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Humanity? Maybe It’s In the Wiring


Neuroscientists have given up looking for the seat of the soul, but they are still seeking what may be special about human brains, what it is that provides the basis for a level of self-awareness and complex emotions unlike those of other animals.

Most recently they have been investigating circuitry rather than specific locations, looking at pathways and connections that are central in creating social emotions, a moral sense, even the feeling of free will.

There are specialized neurons at work, as well -- large, cigar-shaped cells called spindle cells.

The only other animals known to have such cells are the great apes. These neurons are exceptionally rich in filaments. And they appear to broadcast socially relevant signals all over the brain.

The body, it turns out, is as important as the brain. Dr. Antonio Damasio, a neurologist at the University of Iowa Medical Center and the author of the book “Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain,” has pioneered the argument that emotions and feelings are linked to brain structures that map the body. From human social emotions, he said, both morality and reason have grown.

Secondhand Smoke May Harm Family Pets, Too


A small but growing body of research suggests that secondhand cigarette smoke, which has been shown to harm humans, may harm pets, too.

Lung cancer is rare in dogs: Only about one dog of 25,000 gets it each year, according to one study. But a 1992 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology of 51 dogs with lung cancer and 83 dogs with other cancers found that dogs in smoking households had a 60 percent greater risk of lung cancer.

The risk was even higher for dogs with short or medium-size noses: “everything from pugs to poodles,” said the chief author, Dr. John S. Reif, a professor of environmental health at Colorado State University.

A 1998 study, published in the same journal, of 481 dogs with cancer showed that long-nosed dogs like collies and wolfhounds were twice as likely to get nasal cancer if they lived with smokers. Reif, who also led this study, speculated that carcinogens became trapped in their nasal passages.

In a study published in the same journal last year, veterinarians from the Tufts University veterinary school found that cats whose owners smoked were three times as likely to develop lymphoma.

Lymphoma is the most common cat cancer. The risks are greater, the study found, if the cat has lived in a smoking household for five years, and greater still if two smokers live there.