Is punishment as effective as we think?

Punishment might not be an effective means to get members of society to cooperate for the common good, according to a social dilemma experiment.

A game to study human behavior has shown punishment is an ineffective means for promoting cooperation among players. The result has implications for understanding how cooperation has evolved to have a formative role in human societies.

Human societies maintain their stability by forming cooperative partnerships. But, cooperation often comes at a cost. For example, a person taking time to raise the alarm in order to alert other members of a group to impending danger could be losing valuable time to save oneself. It is unclear why natural selection favors cooperativeness among individuals who are inherently selfish.

In theoretical studies, punishment is often seen as a means to coerce people into being more cooperative. To examine such theory, a team of international researchers led by Marko Jusup of Hokkaido University in Japan and Zhen Wang of Northwestern Polytechnical University in China has conducted a "social dilemma experiment." The team investigated if providing punishment as an option helps improve the overall level of cooperation in an unchanging network of individuals.

They used a version of the commonly employed "prisoner's dilemma" game. Two hundred and twenty-five students in China were organized into three trial groups and played 50 rounds each of the game.

In group one, every student played with two opponents which changed every round. The students could choose between "cooperate" or "defect," and points were given based on the combined choices made. If a student and the two opponents chose "defect," the student gained zero points. If they all chose "cooperate," the student gained four points. If only a student chose to defect while the other two chose to cooperate, the gain for the student was eight points.

The second group was similar to the first one in every aspect except that the people playing the game with each other remained the same for the duration of the 50 rounds, enabling them to learn each other's characteristics.

In the third group, players also remained the same. However, a new option, "punish," was introduced. Choosing punishment led to a small reduction in points for the punisher and a larger reduction of points for the punishees.

At the end of the game, overall points were counted and the students were given monetary compensation based on the number of points won.

The expectation is that, as individuals play more with the same opponents over several rounds, they see the benefit of cooperating in order to gain more points. Introducing punishment as an option is basically saying: if you don't cooperate with me, I'll punish you. In theory, it is expected that applying this option would lead to more cooperation.

The researchers found that players in the constantly changing groups cooperated much less (4%) than those in the static groups (38%), where they were able to establish which players were willing to cooperate and thus gain a larger average financial payoff for all involved.

Surprisingly, however, adding punishment as an option did not improve the level of cooperation (37%). The final financial payoffs in this trial group were also, on average, significantly less than those gained by players in the static group. Interestingly, less defection was seen in the punishment group when compared to the static group; some players replaced defection with punishment.

"While the implied message when punishing someone is 'I want you to be cooperative,' the immediate effect is more consistent with the message 'I want to hurt you,'" write the researchers in their study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Punishment seems to have an overall demoralizing effect, as individuals who get punished on multiple occasions may see a good chunk of their total payoff vanish in a short period of time, explain the researchers. This could lead players to lose interest in the game and play the remaining rounds with less of a rational strategy. The availability of punishment as an option also seems to reduce the incentive to choose cooperation over competition.

Why, then, is punishment so pervasive in human societies? "It could be that human brains are hardwired to derive pleasure from punishing competitors," says Jusup. "However, it is more likely that, in real life, a dominant side has the ability to punish without provoking retaliation," adds Wang.

Although the study provides valuable insights into how cooperation arises in human society, the team advises it would be unwise to extrapolate the implications of their study far beyond the experimental setting.

A kiss of death for prostate cancer

Hokkaido University researchers have uncovered a cellular protein that stabilizes a tumor promoting signaling pathway, suggesting a new target to treat prostate cancer.

The drug Gefitinib is used to treat breast, lung, and other cancers by inhibiting epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) signaling, but it has only a limited effect on prostate cancer. EGFR, present on the cell membrane, is involved in cell proliferation and the development of dermis, lung, and digestive tissues. When a mutation causes its over-activation, it can lead to increased cell proliferation and tumor formation.

Tadashi Matsuda of Hokkaido University and his colleagues in Japan investigated human prostate cancer cells to determine if there is an unknown up-regulation mechanism in the EGFR pathway.

When EGFR is attached to a small protein called ubiquitin, it is given "the kiss of death" and tagged for degradation inside the cell. This tagging process is facilitated by a protein called c-CBL. The degradation of EGFR leads to less signaling from the receptor and reduced cell proliferation.

