginner Meditation

A recent study released in the Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging journal shows a strong correlation between meditation and improved stress, memory, empathy, and overall happiness of participants. The study was conducted over a period of 8 weeks as 16 participants spent 30 minutes a day in meditation. Their brains were scanned over a two week period before the program and a two week period once the program was completed. During the same two week periods, people who were not meditating also had their brains scanned as a control. None of the participants were experienced meditators.

The meditation program was one designed by Jon Kabat-Zinn called the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction(MBSR) program. Participants enroll in a weekly course where they are taught to focus on mindfulness throughout the day and learn how to meditate. Mindfulness practices are designed to increase one’s awareness of their body, actions, thoughts, emotions, surroundings and environment. These practices, combined with meditation, often enhance one’s capacity to concentrate, attention span, and memory.

Previous studies following the MBSR program have recorded participant’s decreased stress levels, more favorable emotions and reduced physical pain, among other benefits. However, reports on the program were based primarily upon the testimony of participants and did not use brain imaging technology to document the precise brain alterations as they occurred. Alternatively, the new study found intriguing results centralized in specific regions of the brain through in-lab testing. 

The study found notable alterations in the hippocampus, posterior cingulated cortex, cerebellum and temporal-parietal region. These regions displayed an increased density of gray matter which the scientists considered a positive indication of their well-being. People experiencing mood deficiencies or depression, for instance, often have below average gray matter in the hippocampus. Those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder also frequently exhibit decreased gray matter in the hippocampus. A correlation is not surprising as the hippocampus plays an important role in regulating emotion, memory and learning. The cerebellum also takes part in monitoring human emotions, while the temporal-parietal region and the posterior cingulated cortex are engaged in empathy and the ability to imagine the perspective of others. Those who did not participate in the MBSR program did not share these results. 

Britta Hölzel, the study’s director, notes that their conclusions are still speculative but admits the study gives a positive impression. Denser gray matter appears to correlate with the strength and utilization of those regions of the brain. Thus, subjects who participated in the MBSR training experienced increased mood control, emotional stability and elevation, improved empathy and reduced stress. 

While numerous studies have been conducted to determine the effects of meditation on the human mind, Hölzel’s research contributes singular information on the effects of brief, novice meditation. Although many studies have returned positive results denoting the value of meditation, often these tests have been conducted on more experienced yogis. Thus, the results have had far fewer implications on the relative physical, mental, emotional and overall health impacts of meditating on those just beginning meditation. This new research is a testament to the marked effect only a few weeks of regular meditation can have on portions of the human mind. 

The study is also unique in its documentation of the before and after effects of meditation. Previous studies have primarily focused on comparing the brains of expert yogis to those of average, non-meditating peoples. Their results have shown that the yogi brain is indeed markedly different from others. However, studies had yet to show the transitional impact of meditation on human minds regarding the brain’s physical structure. 

Hölzel remarked, “I think what’s really positive and promising about this study is that it suggests our well-being is in our hands.” The elasticity of the brain was indeed demonstrated in this research, which means mental and physical well-being are truly accessible, even reasonable, to achieve.  

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University of Illinois Scientists Design New High Capacity, Quick Charging Battery

Scientists at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign have discovered a new method of battery design which may allow quick charge, long lasting batteries to emerge. Quick charge batteries present opportunity in numerous arenas, namely for the convenience they provide. However, perhaps most recognizably, they represent ground breaking opportunities for the future of the electric car.

Illinois professor Paul Braun and his team have developed a new battery which could allow cell phones to charge in seconds, or a computer to charge in minutes. The team owes their invention to a form of three-dimensional nanotechnology. The newly developed battery electrode can charge up to 100 times faster than the standard battery without sacrificing storage size or capacity. The battery’s design has special appeal for various millitary, medical, laser, and electric vehicle devices which could benefit immensely from a quick charging, high capacity battery.

The battery’s success lies in the ability to receive power quickly, yet discharge power slowly and steadily. Scientists have found battery volume a formidable obstacle in the past as batteries with high volume material charge slowly, and those with low volume lose power rapidly. Braun’s group strove to combine battery-like energy with capacitor power, thus allowing the virtues of both technologies to function in standard, battery powered appliances. Braun’s team was able to structure thin battery material into a three dimensional form that is capable of absorbing power quickly and maintaining energy for a longer period of time.

