Being Gay Not a Choice

Being Gay Not a Choice: Science Contradicts Ben Carson

by Tia Ghose, Staff Writer
March 05, 2015

Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon and presidential hopeful, recently apologized for a statement in which he said being gay is “absolutely” a choice.

In an interview on CNN, the potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate commented that “a lot of people who go into prison, go into prison straight, and when they come out they’re gay, so did something happen while they were in there? Ask yourself that question.”

Since then, he has apologized for the divisiveness of his comments, but hasn’t backed down from the notion that being gay is something people choose.

Most scientists would disagree. Years of research suggest that people can’t change their sexual orientation because they want to, and that trying can cause mental anguish. What’s more, some studies suggest that being gay may have a genetic or biological basis. [5 Myths About Gay People Debunked]

Biological origins

Humans aren’t the only species that has same-sex pairings. For instance, female Japanese macaques may sometimes participate in energetic sexual stimulation. Lions, chimpanzees, bison and dolphins have also been spotted in same-sex pairings. And nearly 130 bird species have been observed engaging in sexual activities with same-sex partners.

While the evolutionary purpose of this behavior is not clear, the fact that animals routinely exhibit same-sex behavior belies the notion that gay sex is a modern human innovation.

No studies have found specific “gay genes” that reliably make someone gay. But some genes may make being gay likelier. For instance, a 2014 study in the journal Psychological Medicine showed that a gene on the X chromosome (one of the sex chromosomes) called Xq28 and a gene on chromosome 8 seem to be found in higher prevalence in men who are gay. That study, involving more than 400 pairs of gay brothers, followed the 1993 report by geneticist Dean Hamer suggesting the existence of a “gay gene.” Other research has found that being gay or lesbian tends to run in families. It’s also more likely for two identical twins, who share all of their genes, to both be gay than it is for two fraternal twins, who share just half of their genes, to both be homosexual. Those studies also suggest that genes seemed to have a greater influence on the sexual orientation of male versus female identical twins.

A 2012 study proposed that epigenetic changes, or alterations in marks on DNA that turn certain genes on and off, may play a role in homosexuality. This type of gene regulation isn’t as stable as DNA, and can be switched on and off by environmental factors or conditions in the womb during prenatal development. But this so-called epigenome can also be passed on from generation to generation, which would explain why being gay seems to run in families, even when a single gene can’t be pinpointed.

How such gay genes get passed down from generation to generation has puzzled scientists, given that gay couples cannot reproduce. One study found that gay men are biologically predisposed to help care for their nieces and nephews. Essentially, these gay uncles are helping their relatives to reproduce. “Kin therefore pass on more of the genes which they would share with their homosexual relatives,” said evolutionary psychologist Paul Vasey of the University of Lethbridge in Canada, in a past Live Science article.

Orientation change

If being gay is truly a choice, then people who attempt to change their orientation should be able to do so. But most people who are gay describe it as a deeply ingrained attraction that can’t simply be shut off or redirected.

On that, studies are clear. Gay conversion therapy is ineffective, several studies have found, and the American Psychological Association now says such treatment is harmful and can worsen feelings of self-hatred.

For men, studies suggest that orientation is fixed by the time the individual reaches puberty. Women show greater levels of “erotic plasticity,” meaning their levels of attraction are more significantly shaped by culture, experience and love than is the case for men. However, even women who switch from gay to straight lifestyles don’t stop being attracted to women, according to a 2012 study in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior.

Those results suggest that while people can change their behavior, they aren’t really changing their basic sexual attraction.


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Smokers have thin outer brain layer: study

February 12, 2015

Smokers tend to have a thinner outer brain layer than non-smokers, new research suggests.

Scientists found that in people who have avoided smoking, the brain cortex – the layer which is important for thinking skills – is thicker than among smokers.

They cautiously suggest that the cortex might regain some thickness once smokers quit, but that this was not seen in all regions of the brain.

The study gathered health data and analysed MRI scans of 244 males and 260 females with an average age of 73, around half of whom were former or current smokers.

They analysed how a person’s smoking habit was linked with the thickness of the brain’s cortex using detailed MRI brain scans, careful image analysis and statistical models.

The research was carried out by scientists at the University of Edinburgh and the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

The study found a small link between smoking and having thinner brain grey matter in some regions, and also that stopping smoking might allow the brain’s cortex to recover some of its thickness.

The group tested were part of the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936, a group of individuals who were born in 1936 and took part in the Scottish Mental Survey of 1947.

Researchers found that participants who had given up smoking for the longest time had a thicker cortex compared with those who had given up recently – even after accounting for the total amount smoked in their lifetime.

Edinburgh’s Professor Joanna Wardlaw said the effects of smoking on the lungs and heart were well known, but the new study showed that there were important effects on the brain as well.

