Marijuana Use Causes Brain Damage Confirmed

Medical Daily – By Christine Hsu

Scientists have confirmed the long-held suspicion that frequent heavy marijuana use damages the brain’s memory and learning capacity.

Australian researchers have showed for the first time that the earlier people start their marijuana habit, the worse the brain damage.

“Our results suggest that long-term cannabis use is hazardous to white matter in the developing brain.  This was especially true for those who had started in adolescence, as we know the brain is still developing during this time,” Lead researcher Dr. Marc Seal, from Melbourne’s Murdoch Children’s Research Institute said in a university release.

Scientists from MCRI, Melbourne University and Wollongong University compared MRI scans of the brain for 59 people who had been using marijuana for an average of 15 years to 33 healthy people who had never used the drug.

After measuring changes to the volume, strength and integrity of white matter in the brains of all participants, researchers found that long-term heavy cannabis users had disruptions in their white matter fibers.

The brain’s white matter is responsible for information passed between different areas of grey matter within the nervous system, and unlike grey matter, which are the brain’s thinking areas that peaks at age eight, white matter continues to develop as people age.

Seal and his team found that there was more than 80 percent reduction of white matter in the brains of users.

Additionally, researchers found that the average age of participants in the study started using cannabis when they were 16 years old, participants who started using the drug at a younger age like 10 or 11 had even more severe brain damage.

“This is the first study to demonstrate the age at which regular cannabis use begins is a key factor in determining the severity of the brain damage,” Seal said, according to AAP.

He explained that marijuana interferes with naturally occurring cannabinoid receptors in the brain and by introducing external cannabinoids into a person’s system it stops their white matter from maturing.

Researchers linked the significant changes in the white matter in the brain’s hippocampus and commissural fibers, suggesting that long-term marijuana use may lead to memory impairment and deficits in learning and concentration ability.

“These people can have trouble learning new things and they are going to have trouble remembering things,” Seal said.

“We don’t know if the changes are irreversible but we do know that these changes are quite significant,” he added.

Researchers said that the findings could not be explained by recreational drug and alcohol use. Researchers will monitor participants for the next two years to detect any further changes.

The latest findings add to results from previous smaller studies that showed that the brain’s memory center, the hippocampus, shrunk in heavy marijuana users.

Wanted for one last mission: call for Bletchley Park codebreakers to crack the D-Day pigeon cipher

Telegraph (UK) – By Hannah Furness

The coded message had been carefully filed in a small red capsule and attached to a carrier pigeon to be delivered 70 years ago.

But instead of arriving safely at its destination, the unfortunate bird got stuck in a chimney en-route and lost.

The message was found by homeowner David Martin, who ripped out a fireplace to find the skeleton while renovating his house in Bletchingley, Surrey.

Historians believe the bird was almost certainly dispatched from Nazi-occupied France on June 6, 1944, during the D-Day invasions.

The mysterious message, which was written in unfamiliar code, was passed to Government Communications Headquarter (GCHQ) in Cheltenham, Glos, in the hope a contemporary professional codebreaker could decipher the words.

Today, experts have admitted they have been unable to unravel the puzzle without knowing more about the cryptographic context in which it was sent.

They have now appealed to retired codebreakers who worked at GCHQ’s predecessor, Bletchley Park, and others who may have worked in military signals, during the war to come forward to offer their expertise.

Those who are still alive are likely to be in their nineties but their memories may be sharp enough to recognise the type of code used, and explain how it could be deciphered.

Amongst their number is Baroness Trumpington, 90, a Conservative life peer who worked in Naval Intelligence at Bletchley Park.

A GCHQ historian, known only as Tony for security reasons, told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme it would be easier to identify the code if anyone could provide further information.

“We know in other contexts that there are still quite a lot of people alive who worked in communication centres during the war,” he said.

“It would be very interesting if people did have any information if they could put it in the pot and we could see if we can get any further with it.”