Among the numerous possibilities the new technology might provide, the electric vehicle expects to advance significantly. Electric cars can evoke anxiety in drivers travelling long distances, and many consumers have expressed concern regarding the car’s battery life. Prospective buyers frequently worry that the vehicle’s battery could die during a drive, leaving them stranded. The fear is so common it is now known as “range anxiety.”

Driving range of an electric vehicle is often between 30-70 miles when fully charged, depending on the car model and pervading weather conditions. Electric car manufacturers frequently aim to provide enough power for the driver to make their daily commute to and from school or work and perhaps to complete several errands as well. Based on the average number of miles commuters travel daily, manufacturers say their electric cars are capable of meeting the typical daily needs of the majority of their buyers.

However, on the occasion that one travels further than the average daily commute, some are not convinced the electric vehicle is a superior option to the standard gas-powered car. Electric charging stations can be few and far between, and the possibility of running out of power is much higher for an electric car than a gas-powered vehicle if the driver does not stop at home. This responsibility is enough to prevent many people from purchasing an electric car which could otherwise protect precious natural resources and conserve large amounts of money spent on gas.

The new battery technology provides occasion for the electric car to finally match the gas powered vehicle’s range and convenience. By employing Braun’s new battery technology, electric vehicles could reach charging capacity in the same amount of time it takes to fill a tank of gas. While current batteries require anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours to reach an 80% charge, an empty quick charge car battery would reach a 90% charge in only 2 minutes. Alleviating the waiting time means that someday electric charging stations could become as frequent and popular as gas stations are today. Furthermore, a tremendous anxiety has been removed for the long distance traveller who would no longer have to worry about “range anxiety.” For these reasons and more, Braun’s battery design has paved the way for many technological advancements to come.

The scientists say the technology is still in the lab and have not said when it will be made commercially available. However, the development represents a step towards a convenient and more environmentally friendly future for cars.

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US and World Bank Sign Global Water Collaboration Agreement

In honor of World Water Day on March 22nd, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick signed a memorandum to facilitate collaboration on global water issues. Also in attendance were Jeff Seabright of the Environment and Water Resources branch of Coca-Cola, and Steve Hilton of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

The agreement was developed to address numerous water distribution and sanitation issues which are expected to worsen as the population grows. In light of existing and predicted water shortages around the world, the US and The World Bank outlined a stratagem of cooperation to enhance and stimulate action.

Their target is to mitigate water scarcity due to climate change, drought, flooding, poverty and depletion of natural water resources. Clinton said of the response, “The water crisis is a health crisis, it’s a farming crisis, it’s an economic crisis, it’s a climate crisis, and increasingly, it is a political crisis. And therefore, we must have an equally comprehensive response.”

The delegates plan to utilize any available technologies, including NASA’s remote sensing technologies, to resolve instances of water scarcity. The aid of 19 other US government agencies is also enlisted in the project. The World Bank plans to assimilate the work and technology of these agencies into their current water projects, which distribute $5 billion a year in water related assistance to developing nations.

Technology will support water and weather forecasting which will help communities prepare for droughts, floods, and other weather conditions which might impact the water supply. They will also facilitate hygiene, water access, and water distribution projects while rehabilitating watersheds and wetlands. Improved irrigation is another goal in many regions, as well as increased political and social cooperation in an between nations. According to the US policy website, both parties also hope to pool their financial assets to invest in water and sanitation.

The US is already one of the leading donors to foreign development, and between 2005 and 2009 the US provided $3.4 billion in water-related foreign aid. The US Agency for International Development, or USAID, is a primary stake holder in these endeavors. Currently, USAID has water based projects underway in Indonesia, India, Haiti, Cambodia, and numerous other nations. Another foreign affairs agency, the US Millenium Challenge Corporation, has begun a $275 million operation in Jordan to improve water access and sanitation.

