Fruitfly Media

Why We Die
October 31, 2007, 4:22 am
Filed under: Culture, Health, Science | Tags: , , , , ,

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Chief Coroner’s office and it sparked some thoughts. What happens to us as we die, and why do we die in the first place? So, I went on a Pubmed/Wikipedia hunt to find some answers. It seems there are certain processes that take place when we….kick the bucket.

Just a warning: The video below is a real autopsy and is fairly gruesome

First, the bacteria that live on our bodies that are normally kept within their interior limits, run rampant; however, this process doesn’t start right away. Our own enzymes also start the decomposition process, but again, not immediately.

Here’s how it works. Our bodies’ cells can generally live for a while, up to a few hours, after we’re dead, except for one type ¬– neurons. Our brain cells die within three minutes of hypoxia (no oxygen), but our muscle cells can live a pretty long time without our vital O2.

Some researchers suggest that our neurons, without oxygen, commit suicide, so to speak. It’s called apoptosis, and is a vital part of cellular programming. It’s what pre-cancer cells are supposed to do before they turn into cancer cells. Glutamate, an important neurotransmitter, plays a big part in neuronal apoptosis (which can be caused by ischemia or hypoxia), by influencing calcium ion levels inside the cell.

Here’s how the connection comes in. How do guys like CSI’s Grissom know how long someone’s been dead? Rigor, as those CSI guys like to call it. When we die, our cells release calcium, uncontrollably (they also release it under controlled conditions when we’re alive and well, and we want to flex our muscles). In death, the dispersion of calcium – and the full body muscle flexing that ensues – results in rigor mortis

Anyway, back to the moral. Technically speaking, if we could control this glutamate/calcium neuronal death thing, we might get our brain cells working more like our muscle cells. What this really means is, we could stop breathing and our hearts could stop beating, and we’d technically be dead, but in a few hours when those brilliant doctors had repaired whatever damage was done, we’d come back to life! Those cells that had stopped working for a while would begin working again.

Imagine dying for two hours and then waking up from the dead? Now there’s a fitting Halloween thought!

References will be posted shortly


Impersonations and Imitations
July 19, 2007, 5:58 pm
Filed under: Culture, Science

I learned one of the most interesting things when I took Neurophysiology at Western. I learned about mirror neurons.

Mirror neurons are the neurons that fire both when an action is performed and when an action is observed. So, lets say Dustin McGowan throws a baseball. When he throws that baseball, both his mirror neurons and his motor neurons fire (motor neurons fire only when someone performs an action). You, on a Tuesday, see Lyle throw his baseball and only your mirror neurons fire. Get it?

Ever wonder why some people can do impersonations and imitations so well? I’m currently in the UK staying with my cousin Hambi, who’s an excellent actor. One of the most profound things about him is that he can impersonate almost anyone he hears (lately, a Canadian; he’s already mastered the “eh”). Although mirror neuron studies are more often performed on monkeys and less so on humans, if you asked me, I’d say Hambi has very receptive mirror neurons. Actually, if you ask Miall (2003)[1], he’d probably tell you the same thing. When Hambi hears a strong southern Texas accent, his mirror neurons fire more than, lets say, mine, and when his mirror and motor neurons connect, what comes out is an excellent impersonation that sounds a little like George W. Bush.

Interestingly enough, it seems only humans, primates and birds have mirror neuron function.


1. Miall R.C. 2003. Connecting mirror neurons and forward models. Neuroreport 14(17):2135-7.

Scavengers: Then and Now
June 26, 2007, 12:11 am
Filed under: Culture, Science

[The inspiration for Fruitfly Media originates from this first article that you are about to read!]

La plus ca change, la plus c’est le meme chose – this old adage has broad application including the niche of human scavengers.

I’ve just finished reading ”The Ghost Map” by Stephen Johnson (Riverhead Hardcover; 2006), a book that details an epidemic caused by Vibrio cholerae.
(A side note for those of us on the dark side who have science degrees, this particular species of the bacteria was infected by a vector which caused it to become a super-killer of sorts. According to Johnson, most species of V. cholerae are fairly harmless to humans; however, once this bacterium was infected with CTX phage, it was a powerful recipe for a deadly epidemic.)

Johnson begins his multi-scaled account by describing the city of London and its squalid conditions circa the mid 19th century. As is the way with great urban centres, London was home to

With a population 3 million and growing (already larger than present day Toronto), London was home to a variety of classes, each performing various, specialized functions, with much economic disparity between.

At the same time, the idea of bathroom, also known then as a water closet, was not a common one. If you could time travel to the Soho of 1840, you’d find the smell was not so pleasant. As a commoner living in the city, part of your daily routine would include the removing the human waste of your household by pouring it into the cesspool outside your building. Should you find yourself a member of one of the lowest, most impoverished classes, you might spend your working time collecting the fecal matter from cesspools and other places (it wasn’t hard to come by back then), and bringing it to the local tannery for a pence or two. These scavengers, who had little income and no home to live in, played Mother Theresa for their Mother Earth.

Last month, I was given a copy of the Sunday Star (my favourite edition) which contained a feature on the scavengers of Toronto. But instead of collecting from road-side cesspools, much of Toronto`s scavenging activity takes place in and around road-side recycling bins. The scavengers of our time, according to the Star, collect bottles (not only beer, but wine and liquor bottles, too), throw them into plastic bags, and transport the glass to the closest Beer Store to claim the deposit refund of a dime or two per bottle.

Coincidentally, shortly after reading the article, I spoke with a scavenger who said he’d been asked by the Star numerous times to share information on his earnings. He refused to do so because once others learned of his “wages” he’d lose business, as we’d all want to scavenge too. Apparently a dime or two adds up to good money.

Regardless of the money that the scavengers of 1850 or 2007 bring in, it seems these people are truly better for the earth than those of us who will readily consume as much we can. These people have nothing, so they take our waste and use it, ultimately cleaning up yours and my surroundings. Although their agendas are simple enough – bring in waste, collect money – their changes to the environment are profound.