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By Jeffrey Mervis Embattled U.K. biomedical researchers are drawing some comfort from a new survey showing that a sizable majority of the public continues to support the use of animals in research. But there’s another twist that should interest social scientists as well: The government’s decision this year to field two almost identical surveys on the topic offers fresh evidence that the way you ask a question affects how people answer it. Since 1999, the U.K. Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) has been funding a survey of 1000 adults about their attitudes toward animal experimentation. But this year the government asked the London-based pollsters, Ipsos MORI, to carry out a new survey, changing the wording of several questions. (The company also collected additional information, including public attitudes toward different animal species and current rules regarding their use.) For example, the phrase “animal experimentation” was replaced by “animal research” because the latter is “less inflammatory,” notes Ipsos MORI Research Manager Jerry Latter. In addition, says Emma Brown, a BIS spokeswoman, the word research “more accurately reflects the range of procedures that animals may be involved in, including the breeding of genetically modified animals.” But government officials also value the information about long-term trends in public attitudes that can be gleaned from the current survey. So they told the company to conduct one last round—the 10th in the series—at the same time they deployed the new survey. Each survey went to a representative, but different, sample of U.K. adults. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Scienc
Keyword: Animal Rights
Link ID: 20041 - Posted: 09.06.2014
Ewen Callaway Caffeine's buzz is so nice it evolved twice. The coffee genome has now been published, and it reveals that the coffee plant makes caffeine using a different set of genes from those found in tea, cacao and other perk-you-up plants. Coffee plants are grown across some 11 million hectares of land, with more than two billion cups of the beverage drunk every day. It is brewed from the fermented, roasted and ground berries of Coffea canephora and Coffea arabica, known as robusta and arabica, respectively. An international team of scientists has now identified more than 25,000 protein-making genes in the robusta coffee genome. The species accounts for about one-third of the coffee produced, much of it for instant-coffee brands such as Nescafe. Arabica contains less caffeine, but its lower acidity and bitterness make it more flavourful to many coffee drinkers. However, the robusta species was selected for sequencing because its genome is simpler than arabica’s. Caffeine evolved long before sleep-deprived humans became addicted to it, probably to defend the coffee plant against predators and for other benefits. For example, coffee leaves contain the highest levels of caffeine of any part of the plant, and when they fall on the soil they stop other plants from growing nearby. “Caffeine also habituates pollinators and makes them want to come back for more, which is what it does to us, too,” says Victor Albert, a genome scientist at the University of Buffalo in New York, who co-led the sequencing effort. The results were published on 4 September in Science1. © 2014 Nature Publishing Group
By S. Matthew Liao As many as 20 percent of war veterans return from combat in Afghanistan and Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or major depression, according to a 2008 report from the RAND Corporation. Many experience constant nightmares and flashbacks and many can’t live normal lives. For significant number of veterans, available medications do not seem to help. In 2010, at least 22 veterans committed suicide each day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. In her book, Demon Camp, the author Jen Percy describes damaged veterans who have even resorted to exorcism to alleviate their PTSD symptoms. As part of President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative, the federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) plans to spend more than $70 million over five years to develop novel devices that would address neurological disorders such as PTSD. DARPA is particularly interested in a technology called Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS). DBS involves inserting a thin electrode through a small opening in the skull into a specific area in the brain; the electrode is then connected by an insulated wire to a battery pack underneath the skin; the battery pack then sends electrical pulses via the wire to the brain. About 100,000 people around the world today have a DBS implant to ameliorate the effects of Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and major depression. There is evidence that DBS can also help with PTSD. Functional neuroimaging studies indicate that amygdala hyperactivity is responsible for the symptoms of PTSD and that DBS can functionally reduce the activity of the amygdala. In animal PTSD models, DBS has been found to be more effective than current treatment using selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. © 2014 Scientific American
Link ID: 20039 - Posted: 09.06.2014
By Tanya Lewis, In an experiment that sounds more like science fiction than reality, two humans were able to send greetings to each other using only a digital connection linking their brains. Using noninvasive means, researchers made brain recordings of a person in India thinking the words "hola" and "ciao," and then decoded and emailed the messages to France, where a machine converted the words into brain stimulation in another person, who perceived the signals as flashes of light. From the sequence of flashes, the French recipient was able to successfully interpret the greetings, according to a new study published today (Sept. 5) in the journal PLOS ONE. The researchers wanted to know if it is possible for two people to communicate by reading out the brain activity of one person and injecting that activity into a second person. "Could we develop an experiment that would bypass the talking or typing part of [the] Internet and establish direct brain-to-brain communication between subjects located far away from each other, in India and France?" co-author Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone said in a statement. Pascual-Leone is a neurologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, and a professor at Harvard Medical School, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. To answer that question, Pascual-Leone and his colleagues at Starlab Barcelona, in Spain, and Axilum Robotics, in Strasbourg, France, turned to several widely used brain technologies. Electroencephalogram, or EEG, recordings are taken by placing a cap of electrodes on a person's scalp, and recording the electrical activity of large regions of the brain's cortex. Previous studies have recorded EEG from a person thinking about an action, such as moving his or her arm, while a computer translates the signal into an output used to move a robotic exoskeleton or drive a wheelchair.