The study is published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry and is part of a larger project called the Disconnected Mind.

RELATED: Study ties more diseases to smoking

RELATED:  Mutated gene causes 70 per cent cancer risk: study


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Cancer often due to bad luck – not genes or environment

Agence France-Presse (AFP)

Cancer is often caused by the “bad luck” of random mutations that arise when cells divide, not family history or environmental causes, US researchers said Thursday.

The study in the January 2 edition of the journal Science was led by researchers at Johns Hopkins University and based on a statistical model that includes many types of cancer in a range of human tissues.

However it did not include breast cancer, which is the most common cancer in women, or prostate cancer, which is the second most common cancer in men after skin cancer.

In the adult cancers they did measure, about two-thirds could be explained by random mutation in genes that encourage tumors to grow, while the remaining one third was due to environmental factors and inherited genes.

“This study shows that you can add to your risk of getting cancers by smoking or other poor lifestyle factors,” said study author Bert Vogelstein, a professor of oncology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

“However, many forms of cancer are due largely to the bad luck of acquiring a mutation in a cancer driver gene regardless of lifestyle and heredity factors.”

He added that people who live a long time without getting cancer, despite being long-time smokers or being exposed heavily to the Sun, do not have “good genes.”

“The truth is that most of them simply had good luck,” he added.

– Stem cells divide –

The team sought to look at cancer in a new light, by searching the scientific literature for information on how many times stem cells divided over the course of an average person’s lifespan.

This process of self-renewal occurs naturally in the body and helps repopulate cells that die off in a specific organ.

Researchers have long understood that cancer can arise when stem cells make random mistakes, known as mutations.

But the study represents the first attempt at comparing how many cancers arise from this process, compared to family history or environmental factors.

Some 22 cancer types arising in 31 tissues studied could be traced back to random mutations, the study found.

The other nine “had incidences higher than predicted by ‘bad luck’ and were presumably due to a combination of bad luck plus environmental or inherited factors,” the university said.

These nine types included lung cancer and skin cancer — which are influenced by exposure to smoke and sunshine — as well as some cancers known to be hereditary.

The findings mean that an even greater emphasis should be placed on early detection of cancer and research that could detect these harmful random acts before they lead to widespread cancer.

“Changing our lifestyle and habits will be a huge help in preventing certain cancers, but this may not be as effective for a variety of others,” said biomathematician Cristian Tomasetti, an assistant professor of oncology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“We should focus more resources on finding ways to detect such cancers at early, curable stages.”

Breast and prostate cancers were not included in the study because the literature did not show reliable stem cell division rates in those areas of the body, the authors said.


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A Virus that Might Make You Stupid

By Jordan Valinsky

November 10, 2014

While conducting an unrelated study into microbes, scientists at the University of Nebraska and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine discovered that ATCV-1, an algae virus previously believed to not be transferable to humans, can live in our throats. It was found to “affect cognitive functions including visual processing and spatial awareness.”

Researchers have discovered a virus that attaches onto human DNA and may make us even stupider, if that’s humanly possible.

The study: Contracting the ATCV-1 virus can make you dumb, but not create a noticeable change to your body. The virus typically lives in species of green algae commonly found in rivers and lakes, Newsweek notes.

The study surveyed 92 healthy people from Baltimore and found that the virus was present in 44% of people. Researchers tested their attention spans and other abilities and found that those “without the virus scored better by an average of between seven and nine points,” Dazed & Confused writes.

The virus was also injected into mice, which were then placed into a maze. The infected mice were noticeably more confused than the mice who didn’t have the virus.

“This is a striking example showing that the ‘innocuous’ microorganisms we carry can affect behavior and cognition,” Dr. Robert Yolken told the Independent. “Many physiological differences between person A and person B are encoded in the set of genes each inherits from parents, yet some of these differences are fueled by the various microorganisms we harbor and the way they interact with our genes.”

Uh, that sounds bad? Professor James. L Van Etten, who was on the research team, told Newsweek it’s not known how ATCV-1 is transmitted to people, but there’s “no reason” to believe that it is contagious among people or animals.

He added that there’s no clear sign to indicate the virus’s presence in humans — although an avid fandom of Family Guy crossover specials may be an indicator. “My best guess is that these viruses may infect another microorganism besides the algae that we have been studying, … This other microorganism may be the way that the virus gets into the throat,” he said.

So if you find yourself not knowing your iPhone password or forgetting how to fill out a check, you just might have the virus. Or at least you can pretend to blame your stupidity on it.


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Genes control Gut bacteria: Key to Obesity

Genes which control gut bacteria could be the key to obesity

The Independent

Charlie Cooper

Our genes can influence whether we are fat or thin, by determining which bacteria thrive in our gut, scientists have discovered for the first time.