Matsuda and his team found that signal-transducing adaptor protein-2 (STAP-2) stabilizes EGFR by inhibiting its c-CBL-mediated ubiquitination. Furthermore, when the team suppressed STAP-2, the prostate cancer cells showed reduced proliferation and did not form a tumor when transplanted into mice.

"STAP-2 inhibitors could play a role in treating Gefitinib-resistant prostate cancers. Further studies on STAP-2 will provide new insights into cancer physiology and support the development of anticancer therapies," says Tadashi Matsuda. The study was published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Climate change could expose volcanic regions, increase eruptions: Study

Climate change caused by humans is rapidly melting ice in volcanically active regions, which could lead to increased volcano eruptions, a study has found.

Climate change caused by humans is rapidly melting ice in volcanically active regions, which could lead to increased volcano eruptions, a study has found. The study, led by researchers at the University of Leeds in the UK, found that there was less volcanic activity in Iceland when glacier cover was more extensive and as the glaciers melted volcanic eruptions increased due to subsequent changes in surface pressure.

“Climate change caused by humans is creating rapid ice melt in volcanically active regions. In Iceland, this has put us on a path to more frequent volcanic eruptions,” said Graeme Swindles from the School of Geography at Leeds. The study examined Icelandic volcanic ash preserved in peat deposits and lake sediments and identified a period of significantly reduced volcanic activity between 5,500 and 4,500 years ago.

This period came after a major decrease in global temperature, which caused glacier growth in Iceland. The findings, published in the journal Geology, found there was a time lag of roughly 600 years between the climate event and a noticeable decrease in the number of volcanic eruptions. The study suggests that perhaps a similar time lag can be expected following the more recent shift to warmer temperatures.

Icelandic volcanism is controlled by complex interactions between rifts in continental plate boundaries, underground gas and magma build-up and pressure on the volcano’s surface from glaciers and ice. (File Photo)

Iceland’s volcanic system is in process of recovering from the ‘Little Ice Age’ – a recorded period of colder climate roughly between the years 1500 and 1850 AD, researchers said. Since the end of the Little Ice Age, a combination of natural and human caused climate warming is causing Icelandic glaciers to melt again, they said. “The human effect on global warming makes it difficult to predict how long the time lag will be but the trends of the past show us more eruptions in Iceland can be expected in the future,” Swindles said.

“These long term consequences of human effect on the climate is why summits like COP are so important. It is vital to understand how actions today can impact future generations in ways that have not been fully realised, such as more ash clouds over Europe, more particles in the atmosphere and problems for aviation,” he said. Icelandic volcanism is controlled by complex interactions between rifts in continental plate boundaries, underground gas and magma build-up and pressure on the volcano’s surface from glaciers and ice.

Changes in surface pressure can alter the stress on shallow chambers where magma builds up. “When glaciers retreat there is less pressure on the Earth’s surface. This can increase the amount of mantle melt as well as affect magma flow and how much magma the crust can hold,” said Ivan Savov, from the School of Earth & Environment at Leeds. “Even small changes in surface pressure can alter the likelihood of eruptions at ice-covered volcanos,” said Savov.


Climate change may be vastly underestimated due to ocean temperature miscalculations - study

Scientists have discovered a flaw in the method used to measure past ocean temperatures which, if correct, could mean we have underestimated the rate of climate change over the past 100 million years.

According to the current methodology, the temperature of the ocean depths, and the surface of the polar ocean, was some 15C (59F) higher 100 million years ago, compared to now.

These estimates have been challenged, however, by a joint team of researchers from the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL).

In their study, published in Nature Communications, the team posits that ocean temperatures may have remained relatively stable throughout this period, raising serious concerns about the current level of climate change being experienced by Mother Earth.

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“If we are right, our study challenges decades of paleoclimate research,” EPFL’s Anders Meibom said. “Oceans cover 70 percent of our planet. They play a key role in the Earth's climate. Knowing the extent to which their temperatures have varied over geological time is crucial if we are to gain a fuller understanding of how they behave and to predict the consequences of current climate change more accurately.”

