Chapter 6. Hearing, Balance, Taste, and Smell
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By Diana Kwon Six years before her husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a progressive neurodegenerative disorder marked by tremors and movement difficulties, Joy Milne detected a change in his scent. She later linked the subtle, musky odor to the disease when she joined the charity Parkinson’s UK and met others with the same, distinct smell. Being one of the most common age-related disorders, Parkinson’s affects an estimated seven million to 10 million people worldwide. Although there is currently no definitive diagnostic test, researchers hope that this newly found olfactory signature will lead help create one. Milne, a super-smeller from Perth, Scotland, wanted to share her ability with researchers. So when Tilo Kunath, a neuroscientist at the University of Edinburgh, gave a talk during a Parkinson’s UK event in 2012, she raised her hand during the Q&A session and claimed she was able to smell the disease. “I didn’t take her seriously at first,” Kunath says. “I said, ‘No, I never heard of that, next question please.’” But months later Kunath shared this anecdote with a colleague and received a surprising response. “She told me that that lady wasn’t wrong and that I should find her,” Kunath says. Once the researchers found Milne, they tested her claim by having her sniff 12 T-shirts: six that belonged to people with Parkinson’s and six from healthy individuals. Milne correctly identified 11 out of 12, but miscategorized one of the non-Parkinson’s T-shirts in the disease category. It turned out, however, she was not wrong at all—that person would be diagnosed with Parkinson’s less than a year later. © 2015 Scientific American
When we hear speech, electrical waves in our brain synchronise to the rhythm of the syllables, helping us to understand what’s being said. This happens when we listen to music too, and now we know some brains are better at syncing to the beat than others. Keith Doelling at New York University and his team recorded the brain waves of musicians and non-musicians while listening to music, and found that both groups synchronised two types of low-frequency brain waves, known as delta and theta, to the rhythm of the music. Synchronising our brain waves to music helps us decode it, says Doelling. The electrical waves collect the information from continuous music and break it into smaller chunks that we can process. But for particularly slow music, the non-musicians were less able to synchronise, with some volunteers saying they couldn’t keep track of these slower rhythms. Rather than natural talent, Doelling thinks musicians are more comfortable with slower tempos because of their musical training. As part of his own musical education, he remembers being taught to break down tempo into smaller subdivisions. He suggests that grouping shorter beats together in this way is what helps musicians to process slow music better. One theory is that musicians have heard and played much more music, allowing them to acquire “meta-knowledge”, such as a better understanding of how composers structure pieces. This could help them detect a broader range of tempos, says Usha Goswami of the University of Cambridge. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By JAMES GORMAN No offense to tenors, but outside of opera, a high male voice is seldom, if ever, considered seductive. Scientific research has shown that women find deep male voices attractive, and the same is true in other species, like howler monkeys. Stories from Our Advertisers But evolution is often stingy in its gifts, and researchers investigating male competition to reproduce have discovered an intriguing trade-off in some species of howler monkeys: the deeper the call, the smaller the testicles. Jacob Dunn of Cambridge University, one of the leaders of the research, said that species evolved either to make lower-frequency sounds, or have larger testicles, but none had both a very low sound and very large testicles. “It’s a great study,” said Stuart Semple, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Roehampton in London who was not involved in the research. “It shows this really clear trade-off.” Dr. Dunn and other researchers, including W. Tecumseh Fitch, of the University of Vienna, and Leslie A. Knapp, of the University of Utah, studied the size of a bone in the vocal apparatus, which is directly related to how deep the calls are, and the size of testicles, to come up for averages in nine species of howlers. They had been intrigued by great variations in both the size of the howlers’ hyoid bones in museum collections and in the size of the monkeys’ testicles as seen in the field. Dr. Knapp said that some of them are large enough that they are quite obvious “when you look up into the trees.” They used the museum samples of the bone and living monkeys in zoos for testicle measurements, and reported their findings Thursday in the journal Current Biology. © 2015 The New York Times Company
