With a government shutdown looming over the U.S. — not to mention the House and Senate clashing about whether to let the EPA regulate greenhouse gases — the country seems to be even more embroiled in partisan politics than usual. But according to a new study in the journal Current Biology, it may all be in our heads: Political views are tied to brain structure, British researchers have found, suggesting either that we're born predisposed to one political party or that our brains change shape with our evolving opinions — or both.

"Previously, some psychological traits were known to be predictive of an individual's political orientation," says study co-author Ryota Kanai of the University College London. "Our study now links such personality traits with specific brain structure." People who consider themselves "liberal" tend to have bigger anterior cingulate cortexes (ACCs), the researchers discovered, while those who self-identify as "conservative" typically have larger amygdalas. Based on what neuroscientists know about those two brain regions, the structural differences may explain some personality traits that have been linked to either side of the political spectrum. The ACC helps us process conflicting information — like recognizing when the word "red" is written in blue ink — and its larger size in liberals could be why past research shows they tend to cope well with complex problems. The amygdala deals with fear response — letting the brain know you've seen a lurking wolf or falling boulder even before you realize it — which may be why studies show conservatives are more sensitive to threats and prone to anxiety amid uncertainty.

Kanai says it's still too early to say which comes first — brain structure or political views — but it's unlikely that anyone is born a liberal or conservative. The human brain is surprisingly adaptable well into adulthood, and while it's most impressionable during youth, it also continues to be shaped (literally) over time by our experiences. Plenty of people have been known to change their political views during their lifetimes, and the study's authors say more research will be necessary to fully understand the neurological basis of politics. "It's very unlikely that actual political orientation is directly encoded in these brain regions," Kanai says. "More work is needed to determine how these brain structures mediate the formation of political attitude."

(Sources: LiveScience, Current Biology, Washington Post, New York Times)


A powerful magnitude-7.1 aftershock rattled Japan late Thursday, killing four people and leaving another 141 injured, the Kyodo News Agency reports. Striking at 11:32 p.m. local time, the tremor knocked out power to swaths of northeastern Japan, worsened shortages of gasoline and other commodities, and cast fresh panic over refugee camps and nuclear plants. But for all the wounds it reopened, it caused far less overall damage than the original magnitude-9 quake that hit Japan on March 11, killing an estimated 25,000 people. 

Some radioactive water was spilled at the Onagawa nuclear power plant (pictured above) in Miyagi Prefecture during Thursday's aftershock, but the problem-plagued Fukushima Daiichi complex didn't report any new crises. That plant has suffered a string of disasters since it was inundated by a tsunami on March 11, and workers have only this week claimed success in plugging a leak of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean. Six conventional thermoelectric power plants in northern Japan were knocked out Thursday, but three were back online by Friday, and the others were expected to follow shortly after, according to Tohoku Electric Power Co. spokesman Souta Nozu. Nonetheless, with power lines damaged throughout the area, it remains unclear how long residents will remain without electricity. About 950,000 homes were still dark Friday evening, Nozu tells the AP.

There was a brief scare at two nuclear plants besides Fukushima Daiichi, however: Not only did radioactive water spill from a containment pool at Onagawa, but spent-fuel pools there and at the Higashidori plant in Aomori Prefecture both lost their cooling functions for 20 to 80 minutes after Thursday's temblor, raising fears of another Daiichi-like disaster. But the temperatures hardly rose, according to Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, and the spilled water never made it out of the reactor building. Such a splash-out is "not unusual, although it is preferable that it doesn't happen," a NISA spokesman tells the AP.

(Sources: Kyodo News, Associated Press)


It's springtime in Fargo, N.D., and for thousands of people in western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota, that means it's time for an annual ritual: flood fighting. But after several years in a row of successfully fending off the Red River's overflow, some locals may be growing complacent, USA Today reports. Volunteer turnout was initially light as sandbagging efforts began this week — even though the National Weather Service is forecasting a crest of up to 40 feet, potentially one of the top five flood levels on record.