He explained modern codebreakers had so far been stumped by the secret message, with no clues as to who sent it or who was intended to receive it.

He added: “The sort of codes that were constructed to be used during operations were designed only to be read by the senders and the recipients. Unless you get rather more idea than we have about who actually sent the message and who it was sent to we are not going to be able to find out what the underlying code was.”

The message in full reads:

AOAKN HVPKD FNFJW YIDDC

RQXSR DJHFP GOVFN MIAPX

PABUZ WYYNP CMPNW HJRZH

NLXKG MEMKK ONOIB AKEEQ

WAOTA RBQRH DJOFM TPZEH

LKXGH RGGHT JRZCQ FNKTQ

KLDTS FQIRW AOAKN 27 1525/6

It is believed to have been dispatched by British forces during the D-Day invasion to relay secret messages back across the Channel, after a radio blackout left them reliant on homing pigeons.

The Royal Pigeon Racing Association believe the bird probably either got lost, disorientated in bad weather, or was simply exhausted after its trip across the Channel.

Due to Winston Churchill’s radio blackout, homing pigeons were taken on the D-Day invasion and released by Allied Forces to inform military Generals back on English soil how the operation was going.

Speaking earlier this month, Mr Martin said: “It’s a real mystery and I cannot wait for the secret message to be decoded. It really is unbelieveable.”

It is thought that the bird was destined for the top secret Bletchley Park, which was just 80 miles from Mr Martin’s home.

The message was sent to XO2 at 16:45. The destination X02 was believed to be Bomber Command, while the sender’s signature at the bottom of the message read Serjeant W Stot.

Pigeon enthusiasts – commonly known as “fanciers” – have called for Mr Martin’s mysterious military bird to be posthumously decorated with the Dickin Medal; the highest possible decoration for valour given to animals.

The dead pigeon was likely to be a member of the secret wing of the National Pigeon Service – which had a squadron of 250,000 birds during the Second World War.

They can reach speeds of 80mph, cover distances of more than 1,000 miles and are thought to use the Earth’s magnetic fields to navigate.

A spokesman for GCHQ said: “Although it is disappointing that we cannot yet read the message brought back by a brave carrier pigeon, it is a tribute to the skills of the wartime code-makers that, despite working under severe pressure, they devised a code that was indecipherable both then and now.”

It’s your funeral – burial culture changes

The Local (GE)

The van of bodies was ready to be driven from Berlin to a cut-rate crematorium in Saxony last month when it was stolen. Families waited for weeks to reclaim the bodies of their loved ones, which were eventually found in Poland.

Their distress was a result of what macabre critics are starting to call ‘corpse tourism’ – increasing numbers of bodies are being driven hundreds of miles to discount crematoria in distant parts of the country.

Reports suggest that some are even making grim farewell tours as far as the Czech Republic in a bid for knock-down prices.

Many German undertakers are deeply uneasy with these developments, blaming tight-fisted relatives for driving down costs – and standards.

Cheapskate loved ones

“Maybe it’s got something to do with this cheapskate mentality we’ve got,” Carsten Pohle, chairman of the Union of German Undertakers told The Local.

“Price is very important. Many of the bereaved are now more careful with money. And eight years ago insurance companies stopped contributing to burial costs, which has certainly sped up the development.

“There are now a lot more discount undertakers advertising,” he added. “You could say there was a price war going on.”

The growth of price-comparison websites certainly indicates a sea-change in attitudes: the days are long gone when it would have appeared inappropriate for the bereaved to make financial calculations.

Domestic coffin producers have been struggling in the face of competition from foreign imports, mostly from Eastern Europe. Discount providers now import two-thirds of their coffins, while domestic industrial production fell by 30 percent between 2003 and 2011, according to figures from the German association of funeral suppliers.

More cremations

Cremation, once a rarity, is fast becoming the norm, and overtook burials for the first time last year. In urban areas the trend is overwhelming: 67 percent of Berliners that die are now cremated, said Pohle.