Researchers believe that over the last 50 years certain processes used in current methodology were overlooked. Scientists have used foraminifera, which are tiny marine fossils found in the sediment cores extracted from the ocean floor, to calculate ocean temperatures.

This is done by calculating the levels of oxygen-18 content in the calcareous shells of foraminifera. The level of oxygen-18 is dependent on the temperature of the ocean in which the foraminifera live.

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The problem now, it seems, is that all of these estimates were based on the principle that the oxygen-18 content remained constant while the fossils were in the sediment. To test this theory, the team exposed the foraminifera to high temperatures in simulated seawater that only contained oxygen-18.

The results show that “the level of oxygen-18 present in the foraminifera tests can in fact change without leaving a visible trace, thereby challenging the reliability of their use as a thermometer.”

“What appeared to be perfectly preserved fossils are in fact not,” CNRS researcher Sylvain Bernard said. This basically means that previous estimates of ocean temperatures are simply incorrect and instead of showing the aforementioned 15C-degree drop over the last 100 million years, the study notes that “these measurements simply reflect the change in oxygen-18 content in the fossil foraminifera tests.”

“This change appears to be the result of a process called re-equilibration: during sedimentation, temperatures rise by 20 to 30C, causing the foraminifera tests to re-equilibrate with the surrounding water,” the study says.

But what next? Well, Meibom says scientists will now have to revisit the ocean's paleotemperatures and “carefully quantify this re-equilibration, which has been overlooked for too long.”

The researchers say that they will now focus on a number of other marine organisms to see if they can “clearly understand what took place in the sediment over geological time.”


Depression strongly linked to higher long-term risk of early death for both women, men

Despite increased awareness about mental illness, depression remains strongly linked to a higher risk of early death -- and this risk has increased for women in recent years -- according to results from the 60-year Stirling County Study published in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal).

"There is less stigma associated with depression, better treatments are available, but depression's link to mortality still persists," said Dr. Stephen Gilman of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. "At first, the association was limited to men, but in later years it was seen for women as well."

The Stirling County Study, begun in 1952 in Atlantic Canada, is well-known internationally as one of the first community-based studies on mental illness. A researcher from the original study, Dr. Jane Murphy with Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, is a coauthor on this latest research study.

An international team of researchers looked at 60 years of mental health data on 3410 adults during 3 periods (1952-1967, 1968-1990 and 1991-2011) from a region in Atlantic Canada and linked the data to deaths in the Canadian Mortality Database. They found that the link between depression and an increased risk of death was observed in all decades of the study among men, whereas it emerged among women beginning in the 1990s. The risk of death associated with depression appeared strongest in the years following a depressive episode, leading the authors to speculate that this risk could be reversed by achieving remission of depression.

The mean age of participants at enrolment in the study was about 49 years. "The lifespan for young adults with depression at age 25 was markedly shorter over the 60-year period, ranging from 10 to 12 fewer years of life in the first group, 4 to 7 years in the second group and 7 to 18 fewer years of life in the 1992 group," says Dr. Ian Colman, Canada Research Chair in the School of Epidemiology, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario. "Most disturbing is the 50% increase in the risk of death for women with depression between 1992 and 2011."

Though depression has also been linked with poorer diet, lack of exercise, smoking and alcohol consumption -- all factors that can result in chronic health conditions -- these did not explain the increased risk of death associated with depression in this study.

Societal change may help explain the emergent risk of death for women with depression.

"During the last 20 years of the study in which women's risk of death increased significantly, roles have changed dramatically both at home and in the workplace, and many women shoulder multiple responsibilities and expectations," says Dr. Colman.

The authors suggest that family physicians should monitor patients for mood disturbances, especially recurrent episodes of depression, so that they may offer treatment and support.

Limitations include a long interval between participant interviews which prevented determining the exact timing of depression and the participants' experiences of recurrent episodes of depression between interviews.

New research opens the door to 'functional cure' for HIV

In findings that open the door to a completely different approach to curing HIV infections, scientists from the Florida campus of The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) have for the first time shown that a novel compound effectively suppresses production of the virus in chronically infected cells, and prevents viral rebound, even when those infected cells are subjected to vigorous stimulation.

The study, led by TSRI Associate Professor Susana Valente, was published online Oct. 17 before print in the journal Cell Reports.

