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Rachel Ehrenberg Living on the bottom rungs of the social ladder may be enough to make you sick. A new study manipulating the pecking order of monkeys finds that low social status kicks the immune system into high gear, leading to unwanted inflammation akin to that in people with chronic diseases. The new study, in the Nov. 25 Science, gets at an age-old question that’s been tough to study experimentally: Does social status alone change biology in a way that can make a person more healthy or more vulnerable to disease? “We’ve known for years that human health and longevity are linked to socioeconomic status,” says Steve Cole, an expert in human social genomics at UCLA. This link often persists regardless of factors such as access to decent health care or clean water, but it’s hard to design studies to get at mechanism or causation, he says. “This study is very nice to see and it’s very consistent with other lines of research.” To tease out the influence of rank on health, scientists turned to another highly social animal: the rhesus monkey. Evolutionary biologist Jenny Tung of Duke University and colleagues worked with 45 female monkeys at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center field station near Lawrenceville, Ga. The researchers arranged the monkeys into groups of five, adding monkeys one at a time, which reliably resulted in the oldest member dominating and the newest member having the lowest rank. These groups were maintained for a year during which the researchers noted behaviors and took blood samples to assess changes in cellular and gene activity associated with the monkeys’ social status. |© Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2016.
Mo Costandi Lucy Cheke and her colleagues at the University of Cambridge recently invited a few participants into her lab for a kind of ‘treasure hunt’. The participants navigated a virtual environment on a computer screen, dropping off various objects along their way. They then answered a series of questions to test their memory of the task, such as where they had hidden a particular object. When examining what might have influenced their performance, you might expect that Cheke would have been more concerned with the participant’s IQ – not their waistline. Yet she found a clear relationship between their Body Mass Index – a measure of your weight relative to your height – and apparent memory deficits: the higher a participant’s BMI, the worse they performed on the Treasure Hunt task. In doing so, Cheke has contributed to a small but growing body of evidence showing that obesity is linked to brain shrinkage and memory deficits. This research suggests that obesity may contribute to the development of neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease. Surprisingly, it also seems to show that the relationship between obesity and memory is a two-way street: being overweight or obese not only impacts on memory function, but may also affect future eating behaviour by altering our recollections of previous eating experiences. Cheke’s interest in the subject began unexpectedly. “At the time I was looking at the ability to imagine a future state, particularly in terms of making decisions about food,” says Cheke. “If you’re hungry, you’ll imagine your future self as being hungry, too, but obese people seem to make such decisions on fact-based judgements rather than imagining.” © 2016 Guardian News and Media Limited
Link ID: 22910 - Posted: 11.25.2016
Hannah Devlin Science correspondent People who struggle to maintain a healthy weight after dieting may do so because their gut bacteria retains a “memory” of their past weight, according to scientists. The study, in mice, suggests that yo-yo dieting is not simply a reflection of people returning to unhealthy eating habits, but could be driven by long-term changes in gut bacteria brought about by obesity. The scientists observed that the changes to the gut microbiome brought about by obesity persisted for five times as long as the actual period spent dieting and predisposed the mice to rapidly regain weight. Eran Elinav, an immunologist at the Weizmann Institute in Israel and lead author, said that the findings, if replicated in people, could help develop more evidence-based methods for weight loss. “It may explain some – more than some – of our failure to control weight by dieting,” he said. Simon Cork, a medical researcher at Imperial College London, said the study was one of the first to show that gut bacteria could actively drive weight gain, rather than simply being associated with it. However, he cautioned that it was unclear whether the findings could be extrapolated to people. “We do know that this yo-yo effect is caused by quite a few different mechanisms and it’s likely that gut bacteria is only going to play a small role,” he said. “Ultimately, the main reason why people yo-yo is because they don’t stick to the diet.” In the study, published in Nature, obese mice were switched from a high fat diet to balanced nutrition until they were indistinguishable from a control group of mice in terms of weight and a range of metabolic factors, such as blood sugar levels. © 2016 Guardian News and Media Limited
Link ID: 22909 - Posted: 11.25.2016