Although obesity genes have been known about for some time, scientists are still trying to understand how genetics influence weight.

In a major development, researchers have now observed how a recently discovered family of microbes in the gut can protect against weight gain and vary in abundance depending on people’s DNA.

The study, carried out by experts at King’s College London and Cornell University in the USA, used groups of identical twins, who share 100 per cent of their genes, and non-identical twins, who share only half their genes, to make accurate comparisons.

Taking 1,000 stool samples from 416 pairs of twins, scientists discovered that populations of gut microbes were more closely similar between identical twins than between non-identical – meaning that the prevalence of at least some of the bacteria in our gut must be influenced by our genes.

The type of bacteria which was most highly influenced by genetic differences was a family of microbes called Christensenellaceae. They were found to be more abundant in low weight people than in obese people.

When administered to mice, Christensenellaceaealso appeared to protect them from weight gain.

Professor Tim Spector, head of the department of twin research and genetic epidemiology at King’s, said that the human microbiome was an exciting new target for dietary changes and treatments that could curb obesity.

He said that Christensenellaceae could, in theory, be used as a probiotic in a yoghurt to prevent weight gain, but cautioned studies would be needed to test its effect in humans.

“Seventy per cent of differences between people in how fat they are due to their genes – that’s been known for about 10 years,” he told TheIndependent. “We know of about 50 genes which are related to obesity but if you add them all together you only account for about one per cent of that difference.

“There’s possibly some big missing factor we haven’t thought of. Finding out if the microbes in our gut are influenced by the host’s genes or not is important. It’s a part of our body we’ve just ignored.”

He said that individual differences in how we respond to food could be explained by variations in gut microbes.

Most of us only share about 40 per cent of our microbes and even identical twins only share 50 to 55 per cent.

In order to better understand how variations influence out responses to diet – for instance, why two people can consume the same amount of calories but experience different rates of weight gain – scientists at King’s are seeking stool samples from members of the public through a project through the British Gut Project. Participants have been invited to sign up for testing pack, and send a sample in the post.

Ruth Ley, associate professor at Cornell University, said: “Up until now, variation in the abundances of gut microbes has been explained by diet, the environment, lifestyle, and health. This is the first study to firmly establish that certain types of gut microbes are heritable — that their variation across a population is in part due to host genotype variation, not just environmental influences. These results will also help us find new predictors of disease and aid prevention.”


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Adolescent Pot Use Leaves Lasting Mental Deficits

August 27, 2012

Developing brain susceptible to lasting damage from exposure to marijuana.

Durham, NC – The persistent, dependent use of marijuana before age 18 has been shown to cause lasting harm to a person’s intelligence, attention and memory, according to an international research team.

Among a long-range study cohort of more than 1,000 New Zealanders, individuals who started using cannabis in adolescence and used it for years afterward showed an average decline in IQ of 8 points when their age 13 and age 38 IQ tests were compared. Quitting pot did not appear to reverse the loss either, said lead researcher Madeline Meier, a post-doctoral researcher at Duke University. The results appear online Aug. 27 in PNAS.

The key variable in this is the age of onset for marijuana use and the brain’s development, Meier said. Study subjects who didn’t take up pot until they were adults with fully-formed brains did not show similar mental declines. Before age 18, however, the brain is still being organized and remodeled to become more efficient, she said, and may be more vulnerable to damage from drugs.

“Marijuana is not harmless, particularly for adolescents,” said Meier, who produced this finding from the long term Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study. The study has followed a group of 1,037 children born in 1972-73 in Dunedin, New Zealand from birth to age 38 and is led by Terrie Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi, psychologists who hold dual appointments at Duke and the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London.

About 5 percent of the study group were considered marijuana-dependent, or were using more than once a week before age 18. A dependent user is one who keeps using despite significant health, social or family problems.

At age 38, all of the study participants were given a battery of psychological tests to assess memory, processing speed, reasoning and visual processing. The people who used pot persistently as teens scored significantly worse on most of the tests. Friends and relatives routinely interviewed as part of the study were more likely to report that the persistent cannabis users had attention and memory problems such as losing focus and forgetting to do tasks.

The decline in IQ among persistent cannabis users could not be explained by alcohol or other drug use or by having less education, Moffitt said.

While 8 IQ points may not sound like a lot on a scale where 100 is the mean, a loss from an IQ of 100 to 92 represents a drop from being in the 50th percentile to being in the 29th, Meier said. Higher IQ correlates with higher education and income, better health and a longer life, she said. “Somebody who loses 8 IQ points as an adolescent may be disadvantaged compared to their same-age peers for years to come,” Meier said.