Coca-Cola representative Jeff Seabright also pledged $6 million to the water shortage in Africa. The Coca-Cola Africa Foundation aims specifically enable women in water scarce regions with a program called RAIN: Water for Africa. Many African women in water stressed regions spend a large portion of the day collecting water for cooking and drinking. Rather than attending school, many girls accompany their mothers on the walk to collect water each day. The chore frequently prevents female education and perpetuates poverty, a matter which Coca-Cola is focusing their efforts on.

Steven Hilton also dedicated $50 million to water-related improvements at the commemoration. 

Zoellick stressed the urgency of ensuring a water secure future for people around the world, an issue which The World Bank has grappled with numerous times before. Poverty, disease, and high infant mortality are each linked to problems of water sanitation. “Look at almost any poverty issue- you will find water. A lack of safe water and adequate sanitation is the world’s single largest cause of illness, responsible for two million deaths a year. That’s four people every minute- most of them children,” he explained.

As the population is expected to reach 9 billion in 2050, concern over water distribution and sanitation will need to be met in a swift and productive manner. Donal Steinberg of USAID noted, “Our presence here today reflects a basic truth in the development challenges we face: no single government, international institution, civil society group, or private corporation has a monopoly on good ideas, dedicated commitment, or ground truth,” a guiding principle of the World Water Day commemoration.

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Half of Turtle Species Face Extinction

March 1, 2011 – By Robin Comita

According to a statement by the Turtle Conservation Coalition, between 48% and 54% of turtle and tortoise species are endangered. Although turtle populations have been declining for many years, a recently published list of the 25+ most endangered turtle and tortoise species has captured the attention of multiple environmental and activist groups. The coalition predicts that without drastic conservation efforts, these species will become extinct within a few decades. 

The Turtle Conservation Coalition has identified illegal capture and trade, along with habitat loss and destruction, as the primary cause for their plight. Of the 25 species listed, 17 are from Asia, 3 are from Africa, 3 are from South America, one is from North America and one is from Australia. In other words, more than two-thirds of the most endangered turtle species are found in Asia, where the illegal market for endangered turtles is substantial. 

Despite efforts to crack down on the illegal capture and trading of turtles in the early 1990s, Asian markets for the species are prospering. As a species of turtle is driven closer to extinction, merchants can charge a higher price for the rare animal. Efforts to contain the Asian turtle trade were weak or only briefly effective as dealers have found loopholes in the system. 

Many turtles are wanted for food, pets, manufacturing combs, and perceived medicinal qualities. Although hunting wild turtles may have sufficed in the past, population growth has caused demand to outpace supply. Some efforts to breed or farm turtles have been successful, but wild turtles can often fetch a higher price. Some rare species are sold for tens of thousands of dollars, and others are rumored to retail for hundreds of thousands. 

Among the most highly valued species is the golden coin turtle, also known as the Chinese three-striped box turtle. The profit made from catching and selling a single three-striped box turtle is enough for some to afford a house. The turtle is thought to cure cancer, and makeshift traps in its habitat abound. Populations living in the wild have decreased more than 50%, and it is now ranked the 9th most endangered turtle. 

However, the Pinta or Abingdon Island Giant Tortoise tops the list as the most endangered turtle. Nicknamed “Lonesome George,” it is believed to be the last of its kind. Second in danger is the Red River/Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle, of which only 4 known individuals remain. Of the four, three are male and only one female. Conservationists are attempting to breed a male with the last female in captivity to ensure the survival of the species. 

Turtles often reach reproductive age when they are 15 to 20 years old. After reaching maturity, they lay eggs every year for the next 30 or 40 years. However, if captured or killed before turning 15, their chances of reproducing are virtually extinguished. This lengthy period of adolescence leaves turtles especially susceptible to endangerment due to human activities. 

Turtles are now more endangered than mammals, birds, amphibians, rays or sharks and among vertebrates they are matched only by the primates. An estimated 300 million turtles are consumed each year in Asia alone. Approximately 100,000 wild turtles are caught and consumed during a religious holiday in Bangladesh. Large numbers also become bycatch each year, and consequently die or are disposed of improperly. 

The Turtle Conservation Coalition, which is an alliance of at least ten separate organizations, is approaching conservation in a series of steps. Step one, Preventing Imminent Extinction, is completed. The second step, Expanding the Focus, is currently underway. The final step is Securing the Future of turtles and tortoises around the world. 

