Chapter 16. None

Follow us on Facebook and Twitter, or subscribe to our mailing list, to receive news updates. Learn more.


Links 1 - 20 of 1989

by Jessica Hamzelou Memories that seem to be lost forever may be lurking in the brain after all, ready to be reawakened. The finding, based on experiments in mice, could eventually give us a way to revive memories in people with Alzheimer's or amnesia. When we learn something, sets of neurons in the brain strengthen their mutual connections to lay down lasting memories. Or at least that's the theory. Susumu Tonegawa and his colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology decided to put it to the test. The team first developed a clever technique to selectively label the neurons representing what is known as a memory engram – in other words, the brain cells involved in forming a specific memory. They did this by genetically engineering mice so they had extra genes in all their neurons. As a result, when neurons fire as a memory is formed, they produce red proteins visible under a microscope, allowing the researchers to tell which cells were part of the engram. They also inserted a gene that made the neurons fire when illuminated by blue light. To mimic memory loss, some of the mice were given a drug that blocks the strengthening of connections between neurons. This made the animals forget their fear of the cage. But the telltale red proteins allowed Tonegawa's team to work out which neurons had been involved in storing the fear memory. They then attempted to reactivate just these neurons using blue light. Sure enough, after the engram had been reactivated, the mice again acted as if they were afraid of the cage. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.

Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 21001 - Posted: 05.30.2015

Jon Hamilton Antidepressant drugs that work in hours instead of weeks could be on the market within three years, researchers say. "We're getting closer and closer to having really, truly next-generation treatments that are better and quicker than existing ones," says Dr. Carlos Zarate, a researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health. The new drugs are based on the anesthetic ketamine, which is also a popular club drug known as Special K. Unlike current antidepressants, which can take weeks to work, ketamine-like drugs have an immediate effect. They also have helped people with depression who didn't respond to other medications. The drug that is furthest along is esketamine, a chemical variant of ketamine that has been designated a potential breakthrough by the Food and Drug Administration. Esketamine is poised to begin Phase 3 trials, and the drug's maker, Johnson & Johnson, plans to seek FDA approval in 2018. Ketamine, used as a tranquilizer for animals and as an anesthetic in humans, is also being tested as a treatment for depression. Another ketamine-like drug on the horizon is rapastinel. It has completed Phase 2 studies, which showed "rapid, substantial, and sustained reductions in depressive symptoms," according to the drug's maker, Naurex. "I think it's highly probable that we'll see some version of one of these treatments being approved in the relatively near future," says Dr. Gerard Sanacora, director of the Yale Depression Research Program. "In my mind it is the most exciting development in mood disorder treatment in the last 50 years." © 2015 NPR

Keyword: Depression
Link ID: 20999 - Posted: 05.30.2015

A patient tormented by suicidal thoughts gives his psychiatrist a few strands of his hair. She derives stem cells from them to grow budding brain tissue harboring the secrets of his unique illness in a petri dish. She uses the information to genetically engineer a personalized treatment to correct his brain circuit functioning. Just Sci-fi? Yes, but... An evolving “disease-in-a-dish” technology, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is bringing closer the day when such a seemingly futuristic personalized medicine scenario might not seem so far-fetched. Scientists have perfected mini cultured 3-D structures that grow and function much like the outer mantle – the key working tissue, or cortex — of the brain of the person from whom they were derived. Strikingly, these “organoids” buzz with neuronal network activity. Cells talk with each other in circuits, much as they do in our brains. Sergiu Pasca, M.D. External Web Site Policy, of Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, and colleagues, debut what they call “human cortical spheroids,” May 25, 2015 online in the journal Nature Methods. Prior to the new study, scientists had developed a way to study neurons differentiated from stem cells derived from patients’ skin cells — using a technology called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). They had even produced primitive organoids by coaxing neurons and support cells to organize themselves, mimicking the brain’s own architecture. But these lacked the complex circuitry required to even begin to mimic the workings of our brains.