By Andy Coghlan It may sound like a healthy switch, but sometimes people who drink diet soft drinks put on more weight and develop chronic disorders like diabetes. This has puzzled nutritionists, but experiments in mice now suggest that in some cases, this could partly be down to the artificial sweetener aspartame. Artificial sweeteners that contain no calories are synthetic alternatives to sugar that can taste up to 20,000 times sweeter. They are often used in products like low or zero-calorie drinks and sugar-free desserts, and are sometimes recommended for people who have type 2 diabetes. But mouse experiments now suggest that when aspartame breaks down in the gut, it may disrupt processes that are vital for neutralising harmful toxins from the bacteria that live there. By interfering with a crucial enzyme, these toxins seem to build up, irritating the gut lining and causing the kinds of low-level inflammation that can ultimately cause chronic diseases. “Our results are providing a mechanism for why aspartame may not always work to keep people thin, or even cause problems like obesity, heart disease, diabetes and metabolic syndrome,” says Richard Hodin at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Irritating bacteria © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By Darryl Hol, Every year, thousands of Canadians sign up to participate in clinical trials, offering their bodies to further the development of important medical advances like new drugs or devices. But the results of many of those trials never see the light of day. A new online tool aims to put pressure on some of the companies and institutions behind the problem. TrialsTracker maintains a list of all the trials registered on the world's leading clinical trials database and tracks how many of them are updated with results. Amid pharmaceutical companies and research bodies from around the world on ClinicalTrials.gov, maintained by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, nine Canadian universities and institutions rank in the top 100 organizations with the greatest proportion of registered trials without results. "It's well documented that academic trialists routinely fail to share results," says Ben Goldacre, who was part of the team from the University of Oxford that developed TrialsTracker. "Often they think, misguidedly, that a 'negative' result is uninteresting — when, in fact, it is extremely useful." The University of Toronto's David Henry says "publication bias," as it's called, is robbing the medical community and patients of important information. "We've been deceived about the truth about treatments that we've used widely over a long period, in very large numbers of individuals, because of the selective publication of results that are favourable to the product," says Henry, a professor of health systems data at U of T's Institute for Health Policy Management and Evaluation. ©2016 CBC/Radio-Canada.
Link ID: 22907 - Posted: 11.25.2016
By Virginia Morell At last, scientists may have an answer to a question every dog owner asks: Does your pet remember the things you do together? For people, at least, the ability to consciously recall personal experiences and events is thought to be linked to self-awareness. It shapes how we think about the past—and how we predict the future. Now, a new study suggests that dogs also have this type of memory, indicating that the talent may be more common in other animals than previously recognized. The study, “is a creative approach to trying to capture what’s on a dog’s mind,” says Alexandra Horowitz, a dog cognition scientist at Barnard College in New York City who was not involved in the research. The idea that nonhuman animals can consciously remember things they’ve done or witnessed in the past, called episodic memory, is controversial—largely because it’s thought that these animals aren’t self-aware. But scientists have shown that species like Western scrub jays, hummingbirds, rats, and the great apes—those that have to recall complex sequences of information in order to survive—have “episodiclike” memory. For instance, the jays remember what food they’ve hidden, where they stashed it, when they did so, and who was watching while they did it. But what about recalling things that aren’t strictly necessary for survival, or someone else’s actions? To find out whether dogs can remember such details, scientists asked 17 owners to teach their pets a trick called “do as I do.” The dogs learned, for instance, that after watching their owner jump in the air, they should do the same when commanded to “do it!” © 2016 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 22906 - Posted: 11.25.2016
By Joshua A. Krisch “In Drosophila, there is a well-documented interaction between sleep and metabolism, whereby flies suppress sleep or increase their activity when starved,” said coauthor William Ja of the Scripps Research Institute in Florida, in a press release. “However, the acute effects of food consumption on sleep have not yet been tested, largely because there was no system available to do so.” Ja and colleagues placed fruit flies in a small plastic chamber, which allowed the researchers to record fly activity before and after feeding. The recordings revealed that the fruit flies became lethargic or fell asleep for about 30 minutes following a large meal and that, the more the flies ate, the longer they remained asleep. Then, the researchers focused on a subset of leucokinin receptors previously implicated as potential drivers of post-meal sleep. Indeed, the researchers found that flies in which leucokinin receptor neurons were silenced remained alert even after a large meal. “Using an animal model, we’ve learned there is something to the food coma effect, and we can now start to study the direct relationship between food and sleep in earnest,” Ja said in the press release. “This behavior seems conserved across species, so it must be valuable to animals for some reason.” © 1986-2016 The Scientist