By LISA SANDERS, M.D. On Thursday, we challenged Well readers to take on the case of a 19-year-old man who suddenly collapsed at work after months of weakness and fatigue dotted with episodes of nausea and vomiting. More than 500 of you wrote in with suggested diagnoses. And more than 60 of you nailed it. The cause of this man’s collapse, weakness, nausea and vomiting was… Addisonian crisis because of Addison’s disease Addison’s disease, named after Dr. Thomas Addison, the 19th-century physician who first described the disorder, occurs when the adrenal glands stop producing the fight-or-flight hormones, particularly cortisol and adrenaline and a less well known but equally important hormone called aldosterone that helps the body manage salt. In Addison’s, the immune system mistakenly attacks the adrenal glands as if they were foreign invaders. Why this happens is not well understood, but without these glands and the essential hormones they make, the body cannot respond to biological stress. The symptoms of Addison’s are vague. That’s one reason it’s so hard to diagnosis. Patients complain of weakness and fatigue. They often crave salt. And when confronted with any stress — an infection or an injury — patients with Addison’s may go into adrenal crisis, characterized by nausea and vomiting, low blood pressure and, sometimes, physical collapse. Their blood pressure may drop so low that oxygen-carrying blood cannot reach the extremities, causing skin to turn blue; if blood fails to reach even more essential organs, it can lead to death. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Hormones & Behavior
Link ID: 20037 - Posted: 09.06.2014
On 5th May, 1953, the novelist Aldous Huxley dissolved four-tenths of a gram of mescaline in a glass of water, drank it, then sat back and waited for the drug to take effect. Huxley took the drug in his California home under the direct supervision of psychiatrist Humphry Osmond, to whom Huxley had volunteered himself as “a willing and eager guinea pig”. Osmond was one of a small group of psychiatrists who pioneered the use of LSD as a treatment for alcoholism and various mental disorders in the early 1950s. He coined the term psychedelic, meaning ‘mind manifesting’ and although his research into the therapeutic potential of LSD produced promising initial results, it was halted during the 1960s for social and political reasons. Born in Surrey in 1917, Osmond studied medicine at Guy’s Hospital, London. He served in the navy as a ship’s psychiatrist during World War II, and afterwards worked in the psychiatric unit at St. George’s Hospital, London, where he became a senior registrar. While at St. George’s, Osmond and his colleague John Smythies learned about Albert Hoffman’s discovery of LSD at the Sandoz Pharmaceutical Company in Bazel, Switzerland. Osmond and Smythies started their own investigation into the properties of hallucinogens and observed that mescaline produced effects similar to the symptoms of schizophrenia, and that its chemical structure was very similar to that of the hormone and neurotransmitter adrenaline. This led them to postulate that schizophrenia was caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, but these ideas were not favourably received by their colleagues. In 1951 Osmond took a post as deputy director of psychiatry at the Weyburn Mental Hospital in Saskatchewan, Canada and moved there with his family. Within a year, he began collaborating on experiments using LSD with Abram Hoffer. Osmond tried LSD himself and concluded that the drug could produce profound changes in consciousness. Osmond and Hoffer also recruited volunteers to take LSD and theorised that the drug was capable of inducing a new level of self-awareness which may have enormous therapeutic potential. © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited
by Sandrine Ceurstemont Screening an instructional monkey movie in a forest reveals that marmosets do not only learn from family members: they also copy on-screen strangers. It is the first time such a video has been used for investigations in the wild. Tina Gunhold at the University of Vienna, Austria, and her colleagues filmed a common marmoset retrieving a treat from a plastic device. They then took the device to the Atlantic Forest near Aldeia in Pernambuco, Brazil, and showed the movie to wild marmosets there. Although monkeys are known to learn from others in their social group, especially when they are youngMovie Camera, little is known about their ability to learn from monkeys that do not belong to the same group. Marmosets are territorial, so the presence of an outsider – even a virtual one on a screen – could provoke an attack. "We didn't know if wild marmosets would be frightened of the video box but actually they were all attracted to it," says Gunhold. Compared to monkeys shown a static image of the stranger, video-watching marmosets were more likely to manipulate the device, typically copying the technique shown (see video). Young monkeys spent more time near the video box than older family members, suggesting that they found the movie more engaging – although as soon as one monkey mastered the task, it was impossible to tell whether the others were learning from the video or from their relative. "We think it's a combination of both," says Gunhold. