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January 19, 2012: Non-invasive mapping of the human brain

By Alan Evans  (MNI and Depts of Neurology and Neurosurgery and Electrical and Computer Engineering, McGill). 
Alan Evans is the director of the McConnell Brain Imaging Centre’s ACE NeuroImaging Laboratory and the Montreal Consortium for Brain Imaging Research — and, as a specialist in three-dimensional modeling of the living brain, his goal is to understand neurological pathologies inside-out. “Ultimately, we’re trying to understand the natural history of a disease,” he says. “What parts of the brain exhibit abnormal changes in cortical thickness, for example, over the duration of Alzheimer’s disease? How does that brain map relate to behaviours, such as a decline in language skills?
Click here for an article about Dr. Evans' work on how brain imaging helps to fight Alzheimer’s disease.

March 1, 2012: A diversity / tolerance model of cultural evolution

By Andre Costopoulos (Dept of Anthropology, McGill).  Building on recent computer simulation results from my lab, I will argue that while we humans perceive ourselves as forward looking decision makers, and often see our sophisticated brain as a rational choice engine, we are in fact probably selected to have a limited ability to make good decisions. I will argue that our brain is in fact a diversity production machine and that cultural evolution depends on the ability of our cultural systems to build and maintain diversity, and on our ability to access and replicate other people’s traits when circumstances demand it. Under this ‘diversity-tolerance’ model of cultural evolution humans are smart enough to come up with a range of potential solutions to the problems we face, but not very good at determining which solution is the best. While we are often wrong, we must be convinced that we are right, and to maintain diversity, we must disagree with each other about what to do in response to an environmental challenge. We must also have a limited ability to discriminate between good and bad choices so we can recognize when we are in serious trouble and can adopt someone else’s solution in a crisis. Andre Costopoulos studies social change and the environment in Nordic Prehistory. You can read about his work in Finland and northern Canada at SCENOP and the work of his graduate student faunal archeology lab  or watch the french television interview with Andre Costopoulos on Le Code Chastenay.

March 15, 2012: Medicines for Neglected Tropical Diseases — Reversing the Equation

 By Tim Geary (McGill Institute of Parasitology). Infections of humans by parasitic nematodes – roundworms – used to be essentially global in incidence. Today, more than a billion people still serve as hosts to these worms, almost all of them living in developing nations. These Neglected Tropical Diseases cause significant morbidity, contributing to the cycle of poverty which constrains development in economically challenged regions of the world. Medicines to treat these infections have generally been adopted from veterinary use (for livestock and companion animals) and have not been optimized for humans. Several are donated by Western pharmaceutical companies for use in human medicine in Africa and elsewhere. While undeniably admirable, an alternative approach is to foster innovation systems that enable scientists living in areas most affected by these diseases to assume leadership roles in the search for new and better medicines to treat them.  This lecture will provide an introduction to parasitic diseases of poverty and describe a novel drug discovery process that has been implemented in South Africa and Botswana, focused on identifying high-value antiparasitic drug candidates in collections of chemicals purified from African botanical and microbial sources. Changing the way in which needed drugs are provided to regions of poverty requires the strengthening of scientific capacity as well as the development of new ways of thinking about intellectual property and the requirement for local leadership. The integration of multiple levels of development is a significant challenge with great rewards.

April 12, 2012: The nature and origin of large explosive eruptions

By John Stix (Dept. Earth and Planetary Sciences, McGill University). This lecture addresses the nature and causes of episodic eruptions which can cause local, regional, and global devastation. A key parameter is the presence of large volumes of magma, stored at 5-10 km depth in a crustal magma reservoir, which are capable of being erupted. If a reservoir is sufficiently drained of its magma during eruption, the roof of the reservoir will fail, creating a large depression on the surface called a caldera. Whether a caldera forms early or late during the course of an eruption will influence the style of the eruption. Another key parameter is the trigger which initiates the eruption. Potential trigger mechanisms include earthquakes and injections of magma from deeper levels in the crust or mantle. Understanding the types of precursory activity which lead to a large eruption is a current challenge in volcanology, as we have never experienced such an event in historic time. Nevertheless, we may draw on clues from smaller events to provide us with insight. The lectures will conclude with a discussion of the probable consequences of such eruptions upon our society. Read Dr. Stix's Globe & Mail article about what Iceland's volcano in 2010 meant to the world.

September 13, 2012: In Search of the Source of Earthquakes

By  Christie Rowe (Assistant Professor, Dept. Earth and Planetary Sciences, McGill University). Earthquakes happen every day all over the world.  Most are concentrated along the boundaries of tectonic plates, but occasionally, earthquakes happen where we don't expect them.  How do these events start? What controls the location of earthquakes?  And what happens to all the energy that is released? Thousands or millions of years of erosion can reveal the deeper crustal rocks, which were the source of ancient earthquakes. Seeking out surface exposures of these ancient faults can give some insight into the physical and chemical controls on earthquakes.  Professor Rowe's Cutting Edge presentation is available as a podcast here. Here are some links to Scientific American Blog postings written by Dr. Rowe about D/V Chikyu this spring off the coast of Japan and about Earthquake prediction.