Link ID: 22905 - Posted: 11.25.2016
Sara Reardon A new technique might allow researchers and clinicians to stimulate deep regions of the brain, such as those involved in memory and emotion, without opening up a patient’s skull. Brain-stimulation techniques that apply electrodes to a person’s scalp seem to be safe, and proponents say that the method can improve some brain functions, including enhancing intelligence and relieving depression. Some of these claims are much better supported by research than others. But such techniques are limited because they cannot reach deep regions of the brain. By contrast, implants used in deep brain stimulation (DBS) are much more successful at altering the inner brain. The devices can be risky, however, because they involve surgery, and the implants cannot be repaired easily if they malfunction. At the annual Society for Neuroscience conference, held in San Diego, California, last week, neuroengineer Nir Grossman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and his colleagues presented their experimental method that adapts transcranial stimulation (TCS) for the deep brain. Their approach involves sending electrical signals through the brain from electrodes placed on the scalp and manipulating the electrical currents in a way that negates the need for surgery. The team used a stimulation device to apply two electric currents to the mouse's skull behind its ears and tuned them to slightly different high frequencies. They angled these two independent currents so that they intersected with each other at the hippocampus. © 2016 Macmillan Publishers Limited,
By PAM BELLUCK It is the news that doctors and families in the heart of Zika territory had feared: Some babies not born with the unusually small heads that are the most severe hallmark of brain damage as a result of the virus have developed the condition, called microcephaly, as they have grown older. The findings were reported in a study of 13 babies in Brazil that was published Tuesday in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. At birth, none of the babies had heads small enough to receive a diagnosis of microcephaly, but months later, 11 of them did. For most of those babies, brain scans soon after birth showed significant abnormalities, and researchers found that as the babies aged, their brains did not grow or develop enough for their age and body size. The new study echoes another published this fall, in which three babies were found to have microcephaly later in their first year. As they closed in on their first birthdays, many of the babies also had some of the other developmental and medical problems caused by Zika infection, a range of disabilities now being called congenital Zika syndrome. The impairments resemble characteristics of cerebral palsy and include epileptic seizures, muscle and joint problems and difficulties swallowing food. “There are some areas of great deficiency in the babies,” said Dr. Cynthia Moore, the director of the division of congenital and developmental disorders for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and an author of the new study. “They certainly are going to have a lot of impairment.” Dr. Deborah Levine, a professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School who has studied Zika but was not involved in either study, said there would most likely be other waves of children whose brains were affected by the Zika infection, but not severely enough to be noticed in their first year. © 2016 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Development of the Brain
Link ID: 22903 - Posted: 11.23.2016
Twenty-seven Canadians a day are diagnosed with a brain tumour. Often, the prognosis isn't good, but it might be improved thanks to a new technique that targets tumours deep inside the brain that are too dangerous to remove surgically. The technique was created by Mark Torchia and Richard Tyc of the University of Manitoba and consists of heating the cancerous tissue with a laser, making it more receptive to chemotherapy. Carling Muir of B.C. is hoping the method, known as NeuroBlate, will help her survive the rare form of recurring brain cancer that she has been living with for the past decade. Muir, who was diagnosed when she was 19, has taken some inspiration from how Tragically Hip singer Gord Downie has handled his own diagnosis of brain cancer this past summer. "I worry more about, like, what it does to my family? That's the part that gets me," she told CBC's Reg Sherren. Sherren was granted exclusive access to the operating room at Vancouver General Hospital where Muir underwent the NeuroBlate procedure. Watch the video to see how surgeons used the laser ablation method to target the cancer cells in Muir's left frontal lobe and read more about the procedure below. ©2016 CBC/Radio-Canada
Link ID: 22902 - Posted: 11.23.2016
