20 posts tagged research
Dogs’ brain scans reveal vocal responses
Devoted dog owners often claim that their pets understand them. A new study suggests they could be right. By placing dogs in an MRI scanner, researchers from Hungary found that the canine brain reacts to voices in the same way that the human brain does. Emotionally charged sounds, such as crying or laughter, also prompted similar responses, perhaps explaining why dogs are attuned to human emotions. The work is published in the journal Current Biology. Lead author Attila Andics, from the Hungarian Academy of Science’s Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, said: “We think dogs and humans have a very similar mechanism to process emotional information.” Eleven pet dogs took part in the study; training them took some time. “We used positive reinforcement strategies - lots of praise,” said Dr Andics. “There were 12 sessions of preparatory training, then seven sessions in the scanner room, then these dogs were able to lie motionless for as long as eight minutes. Once they were trained, they were so happy, I wouldn’t have believed it if I didn’t see it.” (via BBC News - Dogs’ brain scans reveal vocal responses)
University of Vienna app uses your phone for research while you sleep
Our mobile phones generally lie dormant while we’re asleep, which means that millions of powerful processors are going unused for hours at a time. Samsung Austria and the University of Vienna’s Faculty of Life Sciences have teamed up to try and tap the potential of all that unused processing power. Power Sleep is a new Android app that allows mobile phone users to donate the processing power of their devices to scientific research while they are asleep. The Power Sleep app provides users with a simple alarm clock function. When the alarm is set and the user’s phone is plugged in, fully charged and connected to a Wi-Fi network, the app begins to process data sent from the Similarity Matrix of Proteins (SIMAP) database. The research is focused on deciphering protein sequences in order to help with medical advancements in disciplines such as genetics and heredity, biochemistry, molecular biology and cancer research. “In order to fight diseases like cancer and Alzheimers, we need to know how proteins are arranged,” says Thomas Rattei, professor of bioinformatics at the University of Vienna. “This requires trials that need a tremendous amount of processing power. Power Sleep is a bridge between science and society. It promotes not only our research, but allows people in Austria to become part of the project and, at the same time, to do good in their sleep.” (via University of Vienna app uses your phone for research while you sleep)
How Plants Secretly Talk to Each Other
Up in the northern Sierra Nevada, the ecologist Richard Karban is trying to learn an alien language. The sagebrush plants that dot these slopes speak to one another, using words no human knows. Karban, who teaches at the University of California, Davis, is listening in, and he’s beginning to understand what they say. The evidence for plant communication is only a few decades old, but in that short time it has leapfrogged from electrifying discovery to decisive debunking to resurrection. Two studies published in 1983 demonstrated that willow trees, poplars and sugar maples can warn each other about insect attacks: Intact, undamaged trees near ones that are infested with hungry bugs begin pumping out bug-repelling chemicals to ward off attack. They somehow know what their neighbors are experiencing, and react to it. The mind-bending implication was that brainless trees could send, receive and interpret messages. The first few “talking tree” papers quickly were shot down as statistically flawed or too artificial, irrelevant to the real-world war between plants and bugs. Research ground to a halt. But the science of plant communication is now staging a comeback. Rigorous, carefully controlled experiments are overcoming those early criticisms with repeated testing in labs, forests and fields. It’s now well established that when bugs chew leaves, plants respond by releasing volatile organic compounds into the air. By Karban’s last count, 40 out of 48 studies of plant communication confirm that other plants detect these airborne signals and ramp up their production of chemical weapons or other defense mechanisms in response. “The evidence that plants release volatiles when damaged by herbivores is as sure as something in science can be,” said Martin Heil, an ecologist at the Mexican research institute Cinvestav Irapuato. “The evidence that plants can somehow perceive these volatiles and respond with a defense response is also very good.” (via How Plants Secretly Talk to Each Other - Wired Science)
US scientists have performed a dramatic reversal of the ageing process in animal studies.
They used a chemical to rejuvenate muscle in mice and said it was the equivalent of transforming a 60-year-old’s muscle to that of a 20-year-old - but muscle strength did not improve. Their study, in the journal Cell, identified an entirely new mechanism of ageing and then reversed it. Other researchers said it was an “exciting finding”. Ageing is considered a one-way street, but now researchers at Harvard Medical School have shown that some aspects can be reversed. Their research focused on a chemical called NAD. Its levels naturally drop in all cells of the body with age. The team showed this disrupted the function of the cell’s in-built powerstations, mitochondria, leading to lower energy production and ageing. Experiments showed that boosting NAD levels, by giving mice a chemical which they naturally convert into NAD, could reverse the sands of time. One week of youth-medication in two-year-old mice meant their muscles became akin to those of a six-month-old in terms of mitochondrial function, muscle wastage, inflammation and insulin resistance. Dr Ana Gomes, from the department of genetics at Harvard Medical School, said: “We believe this is quite an important finding.” She argues muscle strength may return with a longer course of treatment (via BBC News - Youth-drug can ‘reverse’ ageing in animal studies)
A 10-year, billion pound neuroscience project which aims to revolutionise our understanding of the human brain has begun.