Keyword: Development of the Brain
Link ID: 20998 - Posted: 05.30.2015

by Penny Sarchet The common pet budgerigar (or parakeet) is loved for its ability to mimic its owners. But it has another special trick – it can catch yawns from other budgies, suggesting it has some kind of empathy. "Practically all vertebrates yawn," says Ramiro Joly-Mascheroni of City University, London. In 2008, he showed that dogs can catch yawns from humans. The only other species shown to yawn contagiously are humans, chimpanzees and a type of rodent called the high-yawning Sprague-Dawley rat. But Andrew Gallup of the State University of New York and his colleagues have now shown for the first time that the same happens for a species of non-mammals. To see whether budgies, a sociable parrot species, can make each other yawn, his team designed two experiments. In the first, budgies were placed in adjacent cages, either with a barrier between them, or with nothing obstructing their view of each other. They found that, when budgies could see each other, they were around three times as likely to yawn within five minutes of a yawn from their neighbour. In their second experiment, budgies were shown a video – either one that showed clips of budgies yawning, or one that had no yawning at all. Every bird that watched the yawning video also yawned, while fewer than half of the birds shown the other video yawned. "Thus far, yawning has been demonstrated to be contagious in a few highly social species," said Gallup. "To date, this is the first experimental evidence of contagious yawning in a non-mammalian species." © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd

Keyword: Sleep
Link ID: 20997 - Posted: 05.30.2015

By Roberto A. Ferdman In 2007, the Food and Drug administration approved the first ever over-the-counter diet drug. Alli, as the pill was (and still is) called, could be taken by anyone, without a prescription. And it worked, so long as those who took it also maintained a healthy lifestyle. That last bit—persuading people who take diet drugs to also eat well and exercise—is the oft overlooked key with weight-loss remedies. And GlaxoSmithKline, which manufactures the drug, knew it. Marketing around the pill made it clear that Alli was not some miracle drug. But getting people to treat diet drugs for what they are—helpers, not fix alls—is actually a lot harder than it sounds. Some diet drugs have been shown to work. But a growing pool of research suggests people are prone to use them improperly. "There's a funny, kind of counterintuitive thing that happens when many people take weight-loss drugs: they gain weight," said Amit Battacharjee, an assistant professor at The Tuck School of Business, whose research focuses on consumer beliefs and well-being. "But it isn't necessarily because the drugs themselves don't work." Battacharjee has a new study titled 'The Perils of Marketing Weight-Management Remedies,' which looks closely at how the way in which weight-loss drugs are pitched to people can significantly affect the way in which people understand them.

Keyword: Obesity
Link ID: 20996 - Posted: 05.30.2015

Carl Zimmer For scientists who study human evolution, the last few months have been a whirlwind. Every couple of weeks, it seems, another team pulls back the curtain on newly discovered bones or stone tools, prompting researchers to rethink what we know about early human history. On Wednesday, it happened again. Yohannes Haile-Selassie of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and his colleagues reported finding a jaw in Ethiopia that belonged to an ancient human relative that lived some time between 3.3 and 3.5 million years. They argue that the jaw belongs to an entirely new species, which they dubbed Australopithecus deyiremeda. While some experts agree, skeptics argued that the jaw belongs to a familiar hominid species, known as Australopithecus afarensis, that existed from about 3.9 to 3 million years ago. Studies like this one are adding fresh fuel to the debate over the pace of human evolution. Some researchers now believe the human family tree bore exuberant branches early on. “I’m so excited about these discoveries, I’m driving my friends crazy,” said Carol V. Ward, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Missouri. “It makes us stop and rethink everything.” In the 1990s, the broad outlines of human evolution seemed fairly clear. Early human ancestors — known as hominids — evolved from an ancestor shared with chimpanzees about six or seven million years ago. These hominids were short, bipedal apes with small brains and arms and legs still adapted for climbing trees. Until about three million years ago, experts thought, there weren’t a lot of hominid species. In fact, some researchers argued that most hominid fossils represented just a single species. © 2015 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Evolution
Link ID: 20993 - Posted: 05.28.2015