"No other anti-retroviral used in the clinic today is able to completely suppress viral production in infected cells in vivo," Valente said. "When combining this drug with the standard cocktail of anti-retrovirals used to suppress infection in humanized mouse models of HIV-1 infection, our study found a drastic reduction in virus RNA present -- it is really the proof-of-concept for a 'functional cure.'"

Valente, a pioneer in this new approach, calls it "Block-and-Lock" -- the approach blocks reactivation of the virus in cells, even during treatment interruptions, and locks HIV into durable state of latency.

Valente and her colleagues use a derivative of a natural compound called didehydro-Cortistatin A (dCA), which blocks replication in HIV-infected cells by inhibiting the viral transcriptional activator, called Tat, halting viral production, reactivation and replenishment of the latent viral reservoir.

"Combining dCA with anti-retroviral therapy accelerates HIV-1 suppression and prevents viral rebound after treatment interruption, even during strong cellular activation," Valente said. "It's important to note that our study uses the maximum tolerable dose of the drug -- with virtually no side effects."

The scientists studied the combination therapy in a mouse model of HIV latency and persistence. Once the combined treatment regimen was halted, viral rebound was delayed up to 19 days, compared with just seven days in mouse models receiving only anti-retroviral treatment.

"This demonstrates the potential of 'block-and-lock' strategies," said TSRI Research Associate Cari F. Kessing, co-first author of the study. "This study shows that a 'functional cure' approach can succeed in reducing residual virus in the blood during anti-retroviral treatment and limiting viral rebound during treatment interruption."

"In half of the dCA treated mice, the virus was undetectable for 16 days after all treatment was halted," said the University of North Carolina's Christopher Nixon, another first author.

"We blocked Tat, and the cell's machinery did the rest," said TSRI Research Associate Chuan Li, a coauthor of the study. "The result was that the HIV promoter becomes repressed."

Valente pointed out that the animal models were exposed to just a single month of treatment. "That's a relatively short period of time," she said. "We think longer treatments will result in longer, or even permanent, rebound delays. The question is how long? We're studying that now."

Because any viral rebound of HIV comes with a host of adverse effects, Valente noted, blocking that rebound would automatically reduce those effects.

"This is the only class of drugs that stops infected cells from making viruses outright," said Valente. "All current antivirals work later in the viral lifecycle, so only a HIV transcriptional inhibitor like dCA can stop the side effects of low-level virus production."

In addition to Valente, Kessing, Li and Nixon, other authors of the study, "In Vivo Suppression Of HIV Rebound By Didehydro-1 Cortistatin A, A 'Block-And-Lock' Strategy For HIV-1 Treatment," are Guillaume Mousseau and Mohammad Fallahi of TSRI; Perry M. Tsai, Phong T. Ho, Jenna B. Honeycutt and J. Victor Garcia of the University of North Carolina; and Hiroshi Takata and Lydie Trautmann of Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and the Henry M. Jackson Foundation for the Advancement of Military Medicine.


6th mass extinction event could happen by 2100 – study

Over the past 540 million years Earth has suffered five mass extinction events, the worst of which wiped out more than 9 per cent of marine life on the planet. A new study has suggested that the next such catastrophe might not be too far away.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) geophysicist and mathematician, Daniel Rothman has been busy studying previous mass extinctions. He reckons the next one might be a mere 83 years away.

The previous five catastrophic events each unfolded over millions of years and involved the natural cycle of carbon through the oceans and atmosphere being disturbed, resulting, in some cases, the death of almost all life on Earth.

The award-winning mathematician identified two “thresholds of catastrophe” that, if exceeded, would upset the natural order of the cycle, leading to an unstable environment and eventually a mass extinction.

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The first relates to changes in the carbon cycle over a period of thousands or millions of years. A mass extinction will occur if the rate of change in the cycle occurs faster than global ecosystems can adapt.

The second pertains to the size or magnitude of the carbon flux over a shorter period, as has been the case over the last century.

Therein lies a problem, however, as Rothman says“How can you really compare these great events in the geologic past, which occur over such vast timescales, to what's going on today, which is centuries at the longest?”

“So I sat down one summer day and tried to think about how one might go about this systematically.”