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By Fredrick Kunkle Years ago, many scientists assumed that a woman’s heart worked pretty much the same as a man’s. But as more women entered the male-dominated field of cardiology, many such assumptions vanished, opening the way for new approaches to research and treatment. A similar shift is underway in the study of Alzheimer’s disease. It has long been known that more women than men get the deadly neurodegenerative disease, and an emerging body of research is challenging the common wisdom as to why. Although the question is by no means settled, recent findings suggest that biological, genetic and even cultural influences may play heavy roles. Of the more than 5 million people in the United States who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the leading cause of dementia, two-thirds are women. Because advancing age is considered the biggest risk factor for the disease, researchers largely have attributed that disparity to women’s longer life spans. The average life expectancy for women is 81 years, compared with 76 for men. Yet “even after taking age into account, women are more at risk,” said Richard Lipton, a physician who heads the Einstein Aging Study at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. With the number of Alzheimer’s cases in the United States expected to more than triple by 2050, some researchers are urging a greater focus on understanding the underlying reasons women are more prone to the disease and on developing gender-specific treatments. The area of inquiry has been growing in part because of a push by female Alzheimer’s researchers, who have formed a group to advocate for a larger leadership role in the field and more gender-specific research.
Yves Frégnac & Gilles Laurent Launched in October 2013, the Human Brain Project (HBP) was sold by charismatic neurobiologist Henry Markram as a bold new path towards understanding the brain, treating neurological diseases and building information technology. It is one of two 'flagship' proposals funded by the European Commission's Future and Emerging Technologies programme (see go.nature.com/icotmi). Selected after a multiyear competition, the project seemed like an exciting opportunity to bring together neuroscience and IT to generate practical applications for health and medicine (see go.nature.com/2eocv8). Contrary to public assumptions that the HBP would generate knowledge about how the brain works, the project is turning into an expensive database-management project with a hunt for new computing architectures. In recent months, the HBP executive board revealed plans to drastically reduce its experimental and cognitive neuroscience arm, provoking wrath in the European neuroscience community. The crisis culminated with an open letter from neuroscientists (including one of us, G.L.) to the European Commission on 7 July 2014 (see www.neurofuture.eu), which has now gathered more than 750 signatures. Many signatories are scientists in experimental and theoretical fields, and the list includes former HBP participants. The letter incorporates a pledge of non-participation in a planned call for 'partnering projects' that must raise about half of the HBP's total funding. This pledge could seriously lower the quality of the project's final output and leave the planned databases empty. © 2014 Nature Publishing Group
Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 20033 - Posted: 09.04.2014
By MATTHEW PERRONE AP Health Writer WASHINGTON (AP) — The Food and Drug Administration says there is little evidence that testosterone-boosting drugs taken by millions of American men are beneficial, though the agency is also unconvinced by studies suggesting the hormone carries serious risks. The agency posted its review online Wednesday ahead of a public meeting to discuss the benefits and risks of treatments that raise levels of the male hormone. Regulators agreed to convene the September 17 meeting after two federally funded studies found links between testosterone therapy and heart problems in men. The scrutiny comes amid an industry marketing blitz for new pills, patches and formulations that has transformed testosterone a multibillion-dollar market. Advertisements for prescription gels like Fortesta and Androgel promise aging men relief from ‘‘Low-T,’’ a condition they link to low libido, fatigue and weight gain. But FDA reviewers state that ‘‘the need to replace testosterone in these older men remains debatable.’’ While testosterone levels naturally decline after age 40, it’s unclear whether those lower levels actually lead to the signs commonly associated with aging, including decreased energy and loss of muscle. The FDA first approved testosterone injections in the 1950s for men who had been diagnosed with hypogonadism, a form of abnormally low testosterone caused by injury or medical illness. But the recent advertising push is focused on otherwise healthy men who simply have lower-than-normal levels of testosterone.
