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'Language Gene' Has a Partner

Few genes have made the headlines as much as FOXP2. The first gene associated with language disorders , it was later implicated in the evolution of human speech. Girls make more of the FOXP2 protein, which may help explain their precociousness in learning to talk. Now, neuroscientists have figured out how one of its molecular partners helps Foxp2 exert its effects.

The findings may eventually lead to new therapies for inherited speech disorders, says Richard Huganir, the neurobiologist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, who led the work. Foxp2 controls the activity of a gene called Srpx2, he notes, which helps some of the brain's nerve cells beef up their connections to other nerve cells. By establishing what SRPX2 does, researchers can look for defective copies of it in people suffering from problems talking or learning to talk.

Until 2001, scientists were not sure how genes influenced language. Then Simon Fisher, a neurogeneticist now at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, and his colleagues fingered FOXP2 as the culprit in a family with several members who had trouble with pronunciation, putting words together, and understanding speech. These people cannot move their tongue and lips precisely enough to talk clearly, so even family members often can?t figure out what they are saying. It “opened a molecular window on the neural basis of speech and language,” Fisher says.

Photo credit: Yoichi Araki, Ph.D.


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John Bohannon “Slim by Chocolate!” the headlines blared. A team of German researchers had found that people on a low-carb diet lost weight 10 percent faster if they ate a chocolate bar every day. It made the front page of Bild, Europe’s largest daily newspaper, just beneath their update about the Germanwings crash. From there, it ricocheted around the internet and beyond, making news in more than 20 countries and half a dozen languages. It was discussed on television news shows. It appeared in glossy print, most recently in the June issue of Shape magazine (“Why You Must Eat Chocolate Daily”, page 128). Not only does chocolate accelerate weight loss, the study found, but it leads to healthier cholesterol levels and overall increased well-being. The Bild story quotes the study’s lead author, Johannes Bohannon, Ph.D., research director of the Institute of Diet and Health: “The best part is you can buy chocolate everywhere.” I am Johannes Bohannon, Ph.D. Well, actually my name is John, and I’m a journalist. I do have a Ph.D., but it’s in the molecular biology of bacteria, not humans. The Institute of Diet and Health? That’s nothing more than a website. Other than those fibs, the study was 100 percent authentic. My colleagues and I recruited actual human subjects in Germany. We ran an actual clinical trial, with subjects randomly assigned to different diet regimes. And the statistically significant benefits of chocolate that we reported are based on the actual data. It was, in fact, a fairly typical study for the field of diet research. Which is to say: It was terrible science. The results are meaningless, and the health claims that the media blasted out to millions of people around the world are utterly unfounded.

Keyword: Obesity
Link ID: 20995 - Posted: 05.28.2015

by Jessica Hamzelou IF YOU knew you were about to go through a stressful experience, would you pop a pill to protect yourself from its knock-on effects? It's an idea that has been mooted after a drug seemed to make mice immune to the negative impacts of stressful events. But could we rationalise prescribing such a drug? We all experience stress during our lives, whether it be a one-off event, such as a loved one dying, or chronic, low-level stress that results from struggling to make ends meet, for example. While most people find ways to cope, for some a particularly stressful event can trigger depression. What if there was a way to boost our stress resilience and thus shield us from depression? Rebecca Brachman at Columbia University in New York stumbled across the idea while she was giving ketamine to mice with the symptoms of depression. Even though the ketamine-taking mice had been chronically stressed, when they were dropped in a pool of water – a one-off stressful event – they were unperturbed and swam to an exit. Mice not given the drug made no attempt to escape, a classic sign of depression in rodents. There was also no change in the ketamine-taking animals' cognitive abilities or metabolism – both of which are altered in human depression. "It's really remarkable," says Brachman. "They basically look like mice that haven't been stressed." A single dose of ketamine protected mice from developing the symptoms of depression after stressful events for four weeks. But the drug only seemed to stop the symptoms of depression – some of the animals still exhibited anxiety behaviours. "It seems to protect against depression rather than anxiety," says Brachman, who controversially describes it as a depression "vaccine". The work will be published in Biological Psychiatry. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd

