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Year of the brain: Our most popular science stories of 2013

With a Globe Focus signature series on hacking the brain leading the way, here are the most popular science stories of 2013.

How poverty influences a child's brain development

Only 3 to 4 per cent of Canadian children are born with inherited differences that will limit their physical, emotional or intellectual growth, yet an average of 25 to 30 per cent exhibit some level of developmental vulnerability that could include a cognitive “deficit.”
In some communities, the figure may reach 70 per cent, and by adolescence, the resulting deficits can translate into a range of mental-health issues, substance abuse and diminished opportunities for education and employment.
The Royal Society of Canada and the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences issued a report in November that surveys the new research on how socio-economic factors can affect someone’s biological makeup – and warning of “dire consequences for the individual and society” if nothing is done. The report concludes by calling for a broad strategy of investment in early childhood.

High hopes: Why science is seeking a pardon for psychedelics

Forty-five years after LSD became the first of them to be prohibited, the psychedelics and their chemical cousins are making a comeback, launching what is being called a revolution in treating, and perhaps curing, some of the most refractory disorders of the human brain.
Are hallucinogenic drugs really of no value to medicine? In 2013 North America is awash in powerful pharmaceuticals that are perfectly legal, yet addictive and widely abused, some mental-health professionals are making a case for reviving banned mind-altering substances, arguing that they can enable insight, empathy and long-term recovery from trauma.
In New Zealand, the hallucinogenic African shrub iboga has been reclassified as a promising treatment for opiate addiction, and in England, a tidal wave of research, much of it using up-to-the-minute brain-scanning techniques, is showing how once-reviled street drugs can be used to treat everything from obsessive-compulsive disorder to chain smoking.

No honey, more problems: A ‘catastrophic’ year for bee colonies

Freezing temperatures, killer parasites, toxic chemicals: The plight of honey bees is getting worse in many parts of the world and no one seems to know precisely why.
This past winter was one of the worst on record for bees. In the U.S., beekeepers lost 31 per cent of their colonies, compared to a loss of 21 per cent the previous winter. In Canada, the Canadian Honey Council reports an annual loss of 35 per cent of honey bee colonies in the last three years. In Britain, the Bee Farmers’ Association says its members lost roughly half their colonies over the winter.
“It has been absolutely catastrophic,” said Margaret Ginman, who is general secretary of the Bee Farmers’ Association. “This has been one of the worst years in living memory.”

I wake up from a dream, but my body is paralyzed

I don’t dare sleep on my back any more. In that position, I often wake up from dreams only halfway – that is, my mind wakes up, but my body remains immobile. I can still think, still sense sunlight trickling through the curtains, still hear passersby on the street below. But when I try to move, nothing happens. I can’t even twiddle a toe or flex a nostril. It’s what being reincarnated as a statue would feel like. It’s the opposite of sleepwalking: It’s sleep paralysis.
As bad as that sounds, many sleep paralytics have it worse. My episodes last a few minutes at most, but some people’s drag on for hours. And while I can be shaken awake, some people can’t. One poor woman in England has been declared dead three times, and once woke up in a morgue. Other people have out-of-body experiences, and the unluckiest ones of all feel an evil “presence” – a witch, demon, alien, or other monster – pressing down on their bodies, smothering them.
Sleep paralysis doesn’t actually open a portal into the supernatural, of course. And it doesn’t offer proof of dualism, either: The mind cannot function outside the body, independent of it. To the contrary, sleep paralysis is a natural byproduct of how our brains work.

Science world abuzz as virologist turns down Gairdner award

When the latest winners of Canada’s most prestigious international science prize were named in Toronto, one question was buzzing in the background: Why would someone turn it down?
Michael Houghton, who holds a $10-million Canada Excellence Research Chair in virology at the University of Alberta, had apparently surprised the Gairdner Foundation by being the first person to decline the prize in its 54-year history.

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