In response to the new list of endangered turtles, Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation(PARC) is promoting a new, year long awareness campaign titled Year of the Turtle. The campaign seeks to raise awareness through education, contests and activities about endangered turtles, while offering methods for supporting their survival. Other programs, such as the Turtle Survival Alliance, use a “boots on the ground” approach to conservation and recovery programs. Dozens of groups around the world have mobilized around the cause, many of which work with the Turtle Conservation Coalition to spread the word about the endangered status of half the world’s turtles. 

Photo Credit: Tortoise, Eastern Box Turtle  

67 Dead Dolphins Wash Ashore Gulf Coast

February 26, 2011 – By Robin Comita

This week, 24 baby dolphins washed ashore in Alabama and Mississippi along with at least 6 adults. So far, scientists have tallied a total of 67 dead dolphins along the coast. The number of dolphin carcasses appears to be growing hourly. 

The majority of dolphin carcasses are babies and stillborn calves. Typically, only one or two dead baby dolphins wash ashore during the calving period. This year, many dolphins appear to have been born prematurely or died shortly after they were born. As this is the first calving season since the BP Oil Spill, scientists have noted the BP Oil Spill as a potential cause for the alarming number of deaths. However, they are not ruling anything out. Waters have been slightly colder than normal which could be a factor. Algal blooms can also increase mortality rates, but scientists have yet to find any indication of an algal bloom. 

The dolphin carcasses are taken to labs where scientists take tissue samples and perform necropsies, but the majority have been too decayed to provide much information. Typically, any findings from these tests could be reported in about 3 weeks, but specialists say it could take months to release their findings. The BP spill is still a sensitive subject, and protocol delays processes and publication. 

Thus far, there are few external signs of oil contamination on the dolphins. Many affected animals in the Gulf region, including birds and turtles, have turned up saturated with oil and visibly suffering from the explosion. Two dolphins were discovered with oil on their faces, but many signs point to unhealthy diet as a cause. Dolphins are at the top of the food chain, and if species further down the food chain are contaminated by oil then dolphins can ingest highly concentrated amounts of oil. The BP spill also coincided with the fetus gestation period, meaning unborn babies might have taken a lethal dose. 

Greg Bossart, veterinary pathologist and dolphin expert for the Georgia Aquarium, told NPR that numerous ways the BP Oil Spill has affected the Gulf’s ecosystems are still unknown. “When those interactions become unbalanced from the oil, then you’re prone to seeing new diseases emerge, predator-prey relationships change, temperatures change, [and] chemistry of the ocean change. All those indirectly affect the health of organisms,” he explained. 

An estimated 2,000-5,000 dolphins live in the Gulf region, and roughly 700 reports of stranded dolphins in the Southeast are reported each year. However, according to Moby Solangi of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies, dolphin stranding season has yet to begin. Furthermore, it is highly unusual for such a large number of calves to be stranded. January of 2009 and 2010 reported zero stranded calves, denoting that in January 2011 the number of stranded calves increased 10 fold.

On February 20th, BBC News reported new findings by Samantha Joye, a professor at the University of Georgia. Joye has been studying the effects on the ocean floor surrounding where the BP oil well exploded and has found animals, plants, and corals devastated. In some places along the floor, oil, sludge, and dead animals are 4 inches thick. She predicts it will take a decade or more to determine the effects of the oil spill on the Gulf. When the filter-feeders and other smaller marine species die off or become deadly food, only time will tell the effects on mammals at the top of the food chain, like the dolphin. Claims made by BP’s compensation fund that the Gulf’s ecosystems will recover by the end of 2012 are false according to this data. There may be many more baby bottlenose dolphin carcasses to wash ashore in coming months. 

Climate Change Potentially Harming California Redwoods

February 18, 2011 – By Robin Comita

In 2010, several scientists set out to study the impact of global warming on the iconic California redwoods. Studies have shown that the redwoods and sequoias have suffered with the decline in fog cover. Although the trees have survived since dinosaurs roamed the earth, only recently have they undergone a drastic rise in temperature and vast increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Scientists are concerned that as more water evaporates from the tree’s leaves, the monolithic redwoods will not be able to pump enough water to the tree tops and may not survive. 

