Cerebral Hemispheres 2

NEUROSCIENTIFICALLY CHALLENGED

NEUROSCIENCE MADE SIMPLER

Equal Time for ESP Enthusiasts

January 27, 2008


Last week I put up a post about a neuroimaging experiment that studied brain activity associated with extrasensory perception (ESP). I must admit I am biased on this topic, and tend to be pretty dismissive toward belief in the paranormal. I’m sure this had something to do with me deciding to post on that particular study, and I’ll bet a hint of gloating could be detected in my review of an experiment that discredited the existence of ESP. So when I came across this study today I felt obligated to discuss it, in an attempt at providing equal time.

Researchers working jointly at Imperial College London (ICL) and the National Institute of Health (NIH) in the U.S. have been studying how homologous recombination occurs between two strands of DNA. Homologous recombination happens when two strands of DNA that are complementary come together, break apart, trade genetic information, then close back up again. It is commonly seen in meiosis (cell division to form sex cells), where it is often referred to as “crossing over”. Homologous recombination contributes to genetic diversity, and thus is integral to evolution. It is also used by the body to repair damaged sections of DNA.

For two strands of DNA to come together and recombine, one strand must first be able to identify another that has complementary base pairs (e.g. A-T, C-G). In the past, scientists thought this process was facilitated by proteins or other organic molecules. But the groups at ICL and NIH found that long strands of DNA appear to be able to recognize one another without any direct contact or assistance from other molecules. The researchers suggest the recognition is due to patterns of electrical charges between the two molecules, but more work must be done to fully understand that interaction. The findings could be important, as understanding this mechanism may shed light on how to stop errors in recombination that lead to diseases like cancer or Alzheimer’s.

But the reason I juxtapose this study with the neuroimaging post from last week is that these DNA strands seem to behave in a “telepathic” manner. Their method of communicating without contact probably would have been disregarded ten years ago as improbable or impossible. And it seems subtle paradigm shifting (note the word subtle as I’m not promoting a Kuhnian philosophy here) like this happens all the more frequently in science as our technology becomes more impressive. Something we disregard we suddenly can explain, and then it becomes not only accepted as true but as if it couldn’t ever have been any other way. So…maybe I shouldn’t be quite as dismissive about the paranormal. Perhaps it’s not very scientific.

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