Shane Fistell When I was 17, my father took me to a juvenile treatment clinic to see if doctors could figure out what was wrong with me. I entered a room. I sat on a chair. I waited for a long while. There was a video camera trained on me. Then I heard voices, the voices of doctors behind a two-way mirror. It was like being in a police interrogation room in the movies. A voice boomed: “So Shane, why do you think you’re acting this way? Do you know what you’re doing?” I didn’t know what to say. What were the right answers? I was born with a neurological disorder that causes involuntary movements, vocalizations and tics — sometimes mild, sometimes wildly disruptive: Tourette’s syndrome. Since my youth, I’ve often been stopped in public by the police and questioned because of my symptoms. Questioned: That sums it up in a single word. My whole life has been questioned. I’m 56 now. I’ve often led a life of self-imposed house arrest. Two months here, three months there. Summer gone, winter over. How many years have I wasted? If people know of Tourette’s, they will often say: “Oh, that’s that swearing disease!” A woman once said to me: ”At least you don’t swear! You would’ve been worse off!” Compulsive swearing is called coprolalia. Each person with Tourette’s is different, and only some swear compulsively. I don’t; but for most of my life I have had to put up with people swearing and cursing at me because of my symptoms. A few years ago a man argued: “There’s no way you have Tourette’s! If you don’t swear you don’t have it! Period. And I know you don’t have it because I’ve seen it on TV!” © 2016 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 22901 - Posted: 11.23.2016
Carrie Arnold There was one sound that biologist Rusty Gonser always heard at Cranberry Lake — and there was one sound that he would never hear again. Every summer for more than 25 years, Gonser and his wife, Elaina Tuttle, had made the trip to this field station in the Adirondack Mountains — a 45-minute boat ride from the nearest road. Now, as he moored his boat to the shaky wooden dock, he heard a familiar and short song that sounded like 'oh-sweet-Canada'. The whistle was from a white-throated sparrow calling hopefully for a mate. What he didn't hear was the voice or laughter of his wife. For the first time, Gonser was at Cranberry Lake alone. Just a few weeks earlier, Tuttle had died of breast cancer. Her entire career, and most of Gonser's, had been devoted to understanding every aspect of the biology of the white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis). Less than six months before she died this year at the age of 52, the couple and their team published a paper1 that was the culmination of that work. It explained how a chance genetic mutation had put the species on an extraordinary evolutionary path. The mutation had flipped a large section of chromosome 2, leaving it unable to pair up with a partner and exchange genetic information. The more than 1,100 genes in the inversion were inherited together as part of a massive 'supergene' and eventually drove the evolution of two different 'morphs' — subtypes of the bird that are coloured differently, behave differently and mate only with the opposite morph. Tuttle and Gonser's leap was to show that this process is nearly identical to the early evolution of certain sex chromosomes, including the human X and Y. The researchers realized that they were effectively watching the bird evolve two sex chromosomes, on top of the two it already had. © 2016 Macmillan Publishers Limited,
By Ann Gibbons On a promontory high above the sweeping grasslands of the Georgian steppe, a medieval church marks the spot where humans have come and gone along Silk Road trade routes for thousands of years. But 1.77 million years ago, this place was a crossroads for a different set of migrants. Among them were saber-toothed cats, Etruscan wolves, hyenas the size of lions—and early members of the human family. Here, primitive hominins poked their tiny heads into animal dens to scavenge abandoned kills, fileting meat from the bones of mammoths and wolves with crude stone tools and eating it raw. They stalked deer as the animals drank from an ancient lake and gathered hackberries and nuts from chestnut and walnut trees lining nearby rivers. Sometimes the hominins themselves became the prey, as gnaw marks from big cats or hyenas on their fossilized limb bones now testify. "Someone rang the dinner bell in gully one," says geologist Reid Ferring of the University of North Texas in Denton, part of an international team analyzing the site. "Humans and carnivores were eating each other." This is the famous site of Dmanisi, Georgia, which offers an unparalleled glimpse into a harsh early chapter in human evolution, when primitive members of our genus Homo struggled to survive in a new land far north of their ancestors' African home, braving winters without clothes or fire and competing with fierce carnivores for meat. The 4-hectare site has yielded closely packed, beautifully preserved fossils that are the oldest hominins known outside of Africa, including five skulls, about 50 skeletal bones, and an as-yet-unpublished pelvis unearthed 2 years ago. "There's no other place like it," says archaeologist Nick Toth of Indiana University in Bloomington. "It's just this mother lode for one moment in time." © 2016 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Link ID: 22899 - Posted: 11.23.2016
