Most Recent Links
Follow us on Facebook and Twitter, or subscribe to our mailing list, to receive news updates. Learn more.
By Pippa Stephens Health reporter, BBC News Women are more likely than men to display symptoms of depression when in a position of authority at work, according to US scientists. In men, authority, such as the ability to hire and fire people, decreases depressive symptoms, the study said. The study, published in the Journal of Health and Social Behaviour, looked at 2,800 middle-aged men and women. One expert said the study showed the need for more women in authority and more varied female role models. Scientists at the University of Texas at Austin interviewed 1,300 male and 1,500 female graduates from Wisconsin high schools over the phone in 1993 and 2004, when they were aged about 54 and 64. Researchers asked participants about job authority and about the number of days in the past week they felt depressive symptoms, such as feeling sad and thinking one's life is a failure. When the job included hiring, firing and influencing pay, women were predicted to have a 9% increased rate of depressive symptoms than women without authority. Meanwhile, men had a 10% decreased rate of depressive symptoms. The study said it controlled for other factors that could cause depression, such as hours worked per week, whether people had flexible hours and how often workers were checked by a supervisor. Scientists also said men were more likely to decide when to start and finish work than women and were less frequently monitored by their advisers. Lead researcher Tetyana Pudrovska said: "These women have more education, higher incomes, more prestigious occupations, and higher levels of job satisfaction and autonomy than women without job authority. Yet they have worse mental health than lower status women." BBC © 2014
By Tara Parker-Pope Most people who drink to get drunk are not alcoholics, suggesting that more can be done to help heavy drinkers cut back, a new government report concludes. The finding, from a government survey of 138,100 adults, counters the conventional wisdom that every “falling-down drunk” must be addicted to alcohol. Instead, the results from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health show that nine out of 10 people who drink too much are not addicts, and can change their behavior with a little — or perhaps a lot of — prompting. “Many people tend to equate excessive drinking with alcohol dependence,’’ sad Dr. Robert Brewer, who leads the alcohol program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We need to think about other strategies to address these people who are drinking too much but who are not addicted to alcohol.” Excessive drinking is viewed as a major public health problem that results in 88,000 deaths a year, from causes that include alcohol poisoning and liver disease, to car accidents and other accidental deaths. Excessive drinking is defined as drinking too much at one time or over the course of a week. For men, it’s having five or more drinks in one sitting or 15 drinks or more during a week. For women, it’s four drinks on one occasion or eight drinks over the course of a week. Underage drinkers and women who drink any amount while pregnant also are defined as “excessive drinkers.” Surprisingly, about 29 percent of the population meets the definition for excessive drinking, but 90 percent of them do not meet the definition of alcoholism. That’s good news because it means excessive drinking may be an easier problem to solve than previously believed. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Drug Abuse
Link ID: 20342 - Posted: 11.21.2014
By Bethany Brookshire WASHINGTON — Estrogen can protect the brain from harmful inflammation following traumatic injury, a new study in zebra finches suggests. Boosting levels of the sex hormone in the brain might help prevent the cell loss that occurs following damage from injuries such as stroke. Estrogen levels quadrupled around the damaged area in both male and female zebra finches after researchers gave them experimental brain injuries, Colin Saldanha and colleagues at American University in Washington, D.C., reported November 17 at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. When the scientists prevented finch brains from making estrogen, inflammatory proteins at damaged sites increased. The helpful estrogen didn’t come from gonads. It’s made within the brain by support cells called astrocytes close to the injury. Injury inflames the brain. Initially, this inflammation recruits helpful cells to the damaged area and aids in recovery. But the long-term presence of inflammatory proteins can cause harm, killing off brain cells and reducing functions such as movement and memory. The researchers hope that by understanding how estrogen reduces inflammatory proteins, therapies might boost this natural estrogen production to keep harmful inflammation at bay. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2014.
