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.
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.”
Better living through chemistry: The NYT’s Gretchen Reynolds touts the potential medical benefits of caffeine addiction. “Participants with little or no caffeine circulating in their bloodstreams were far more likely to have progressed to full-blown Alzheimer’s than those whose blood indicated they’d had about three cups’ worth of caffeine.” Factor in all the taurine I consume to boot, and I’m disco.
To kick off his new Slate column “Anything Once,” friend Seth Stevenson finds himself reveling in the sensation of sensory deprivation. “I emerged in a profound daze. I spoke slowly and quietly, like a smooth-jazz DJ, to the person at the spa desk who inquired how my session had gone. I felt more rested than if I’d slept for 16 hours on a pile of tranquilized chinchillas. Outside, colors were saturated; sounds were vivid. I had to try this again, as soon as possible.”
When you’re lying awake at night, it’s alright: BBC’s Stephanie Hegarty delves into pre-industrial sleep habits and discovers that eight hours of uninterrupted sleep may be a recent invention. “Much like the experience of Wehr’s subjects, these references describe a first sleep which began about two hours after dusk, followed by waking period of one or two hours and then a second sleep. ‘It’s not just the number of references – it is the way they refer to it, as if it was common knowledge,’ Ekirch says.”
President Obama makes the case for federal investment in the Brain Activity Map Project. (You heard it here first, tinfoil hat people. The tyranny of the Kenyan socialist will not stop at your precious bodily fluids — He’s going to read your brainwaves too!) Seriously, though, investing in basic scientific research like this is, er, a no-brainer. It creates jobs while advancing the frontiers of human knowledge in all kinds of unanticipated ways. We’d be stupid not to support this — which means, of course, the jury’s still out on whether we will.
Update: “BAM is an acronym you’ll probably be hearing a lot in the weeks and months to come — so let’s talk about what the BAM project is, what it isn’t, and why it’s raising both interest and eyebrows throughout the scientific community.” Io9 has more.
A novel path of brain research suggests our immune system may play a key role in determining intelligence. “The same T cells that protect the brain from inflammation also work to keep us sharp; and in what appears to be a feedback loop, the mere act of learning reinforces the effect.”
Also in decoding-the-brain news, Japanese scientists visually capture the creation of a zebrafish’s thought. “[W]e shouldn’t play this down: this is a fundamental leap forward in our understanding of how brains work.”
“‘We don’t know whether the media multitasking is causing symptoms of depression and social anxiety, or if it’s that people who are depressed and anxious are turning to media multitasking as a form of distraction from their problems,’ Becker said in a statement.”
And here I thought Netflix and Warcraft went so well together: A new Michigan State study finds a correlation between depression and multi-tasking media. I wonder if the obverse is true also. One of the many reasons I love seeing a movie in the theater is that (ideally) nothing else but the film is impinging on my attention.
“‘The work shows that processes like placebo and nocebo happen without us being aware of the cues that trigger them,’ said Jensen. ‘We get these responses due to associative learning. We don’t need somebody standing there saying ‘ok, now you will feel less pain’. It’s being elicited naturally, and without us being aware, all the time.’“
A new study finds that subliminal cues help create the placebo effect (and its opposite, the “nocebo effect”)…although, reading the overview of the experiment here, the conclusion sounds more like: People will subliminally recoil from bad things that happen to them.
Developmental psychiatrist Nancy Maurer discusses her findings that playing first-person-shooters helps people born with cataracts to improve their vision. “I’m a reader. My husband and I don’t have children. So computer games wouldn’t be a part of our lives. I’ve never played one. I can’t imagine enjoying playing one.“
By way of Dangerous Meta, researchers figure out a way to manufacture embryonic stem cells without an embryo, thus clearing the path for future research in that direction unhampered by abortion politics. “The discovery could be the key to cure the incurable – from heart attacks to severed spinal cord to cancer—and open the door, some day, to eternal youth.“
To me, children of the atom: A scientific study suggests that progeny of older men are more prone to mutations like autism, schizophrenia, telekinesis, and whatnot. “A man aged 29.7 at the time he fathered a child contributed 63 new mutations on average to his offspring, the authors found, and a man aged 46.2 contributed 126 mutations — a doubling, the authors calculated.” My biological clock is ticking like this…
The NYT tells the tale of Chaser, a border collie with a vocabulary of over 1000 words now. “Dr. Pilley said that most border collies, with special training, ‘could be pretty close to where Chaser is.’…Dr. Horowitz agreed: ‘It is not necessarily Chaser or Rico who is exceptional; it is the attention that is lavished on them,” she said.’” (Sorry, Berk…At least I taught you bacon and tacos — you know, the important stuff.)