The high water may begin arriving by late Sunday, and the mismatch between sandbagging efforts and forecast severity prompted local newspaper the Forum to warn "Urgency missing in fight" in a recent lead headline. Fargo, a city of 105,000, opened its sandbag warehouse on Valentine's Day this year, its earliest start in history, and 12,600 volunteers filled roughly 2.5 million bags with sand in three weeks. And while some experts worry about a lack of urgency, many residents of Fargo and nearby towns tell USA Today they'll be ready when the Red River arrives. Populated areas have developed a time-tested formula to prepare for the region's yearly floods, ranging from buying up homes in flood-prone areas and replacing them with levees to setting up miles of sandbags and other, quick-install flood barriers every spring.

But while larger cities like Fargo and Moorhead, Minn., may end up being prepared for whatever the Red River sends them, it's the region's rural population that typically suffers the most. Because they're more spread out and have fewer resources to muster, rural and unincorporated areas inevitably receive the brunt of the river's fury each spring. "We'll get by in the city. The county will be rough," says Paul Laney, the sheriff in Cass County, where Fargo is located.

(Source: USA Today)


Dead dolphins are still washing ashore along the Gulf Coast by the dozens, the St. Petersburg Times and CNN report, raising the prospect that the 2010 Gulf oil spill may still be wreaking ecological havoc as its one-year anniversary draws near. Scientists point out they're not sure yet what's killing the marine mammals, so it can't be definitively said whether the oil spill is to blame. But experts agree the death rate is highly unusual, and 15 of the 153 dead dolphins found since Jan. 1 were coated in oil. On eight of those, lab tests confirmed the oil came from BP's Macondo oil well, which spewed 5 million barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico between April and July of 2010.

"A year after the oil spill, we are still seeing dolphins washing ashore with evidence of oil on them — but it may not be the cause of death," Blair Mase, who coordinates Southeastern dolphin-stranding reports for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, tells the Times. A total of 406 dolphins have been found either stranded or dead on the Gulf Coast between February 2010 and April 2011, NOAA reports, which has led the agency to designate the deaths an "unusual mortality event," or UME. NOAA defines a UME as any stranding incident that was unexpected or represents a significant loss of a marine mammal population. This UME is even more unusual because of the dolphins' ages, Mase points out — most were young, many of them apparently stillborn. "These were mostly very young dolphins, either pre-term, neonatal or very young and less than 115 centimeters," she tells CNN. "This is quite a complex event and requires a lot of analysis."

On top of the wave of dolphin deaths, biologists are also investigating a sea turtle die-off along the Gulf Coast, although that trend shows fewer connections to the oil spill, the Times reports. The 87 dead turtles recovered since mid-March — most of which are endangered Kemp's ridleys — all seem to be oil-free, NOAA says. Only 26 of them were in good enough condition to cut open for study; of those, seven showed signs of boat injury, one had been caught on a hook, and the rest all had sediment in their lungs, suggesting they drowned near the sea floor, according to NOAA. That could mean they became entangled in bottom-trawling fishermen's gear, or that they ingested some kind of toxin. But there are no known toxic algae blooms currently in the Gulf, NOAA says.

(Sources: St. Petersburg Times, CNN)


Voyageurs National Park opens in Minnesota, India sues Union Carbide over Bhopal tragedy, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (doctor looking at MRI brain scans): Don Carstens/Jupiter Images

Photo (journalists film the Onagawa nuclear plant in Japan): ZUMA Press

Photo (Fargo resident stacking sandbags near the Red River in 2009): ZUMA Press

Photo (dead dolphin on Horn Island, Miss., in May 2010): Mike Stewart/AP

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Weekend Briefing 4/8/2011
Brain shape tied to politics, aftershock rocks Japan, Red River set to flood, and dead dolphins continue to wash up on the Gulf coast.