By RONI CARYN RABIN The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday approved a powerful long-acting opioid painkiller, alarming some addiction experts who fear that its widespread use may contribute to the rising tide of prescription drug overdoses. The new drug, Hysingla, and another drug approved earlier this year, Zohydro, contain pure hydrocodone, a narcotic, without the acetaminophen used in other opioids. But Hysingla is to be made available as an “abuse-deterrent” tablet that cannot easily be broken or crushed by addicts looking to snort or inject it. Nearly half of the nation’s overdose deaths involved painkillers like hydrocodone and oxycodone, according to a 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 12 million people used prescription painkillers for nonmedical reasons that year, according to the study. Prescription opioid abuse kills more adults annually than heroin and cocaine combined, and sends 420,000 Americans to emergency rooms every year, according to the C.D.C. Hysingla, however, will not be not abuse-proof, said officials at the F.D.A. and the drug’s manufacturer, Purdue Pharma. Its extended-release formulation, a pill to be taken once every 24 hours by patients requiring round-the-clock pain relief, will contain as much as 120 milligrams of hydrocodone. The F.D.A. warned that doses of 80 milligrams or more “should not be prescribed to people who have not previously taken an opioid medication,” but officials described the abuse-deterrent formulation as a step forward. © 2014 The New York Times Company
By Jyoti Madhusoodanan Eurasian jays are tricky thieves. They eavesdrop on the noises that other birds make while hiding food in order to steal the stash later, new research shows. Scientists trying to figure out if the jays (Garrulus glandarius) could remember sounds and make use of the information placed trays of two materials—either sand or gravel—in a spot hidden from a listening jay’s view. Other avian participants of the same species, which were given a nut, cached the treat in one of the two trays. Fifteen minutes later, the listening bird was permitted to hunt up the stash (video). When food lay buried in a less noisy material such as sand, jays searched randomly. But if they heard gravel being tossed around as treats were hidden, they headed to the pebbles to pilfer the goods. Previous studies have shown that jays—like crows, ravens, and other bird burglars that belong to the corvid family—can remember where they saw food being hidden and return to the spot to look for the cache. But these new results, published in Animal Cognition this month, provide the first evidence that these corvids can also recollect sounds to locate and steal stashes of food. In their forest homes, where birds are heard more often than they are seen, this sneaky strategy might give eavesdropping jays a better chance at finding hidden feasts.
Link ID: 20339 - Posted: 11.21.2014
By Elizabeth Pennisi The microbes that live in your body outnumber your cells 10 to one. Recent studies suggest these tiny organisms help us digest food and maintain our immune system. Now, researchers have discovered yet another way microbes keep us healthy: They are needed for closing the blood-brain barrier, a molecular fence that shuts out pathogens and molecules that could harm the brain. The findings suggest that a woman's diet or exposure to antibiotics during pregnancy may influence the development of this barrier. The work could also lead to a better understanding of multiple sclerosis, in which a leaky blood-brain barrier may set the stage for a decline in brain function. The first evidence that bacteria may help fortify the body’s biological barriers came in 2001. Researchers discovered that microbes in the gut activate genes that code for gap junction proteins, which are critical to building the gut wall. Without these proteins, gut pathogens can enter the bloodstream and cause disease. In the new study, intestinal biologist Sven Pettersson and his postdoc Viorica Braniste of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm decided to look at the blood-brain barrier, which also has gap junction proteins. They tested how leaky the blood-brain barrier was in developing and adult mice. Some of the rodents were brought up in a sterile environment and thus were germ-free, with no detectable microbes in their bodies. Braniste then injected antibodies—which are too big to get through the blood-brain barrier—into embryos developing within either germ-free moms or moms with the typical microbes, or microbiota. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science
Link ID: 20338 - Posted: 11.20.2014
Sara Reardon A technique that makes mouse brains transparent shows how the entire brain responds to cocaine addiction and fear. The findings could uncover new brain circuits involved in drug response. In the technique, known as CLARITY, brains are infused with acrylamide, which forms a matrix in the cells and preserves their structure along with the DNA and proteins inside them. The organs are then treated with a detergent that dissolves opaque lipids, leaving the cells completely clear. To test whether CLARITY could be used to show how brains react to stimuli, neuroscientists Li Ye and Karl Deisseroth of Stanford University in California engineered mice so that their neurons would make a fluorescent protein when they fired. (The system is activated by the injection of a drug.) The researchers then trained four of these mice to expect