Keyword: Stress; Drug Abuse
Link ID: 20994 - Posted: 05.28.2015

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

by Helen Thomson Imagine a world where you think of something and it happens. For instance, what if the moment you realise you want a cup of tea, the kettle starts boiling? That reality is on the cards, now that a brain implant has been developed that can decode a person's intentions. It has already allowed a man paralysed from the neck down to control a robotic arm with unprecedented fluidity. But the implications go far beyond prosthetics. By placing an implant in the area of the brain responsible for intentions, scientists are investigating whether brain activity can give away future decisions – before a person is even aware of making them. Such a result may even alter our understanding of free will. Fluid movement "These are exciting times," says Pedro Lopes, who works at the human-computer interaction lab at Hasso Plattner Institute in Potsdam, Germany. "These developments give us a glimpse of an exciting future where devices will understand our intentions as a means of adapting to our plans." The implant was designed for Erik Sorto, who was left unable to move his limbs after a spinal cord injury 12 years ago. The idea was to give him the ability to move a stand-alone robotic arm by recording the activity in his posterior parietal cortex – a part of the brain used in planning 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'," Richard Andersen at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena told delegates at the NeuroGaming Conference in San Francisco earlier this month. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd

Keyword: Consciousness; Robotics
Link ID: 20992 - 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

by Andy Coghlan A man in his mid-50s with Parkinson's disease had fetal brain cells injected into his brain last week. He is the first person in nearly 20 years to be treated this way – and could recover full control of his movements in roughly five years. "It seemed to go fine," says Roger Barker of the University of Cambridge, who is leading the international team that is reviving the procedure. The treatment was pioneered 28 years ago in Sweden, but two trials in the US reported no significant benefit within the first two years following the injections, and the procedure was abandoned in favour of deep brain stimulation treatments. What these trials overlooked is that it takes several years for fetal cells to "bed in" and connect properly to the recipient's brain. Many Swedish and North American recipients improved dramatically, around three years or more after the implants – long after the trials had finished. "In the best cases, patients who had the treatment pretty much went back to normal," says Barker. After the fetal cells were wired up properly in their brains, they started producing the brain signalling chemical dopamine – low levels of this cause the classic Parkinson's symptom of uncontrolled movements. In fact, the cells produced so much dopamine that many patients could stop taking their Parkinson's drugs. "The prospect of not having to take medications for Parkinson's is fantastic," says James Beck of the Parkinson's Disease Foundation in the US. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd

Keyword: Parkinsons; Stem Cells
Link ID: 20989 - Posted: 05.27.2015

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 Neuroskeptic | Neuroscientists might need to rethink much of what’s known about the amygdala, a small brain region that’s been the focus of a lot of research. That’s according to a new paper just published in Scientific Reports: fMRI measurements of amygdala activation are confounded by stimulus correlated signal fluctuation in nearby veins draining distant brain regions. The amygdala is believed to be involved in emotion, especially negative emotions such as fear. Much of the evidence for this comes from fMRI studies showing that the amygdala activates in response to stimuli such as images of scared faces. However, according to the authors of the new paper, Austrian neuroscientists Roland N. Boubela and colleagues, there’s a flaw in these fMRI studies. The problem, they say, is that the amygdala happens to be located next to a large vein, called the basal vein of Rosenthal (BVR). fMRI works by detecting blood oxygenation, so changes in the oxygen level in the blood within the BVR could produce signal changes that could be mistaken for activation in the amygdala. Because the BVR drains blood from several brain regions, some of which are themselves involved in emotion processing, the BVR could act as a proxy for emotion-related neural activation elsewhere in the brain, which is then projected onto the amygdala. Neuroscientists have long been aware of potential large vein contributions to the fMRI signal, but it hasn’t generally been seen as a serious concern. According to Boubela et al., however, the problem is serious, when it comes to the amygdala.

Keyword: Brain imaging; Emotions
Link ID: 20986 - 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

Steve Connor Having children can permanently affect the brain of women because the surge in female sex hormones during pregnancy can influence the development of key parts of the central nervous system, a series of studies has shown. The findings suggest that childbirth can affect the female brain, but they could also shed light on the controversy over whether hormone replacement therapy in menopausal women affects the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease in later life, scientists said. The research looked at two of the oestrogen hormones used to treat the symptoms of menopausal women and found that they could have a complex effect depending on the age of the women and whether or not they had previously given birth. Although the work was mostly carried out on laboratory rats, the scientists said that the findings are more widely applicable to humans because the same hormones and brain cells are involved. The scientists found that the surge in oestrogen hormones during pregnancy, where levels can soar to several hundred times normal levels, can alter “neuroplasticity” or the re-growth of nerve cells in a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is responsible for aspects of memory and spatial awareness. “Our most recent research show that previous motherhood alters cognition and neuroplasticity in response to hormone therapy, demonstrating that motherhood permanently alters the brain,” said Liisa Galea of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