By GRETCHEN REYNOLDS Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis has been all over the news lately because of the ubiquitous A.L.S. ice bucket challenge. That attention has also reinvigorated a long-simmering scientific debate about whether participating in contact sports or even vigorous exercise might somehow contribute to the development of the fatal neurodegenerative disease, an issue that two important new studies attempt to answer. Ever since the great Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig died of A.L.S. in 1941 at age 37, many Americans have vaguely connected A.L.S. with athletes and sports. In Europe, the possible linkage has been more overtly discussed. In the past decade, several widely publicized studies indicated that professional Italian soccer players were disproportionately prone to A.L.S., with about a sixfold higher incidence than would have been expected numerically. Players were often diagnosed while in their 30s; the normal onset is after 60. These findings prompted some small, follow-up epidemiological studies of A.L.S. patients in Europe. To the surprise and likely consternation of the researchers, they found weak but measurable associations between playing contact sports and a heightened risk for A.L.S. The data even showed links between being physically active — meaning exercising regularly — and contracting the disease, raising concerns among scientists that exercise might somehow be inducing A.L.S. in susceptible people, perhaps by affecting brain neurons or increasing bodily stress. But these studies were extremely small and had methodological problems. So to better determine what role sports and exercise might play in the risk for A.L.S., researchers from across Europe recently combined their efforts into two major new studies. The results should reassure those of us who exercise. The numbers showed that physical activity — whether at work, in sports or during exercise — did not increase people’s risk of developing A.L.S. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Keyword: ALS-Lou Gehrig's Disease
Link ID: 20031 - Posted: 09.03.2014
By Kate Wong In 1871 Charles Darwin surmised that humans were evolutionarily closer to the African apes than to any other species alive. The recent sequencing of the gorilla, chimpanzee and bonobo genomes confirms that supposition and provides a clearer view of how we are connected: chimps and bonobos in particular take pride of place as our nearest living relatives, sharing approximately 99 percent of our DNA, with gorillas trailing at 98 percent. Yet that tiny portion of unshared DNA makes a world of difference: it gives us, for instance, our bipedal stance and the ability to plan missions to Mars. Scientists do not yet know how most of the DNA that is uniquely ours affects gene function. But they can conduct whole-genome analyses—with intriguing results. For example, comparing the 33 percent of our genome that codes for proteins with our relatives' genomes reveals that although the sum total of our genetic differences is small, the individual differences pervade the genome, affecting each of our chromosomes in numerous ways. © 2014 Scientific American
By Jonathan Webb Science reporter, BBC News Monkeys at the top and bottom of the social pecking order have physically different brains, research has found. A particular network of brain areas was bigger in dominant animals, while other regions were bigger in subordinates. The study suggests that primate brains, including ours, can be specialised for life at either end of the hierarchy. The differences might reflect inherited tendencies toward leading or following, or the brain adapting to an animal's role in life - or a little of both. Neuroscientists made the discovery, which appears in the journal Plos Biology, by comparing brain scans from 25 macaque monkeys that were already "on file" as part of ongoing research at the University of Oxford. "We were also looking at learning and memory and decision-making, and the changes that are going on in your brain when you're doing those things," explained Dr MaryAnn Noonan, the study's first author. The decision to look at the animals' social status produced an unexpectedly clear result, Dr Noonan said. "It was surprising. All our monkeys were of different ages and different genders - but with fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) you can control for all of that. And we were consistently seeing these same networks coming out." BBC © 2014
|By Madhuvanthi Kannan We humans assume we are the smartest of all creations. In a world with over 8.7 million species, only we have the ability to understand the inner workings of our body while also unraveling the mysteries of the universe. We are the geniuses, the philosophers, the artists, the poets and savants. We amuse at a dog playing ball, a dolphin jumping rings, or a monkey imitating man because we think of these as remarkable acts for animals that, we presume, aren’t smart as us. But what is smart? Is it just about having ideas, or being good at language and math? Scientists have shown, time and again, that many animals have an extraordinary intellect. Unlike an average human brain that can barely recall a vivid scene from the last hour, chimps have a photographic memory and can memorize patterns they see in the blink of an eye. Sea lions and elephants can remember faces from decades ago. Animals also have a unique sense perception. Sniffer dogs can detect the first signs of colon cancer by the scents of patients, while doctors flounder in early diagnosis. So the point is animals are smart too. But that’s not the upsetting realization. What happens when, for just once, a chimp or a dog challenges man to one of their feats? Well, for one, a precarious face-off – like the one Matt Reeves conceived in the Planet of the Apes – would seem a tad less unlikely than we thought. In a recent study by psychologists Colin Camerer and Tetsuro Matsuzawa, chimps and humans played a strategy game – and unexpectedly, the chimps outplayed the humans. Chimps are a scientist’s favorite model to understand human brain and behavior. Chimp and human DNAs overlap by a whopping 99 percent, which makes us closer to chimps than horses to zebras. Yet at some point, we evolved differently. Our behavior and personalities, molded to some extent by our distinct societies, are strikingly different from that of our fellow primates. Chimps are aggressive and status-hungry within their hierarchical societies, knit around a dominant alpha male. We are, perhaps, a little less so. So the question arises whether competitive behavior is hard-wired in them. © 2014 Scientific American