Laura Sanders Harmful factors circulating in old blood may be partly responsible for the mental decline that can come with age, a small study in mice suggests. Irina Conboy of the University of California, Berkeley and colleagues devised a new way to mingle blood in two mice that didn’t involve stitching their bodies together, as in previous experiments (SN: 5/31/14, p. 8). Instead, researchers used a microfluidic device to shuttle blood, a process that precisely controlled the timing and amount of blood transferred between the mice. The method, reported online November 22 in Nature Communications, allows more precise tests of blood’s influence on aging, the researchers believe. Old mice benefited in some ways from infusions of young blood, experiments with four young-old pairs of mice revealed. With young blood around, old muscles were better able to recover after an injury. And young blood seemed to improve old livers in some tests. But young blood didn’t seem to help one measure of brain health. After transfusions of young blood, old mice still had lower numbers of newborn nerve cells in the hippocampus, a brain structure important for learning and memory. What’s more, old blood reduced the number of newborn nerve cells in young mice. This damage happened quickly, after just one blood exchange, the researchers found. The results suggest that old blood contains components that harm brain cells, an insight that makes scientists eager to identify those factors. |© Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2016
Keyword: Development of the Brain
Link ID: 22898 - Posted: 11.23.2016
By Usha Lee McFarling, There’s something wrong with the brain banks created to study the dangers of repeated trauma to the head: Almost all the brains donated so far belonged to men. It’s just one example of how the study of brain trauma in women lags behind—even though women get concussions at higher rates than men in many sports and may suffer more severe and persistent symptoms. “If concussion is the invisible injury, then females are the invisible population within that injury,” said Katherine Snedaker, a licensed clinical social worker from Norwalk, Conn., who founded the nonprofit PINK Concussions in 2013 to focus attention on the issue. Evidence is building that the response to traumatic injury is different enough in females that they might benefit from gender-specific treatment, as they do with cardiac disease. But the data to create such guidelines simply aren’t there. “It’s an incredible gap in our knowledge,” said Angela Colantonio, director of the Rehabilitation Science Institute at the University of Toronto. “It’s just not acceptable.” When Colantonio examined 200 studies on prognosis after mild traumatic brain injury, she found only 7 percent separated out women. And if female athletes are overlooked, other groups vulnerable to concussion—aging women, women in prison, and domestic abuse survivors—have been nearly entirely ignored. © 2016 Scientific American
By GINA KOLATA Despite fears that dementia rates were going to explode as the population grows older and fatter, and has more diabetes and high blood pressure, a large nationally representative survey has found the reverse. Dementia is actually on the wane. And when people do get dementia, they get it at older and older ages. Previous studies found the same trend but involved much smaller and less diverse populations like the mostly white population of Framingham, Mass., and residents of a few areas in England and Wales. The new study found that the dementia rate in Americans 65 and older fell by 24 percent over 12 years, to 8.8 percent in 2012 from 11.6 percent in 2000. That trend is “statistically significant and impressive,” said Samuel Preston, a demographer at the University of Pennsylvania who was not associated with the study. In 2000, people received a diagnosis of dementia at an average age of 80.7; in 2012, the average age was 82.4. “The dementia rate is not immutable,” said Dr. Richard Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging. “It can change.” And that “is very good news,” said John Haaga, director of the institute’s division of behavioral and social research. It means, he said, that “roughly a million and a half people aged 65 and older who do not have dementia now would have had it if the rate in 2000 had been in place.” Keith Fargo, director of scientific programs and outreach at the Alzheimer’s Association, said the group had been encouraged by some of the previous research showing a decline but had also been “a little bit nervous” about drawing conclusions because the populations in the earlier studies were so homogeneous. Now, he said of the new data, “here is a nationally representative study. It’s wonderful news.” © 2016 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 22896 - Posted: 11.22.2016
Ian Sample Science editor Scientists have raised hopes for a radical new therapy for phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with a procedure that can dampen down fears linked to painful memories. The advance holds particular promise for patients because in early tests, researchers found they could reduce anxieties triggered by specific memories without asking people to think about them consciously. That could make it more appealing than exposure therapy, which aims to help patients overcome their phobias by making them confront their fears in a safe environment, for example by encouraging them to handle spiders or snakes in the clinic. The new technique, called fMRI decoded neurofeedback (DecNef), was developed by scientists at the ATR Computational Neuroscience Lab in Japan. Mitsuo Kawato, who worked with researchers in the UK and the US on the latest study, said he wanted to find an alternative to exposure therapy, which has a 40% drop-out rate among PTSD patients. “We always thought this was ambitious, but it worked the way we hoped it would,” said Ben Seymour, a clinical neuroscientist and member of the team at Cambridge University. “We don’t completely erase the fear memory, but it is substantially reduced.” The procedure uses a computer algorithm to analyse a patient’s brain activity in real time and pinpoint moments when their fears can be overwritten by giving them a reward. In the latest study, the reward was a small amount of money. © 2016 Guardian News and Media Limited