Krishnadev Calamur Two research chimps got their day in court — though they weren't actually present in the courtroom. Steven Wise, an attorney with the Nonhuman Rights Project, told Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Barbara Jaffe that Hercules and Leo, the 8-year-old research chimps at Stony Brook University on Long Island, are "autonomous and self-determining beings" who should be granted a writ of habeas corpus, which would effectively recognize them as legal persons. The chimps, he argued, should be moved from the university to a sanctuary in Florida. But Christopher Coulston, an assistant state attorney general representing the university, called the case meritless. The Associated Press reports that he said granting chimps personhood would create, in the words of the AP, "a slippery slope regarding the rights of other animals." "The reality is these are fundamentally different species," Coulston said. "There's simply no precedent anywhere of an animal getting the same rights as a human." Jaffe, the AP adds, didn't make a ruling Wednesday but called the proceeding "extremely interesting and well argued." NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reported on the story Wednesday for our Newscast unit. He says: "Past judges have struck down this lawsuit since it was first filed in 2013. But the current judge at the Manhattan Supreme Court is ordering the university to defend why it's detaining the chimps." © 2015 NPR

Keyword: Animal Rights
Link ID: 20991 - Posted: 05.28.2015

George Yancy: You have popularized the concept of speciesism, which, I believe was first used by the animal activist Richard Ryder. Briefly, define that term and how do you see it as similar to or different from racism? Peter Singer: Speciesism is an attitude of bias against a being because of the species to which it belongs. Typically, humans show speciesism when they give less weight to the interests of nonhuman animals than they give to the similar interests of human beings. Note the requirement that the interests in question be “similar.” It’s not speciesism to say that normal humans have an interest in continuing to live that is different from the interests that nonhuman animals have. One might, for instance, argue that a being with the ability to think of itself as existing over time, and therefore to plan its life, and to work for future achievements, has a greater interest in continuing to live than a being who lacks such capacities. If we were to compare attitudes about speciesism today with past racist attitudes, we would have to say that we are back in the days in which the slave trade was still legal. On that basis, one might argue that to kill a normal human being who wants to go on living is more seriously wrong than killing a nonhuman animal. Whether this claim is or is not sound, it is not speciesist. But given that some human beings – most obviously, those with profound intellectual impairment – lack this capacity, or have it to a lower degree than some nonhuman animals, it would be speciesist to claim that it is always more seriously wrong to kill a member of the species Homo sapiens than it is to kill a nonhuman animal. © 2015 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Animal Rights
Link ID: 20990 - Posted: 05.28.2015

Children developed better fine-motor skills when the clamping of their umbilical cord at birth was delayed several minutes compared with just seconds, according to a new randomized trial. Delaying clamping allows fetal blood circulating in the placenta to be transfused to the infant, which has been shown to reduce iron deficiency at four to six months of age. Now the longer term benefits of a delay are becoming clearer. Researchers in Sweden randomly assigned 382 full-term infants born after low-risk pregnancies to be clamped at least three minutes after delivery or within 10 seconds of birth. When the children were four, a psychologist assessed them on standard tests of IQ, motor skills and behaviour. The parents also filled in questionnaires about their child's communication and social skills. "Delayed cord clamping compared with early cord clamping improved scores and reduced the number of children having low scores in fine-motor skills and social domains," the study's lead author, Dr. Ola Andersson of Uppsala University in Sweden, and his co-authors said in Tuesday's issue of JAMA Pediatrics. The fine-motor skill tests showed those in the delayed clamping group had a more mature pencil grip. There was also a difference in boys, who researchers said are generally more prone to iron deficiency than girls. Boys showed more improvements in fine-motor skills with delayed clamping. Andersson said delayed cord clamping can have quite an effect on the amount of iron in the blood, which is important for brain development just after birth. ©2015 CBC/Radio-Canada.