“This also has cost reasons,” Pohle said. “The funeral is cheaper and you can have a cheaper coffin. People are also more used to the idea of cremations. I’ve had many conversations with people who find the idea of cremations simply cleaner and more hygienic.”

At the same time, speedy anonymous burials – usually following cremation – are on the rise.

Something significant is happening with how the nation is treating its dead. But what does it mean? Does the demise of traditional funerals, ornate coffins and regular grave-tending suggest a culture that no longer respects the dead?

Hamburg researcher Norbert Fischer said the picture was not so clear-cut. On the one hand, he agreed that anonymous burials suggested “a pragmatic, demystified way of dealing with death.”

Less ritual

Yet he stressed that other trends seemed to point in a different direction. “Overall, the biggest tendency had been towards a departure from ritual,” he told The Local.

“This is connected with the personalisation and privatisation of the mourning process, as well as a turning away from the crematory as the traditional place of mourning and remembrance,” he said.

He pointed to the rapid growth in alternative burials, which place a greater emphasis on the identity of the deceased. Innovative gravestones are on the rise, as are communal graves with a certain identity, such as the “Garden of Women” in the Hamburg-Ohlsdorfer cemetery, and burial areas set aside for stillborn babies.

The internet has provided fertile ground for the bereaved seeking new ways to keep memories alive. Electronic condolence books, mourning blogs, even a “virtual graveyard” of obituaries where visitors can leave comments suggest a common desire to commemorate in more immediate and personal ways.

Pohle also said he had noticed relatives placing more demands on funeral companies personalising their farewell. “They have many more individual wishes. They often want a more secular burial with new rituals. The music in the funeral service, for example, reflects this,” he said.

“People no longer want just an organ playing standard pieces, but want to pick music that was special to the deceased. So a widow might select the music played at her wedding.”

Woodland cemeteries growing

The increase in the number of woodland cemeteries represents yet another facet of this diversification. They have grown dramatically since legal restrictions were relaxed in 2000.

“Originally there were no options apart from a traditional burial. Since alternatives were introdcued, more and more people are taking them up”, Corinna Brod told The Local.

Brod is spokeswoman for the alternative woodland burial organisation FriedWald, which scatters the ashes of the dead at the roots of a tree. The company opened in 2001 with one location; it now has 44 across Germany, and is aiming for 80 by 2018.

She attributed the change to demographics and practical considerations.

“There are a lot of single people, and families are smaller. This means there are fewer people to tend to graves. Often there’s simply nobody to do it. Our service takes care of that, which makes it attractive for some people”, she said.

But the main reason for people to opt out of traditional ceremonies was more spiritual, she said. “In a recent survey we found that most people connected the woodlands with the hope that death wouldn’t be so bad.

“They come and find the place just incredibly peaceful, the trees comforting, and the surroundings beautiful, she said. “They think: maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to die. Our society is always confronted by death, and in the end we all just hope that it won’t be so terrible. This sense can be part of the attraction of alternative burials.”

Though the established ways of mourning may be on the wane, it would be hard to argue that Germans are forgetting their dead.

A tale of two cities

The Sydney Morning Herald

Hanoi has the beautiful, other-worldly Lake Hoan Kiem, but Ho Chi Minh City, nee Saigon, has the disturbing, confronting War Remnants Museum. Hanoi has graceful, stately French colonial public buildings, but in Ho Chi Minh City, old Saigon’s historic hotels overlook the Belle Epoque Opera House.

To compare the capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam with the first city of the vanished nation of South Vietnam is as absurd as contrasting, for example, Sydney and Melbourne. And who doesn’t love that?

I’ve been asked where I’d go if I only had the time to “do” one place. Well, it would depend on whether I was looking for pho or Ho, a lake or a river, the body of a leader or the ghost of a war …

Hotels

Among old Saigon’s historic cluster of the Majestic, Continental and Caravelle hotels, it’s still just possible to feel you’re in the city of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, particularly since street vendors try to sell you pirated copies of the novel every time you stand still.

