In a nifty experiment involving movement-mimicking robots and a brief time delay, scientists uncover a potential neurological basis for sensing ghostly phenomena. “The mismatched sensory and motor information confused their brains…If those…didn’t match up, my brain would revise its perception of reality to account for the discrepancies. Maybe I’m not inside my body at all, it might think. Maybe I’m over there.”
Scared and smarter: In an experiment right out of the The Secret of NIMH, researchers discover that mice learn faster after being given a gene linked to human speech. ‘What surprised me most was that the humanized gene actually improved the animal’s behavior rather than messing up the system.'” Remember…Dubya did try to warn us.
Citing various recent research, Vox’s Joseph Stromberg extols the benefits of the coffee nap. “So if you nap for those 20 minutes, you’ll reduce your levels of adenosine just in time for the caffeine to kick in. The caffeine will have less adenosine to compete with, and will thereby be even more effective in making you alert.” And just imagine how much more fulfilling a Red Bull-Guinness-Coffee-Nap would be.
Take that, Van Helsing: Per PBS’s NOVA, research increasingly suggests that transfusions of young blood hold the secret to slowing or reversing aging. “We can turn back the clock instead of slowing the clock down,” said Dr. Toren Finkel, director of the Center for Molecular Medicine at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.”
(Unless, of course, it’s all about the jellyfish.)
Among the most frightening developments in a world full of bad news at the moment: Ebola is running rampant through West Africa, and has reached both Freetown and Lagos, Africa’s largest city (where it was hopefully and quickly contained.) “This epidemic…can only get worse, because it is still spreading, above all in Liberia and Sierra Leone, in some very important hotspots,’ Janssens said…’we have never known such an epidemic.'”
Still, before you seal the locks on the underground shelter, the general scientific consensus seems to be that, even if the virus does reach here by plane — and it may well — ebola isn’t influenza circa 1918: “This is not a highly transmissible disease, where the number of people who can be infected by a single individual is high. You have to come into very close contact with blood, organs, or bodily fluids of infected animals, including people. If you educate people properly and isolate those who are potentially infected, it should be something you can bring under control.”
Also, as far as deadly mutations go, ebola “kill[s] so quickly that I don’t envision there’s going to be a major shift in transmission.” Some small comfort…unless, of course, you’re infected. As it is, per The Onion, a vaccine is “at least 50 white people“ away.
As written up by Aatish Bhatia at Wired, the winners of Princeton’s annual Art of Science competition are announced. “Among the entries are some wonderful ‘oops’ moments, where an experiment goes beautifully wrong, revealing art where you might not have expected to see it…But most of these submissions aren’t accidents. Many of these pieces reveal form, structure, and beauty hidden at a scale that our eyes can’t perceive.”
In an impressive breakthrough, biologists successfully expand the genetic alphabet of a living organism from four to six, opening up all kinds of possibilities for everything from pharmaceuticals to new life. “‘This is a very major accomplishment in our efforts to inch towards a synthetic biology,’ says Steven Benner, a synthetic biologist at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution who was not involved in the study. ‘Many in the broader community thought that Floyd’s result would be impossible to achieve.'”
Sorry, Lenny: A new study finds a potentially problematic issue for decades of research: Mice are scared of men (or males of any species). ‘If you’re doing a liver cell study, the cells came from a rat that was sacrificed either by a man or a woman,’ Mogil says. As a result, ‘its stress levels would be in very different states.’ This, he says, could have an effect on the functioning of the liver cell in that later experiment.”
In The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal unearths the amazing secrets, and industry, surrounding horseshoe crab blood. “The thing about the blood that everyone notices first: It’s blue, baby blue…The iron-based, oxygen-carrying hemoglobin molecules in our blood give it that red color; the copper-based, oxygen-carrying hemocyanin molecules in theirs make it baby blue.”
A glimpse of the future: A Penn State team manage to insert synthetic nanomotors into living cells for the first time. “We might be able to use nanomotors to treat cancer and other diseases by mechanically manipulating cells from the inside. Nanomotors could perform intracellular surgery and deliver drugs noninvasively to living tissues.”
In a long piece at The Atlantic, Robert Wright ponders recent arguments about the biological basis of morality. “If Greene thinks that getting people to couch their moral arguments in a highly reasonable language will make them highly reasonable, I think he’s underestimating the cleverness and ruthlessness with which our inner animals pursue natural selection’s agenda. We seem designed to twist moral discourse — whatever language it’s framed in — to selfish or tribal ends, and to remain conveniently unaware of the twisting.”
Some good news for a change, by way of Dangerous Meta: Scientists have developed (for mice, at least) what appears to be a breakthrough drug that could prevent Alzheimers and other neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s(!):
“When a virus hijacks a brain cell it leads to a build-up of viral proteins. Cells respond by shutting down nearly all protein production in order to halt the virus’s spread. However, many neurodegenerative diseases involve the production of faulty or ‘misfolded’ proteins. These activate the same defences, but with more severe consequences…The researchers used a compound which prevented those defence mechanisms kicking in and in turn halted neurodegeneration.”
And now, IT HAS A FACE. Scientists program an old-timey robot to dramatize the electrical signals emanating from slime mold. In a 100,000 years, this is going to seem like one of those Skynet-level bad ideas. And the hat is particularly creepy touch — Very Something Wicked This Way Comes.
More Science of Sleep: In Scientific American, two Italian academics put forward their “synaptic homeostasis hypothesis” (SHY) of slumber, whereby the brain weakens (not strengthens, as is usually assumed) synaptic links overnight. “In principle, SHY explains the essential, universal purpose of sleep…sleep restores the brain to a state where it can learn and adapt when we are awake…Most generally, sleep is the price we pay for the brain’s plasticity — its ability to modify its wiring in response to experience.”
Also part of SHY: the idea of “local sleep”: “Recently we have even found that prolonged or intense use of certain circuits can make local groups of neurons ‘fall asleep’ even though the rest of the brain (and the organism itself) remains awake…It seems that when we have been awake for too long or have overexerted certain circuits, small chunks of the brain may take quick naps without giving notice.” I believe in Internet parlance this is known as “haz-ing the dumb.”