Scientists from 135 institutions, mostly in Europe, are participating in the The Human Brain Project (HBP). Co-funded by the EU, it aims to develop the technology needed to create a computer simulation of the brain. It will also build a database of brain research from the tens of thousands of neuroscience papers published annually. Cognition “The Human Brain Project is an attempt to build completely new computer science technology that will enable us to collect all the information we have built up about the brain over the years,” said Prof Henry Markram, Director of the HBP at EPFL (Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne), in Switzerland. “We should begin to understand what makes the human brain unique, the basic mechanisms behind cognition and behaviour, how to objectively diagnose brain diseases, and to build new technologies inspired by how the brain computes.” The scientists involved accept that current computer technology is insufficient to simulate complex brain function. But within a decade, supercomputers should be sufficiently powerful to begin the first draft simulation of the human brain. Another hurdle is the huge amount of data that will be produced, which will mean massively expanding computing memory.
Genome search still can’t explain lefties
New research rules out a “strong genetic determinant” in influencing left- or right-handedness. The researchers conducted a twin study examining the whole genome—which contains hereditary information—of nearly 4,000 subjects from the London Twin Research Unit to compare left- and right-handed participants. Their findings are published in the journal Heredity. The study was unable to find a strong genetic factor in determining handedness. If there was a single major genetic determination of handedness, there should be a detectable shift between left- and right-handed people in the frequency of variants in that part of the genome—and this isn’t the caseStudy author John Armour, professor of human genetics at the University of Nottingham, says: “There should be a detectable shift between right- and left-handed people because modern methods for typing genetic variation cover nearly all of the genome. A survey that compared the whole-genome genotypes for right- and left-handed people should leave such a gene nowhere to hide.” (via Genome search still can’t explain lefties | Futurity)
This image, spreading over the Internet, suggests that frequent ejaculation lowers the risk of prostate cancer with one third.
But is it also true? We checked the original research paper to find out. The researchers studied men under 70 with (n=1079) and without (n=1259) prostate cancer.
The subjects were asked to report the average number of times that they had ejaculated per week in their most sexually active year in each of three decades of age: their 20’s, 30s and 40s.
The researchers found a significant negative relationship between risk on prostate cancer and number of ejaculations for men in their 20s (and not in their 30s and 40s). The results suggest that men who have on average five or more ejaculations per week in their 20s have a lower risk on developing prostate cancer than those who ejaculate less often in their 20s.
“Ejaculatory frequency, especially in early adult life, is negatively associated with the risk of prostate cancer, and thus the molecular biological consequences of suppressed or diminished ejaculation are worthy of further research,” the researchers conclude.
So gentleman, when you’re still in your 20s it seems beneficial to ejaculate at least 5 times a week. But if it reduces the risk of prostate cancer by a third is not confirmed by this research.
Source: Giles, G., Severi, G., English, D., McCredie, M., Borland, R., Boyle, P., & Hopper, J. (2003). Sexual factors and prostate cancer BJU International, 92 (3), 211-216 DOI: 10.1046/j.1464-410X.2003.04319.x
Researchers led by biomedical engineering Professor Shy Shoham of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology are testing the power of holography to artificially stimulate cells in the eye, with hopes of developing a new strategy for bionic vision restoration.
Computer-generated holography, they say, could be used in conjunction with a technique called optogenetics, which uses gene therapy to deliver light-sensitive proteins to damaged retinal nerve cells. In conditions such as Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) - a condition affecting about one in 4000 people in the United States - these light-sensing cells degenerate and lead to blindness.
"The basic idea of optogenetics is to take a light-sensitive protein from another organism, typically from algae or bacteria, and insert it into a target cell, and that photosensitizes the cell," Shoham explained.
Intense pulses of light can activate nerve cells newly sensitized by this gene therapy approach. But Shoham said researchers around the world are still searching for the best way to deliver the light patterns so that the retina “sees” or responds in a nearly normal way.
The plan is to someday develop a prosthetic headset or eyepiece that a person could wear to translate visual scenes into patterns of light that stimulate the genetically altered cells.
In their paper in the February 26 issue of Nature Communications, the Technion researchers show how light from computer-generated holography could be used to stimulate these repaired cells in mouse retinas. The key, they say, is to use a light stimulus that is intense, precise, and can trigger activity across a variety of cells all at once.
"Holography, what we’re using, has the advantage of being relatively precise and intense," Shoham said. "And you need those two things to see."
The researchers turned to holography after exploring other options, including laser deflectors and digital displays used in many portable projectors to stimulate these cells. Both methods had their drawbacks, Shoham said.
In many ways the Internet is the ultimate virtual laboratory. Social media and news sites tell the casual observer much about our priorities and interests, whether it’s the grave prognosis of the U.S.’s ongoing “fiscal cliff” political negotiations or elation over England’s royal pregnancy. Social scientists believe that, beyond such superficial revelations, the Internet can also be a tool for conducting expansive, yet inexpensive research experiments at unprecedented speed. Duncan Watts has been studying the Internet’s impact on social behavior, and vice versa, for more than a decade. In 2001 Watts and fellow Columbia University sociologists published the results of their Small World Project, an e-mail version of sociologist Stanley Milgram’s famous 1967 “six degrees of separation” experiment that used snail mail to test the theory that every person on the planet is separated from everyone else by a chain of about six people. In 2006 Watts worked with a team of researchers on Music Lab, an online experiment that illustrated the difficulty of predicting a song’s popularity among a diverse group of listeners.