Keyword: Development of the Brain
Link ID: 20988 - Posted: 05.27.2015

Neurosurgeon Henry Marsh has opened heads, cut into brains and performed the most delicate and risky surgeries on the part of the body that controls everything — including breathing, movement, memory and consciousness. "What is, I think, peculiar about brain surgery is it's so dangerous," Marsh tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "A very small area of damage to the brain can cause catastrophic disability for the patient." Over the course of his career, Marsh, a consulting neurosurgeon at Atkinson Morley's/St. George's Hospital in London since 1987, has learned firsthand about the damage that his profession can cause. While many of the surgeries he has performed have been triumphs, there is always a risk of leaving the patient severely disabled. In the memoir Do No Harm, Marsh confesses to the fears and uncertainties he's dealt with as a surgeon, revisits his triumphs and failures and reflects on the enigmas of the brain and consciousness. Despite his decades on the job — or perhaps because of them — Marsh says that much of the brain remains beyond his grasp. He likens the mystery of the brain to that of the big-bang theory. "We're all sitting on an equally great mystery within ourselves, each of us, in this microcosm of our own consciousness, and I find that a quite nice thought," he says. You can nick the liver, you can remove bits of the lung, you can remove bits of the heart and the organ goes on working. But with the brain, although some areas can suffer some damage without terrible consequences for the patient, in general terms, it's very dangerous. Which means the decision-making is very important and ... in my experience over the years, when things have gone wrong, it's not because of [we] cut the wrong blood vessel or dropped an instrument or something like that. The mistakes made — the mistakes are in the decision-making — whether to operate or when to operate. © 2015 NPR

Keyword: Miscellaneous
Link ID: 20987 - Posted: 05.27.2015

By Tina Hesman Saey Combatants in the age-old battle of nature versus nurture may finally be able to lay down their arms. On average, both nature and nurture contribute roughly equally to determining human traits. Researchers compiled data from half a century’s worth of studies on more than 14 million pairs of twins. The researchers measured heritability — the amount of variation in a characteristic that can be attributed to genes — for a wide variety of human traits including blood pressure, the structure of the eyeball and mental or behavioral disorders. All traits are heritable to some degree, the researchers report May 18 in Nature Genetics. Traits overall had an average heritability of 49 percent, meaning it’s a draw between genes and environment. Individual traits can be more strongly influenced by one or the other. 100% Fraction of human traits with a genetic component 49% Fraction of variability in human traits determined by genes T.J.C. Polderman et al. Meta-analysis of the heritability of human traits based on fifty years of twin studies. Nature Genetics. Published online May 18, 2015. doi:10.1038/ng.3285. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2015.

Keyword: Genes & Behavior; Development of the Brain
Link ID: 20985 - Posted: 05.27.2015

By Sarah C. P. Williams Here’s an easy way to tell if a female warbler is a year-round resident of the tropics or just a visiting snowbird: Females from species that spend their lives near the equator tend to have brighter plumage more typical of male birds. In contrast, females who fly north for the summer appear drab compared with their male counterparts. In the past, researchers thought the difference was due to the shorter breeding season in the north, hypothesizing that migrating males evolved bright colors to better compete for mates. But a new study hints that northern-breeding females may have evolved to be less colorful than males in order to be less conspicuous to predators during their long migrations. Researchers at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, studied the coloring, migration patterns, breeding locales, and ancestry of 109 warbler species. Migration distance, not the length of the breeding season, was the best predictor of color contrasts between male and female birds, they report online today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Female bay-breasted warblers (Setophaga castanea), for instance, which migrate about 7000 kilometers between their breeding grounds in North America and their wintering grounds in the Caribbean, are a dull gray and white, whereas males boast more showy yellows and browns. But both male and female slate-throated redstarts (Myioborus miniatus), like the one shown above, flaunt bright colors in their year-round tropical homes in Mexico and Central America. For migrating warblers, the researchers hypothesize that the breeding benefits of brighter male colors outweigh the threat of being spotted by a hungry predator. © 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Keyword: Sexual Behavior; Evolution
Link ID: 20984 - Posted: 05.27.2015