Inside the redwood is an intense hydrologic system unlike any other organism’s on earth. The trees have to efficiently transport water from their roots to the towering, sometimes 300 foot tall, tops of the trees. An impressive system for scientific study and analysis as redwoods can live for hundreds of years. Some of the California redwoods in this study are older than the medieval cathedrals in Europe. 

The study involves trees from near the Oregon border to Santa Cruz County, and spreads across numerous state parks. The trees have been studied to the most minute detail; scientists even estimate the number of leaves and cones on each tree. Height and width are measured, including the length and width of bark and branches hundreds of feet above ground.

In order to collect this data, the research team hoists ropes which attach them to the redwoods, then climb to the very top. Next, trees are allotted numerous sensors which measure humidity, temperature, air pressure, rain, wind, light, and fog. The data collected by these devices will help scientists determine which changes in climate corollate most directly to changes in the tree’s health and growth. 

Samples are also taken from the tree’s core and studied in a lab. A redwood’s tree rings can reveal its age and any significant weather changes that occurred in its lifetime while offering up other important clues about its history. 3D models are created on computers to help scientists predict the potential effects. Data will be taken again every three years, though the scientists hope the study lasts a hundred years or more. Data like they are collecting is unprecedented in scientific studies of the trees and could prove incredibly valuable in the near and more distant future. By 2100, some scientists have projected such immense climate change that the trees would no longer survive in this habitat. 

Bases for these hypotheses are rooted in weather analysis and fog measurements from the area. Fog cover has decreased 33% over the past century and the redwoods have not responded favorably to the change. Redwoods rely on the coastal fog for an important percentage of their water intake. Similarly, atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased 30% in the past 150 years. Studies have shown that the trees growth is stunted by warm weather, and carbon dioxide reduces the annual rainfall while lowering precipitation and causing increased temperatures. Scientists do not know how the trees will respond, but many hope that the studies incite positive change. 

With sufficient data, participating researchers hope to shed light on how climate change is affecting the infamous redwoods and sequoias. As awareness of the issue rises, they hope political action and governmental attention increase as well. Big changes will need to occur to ensure the redwoods survive hundreds of years from today. Controlled fires, wider redwood habitat preservation, and planting trees are all encouraged gestures which could increase their potential to survive. In roughly two years, these scientists will return to collect more data and draw further conclusions regarding the health of California’s redwoods.  

NY Habitat Expands for Endangered Karner Blue Butterfly

February 17, 2011 – By Robin Comita

The Nature Conservancy has reported its latest success story preserving precious Karner blue butterfly habitat in New York. With the aid of a Saratoga County Open Space grant, the Conservancy purchased a 68 acre plot of land in the Saratoga Sandplains. The land is located within the Wilton Wildlife Preserve and Park and is intended to restore the Karner Blue Butterfly’s grassland habitat. The plot cost $265,000, and is the beginning of a series of changes benefitting the endangered butterfly.

The Karner blue butterfly was added to the federal endangered species list in 1992. Prior to the 1980s, the Karner blue butterfly inhabited a wide area spanning from the coast of Maine to western Minnesota. The butterfly requires wildfire and other natural disturbances to maintain its habitat and depends on the lupine flower for survival. Eggs are lain on or near lupine plants, and when the eggs hatch the young caterpillars feed on lupine leaves. As adults, the butterflies drink lupine nectar. Wildfire supports lupine growth and survival by helping to maintain the sandy and shadeless conditions the lupine relies on. 

In the 1980s wildfire containment, coupled with urban encroachment and industrialization, had devastated the Karner blue butterfly population. In Canada, the species was declared locally extinct. Across the US, numbers dropped below 1,000 and their habitat covered only 5 acres in 7 of the 12 states where the butterfly once lived. Although prized for its beautiful blue coloring, few measures were taken to ensure their survival before the 2000s. 