By JAN HOFFMAN BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — Crosby J. Gardner has never had a girlfriend. Now 20 and living for the first time in a dorm here at Western Kentucky University, he has designed a fast-track experiment to find her. He ticks off the math. Two meals a day at the student dining hall, three courses per meal. Girls make up 57 percent of the 20,068 students. And so, he sums up, gray-blue eyes triumphant, if he sits at a table with at least four new girls for every course, he should be able to meet all 11,439 by graduation. “I’m Crosby Gardner!” he announces each time he descends upon a fresh group, trying out the social-skills script he had practiced in the university’s autism support program. “What is your name and what is your major?” The first generation of college students with an autism diagnosis is fanning out to campuses across the country. These growing numbers reflect the sharp rise in diagnosis rates since the 1990s, as well as the success of early-learning interventions and efforts to include these students in mainstream activities. But while these young adults have opportunities that could not have been imagined had they been born even a decade earlier, their success in college is still a long shot. Increasingly, schools are realizing that most of these students will not graduate without comprehensive support like the Kelly Autism Program at Western Kentucky. Similar programs have been taking root at nearly 40 colleges around the country, including large public institutions like Eastern Michigan University, California State University, Long Beach, the University of Connecticut and Rutgers. For decades, universities have provided academic safety nets to students with physical disabilities and learning challenges like dyslexia. But students on the autism spectrum need a web of support that is far more nuanced and complex. © 2016 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 22894 - Posted: 11.21.2016
Tom Goldman Voters in seven more states said "yes" to marijuana this month. Pot now is legal for recreational or medicinal use in more than half the country. It's still against federal law and classified as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning U.S. officials consider marijuana to have a high risk of abuse or harm, and no accepted medical use in treatment. Also, it's still banned in professional sports. Many athletes hope that will change as momentum grows nationwide for legalization. That's especially true in the National Football League, where pain is a constant companion. Advocates say marijuana could offer a safer and better way to manage the pain. Football hurts. As a fan watching from home, that's not always obvious — players collide, fall down, pop back up. They rarely wince or show weakness. That's just not how it's done in football. Kyle Turley hurt plenty during his eight NFL seasons in the 1990s and 2000s. As an offensive lineman, he was involved in jarring collisions nearly every play when his team had the ball. He hurt after his career -– Turley sometimes walks with a cane. And in a recent video, he displayed one by one the bottles of powerful painkillers he used. "Vicodin, Flexeril, Percocets, Vioxx, morphine," Turley recited as he plopped the bottles down on a kitchen counter. © 2016 npr
James Gorman The Goffin’s cockatoo is a smart bird, so smart it has been compared to a 3-year-old human. But even for this species, a bird named Figaro stands out for his creativity with tools. Hand-raised at the Veterinary University of Vienna, the male bird was trying to play with a pebble that fell outside his aviary onto a wooden beam about four years ago. First he used a piece of bamboo to try to rake the stone back in. Impressed, scientists in the university Goffin’s lab, which specializes in testing the thinking abilities of the birds, put a cashew nut where the pebble had been. Figaro extended his beak through the wire mesh to bite a splinter off the wooden beam. He used the splinter to fish the cashew in, a fairly difficult process because he had to work the splinter through the mesh and position it at the right angle. In later trials, Figaro made his tools much more quickly, and also picked a bamboo twig from the bottom of the aviary and trimmed it to make a similar tool. Cockatoos don’t do anything like this in nature, as far as anyone knows. They don’t use tools. They don’t even build nests, so they are not used to manipulating sticks. And they have curved bills, unlike the straight beaks of crows and jays that make manipulating tools a bit easier. Blue jays have been observed creating tools from newspaper to pull food pellets to them. Alice M.I. Auersperg, a researcher at the Veterinary University of Vienna who studies cognition in animals, and her colleagues reported those first accomplishments by Figaro in 2012. Since then, they have continued to test Figaro and other birds in the lab that were able to learn tool use or tool making, sometimes both, by watching Figaro. © 2016 The New York Times Company