The vastly expanded Caravelle, where many of the press corps lived during the war, retains a little of its former atmosphere in the old wing. At the Continental, you can ask to stay in room 214, where Greene actually wrote every journalist’s favourite novel.

Greene, and various other writers and spies, also enjoyed a drink in the Majestic. Both the Majestic and the Caravelle have rooftop bars that rival the more feted joint on the roof of the Rex.

But the best hotel in all of Vietnam is surely Hanoi’s Sofitel Legend Metropole, a gorgeous, tasteful colonial classic, like the Raffles Singapore, where the bunker that served to protect guests from air raids during the “American War” was rediscovered only last year.

Food

Vietnamese food is some of the best in Asia, if not the world. But you already know that, right? That’s why you’re going. You love Vietnamese mint and lemongrass, Thai basil and turmeric, cinnamon and dill. But most of all, you adore the earthy, hearty, deliciously meaty noodle soup known as pho (but pronounced closer to “fur”).

While Ho Chi Minh City, with its thousands of small restaurants and street stalls, might be the food capital of Vietnam, Hanoi is the true homeland of pho. Try the pho at its finest at Pho Gia Truyen in Hanoi and discover why locals are prepared to queue for half an hour to buy a dish that can be found on every other street corner.

Pho Gia Truyen is hot and crowded and faintly primeval. It looks very much like you could avoid the queue and sit in the fan-cooled restaurant next door, from which they send out a bus boy to collect the pho every five minutes.

In Ho Chi Minh City, the pho at Pho 2000 is reliable. Nationally, the Pho 24 chain is sterile and efficient. If, for some reason, you don’t feel like pho, try the marvellous Lemongrass on the top floor of the Palace Hotel. The Ly Club in Hanoi is laid-back and atmospheric, a romantic place to have dinner while listening to traditional music.

For something cheaper, there is excellent food hall-style dining (except in a prettier setting, with every stall specialising in a single Vietnamese dish) at Nha Hang Ngon in Ho Chi Minh City.

Day trips

Tours from Ho Chi Minh City to the Cu Chi tunnels, a network of subterranean guerilla lines, are hugely and deservedly popular. It is incredible to see how the Viet Cong lived and fought under the noses of the South Vietnamese and foreign armies. Stretches of tunnel have been widened, cleaned and opened to the public.

From Hanoi, it’s a three-hour drive to Halong City, the gateway to the gorgeous Halong Bay, although a day trip barely does justice to the 2000 islands. Most travellers take cruises from here, and they are unforgettable.

Opera houses

The Caravelle Hotel looks out over the Opera House (known officially as the Municipal Theatre) in old Saigon. The Hanoi Opera House, modelled after the Opera Garnier in Paris, is close to the Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel.

Hanoi has the better-looking opera house, but Ho Chi Minh City’s is arguably more significant, as it was once the meeting place of the National Assembly of South Vietnam.

The Hilton Hanoi takes its name from the opera house because the name “Hanoi Hilton” carries certain negative connotations. But, let’s face it, nobody goes from Australia to Vietnam to look at an opera house.

Water

The lovely Lake Hoan Kiem, with the mystical Turtle Pagoda at its centre, is a symbol of Hanoi and the place to come to watch locals practise tai chi, martial arts and ballroom dancing, but watch out for thieves.

I had to break up a fight between a pickpocket and a tourist outside the toilet block earlier this year. The Saigon River is filthy and widely reviled, but there are stretches between the city and Vung Tau that offer fascinating and sometimes lovely views of life in the city and on the water. Honestly.

Museums

The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly the Museum of American War Crimes, was never supposed to be a tourist attraction but the travellers came anyway. It used to be viscerally moving, a true atrocity exhibition, but has been toned down to suit the sensibilities of the post-embargo US.