Keyword: Hormones & Behavior; Sexual Behavior
Link ID: 20982 - 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 John Horgan The New York Times "Sunday Review" section has anointed Richard Friedman its go-to guy for touting behavioral genetics--or "gene-whiz science," as I prefer to call it. In March, Friedman, professor of clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, proclaimed that researchers had discovered a "feel-good gene," which "makes some people inherently less anxious, and more able to forget fearful and unpleasant experiences." As I pointed out on this blog, Friedman's claim—like virtually all reported linkages of complex human traits and disorders to specific genes (see Further Reading)--is based on flimsy, contradictory evidence. I'm so naïve, or arrogant, that I actually thought my critique might dissuade the Times from further hype of gene-whiz science. Times editors must care more about traffic than accuracy, because they devoted almost the entire front page of yesterday’s "Sunday Review" to Friedman's latest travesty, "Infidelity Lurks in Your Genes." The core of Friedman's essay is his assertion that some women are "biologically inclined to wander." More specifically, women who carry variants of the gene AVPR1A—which encodes the receptor for the hormone arginine vasopressin--are "much more likely to engage in 'extra-pair bonding,' the scientific euphemism for sexual infidelity." In support of this claim, Friedman cites a study of Finnish twins and non-twin siblings by a team led by Australian psychologist Brendan Zietsch. The team surveyed the Finnish subjects and found that 9.8 percent of the men and 6.4 percent of the women reported engaging in at least one "extra-pair mating." The researchers found an association between five AVPR1A markers and extra-pair mating in women but not in men.

Keyword: Genes & Behavior; Sexual Behavior
Link ID: 20980 - 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 Esther Hsieh Imagine you are enjoying your golden years, driving to your daily appointment for some painless brain zapping that is helping to stave off memory loss. That's the hope of a new study, in which people who learned associations (such as a random word and an image) after transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) were better able to learn more pairings days and weeks later—with no further stimulation needed. TMS uses a magnetic coil placed on the head to increase electrical signaling a few centimeters into the brain. Past studies have found that TMS can boost cognition and memory during stimulation, but this is the first to show that such gains can last even after the TMS regimen is completed. In the new study, which was published in Science, neuroscientists first used brain imaging to identify the associative memory network of 16 young, healthy participants. This network, based around the hippocampus, glues together things such as sights, places, sounds and time to form a memory, explains neuroscientist Joel Voss of Northwestern University, a senior author of the paper. Next, the researchers applied TMS behind the left ear of each participant for 20 minutes for five consecutive days to stimulate this memory network. To see if participants' associative memory improved, one day after the stimulation regimen finished they were tested for their ability to learn random words paired with faces. Subjects who had had TMS performed 33 percent better, compared with those who received placebo treatments, such as sham stimulation. © 2015 Scientific American

Keyword: Learning & Memory; Brain imaging
Link ID: 20977 - Posted: 05.25.2015

by Clare Wilson A new study has discredited the theory that dyslexia is caused by visual problems. So what does cause the condition and how can it be treated? What kind of visual problems are claimed to cause dyslexia? A huge variety. They include difficulties in merging information from both eyes, problems with glare from white pages or the text blurring or "dancing" on the page. A host of products claim to relieve this so-called visual stress, especially products that change the background colour of the page, such as tinted glasses and coloured overlays. Others advise eye exercises that supposedly help people with dyslexia track words on the page. Despite lack of evidence that these approaches work, some people with dyslexia say they help – more than half of university students with dyslexia have used such products. What are the new findings? That there's no evidence visual stress is linked with dyslexia. Nearly 6000 UK children aged between 7 and 9 had their reading abilities tested as well as performing a battery of visual tests. About 3 per cent of them had serious dyslexia, in line with the national average. But in the visual tests, the differences between the students with and without dyslexia were minimal. In two of the 11 tests, about 16 per cent of the children with dyslexia scored poorly, compared with 10 per cent for children with normal reading abilities. But that small difference could be caused by the fact that they read less, says author Alexandra Creavin of the University of Bristol, UK. And more importantly, the 16 per cent figure is so low, it can't be the main explanation for dyslexia. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.

Keyword: Dyslexia; Vision
Link ID: 20976 - Posted: 05.25.2015