Alison Abbott Redouan Bshary well remembers the moment he realized that fish were smarter than they are given credit for. It was 1998, and Bshary was a young behavioural ecologist with a dream project: snorkelling in Egypt's Red Sea to observe the behaviour of coral-reef fish. That day, he was watching a grumpy-looking grouper fish as it approached a giant moray eel. As two of the region's top predators, groupers and morays might be expected to compete for their food and even avoid each other — but Bshary saw them team up to hunt. First, the grouper signalled to the eel with its head, and then the two swam side by side, with the eel dipping into crevices, flushing out fish beyond the grouper's reach and getting a chance to feed alongside. Bshary was astonished by the unexpected cooperation; if he hadn't had a snorkel in his mouth, he would have gasped. This underwater observation was the first in a series of surprising discoveries that Bshary has gone on to make about the social behaviour of fish. Not only can they signal to each other and cooperate across species, but they can also cheat, deceive, console or punish one another — even show concern about their personal reputations. “I have always had a lot of respect for fish,” says Bshary. “But one after the other, these behaviours took me by surprise.” His investigations have led him to take a crash course in scuba diving, go beach camping in Egypt and build fake coral reefs in Australia. The work has also destroyed the stereotypical idea that fish are dumb creatures, capable of only the simplest behaviours — and it has presented a challenge to behavioural ecologists in a different field. Scientists who study primates have claimed that human-like behaviours such as cooperation are the sole privilege of animals such as monkeys and apes, and that they helped to drive the evolution of primates' large brains. Bshary — quiet, but afraid of neither adventure nor of contesting others' ideas — has given those scientists reason to think again. © 2015 Nature Publishing Grou

Keyword: Intelligence; Evolution
Link ID: 20983 - Posted: 05.26.2015

Mo Costandi Being unable to feel pain may sound appealing, but it would be extremely hazardous to your health. Pain is, for most of us, a very unpleasant feeling, but it serves the important evolutionary purpose of alerting us to potentially life-threatening injuries. Without it, people are more prone to hurting themselves and so, because they can be completely oblivious to serious injuries, a life without pain is often cut short. Take 16-year-old Ashlyn Blocker from Patterson, Georgia, who has been completely unable to sense any kind of physical pain since the day she was born. As a newborn, she barely made a sound, and when her milk teeth started coming out, she nearly chewed off part of her tongue. Growing up, she burnt the skin off the palm of her hands on a pressure washer that her father had left running, and once ran around on a broken ankle for two whole days before her parents noticed the injury. She was once swarmed and bitten by hundreds of fire ants, has dipped her hands into boiling water, and injured herself in countless other ways, without ever feeling a thing. Ashlyn is one of a tiny number of people with congenital insensitivity to pain. The condition is so rare, in fact, that the doctor who diagnosed her in 2006 told her parents that she may be the only one in the world who has it. But later that year, a research team led by Geoffrey Woods of the University of Cambridge, identified three distinct mutations in the SCN9A gene, all of which cause the same condition in members of three large families in northern Pakistan, and in 2013, Ashlyn’s doctor Roland Staud and his colleagues reported that her condition is the result of two other mutations in the same gene. Now, Woods and his colleagues have discovered yet more mutations that cause congenital insensitivity to pain. © 2015 Guardian News and Media Limited