But nobody, even the French, cares what anyone says about the horrors of French colonialism any more, and the Hoa La Prison Museum, where the French tortured and executed Vietnamese rebels from 1896, retains all its gloomy, brutish horror.

Later, Hoa Loa became the famous “Hanoi Hilton”, where former US presidential candidate John McCain, a bomber pilot shot down in the skies over Hanoi, was incarcerated – and tortured – for 5½ years. A stilted, unconvincing display shows the lighter side of McCain’s imprisonment.

The Australian War

The Vietnamese call it the “American War”, but about 61,000 Australians served in South Vietnam from 1962-72. Most were based at the 1st Australian Task Force in Nui Dat, about 100 kilometres from Ho Chi Minh City, of which little remains but the Luscombe Field airstrip, now a main road through a village.

Support troops were stationed at the 1st Australian Logistics Support Group in nearby Vung Tau, now a lively, slightly sleazy holiday resort with a so-so beach and a visible sex industry.

From Tommy’s Bar, former Australian infantryman Glenn Nolan (who is knowledgable but not a Vietnam vet), runs tours to Australian war sites, including Long Tan.

It’s a 90-minute drive from Ho Chi Minh City to Vung Tau. The hydrofoils are 15 minutes faster, but they may cover the windows, in which case you won’t be able to see out.

In Hanoi, the only evidence of Australian involvement in the war is a couple of photographs of Melbourne anti-war demonstrations in the Hoa La Prison Museum.

Ho Chi Minh

Hanoi is the place to get your fix of Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese guerilla leader and first president of North Vietnam, who declared independence from the French in 1945 but died in 1969, five years before the fall of Saigon and the unification of his country.

You can visit Uncle Ho’s simple Stilt House behind his final resting place and hear unlikely stories about how even the fish in the lake rose to his call. You can take an unenlightening look at the cars in which he drove, and follow the masses around the lake to the One Pillar Pagoda.

But more startling, and unaccountably moving, is a visit to Ho Chi Minh himself, lying embalmed and on public display at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, looking part Confucius, part Mao, part Abraham Lincoln and part Colonel Sanders.

He was a merciless politician whose saintly bearing belied his ruthlessness, but the communist president embodied the hopes of generations of nationalist Vietnamese.

There is little Ho Chi Minh to speak of in Ho Chi Minh City, apart from the name, although the rarely visited Ho Chi Minh Museum in District 4 is home to his sandals and spectacles, which might be of interest to chiropodists and opticians.

Shopping

Hanoi’s old quarter is a captivating maze of 36 streets of shophouses selling the products of ancient and modern trades as diverse as tombstone masonry and DVD piracy.

Reproduction retro-trendy propaganda posters at the Hanoi Gallery include such standards as “Following the road that Uncle Ho has chosen” and “Bravo the great victory of the people and soldiers in the frontier”, along with the lesser-known “Be zealous in injecting the insecticide for spring rice” and “Grow lots of chilli to increase the product for exportation”.

Shopping in Hanoi’s old quarter is one of the great delights of Vietnam, and Ho Chi Minh City really has nothing to compare, although Ben Thanh Market is worth a look for cheap clothing, street food and pirated everything. Designer boutiques are found around the top-end hotels.

Bars

The rooftop bar of the Rex Hotel is often rated as one of the great bars of south-east Asia, but you need a high tolerance of note-perfect but passionless 1970s covers bands to spend any time here in the evening. Chill Skybar, with great views of Ho Chi Minh City from its glass balconies, is a much trendier alternative – although even here there is a retro night on Wednesdays.

Younger locals rate the Yoko Bar, a laid-back live-music venue with covers bands but no cover charge. More cutting-edge is Hanoi’s Cama Atk, a self-styled speakeasy where you might even catch a dubstep act. The Rooftop Bar on the 19th floor of Pacific Place is the spot to see Hanoi from the sky. And don’t forget the Bamboo Bar at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi.

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