Karner blue butterflies survived in the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin, but there are no records showing Karner numbers in the park prior to 1993. The park is currently believed to hold the largest Karner population in the US, but conditions have improved in a number of states. In 1998, scientists gathered eggs to preserve and reintroduce into the wild in an attempt to rescue the butterfly from extinction. Although the butterfly was declared locally extinct in Ohio in the 1980s, reintroduction efforts proved successful on the Kitty Todd Wildlife Preserve. Kitty Todd Wildlife Preserve is also owned and protected by The Nature Conservancy. 

The Nature Conservancy has taken initiative ensuring the survival of the species since the 1990s. Scientists have captured and reintroduced the butterflies to national parks in New Hampshire, Indiana, and New York. In 2003, the Karner Blue Butterfly Recovery Team, which chiefly consists of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Nature Conservancy, faculty from the University of Wisconsin, individuals and various regionalized environmental organizations, composed an action plan. The plan was enacted in 2003 and titled the Recovery Plan for the Karner Blue Butterfly. Though localized to Minnesota, the recovery plan hopes to move the Karner blue butterfly from the “endangered” class to “threatened.” Such an achievement would denote the butterfly was no longer considered in immediate danger of extinction. 

To ensure long term survival of the Karner blue, an estimated 300 acres of butterfly habitat is required. Currently, 125 acres have been restored and 20,000 Karner butterflies live in the wild. The Kitty Todd Preserve hosts an annual Blue Weekend Celebration for the butterfly and blue lupine. This allows visitors to view the butterfly in its habitat and listen to various speakers discuss relevant topics. Walking tours give onlookers a rare opportunity to walk off trail in the park while butterfly experts search for the rare butterfly. The 68 acre land purchase in New York is the latest in a series of improvements on the butterfly’s behalf. Habitat expansion within the Wilson park is intended to allow the butterfly to spread beyond preservation efforts and expand its natural environment. 

China’s Air Pollution “Transportation” To LA

January 20, 2011- By Robin Comita

China is home to the 16 cities with the worst air quality in the world. Linfen, China houses the world’s most polluted air due to its location in the center of a strew of coal mines. China’s coal industry and factories make the air quality particularly hazardous, even in spite of efforts to use green technology and improve air quality. In some of China’s cities, it is not uncommon to wear a surgical mask when walking outdoors. However, science has revealed potent data revealing what the Environmental Protection Agency has called the “global transport of air pollution.”

This data is of particular concern to Americans, especially those living in California. Science has yet to conclude the amount each industry in different countries contributes to the transportation of air pollution, but overwhelmingly China’s air pollution is now hovering over California. Los Angeles, California, is notorious for its low air quality and dense brown smog. The smog above LA is largely due to car emissions and geography. The San Gabriel Mountains prevent the smog from dispersing as it typically would in other US cities, and combines with cold sea air and tropical air pressure to trap the smog above LA. But these factors do not explain how Chinese air pollutants arrived in LA.

By studying the “signature” chemicals of specific pollutants from a particular region, scientists have tracked the pollutants movement across the world. Weather patterns convey the air in China to California, where much of China’s air pollutants remain trapped by the mountainous landscape. On a given day, as much as 25% of LA’s and 40% of California’s overall air pollution is imported from China.

As outsourcing has become the norm for US manufacturing companies, products sold in America increasingly bare the “made in China” or “made in India” labels. When a corporation outsources a business sector, part of the appeal is that the company has less responsibility for that branch. Headquarters do not have to provide health care and avoid paying “overhead” production costs for that sector. The findings of these studies have shown that the consequences of extensive and environmentally irresponsible manufacturing overseas returns to Americans in the form of lower air quality. 

Air quality studies have exposed potentially devastating effects to human health. Children raised in LA are more likely to develop asthma and stunted lung growth than children in other parts of America. If affected children move to an area with higher air quality before lung development is complete, many have greatly improved health. Living in places with poor air quality can reduce the quality of life for inhabitants, children and adults alike, and many times this harm is irreversible.

A leading environmental official in China gave his opinion to the New York Times in 2005, stating that China’s air pollution could quadruple within the next 15 years. As China’s population continues to increase, industry and infrastructure are likely to expand as well, which explains the steep climb in air pollution. As pollution in China increases, it follows that air pollution in the US will also increase, a threat that should concern Americans as well.