Keyword: Pain & Touch; Genes & Behavior
Link ID: 20981 - Posted: 05.26.2015

By BENEDICT CAREY and PAM BELLUCK He was a graduate student who seemingly had it all: drive, a big idea and the financial backing to pay for a sprawling study to test it. In 2012, as same-sex marriage advocates were working to build support in California, Michael LaCour, a political science researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, asked a critical question: Can canvassers with a personal stake in an issue — in this case, gay men and women — actually sway voters’ opinions in a lasting way? He would need an influential partner to help frame, interpret and place into context his findings — to produce an authoritative scientific answer. And he went to one of the giants in the field, Donald P. Green, a Columbia University professor and co-author of a widely used text on field experiments. “I thought it was a very ambitious idea, so ambitious that it might not be suitable for a graduate student,” said Dr. Green, who signed on as a co-author of Mr. LaCour’s study in 2013. “But it’s such an important question, and he was very passionate about it.” Last week, their finding that gay canvassers were in fact powerfully persuasive with people who had voted against same-sex marriage — published in December in Science, one of the world’s leading scientific journals — collapsed amid accusations that Mr. LaCour had misrepresented his study methods and lacked the evidence to back up his findings. On Tuesday, Dr. Green asked the journal to retract the study because of Mr. LaCour’s failure to produce his original data. Mr. LaCour declined to be interviewed, but has said in statements that he stands by the findings. © 2015 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Sexual Behavior
Link ID: 20979 - Posted: 05.26.2015

Michael C. Corbalis In the quest to identify what might be unique to the human mind, one might well ask whether non-human animals have a theory of mind. In fiction, perhaps, they do. Eeyore, the morose donkey in Winnie-the-Pooh, at one point complains: ‘A little consideration, a little thought for others, makes all the difference.’ In real life, some animals do seem to show empathy toward others in distress. The primatologist Frans de Waal photographed a juvenile chimpanzee placing a consoling arm around an adult chimpanzee in distress after losing a fight, but suggests that monkeys do not do this. However, one study shows that monkeys won’t pull a chain to receive food if doing so causes a painful stimulus to be delivered to another monkey, evidently understanding that it will cause distress. Even mice, according to another study, react more intensely to pain if they perceive other mice in pain. It is often claimed that dogs show empathy toward their human owners, whereas cats do not. Cats don’t empathise—they exploit. Understanding what others are thinking, or what they believe, can be complicated, but perceiving emotion in others is much more basic to survival, and no doubt has ancient roots in evolution. Different emotions usually give different outward signs. In Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” the King recognises the signs of rage, urging his troops to . . . imitate the action of the tiger; Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage; Then lend the eye a terrible aspect . . . The human enemy will read the emotion of Henry’s troops, just as the antelope will read the emotion of the marauding tiger. Perhaps the best treatise on the outward signs of emotion is Charles Darwin’s “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals,” which details the way fear and anger are expressed in cats and dogs, although he does not neglect the positive emotions: © 2015 Salon Media Group, Inc.

Keyword: Emotions; Evolution
Link ID: 20978 - Posted: 05.25.2015

By FRANCES ROBLES MIAMI — A hazardous new synthetic drug originating in China is being blamed for 18 recent deaths in a single South Florida county, as police grapple with an inexpensive narcotic that causes exaggerated strength and dangerous paranoid hallucinations. On Thursday, the Fort Lauderdale police killed a man, reportedly high on the man-made street drug, alpha-PVP, known more commonly as flakka, who had held a woman hostage with a knife to her throat. The shooting of Javoris Washington, 29, was the latest in a series of volatile episodes that the police in South Florida have faced with highly aggressive drug users. Law enforcement agencies have had difficulty tamping down a surge in synthetic drugs, which were banned after becoming popular in clubs five years ago only to re-emerge deadlier than ever under new formulations. As soon as legislation catches up with the latest craze, manufacturers design a new drug to take its place, federal and local law enforcement agencies say. In Broward County, which includes Fort Lauderdale and is considered ground zero for the new drug, there have been 18 flakka-related fatalities since September, the chief medical examiner there said. “I have never seen such a rash of cases, all associated with the same substance,” said James N. Hall, an epidemiologist at Nova Southeastern University who has studied the Florida drug market for decades. “It’s probably the worst I have seen since the peak of crack cocaine. Rather than a drug, it’s really a poison.” © 2015 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Drug Abuse
Link ID: 20974 - Posted: 05.25.2015