a painful foot shock when placed in a particular box; another set of mice placed in the box received cocaine, rather than shocks. Once the mice had learned to associate the box with either pain or an addictive reward, the researchers tested how the animals' brains responded to the stimuli. They injected the mice with the drug that activated the fluorescent protein system, placed them in the box and waited for one hour to give their neurons time to fire. The next step was to remove the animals' brains, treat them with CLARITY, and image them using a system that could count each fluorescent cell across the entire brain (see video). A computer combined these images into a model of a three-dimensional brain, which showed the pathways that lit up when mice were afraid or were anticipating cocaine. © 2014 Nature Publishing Group
By Emily Underwood WASHINGTON, D.C.—Rapid changes unfold in the brain after a person's hand is amputated. Within days—and possibly even hours—neurons that once processed sensations from the palm and fingers start to shift their allegiances, beginning to fire in response to sensations in other body parts, such as the face. But a hand transplant can bring these neurons back into the fold, restoring the sense of touch nearly back to normal, according to a study presented here this week at the annual conference of the Society for Neuroscience. To date, roughly 85 people worldwide have undergone hand replant or transplant surgery, an 8- to 10-hour procedure in which surgeons reattach the bones, muscles, nerves, blood vessels, and soft tissue between the patient's severed wrist and their own hand or one from a donor, often using a needle finer than a human hair. After surgery, studies have shown that it takes about 2 years for the peripheral nerves to regenerate, with sensation slowly creeping through the palm and into the fingertips at a rate of roughly 2 mm per day, says Scott Frey, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Missouri, Columbia. Even once the nerves have regrown, the surgically attached hand remains far less sensitive to touch than the original hand once was. One potential explanation is that the brain's sensory "map" of the body—a series of cortical ridges and folds devoted to processing touch in different body parts—loses its ability to respond to the missing hand in the absence of sensory input, Frey says. If that's true, the brain may need to reorganize that sensory map once again in order to fully restore sensation. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science
By Kate Baggaley WASHINGTON — Being stroked in the right place at the right speed activates specialized nerve fibers. The caresses that people rate most pleasant line up with the probable locations of the fibers on the skin, new research suggests. “Touch is important in terms of our physical health and our psychological well-being,” said Susannah Walker, who presented the research November 17 at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. “But very little attention has been paid to the neurological basis of that effect.” Sensors in the skin known as C-tactile afferents respond strongly to being stroked at between three and 10 centimeters per second. The sensors send signals to the brain that make touch rewarding, says Walker, a neuroscientist at Liverpool John Moores University in England. Walker and a colleague played videos for 93 participants, showing a hand caressing a person’s palm, back, shoulder or forearm, either at 5 cm/s or 30 cm/s. Participants rated the 5 cm/s stroking — the best speed to get the skin’s sensors firing — as the most pleasant, except on the palm, where there are no stroking sensors. The back got the highest pleasantness ratings, forearms lowest. The spots where people like to be touched may not line up with the areas traditionally considered most sensitive. Though less finely attuned to texture or temperature than the hands or face, the back and shoulders are sensitive to a different, social sort of touch. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2014.
By MAX BEARAK MUMBAI, India — The young man sat cross-legged atop a cushioned divan on an ornately decorated stage, surrounded by other Jain monks draped in white cloth. His lip occasionally twitched, his hands lay limp in his lap, and for the most part his eyes were closed. An announcer repeatedly chastised the crowd for making even the slightest noise. From daybreak until midafternoon, members of the audience approached the stage, one at a time, to show the young monk a random object, pose a math problem, or speak a word or phrase in one of at least six different languages. He absorbed the miscellany silently, letting it slide into his mind, as onlookers in their seats jotted everything down on paper. After six hours, the 500th and last item was uttered — it was the number 100,008. An anxious hush descended over the crowd. And the monk opened his eyes and calmly recalled all 500 items, in order, detouring only once to fill in a blank he had momentarily set aside. When he was done, and the note-keepers in the audience had confirmed his achievement, the tense atmosphere dissolved and the announcer led the crowd in a series of triumphant chants. The opportunity to witness the feat of memory drew a capacity crowd of 6,000 to the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel stadium in Mumbai on Sunday. The exhibition was part of a campaign to encourage schoolchildren to use meditation to build brainpower, as Jain monks have done for centuries in India, a country drawn both toward ancient religious practices and more recent ambitions. But even by Jain standards, the young monk — Munishri Ajitchandrasagarji, 24 — is something special. His guru, P. P. Acharya Nayachandrasagarji, said no other monk in many years had come close to his ability. