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Saturday, March 22, 2014

What Happens To Your Body When You Get Drunk And Stoned At The Same Time?

The intoxicating effects of alcohol and of marijuana have been widely studied, but their combined effect—getting "cross-faded"—is woefully underexplored scientific territory. Here's a look at what we know about how pot and booze together affect the brain.

First, the basics: Marijuana contains THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which acts on the brain's cannabinoid receptors. Alcohol depresses the central nervous system. Trying to compare the two isn't even like comparing apples and oranges, says Gary Wenk, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Ohio State University. "It's apples and vegetables. They're very different drugs." An extremely simplified explanation would be to say that THC largely has cognitive effects, like paranoia and a distorted sense of time, while alcohol mainly affects motor skills, making it hard to walk in a straight line and causing slurred speech.

So does combining weed and alcohol just add their respective effects together? Not quite, says Scott Lukas, who teaches at Harvard Medical School and has researched the interaction of various drugs. In a study published in 2001, Lukas found that after individuals smoked marijuana and a drank large dose of alcohol, the equivalent to a couple of shots, the THC levels in their blood plasma nearly doubled compared with people who smoked pot and consumed a placebo drink. The buzzed people in the study also detected the effects of marijuana sooner than those who only got stoned, and rated their high as subjectively "better." This suggests that getting boozed up causes more THC to reach the brain, via the bloodstream, within the first few minutes of ingestion. One explanation for this finding is that alcohol may cause changes in blood vessels that boost the absorption of inhaled THC.

Lukas isn't worried that the combination could be lethal, but he says that getting cross-faded could be more risky that just getting drunk or high alone. With more THC hitting the brain thanks to the ethanol in alcoholic drinks, the usual effects of marijuana—like impaired judgment and increased heart rate—are stronger. Which means accidents like drownings and car crashes could be more likely, Lukas says. He also points out that the amounts of drugs approved for his research were lower than the levels that people often use while out partying.

More recently, a study from Duke University found that adolescent rats under the influence of ethanol and THC were less likely to explore than those under the influence of either ethanol or THC alone. The same study also found that adult rats given the ethanol/THC combination had more trouble remembering new objects compared with adult rats given either drug alone.

Further research is needed on the additive effects of munchies and drunchies.


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Twin NASA Probes Find “Zebra Stripes” in Earth’s Radiation Belt

Earth’s inner radiation belt displays a curiously zebra-esque striped pattern, according to the latest findings from NASA’s twin Van Allen Probes. What’s more, the cause of the striping seems to be the rotation of the Earth itself — something that was previously thought to be impossible.

“…it is truly humbling, as a theoretician, to see how quickly new data can change our understanding of physical properties.”

 – Aleksandr Ukhorskiy, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

 Our planet is surrounded by two large doughnut-shaped regions of radiation called the Van Allen belts, after astrophysicist James Van Allen who discovered their presence in 1958. (Van Allen died at the age of 91 in 2006.) The inner Van Allen belt, extending from about 800 to 13,000 km (500 to 8,000 miles) above the Earth, contains high-energy electrons and protons and poses a risk to both spacecraft and humans, should either happen to spend any substantial amount of time inside it.

Launched aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral AFS on the morning of Aug. 30, 2012, the Van Allen Probes (originally the Radiation Belt Storm Probes) are on a two-year mission to investigate the belts and find out how they behave and evolve over time.

One of the instruments aboard the twin probes, the Radiation Belt Storm Probes Ion Composition Experiment (RBSPICE), has detected a persistent striped pattern in the particles within the inner belt. While it was once thought that any structures within the belts were the result of solar activity, thanks to RBSPICE it’s now been determined that Earth’s rotation and tilted magnetic axis are the cause.

“It is because of the unprecedented high energy and temporal resolution of our energetic particle experiment, RBSPICE, that we now understand that the inner belt electrons are, in fact, always organized in zebra patterns,” said Aleksandr Ukhorskiy of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md., co-investigator on RBSPICE and lead author of the paper. “Furthermore, our modeling clearly identifies Earth’s rotation as the mechanism creating these patterns. It is truly humbling, as a theoretician, to see how quickly new data can change our understanding of physical properties.”

The model of the formation of the striped patterns is likened to the pulling of taffy.
“If the inner belt electron populations are viewed as a viscous fluid,” Ukhorskiy said, ”these global oscillations slowly stretch and fold that fluid, much like taffy is stretched and folded in a candy store machine.”

“This finding tells us something new and important about how the universe operates,” said Barry Mauk, a project scientist at APL and co-author of the paper. “The new results reveal a new large-scale physical mechanism that can be important for planetary radiation belts throughout the solar system. An instrument similar to RBSPICE is now on its way to Jupiter on NASA’s Juno mission, and we will be looking for the existence of zebra stripe-like patterns in Jupiter’s radiation belts.”

Jupiter’s Van Allen belts are similar to Earth’s except much larger; Jupiter’s magnetic field is ten times stronger than Earth’s and the radiation in its belts is a million times more powerful (source). Juno will arrive at Jupiter in July 2016 and spend about a year in orbit, investigating its atmosphere, interior, and magnetosphere.

Thanks to the Van Allen Probes. Juno now has one more feature to look for in Jupiter’s radiation belts.

“It is amazing how Earth’s space environment, including the radiation belts, continue to surprise us even after we have studied them for over 50 years. Our understanding of the complex structures of the belts, and the processes behind the belts’ behaviors, continues to grow, all of which contribute to the eventual goal of providing accurate space weather modeling.” 

– Louis Lanzerotti, physics professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and principal investigator for RBSPICE

The team’s findings have been published in the March 20 issue of the journal Nature.

The Van Allen Probes are the second mission in NASA’s Living With a Star program, managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD. The program explores aspects of the connected sun-Earth system that directly affect life and society.

Source: Van Allen Probes news release