by Helen Thomson A brain implant that can decode what someone wants to do has allowed a man paralysed from the neck down to control a robotic arm with unprecedented fluidity – and enjoy a beer at his own pace. Erik Sorto was left unable to move any of his limbs after an accident severed his spinal cord 12 years ago. People with similar injuries have previously controlled prosthetic limbs using implants placed in their motor cortex – an area of the brain responsible for the mechanics of movement. This is far from ideal because it results in delayed, jerky motions as the person thinks about all the individual aspects of the movement. When reaching for a drink, for example, they would have to think about moving their arm forward, then left, then opening their hand, then closing their hand around the cup and so on. Richard Andersen at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and his colleagues hoped they could achieve a more fluid movement by placing an implant in the posterior parietal cortex – a part of the brain involved in planning motor movements. "We thought this would allow us to decode brain activity associated with the overall goal of a movement – for example, 'I want to pick up that cup', rather than the individual components," said Anderson at the NeuroGaming Conference in San Francisco, California, where he presented the work this month. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.

Keyword: Robotics
Link ID: 20972 - Posted: 05.23.2015

Nala Rogers Alzheimer’s disease may have evolved alongside human intelligence, researchers report in a paper posted this month on BioRxiv1. The study finds evidence that 50,000 to 200,000 years ago, natural selection drove changes in six genes involved in brain development. This may have helped to increase the connectivity of neurons, making modern humans smarter as they evolved from their hominin ancestors. But that new intellectual capacity was not without cost: the same genes are implicated in Alzheimer's disease. Kun Tang, a population geneticist at the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences in China who led the research, speculates that the memory disorder developed as ageing brains struggled with new metabolic demands imposed by increasing intelligence. Humans are the only species known to develop Alzheimer's; the disease is absent even in closely related primate species such as chimpanzees. Tang and his colleagues searched modern human DNA for evidence of this ancient evolution. They examined the genomes of 90 people with African, Asian or European ancestry, looking for patterns of variation driven by changes in population size and natural selection. Marked by selection The analysis was tricky, because the two effects can mimic each other. To control for the effects of population changes ― thereby isolating the signatures of natural selection — the researchers estimated how population sizes changed over time. Then they identified genome segments that did not match up with the population history, revealing the DNA stretches that were most likely shaped by selection. © 2015 Nature Publishing Group

Keyword: Alzheimers; Intelligence
Link ID: 20971 - Posted: 05.23.2015

By Jason G. Goldman In 1970 child welfare authorities in Los Angeles discovered that a 14-year-old girl referred to as “Genie” had been living in nearly total social isolation from birth. An unfortunate participant in an unintended experiment, Genie proved interesting to psychologists and linguists, who wondered whether she could still acquire language despite her lack of exposure to it. Genie did help researchers better define the critical period for learning speech—she quickly acquired a vocabulary but did not gain proficiency with grammar—but thankfully, that kind of case study comes along rarely. So scientists have turned to surrogates for isolation experiments. The approach is used extensively with parrots, songbirds and hummingbirds, which, like us, learn how to verbally communicate over time; those abilities are not innate. Studying most vocal-learning mammals—for example, elephants, whales, sea lions—is not practical, so Tel Aviv University zoologists Yosef Prat, Mor Taub and Yossi Yovel turned to the Egyptian fruit bat, a vocal-learning species that babbles before mastering communication, as a child does. The results of their study, the first to raise bats in a vocal vacuum, were published this spring in the journal Science Advances. Five bat pups were reared by their respective mothers in isolation, so the pups heard no adult conversations. After weaning, the juveniles were grouped together and exposed to adult bat chatter through a speaker. A second group of five bats was raised in a colony, hearing their species' vocal interactions from birth. Whereas the group-raised bats eventually swapped early babbling for adult communication, the isolated bats stuck with their immature vocalizations well into adolescence. © 2015 Scientific American

Keyword: Language; Development of the Brain
Link ID: 20969 - Posted: 05.23.2015