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Mo Costandi A team of neuroscientists in America say they have rediscovered an important neural pathway that was first described in the late nineteenth century but then mysteriously disappeared from the scientific literature until very recently. In a study published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they confirm that the prominent white matter tract is present in the human brain, and argue that it plays an important and unique role in the processing of visual information. The vertical occipital fasciculus (VOF) is a large flat bundle of nerve fibres that forms long-range connections between sub-regions of the visual system at the back of the brain. It was originally discovered by the German neurologist Carl Wernicke, who had by then published his classic studies of stroke patients with language deficits, and was studying neuroanatomy in Theodor Maynert’s laboratory at the University of Vienna. Wernicke saw the VOF in slices of monkey brain, and included it in his 1881 brain atlas, naming it the senkrechte occipitalbündel, or ‘vertical occipital bundle’. Maynert - himself a pioneering neuroanatomist and psychiatrist, whose other students included Sigmund Freud and Sergei Korsakov - refused to accept Wernicke’s discovery, however. He had already described the brain’s white matter tracts, and had arrived at the general principle that they are oriented horizontally, running mostly from front to back within each hemisphere. But the pathway Wernicke had described ran vertically. Another of Maynert’s students, Heinrich Obersteiner, identified the VOF in the human brain, and mentioned it in his 1888 textbook, calling it the senkrechte occipitalbündel in one illustration, and the fasciculus occipitalis perpendicularis in another. So, too, did Heinrich Sachs, a student of Wernicke’s, who labeled it the stratum profundum convexitatis in his 1892 white matter atlas. © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited
Link ID: 20333 - Posted: 11.20.2014
By Esther Hsieh A little-known fact: the tongue is directly connected to the brain stem. This anatomical feature is now being harnessed by scientists to improve rehabilitation. A team at the University of Wisconsin–Madison recently found that electrically stimulating the tongue can help patients with multiple sclerosis (MS) improve their gait. MS is an incurable disease in which the insulation around the nerves becomes damaged, disrupting the communication between body and brain. One symptom is loss of muscle control. In a study published in the Journal of Neuro-Engineering and Rehabilitation, Wisconsin neuroscientist Yuri Danilov and his team applied painless electrical impulses to the tip of the tongue of MS patients during physical therapy. Over a 14-week trial, patients who got tongue stimulation improved twice as much on variables such as balance and fluidity as did a control group who did the same regimen without stimulation. The tongue has extensive motor and sensory integration with the brain, Danilov explains. The nerves on the tip of the tongue are directly connected to the brain stem, a crucial hub that directs basic bodily processes. Previous research showed that sending electrical pulses through the tongue activated the neural network for balance; such activation may shore up the circuitry weakened by MS. The team is also using tongue stimulation to treat patients with vision loss, stroke damage and Parkinson's. “We have probably discovered a new way for the neurorehabilitation of many neurological disorders,” Danilov says. © 2014 Scientific American
Keyword: Multiple Sclerosis
Link ID: 20332 - Posted: 11.20.2014
By Elahe Izadi Putting very little babies through numerous medical procedures is especially challenging for physicians, in part because reducing the pain they experience is so difficult. Typically for patients, "the preferred method of reducing pain is opiates. Obviously you don't want to give opiates to babies," says neurologist Regina Sullivan of NYU Langone Medical Center. "Also, it's difficult to know when a baby is in pain and not in pain." In recent years, research has shown environmental factors, like a mother or caregiver having contact with a baby during a painful procedure, appears to reduce the amount of pain felt by the baby, at least as indicated by the child's behavior, Sullivan said. But she and Gordon Barr of the University of Pennsylvania, an expert in pain, were interested in whether a mother's presence actually changed the brain functioning of a baby in pain. So Sullivan and Barr turned to rats. Specifically mama and baby rats who were in pain. And they found that hundreds of genes in baby rats' brains were more or less active, depending on whether the mothers were present. Sullivan and Barr presented their committee peer-reviewed research before the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting Tuesday. They gave mild electric shocks to infant rats, some of which had their mothers around and others who didn't. The researchers analyzed a specific portion of the infants' brains, the amygdala region of neurons, which is where emotions like fear are processed.