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Following this, he devised a mathematical formula to determine the total mass of carbon added to the oceans during each event, after which “it became evident that there was a characteristic rate of change that the system basically didn't like to go past.”

Rothman estimates this to be 310 gigatons. He thinks that given the rise of carbon dioxide over the last century, a sixth mass extinction could be on the way as estimates suggest that humans will add roughly 310 gigatons to the cycle by 2100.

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“This is not saying that disaster occurs the next day,” Rothman said. “It’s saying that, if left unchecked, the carbon cycle would move into a realm which would be no longer stable, and would behave in a way that would be difficult to predict. In the geologic past, this type of behavior is associated with mass extinction.”

Rothman's paper was published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.

What makes alcoholics drink? Research shows it's more complex than supposed

What makes alcoholics drink? New research has found that in both men and women with alcohol dependence, the major factor predicting the amount of drinking seems to be a question of immediate mood. They found that suffering from long-term mental health problems did not affect alcohol consumption, with one important exception: men with a history of depression had a different drinking pattern than men without a history of depression; surprisingly those men were drinking less often than men who were not depressed

"This work once again shows that alcoholism is not a one-size-fits-all condition," said lead researcher, Victor Karpyak (Mayo Clinic, MN, USA). "So the answer to the question of why alcoholics drink is probably that there is no single answer; this will probably have implications for how we diagnose and treat alcoholism."

The work, presented at the ECNP congress by researchers from the Mayo Clinic*, determined the alcohol consumption of 287 males and 156 females with alcohol dependence over the previous 90 days, using the accepted Time Line Follow Back method and standardized diagnostic assessment for life time presence of psychiatric disorders (PRISM); they were then able to associate this with whether the drinking coincided with a positive or negative emotional state (feeling "up" or "down"), and whether the individual had a history of anxiety, depression (MDD) or substance abuse.

The results showed that alcohol dependent men tended to drink more alcohol per day than alcohol dependent women. As expected, alcohol consumption in both men and women was associated with feeling either up or down on a particular day, with no significant association with anxiety or substance use disorders. However, men with a history of major depressive disorder had fewer drinking days (p=0.0084), and fewer heavy drinking days (p=0.0214) than men who never a major depressive disorder.

Victor Karpyak continued: "Research indicates that many people drink to enhance pleasant feelings, while other people drink to suppress negative moods, such as depression or anxiety. However, previous studies did not differentiate between state-dependent mood changes and the presence of clinically diagnosed anxiety or depressive disorders. The lack of such differentiation was likely among the reasons for controversial findings about the usefulness of antidepressants in treatment of alcoholics with comorbid depression.

This work will need to be replicated and confirmed, but from what we see here, it means that the reasons why alcoholics drink depend on their background as well as the immediate circumstances. There is no single reason. And this means that there is probably no single treatment, so we will have to refine our diagnostic methods and tailor treatment to the individual. It also means that our treatment approach may differ depending on targeting different aspects of alcoholism (craving or consumption) and the alcoholic patient (i.e. man or a woman) with or without depression or anxiety history to allow really effective treatment."

Commenting, Professor Wim van den Brink (Professor of Psychiatry and Addiction at the Academic Medical Centre, University of Amsterdam) said:

"This is indeed a very important issue. Patients with an alcohol use disorder often show a history of other disorders, including mood and anxiety disorders, they also often present with alcohol induced anxiety and mood disorders and finally the may report mood symptoms that do not meet criteria for a mood or anxiety disorder (due to a failure to meet the minimal number of criteria or a duration of less than two weeks). All these different conditions may influence current levels or patterns of drinking.

The current study seems to show that the current presence of mood/anxiety symptoms is associated with more drinking in both male and female alcoholics, whereas a clinical history of major depression in male alcoholics is associated with lower current dinking levels. Although, the study does not provide a clear reason for this difference, it may have consequences for treatment. For example, antidepressant treatment of males with a history major depression may have no effect on drinking levels. However, these findings may also result from residual confounding, e.g. patients with a history of major depression might also be patients with a late age of onset of their alcohol use disorder and this type of alcohol use disorder is associated with a different pattern of drinking with more daily drinking and less heavy drinking days and less binging. More prospective studies are needed to resolve this important but complex clinical issue."

*This work was presented on Sunday 3rd September, 2017.

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