By Virginia Morell Figaro, a Goffin’s cockatoo (Cacatua goffini) housed at a research lab in Austria, stunned scientists a few years ago when he began spontaneously making stick tools from the wooden beams of his aviary. The Indonesian parrots are not known to use tools in the wild, yet Figaro confidently employed his sticks to rake in nuts outside his wire enclosure. Wondering if Figaro’s fellow cockatoos could learn by watching his methods, scientists set up experiments for a dozen of them. One group watched as Figaro used a stick to reach a nut placed inside an acrylic box with a wire-mesh front panel; others saw “ghost demonstrators”—magnets that were hidden beneath a table and that the researchers controlled—displace the treats. Each bird was then placed in front of the box, with a stick just like Figaro’s lying nearby. The group of three males and three females that had watched Figaro also picked up the sticks, and made some efforts reminiscent of his actions. But only those three males, such as the one in the photo above, became proficient with the tool and successfully retrieved the nuts, the scientists report online today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. None of the females did so; nor did any of the birds, male or female, in the ghost demonstrator group. Because the latter group failed entirely, the study shows that the birds need living teachers, the scientists say. Intriguingly, the clever observers developed a better technique than Figaro’s for getting the treat. Thus, the cockatoos weren’t copying his exact actions, but emulating them—a distinction that implies some degree of creativity. Two of the successful cockatoos were later given a chance to make a tool of their own. One did so immediately (as in the video above), and the other succeeded after watching Figaro. It may be that by learning to use a tool, the birds are stimulated to make tools of their own, the scientists say. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 20027 - Posted: 09.03.2014
by Chris Higgins Neuroscientists have pinpointed where imagination hides in the brain and found it to be functionally distinct from related processes such as memory. The team from Brigham Young University (BYU), Utah-- including research proposer, undergraduate student Stefania Ashby -- used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to observe brain activity when subjects were remembering specific experiences and putting themselves in novel ones. "I was thinking a lot about planning for my own future and imagining myself in the future, and I started wondering how memory and imagination work together," Ashby said. "I wondered if they were separate or if imagination is just taking past memories and combining them in different ways to form something I've never experienced before." The two processes of remembering and imagining have been previously proposed to be the same cognitive task, and so thought to be carried out by the same areas of the brain. However, the experiments derived by Ashby and her mentor (and coauthor) BYU professor Brock Kirwan have refuted these ideas. The studies -- published in the journal Cognitive Neuroscience -- required participants to submit 60 photographs of previous life events and use them to create prompts for the "remember" sections. They then carried out a questionnaire before putting the subject into the MRI scanner to determine what scenarios were the most novel to them and force them into imagination. Then, under fMRI testing, the subjects were prompted with various scenarios and the areas of their brain that became active during each scenario was correlated with each scene's familiarity -- pure memory, or imagination. © Condé Nast UK 2014
By JOHN ROGERS LOS ANGELES (AP) — The founder of a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that provides free music lessons to low-income students from gang-ridden neighborhoods began to notice several years ago a hopeful sign: Kids were graduating high school and heading off to UCLA, Tulane and other big universities. That’s when Margaret Martin asked how the children in the Harmony Project were beating the odds. Researchers at Northwestern University in Illinois believe that the students’ music training played a role in their educational achievement, helping as Martin noticed 90 percent of them graduate from high school while 50 percent or more didn’t from those same neighborhoods. A two-year study of 44 children in the program shows that the training changes the brain in ways that make it easier for youngsters to process sounds, according to results reported in Tuesday’s edition of The Journal of Neuroscience. That increased ability, the researchers say, is linked directly to improved skills in such subjects as reading and speech. But, there is one catch: People have to actually play an instrument to get smarter. They can’t just crank up the tunes on their iPod. Nina Kraus, the study’s lead researcher and director of Northwestern’s auditory neuroscience laboratory, compared the difference to that of building up one’s body through exercise. ‘‘I like to say to people: You’re not going to get physically fit just watching sports,’’ she said.