By Neuroskeptic An attempt to replicate the results of some recent neuroscience papers that claimed to find correlations between human brain structure and behavior has drawn a blank. The new paper is by University of Amsterdam researchers Wouter Boekel and colleagues and it’s in press now at Cortex. You can download it here from the webpage of one of the authors, Eric-Jan Wagenmakers. Neuroskeptic readers will know Wagenmakers as a critic of statistical fallacies in psychology and a leading advocate of preregistration, which is something I never tire of promoting either. Boekel et al. attempted to replicate five different papers which, together, reported 17 distinct positive results in the form of structural brain-behavior (‘SBB’) correlations. An SBB correlation is an association between the size (usually) of a particular brain area and a particular behavioral trait. For instance, one of the claims was that the amount of grey matter in the amygdala is correlated with the number of Facebook friends you have. To attempt to reproduce these 17 findings, Boekel et al. took 36 students whose brains were scanned with two methods, structural MRI and DWI. The students then completed a set of questionnaires and psychological tests, identical to ones used in the five papers that were up for replication. The methods and statistical analyses were fully preregistered (back in June 2012); Boekel et al. therefore had no scope for ‘fishing’ for positive (or negative) results by tinkering with the methodology. So what did they find? Nothing much. None of the 17 brain-behavior correlations were significant in the replication sample.
Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 20330 - Posted: 11.20.2014
By Gretchen Reynolds Exercise seems to be good for the human brain, with many recent studies suggesting that regular exercise improves memory and thinking skills. But an interesting new study asks whether the apparent cognitive benefits from exercise are real or just a placebo effect — that is, if we think we will be “smarter” after exercise, do our brains respond accordingly? The answer has significant implications for any of us hoping to use exercise to keep our minds sharp throughout our lives. In experimental science, the best, most reliable studies randomly divide participants into two groups, one of which receives the drug or other treatment being studied and the other of which is given a placebo, similar in appearance to the drug, but not containing the active ingredient. Placebos are important, because they help scientists to control for people’s expectations. If people believe that a drug, for example, will lead to certain outcomes, their bodies may produce those results, even if the volunteers are taking a look-alike dummy pill. That’s the placebo effect, and its occurrence suggests that the drug or procedure under consideration isn’t as effective as it might seem to be; some of the work is being done by people’s expectations, not by the medicine. Recently, some scientists have begun to question whether the apparently beneficial effects of exercise on thinking might be a placebo effect. While many studies suggest that exercise may have cognitive benefits, those experiments all have had a notable scientific limitation: They have not used placebos. This issue is not some abstruse scientific debate. If the cognitive benefits from exercise are a result of a placebo effect rather than of actual changes in the brain because of the exercise, then those benefits could be ephemeral and unable in the long term to help us remember how to spell ephemeral. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 20329 - Posted: 11.20.2014
By David Shultz WASHINGTON, D.C.—Reciting the days of the week is a trivial task for most of us, but then, most of us don’t have cooling probes in our brains. Scientists have discovered that by applying a small electrical cooling device to the brain during surgery they could slow down and distort speech patterns in patients. When the probe was activated in some regions of the brain associated with language and talking—like the premotor cortex—the patients’ speech became garbled and distorted, the team reported here yesterday at the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting. As scientists moved the probe to other speech regions, such as the pars opercularis, the distortion lessened, but speech patterns slowed. (These zones and their effects are displayed graphically above.) “What emerged was this orderly map,” says team leader Michael Long, a neuroscientist at the New York University School of Medicine in New York City. The results suggest that one region of the brain organizes the rhythm and flow of language while another is responsible for the actual articulation of the words. The team was even able to map which word sounds were most likely to be elongated when the cooling probe was applied. “People preferentially stretched out their vowels,” Long says. “Instead of Tttuesssday, you get Tuuuesdaaay.” The technique is similar to the electrical probe stimulation that researchers have been using to identify the function of various brain regions, but the shocks often trigger epileptic seizures in sensitive patients. Long contends that the cooling probe is completely safe, and that in the future it may help neurosurgeons decide where to cut and where not to cut during surgery. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
By Tanya Lewis WASHINGTON — From the stroke of a mother's hand to the embrace of a lover, sensations of gentle touch activate a specialized set of nerves in humans. The brain is widely believed to contain a "map" of the body for sensing touch. But humans may also have an emotional body map that corresponds to feelings of gentle touch, according to new research presented here Sunday (Nov. 16) at the 44th annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. For humans and all social species, touch plays a fundamental role in the formation and maintenance of social bonds, study researcher Susannah Walker, a behavioral neuroscientist at Liverpool John Moores University in the United KIngdom, said in a news conference. [Top 10 Things That Make Humans Special] "Indeed, a lack of touch can have a detrimental effect on both our physical health and our psychological well-being," Walker said. In a clinical setting, physical contact with premature infants has been shown to boost growth, decrease stress and aid brain development. But not much research has focused on the basis of these effects in the nervous system, Walker said. The human body has a number of different kinds of nerves for perceiving touch. Thicker nerves surrounded by a fatty layer of insulation (called myelin) identify touch and temperature and rapidly send those signals to the brain, whereas thinner nerves that lack this insulation send sensory information more slowly.