October 18, 2012: Warm bodies in cold places and the carbon footprint of endothermy

 By Murray Humphries (Associate Professor of Wildlife Biology, Department of Natural Resource Sciences). Endothermy describes the ability of birds and mammals to use internal heat production to maintain a warm body temperature that does not vary with air temperature. Endothermy allows birds and mammals to be active in the cold when their ectothermic counterparts are buried underground, supercooled, or frozen stiff. But endothermy is an extremely energy-inefficient lifestyle, causing birds and mammals to use 10-100 times more energy than similar-sized ectotherms. Upon reflection, the benefits accrued from this endotherm carbon addiction seem rather modest. Humans are of course endotherms, but we think little about our thermoregulation, and the energy costs and constraints it imposes upon us, perhaps because we spend so much of our lives within the thermal comfort of climate-controlled space. In this lecture, I will explore the energetics of endothermy, and argue that the carbon-dependency and climate relations of modern human populations have less to do with modernity and technology, and more to do with the atavistic constraints of warm bodies in cold places (and cool bodies in hot places), than is widely appreciated. From naked humans riding stationary bikes in cold rooms to the distribution of human population density in relation to climate conditions, I will consider the changing carbon and climate footprint of human populations, and what this means for humans and the more than 15,000 other endotherm species that are trying to co-exist with us in a warming world.Dr. Humphries is the NSERC Northern Research Chair, and member of the Centre for Indigenous Peoples' Nutrition and Environment (CINE) as well as a member of the Quebec Center for Biodiversity Science (QCBS). PHOTO: Murray Humphries at Lac Reindeer.

November 15, 2012: Tunnels, bridges and scaffolds

By Jacques Hurtubise (Mathematics and Statistics Department, McGill). One of the exciting aspects of mathematics is the occurrence of deep and surprising links between two seemingly unrelated areas suchas tunnels and bridges, or between two topics. Sometimes, the link is such that one subject provides a way for showing that a result holds in another subject, providing a scaffold for the construction which one removes after it is done. This lecture will discuss this through two examples, one being the Weil conjectures, a dominant subject of 20th century mathematics, and the other being the recent proof of the Poincaré conjecture. The aim of the talk is to give some sense of what is surprising and exciting about these results; very little mathematical knowledge will be assumed, compensated by a small amount of hand-waving in its stead.Jacques Hurtubise is a professor and currently the Chair of the Mathematics and Statistics Department of McGill University. After completing his doctorate at Oxford University in 1982, he moved back to Montreal, teaching at UQAM for 6 years before moving to McGill. He was Director of the Centre de Recherches Mathématiques from 1999 to 2003, and served as McGill’s Vice-Principal Research,  then  as Deputy Provost in an interim capacity from 2004 to 2006. He has just finished a stint as the President of the Canadian Mathematical Society.

December 13, 2012: The challenge of brain repair

By Albert J. Aguayo (Emeritus Professor of Medicine, Faculty of Medicine) 

The brain is, arguably the most complex of our organs. It is made of billions of interconnecting cells that process the information we need to see, hear, feel, think, and act.  It rules behavior and hides the secrets of what we are as human beings. Following brain or spinal cord injury or disease, new cells as well as a re-growth and reconnection of damaged ones may be required to restore function. New knowledge shows this may be possible.  Advances in this field derive largely from a better understanding of the potential of neural stem cells to multiply and differentiate into mature neurons and glia and also from the identification of molecules that block, stimulate and guide nerve fiber growth. Furthermore, the functional plasticity of the nervous system can compensate for the loss of some of its components either spontaneously, through training, aided by devices or in response to appropriate drug therapies. Professor Emeritus Aguayo and his team at McGill were the first to show that injured nerve fibers in the central nervous system had the capacity to grow and function. Dr. Aguayo is a neuroscientist who has made significant contributions in the areas of neural regeneration and repair. His work has had important influences in treating injuries to the nervous system once considered untreatable. Dr. Aguaya joined McGill in 1967 and became a professor in 1977. For 15 years, beginning in 1985, he held the position of Director, Centre for Research in Neuroscience. He is the recipient of numerous awards including the Order of Canada, the Killam and Gairdner awards. Dr. Aguayo has taught in academic institutions around the world. He is former secretary-general and president of the International Brain Research Organization, a UNESCO affiliate representing more than 50,000 neuroscientists worldwide.