Greta Kaul, Stanford researchers say poor sleep may be an independent risk factor for suicide in adults over 65. Researchers used data from a previous epidemiological study to compare the sleep quality of 20 older adults who committed suicide and 400 who didn't, over 10 years. Researchers found that those who didn't sleep well were 1.4 times more likely to commit suicide within a decade. Older adults have disproportionately high suicide rates in the first place, especially older men. The Stanford researchers believe that on its own, sleeping poorly could be a risk factor for suicide later in life. It may even be a more powerful predictor of suicide risk than symptoms of depression. They found that the strongest predictor of suicide was the combination of bad sleep and depression. Unlike many biological, psychological and social risk factors for suicide, sleep disorders tend to be treatable, said Rebecca Bernert, the lead author of the study. Sleep disorders are also less stigmatized than other suicide risk factors. Bernert is now studying whether treating insomnia is effective in preventing depression and suicide. The study was published in JAMA Psychiatry in August. © 2014 Hearst Communications, Inc.
By JOHN MARKOFF STANFORD, Calif. — In factories and warehouses, robots routinely outdo humans in strength and precision. Artificial intelligence software can drive cars, beat grandmasters at chess and leave “Jeopardy!” champions in the dust. But machines still lack a critical element that will keep them from eclipsing most human capabilities anytime soon: a well-developed sense of touch. Consider Dr. Nikolas Blevins, a head and neck surgeon at Stanford Health Care who routinely performs ear operations requiring that he shave away bone deftly enough to leave an inner surface as thin as the membrane in an eggshell. Dr. Blevins is collaborating with the roboticists J. Kenneth Salisbury and Sonny Chan on designing software that will make it possible to rehearse these operations before performing them. The program blends X-ray and magnetic resonance imaging data to create a vivid three-dimensional model of the inner ear, allowing the surgeon to practice drilling away bone, to take a visual tour of the patient’s skull and to virtually “feel” subtle differences in cartilage, bone and soft tissue. Yet no matter how thorough or refined, the software provides only the roughest approximation of Dr. Blevins’s sensitive touch. “Being able to do virtual surgery, you really need to have haptics,” he said, referring to the technology that makes it possible to mimic the sensations of touch in a computer simulation. The software’s limitations typify those of robotics, in which researchers lag in designing machines to perform tasks that humans routinely do instinctively. Since the first robotic arm was designed at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in the 1960s, robots have learned to perform repetitive factory work, but they can barely open a door, pick themselves up if they fall, pull a coin out of a pocket or twirl a pencil. © 2014 The New York Times Company
|By Jill U. Adams Our noses are loaded with bitter taste receptors, but they're not helping us taste or smell lunch. Ever since researchers at the University of Iowa came to this conclusion in 2009, scientists have been looking for an explanation for why the receptors are there. One speculation is that they warn us of noxious substances. But they may play another role too: helping to fight infections. In addition to common bitter compounds, the nose's bitter receptors also react to chemicals that bacteria use to communicate. That got Noam Cohen, a University of Pennsylvania otolaryngologist, wondering whether the receptors detect pathogens that cause sinus infections. In a 2012 study, his team found that bacterial chemicals elicited two bacteria-fighting responses in cells from the nose and upper airways: movement of the cells' projections that divert noxious things out of the body and release of nitric oxide, which kills bacteria. The findings may have clinical applications. When Cohen recently analyzed bitter taste receptor genes from his patients with chronic sinus infections, he noticed that practically none were supertasters, even though supertasters make up an estimated 25 percent of the population. Supertasters are extra sensitive to bitter compounds in foods. People are either supertasters or nontasters, or somewhere in between, reflecting the genes they carry for a receptor known as T2R38. Cohen thinks supertasters react vigorously to bacterial bitter compounds in the nose and are thus resistant to sinus infections. In nontasters the reaction is weaker, bacteria thrive and sinus infections ensue. These results suggest that a simple taste test could be used to predict who is at risk for recurrent infections and might need more aggressive medical treatment. © 2014 Scientific American