By Laura Geggel A major pathway of the human brain involved in visual perception, attention and movement — and overlooked by many researchers for more than a century — is finally getting its moment in the sun. In 2012, researchers made note of a pathway in a region of the brain associated with reading, but "we couldn't find it in any atlas," said Jason Yeatman, a research scientist at the University of Washington's Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences. "We'd thought we had discovered a new pathway that no one else had noticed before." A quick investigation showed that the pathway, known as the vertical occipital fasciculus (VOF), was not actually unknown. Famed neuroscientist Carl Wernicke discovered the pathway in 1881, during the dissection of a monkey brain that was most likely a macaque. [10 Things You Didn't Know About the Brain] But besides Wernicke's discovery, and a few other mentions throughout the years, the VOF is largely absent from studies of the human brain. This made Yeatman and his colleagues wonder, "How did a whole piece of brain anatomy get forgotten?" he said. The researchers immersed themselves in century-old brain atlases and studies, trying to decipher when and why the VOF went missing from mainstream scientific literature. They also scanned the brains of 37 individuals, and found an algorithm that can help present-day researchers pinpoint the elusive pathway.
By Kelly Servick Dean Hamer finally feels vindicated. More than 20 years ago, in a study that triggered both scientific and cultural controversy, the molecular biologist offered the first direct evidence of a “gay gene,” by identifying a stretch on the X chromosome likely associated with homosexuality. But several subsequent studies called his finding into question. Now the largest independent replication effort so far, looking at 409 pairs of gay brothers, fingers the same region on the X. “When you first find something out of the entire genome, you’re always wondering if it was just by chance,” says Hamer, who asserts that new research “clarifies the matter absolutely.” But not everyone finds the results convincing. And the kind of DNA analysis used, known as a genetic linkage study, has largely been superseded by other techniques. Due to the limitations of this approach, the new work also fails to provide what behavioral geneticists really crave: specific genes that might underlie homosexuality. Few scientists have ventured into this line of research. When the genetics of being gay comes up at scientific meetings, “sometimes even behavioral geneticists kind of wrinkle up their noses,” says Kenneth Kendler, a psychiatric geneticist at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. That’s partially because the science itself is so complex. Studies comparing identical and fraternal twins suggest there is some heritable component to homosexuality, but no one believes that a single gene or genes can make a person gay. Any genetic predispositions probably interact with environmental factors that influence development of a sexual orientation. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
James Gorman Evidence has been mounting for a while that birds and other animals can count, particularly when the things being counted are items of food. But most of the research is done under controlled conditions. In a recent experiment with New Zealand robins, Alexis Garland and Jason Low at Victoria University of Wellington tested the birds in a natural setting, giving them no training and no rewards, and showed that they knew perfectly well when a scientist had showed them two mealworms in a box, but then delivered only one. The researchers reported the work this fall in the journal Behavioural Processes. The experiment is intriguing to watch, partly because it looks like a child’s magic trick. The apparatus used is a wooden box that has a sliding drawer. After clearly showing a robin that she was dropping two mealworms in a circular well in the box, Dr. Garland would slide in the drawer. It covered the two worms with an identical-looking circular well containing only one worm. When the researcher moved away and the robin flew down and lifted off a cover, it would find only one worm. The robins pecked intensely at the box, behavior they didn’t show if they found the two worms they were expecting. Earlier experiments had also shown the birds to be good at counting, and Dr. Garland said that one reason might be that they are inveterate thieves. Mates, in particular, steal from one another’s food caches, where they hide perishable prey like worms or insects. “If you’ve got a mate that steals 50 or more percent of your food,” she said, you’d better learn how to keep track of how many mealworms you’ve got. © 2014 The New York Times Company