Laurence Steinberg, a Temple University psychologist who was not involved in the research, said this study is among the first to distinguish between cognitive problems the person might have had before taking up marijuana, and those that were apparently caused by the drug. This is consistent with what has been found in animal studies, Steinberg added, but it has been difficult to measure in humans.

Animal studies involving nicotine, alcohol and cocaine have shown that chronic exposures before the brain is fully developed can lead to more dependence and long-term changes in the brain. “This study points to adolescence as a time of heightened vulnerability,” Steinberg said. “The findings are pretty clear that it is not simply chronic use that causes deficits, but chronic use with adolescent onset.”

What isn’t possible to know from this study is what a safer age for persistent use might be, or what dosage level causes the damage, Meier said. After many years of decline among US teens, daily marijuana use has been seen to increase slightly in the last few years, she added. Last year, for the first time, US teens were more likely to be smoking pot than tobacco.

“The simple message is that substance use is not healthy for kids,” Avshalom Caspi said via email from London. “That’s true for tobacco, alcohol, and apparently for cannabis.”

CITATION: “Persistent Cannabis Users Show Neuropsychological Decline From Childhood to Midlife,” Madeline H. Meier, Avshalom Caspi, et al. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Online Early Edition, Monday, Aug. 27, 2012.

Duke University


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Male and Female Brains Wired Differently

By Bob Grant | December 4, 2013

The brains of men contain stronger front-to-rear connections while those of women are better connected from left to right.

New research on the neural connections within the human brain suggests sex-based differences that many have suspected for centuries: women seem to be wired more for socialization and memory while men appear geared toward perception and coordinated action. The female brain appears to have increased connection between neurons in the right and left hemispheres of the brain, and males seem to have increased neural communication within hemispheres from frontal to rear portions of the organ. University of Pennsylvania researchers announced the results, generated by scanning the brains of about 1,000 people using a technique called diffusion tensor imaging, on Monday (December 2) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

UPenn Perelman School of Medicine radiologist Ragini Verma and colleagues scanned the brains of more than 400 males and more than 500 females from 8 to 22 years old and found distinct differences in the brains of male versus female subjects older than age 13. The cortices in female brains were more connected between right and left hemispheres, an arrangement that facilitates emotional processing and the ability to infer others’ intentions in social interactions. In male brains, however, the cortex was more connected to rear brain regions, such as the cerebellum, which suggests greater synergy between perception and action.

“There is biology to some of the behavior we see among men and women,” Verma told the Los Angeles Times. “In the population, men have stronger front-back connectivity, and women have inter-hemispheric or left-right connectivity more than the men. It’s not that one or the other gender lacks the connectivity altogether, it’s just that one is stronger than the other.”

These physiological differences, which didn’t appear in stark contrast in those under 14, could possibly give rise to behavioral differences between the sexes. “So, if there was a task that involved logical and intuitive thinking, the study says that women are predisposed, or have stronger connectivity as a population, so they should be better at it,” Verma told the LA Times. “For men, it says they are very heavily connected in the cerebellum, which is an area that controls the motor skills. And they are connected front to back. The back side of the brain is the area by which you perceive things, and the front part of the brain interprets it and makes you perform an action. So if you had a task like skiing or learning a new sport, if you had stronger front-back connectivity and a very strong cerebellum connectivity, you would be better at it.”

Studying the structural and function differences between male and female brains could help ferret out causes and possible treatments for certain brain disorders, the authors suggested. “It’s quite striking how complementary the brains of women and men really are,” Ruben Gur, a co-author on the study, said in a statement. “Detailed connectome maps of the brain will not only help us better understand the differences between how men and women think, but it will also give us more insight into the roots of neurological disorders, which are often sex-related.”

But at least one researcher is questioning the argument that Verma and her team are making for the neural connectivity differences they found being a function of sex. “One important possibility the authors don’t consider is that their results have more to do with brain size than brain sex,” wrote University of Melbourne social and developmental psychologist Cordelia Fine in a blog post published by The Conversation. “Male brains are, on average, larger than females and a large brain is not simply a smaller brain scaled up.”

Fine, who wrote 2011’s Delusions of Gender, a book that seeks to counter propositions that sex-based differences are biologically hardwired, explained that larger brains must be organized differently to deal with increased energy demands, decrease communication times, and minimize wiring costs. She cited an earlier study published by the same group at UPenn, also published in PNAS, which reported differences between how males and females performed on a spate of psychological tests.

“Rather than drawing on their impressively rich dataset to empirically test questions about how brain connectivity characteristics relate to behavior, the authors instead offer untested stereotype-based speculation,” wrote Fine. “These characteristics of the [current] PNAS study are very common in neuroscientific investigations of male/female sex differences, and represent two important ways in which scientific research can be subtly ‘neurosexist,’ reinforcing and legitimating gender stereotypes in ways that are not scientifically justified.”


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