By WILLIAM GRIMES The first show at the Museum of Food and Drink’s new space in Brooklyn is “Flavor: Making It and Faking It,” and it wastes no time in getting to the point. “What makes your favorite food so delicious?” the text on a large free-standing panel near the entrance asks. The one-word answer: “Chemicals.” The word is deflating. It’s a little like being told that the human soul has a specific atomic weight. Chemicals? Yuck. But maybe not. Flavors come in two varieties, natural and artificial, but what do the words really mean? This is the looming question in an exhibition about food and culture that opens next Wednesday, in a museum that until now has been a free-floating idea rather than a building with an address. The show follows the history of lab-created flavors from the middle of the 19th century, when German scientists created artificial vanilla, to the present day, when the culinary spin doctors known as flavorists tweak and blend the myriad tastes found in virtually every food product on supermarket shelves. Flavor is a complex, beguiling subject. At one of several “smell machines” throughout the exhibition, where specific aromas are emitted through silver hoses at the push of a button, visitors learn that coffee gets a little lift — the je ne sais quoi that makes it irresistible in the morning — from a sulfur compound also found in skunk spray. Tiny edible pellets distributed from gumball machines send the message in tactile form. This is an exhibition that is not just hands-on, but tongue-on and nostrils-on. © 2015 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste)
Link ID: 21536 - Posted: 10.21.2015
The invaders put on a disguise and infiltrate the nest with dark plans: to kill the queen and enslave the kingdom. Usually when ants take pupae from other colonies as future slaves all hell breaks loose in ensuing battles. The enslaved individuals sometimes even strike back against their overlords. It’s a relatively dramatic affair, usually resulting in the aggressive slave-makers carrying the pupae back to their own colony, says Terrence McGlynn at California State University. But a species of ant found in the eastern US, Temnothorax pilagens, does things differently. It is the first ant species known to waltz into a colony and enslave others without killing, and one of a few that take not only pupae but adult workers, too. “This was extremely surprising as ants are usually able to detect foreign species or even individuals from a different colony through their chemical profile and react aggressively towards them,” says Isabelle Kleeberg at Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz, Germany, whose team has found how they get away with it. Kleeberg tracked the behaviour of T. pilagens and their preferred slave species, Temnothorax ambiguus, in 43 raiding experiments using colour-marked individuals. In each experiment the colonies of these two ant species, each housed in a plastic box, were placed 12 centimetres apart from each other. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Using a sensitive new technology called single-cell RNA-seq on cells from mice, scientists have created the first high-resolution gene expression map of the newborn mouse inner ear. The findings provide new insight into how epithelial cells in the inner ear develop and differentiate into specialized cells that serve critical functions for hearing and maintaining balance. Understanding how these important cells form may provide a foundation for the potential development of cell-based therapies for treating hearing loss and balance disorders. The research was conducted by scientists at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), part of the National Institutes of Health. In a companion study led by NIDCD-supported scientists at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and scientists at the Sackler School of Medicine at Tel Aviv University, researchers used a similar technique to identify a family of proteins critical for the development of inner ear cells. Both studies were published online on October 15 in the journal Nature Communications. “Age-related hearing loss occurs gradually in most of us as we grow older. It is one of the most common conditions among older adults, affecting half of people over age 75,” said James F. Battey, Jr., M.D., Ph.D., director of the NIDCD. “These new findings may lead to new regenerative treatments for this critical public health issue.” Specialized sensory epithelial cells in the inner ear include hair cells and supporting cells, which provide the hair cells with crucial structural and functional support. Hair cells and supporting cells located in the cochlea — the snail-shaped structure in the inner ear — work together to detect sound, thus enabling us to hear. In contrast, hair cells and supporting cells in the utricle, a fluid-filled pouch near the cochlea, play a critical role in helping us maintain our balance.
By Nancy Szokan Sensory deprivation is Sushma Subramanian’s topic in the October issue of Women’s Health magazine, and she offers a couple of extreme examples. Julie Malloy, 33, from York, Pa., describes living without the sense of touch: “I was born with a rare sensory illness that leaves me unable to feel pain, temperature, deep pressure, or vibrations in my arms, legs, and the majority of my chest and back. I use vision to compensate as much as I can. . . . “I always wash my face with cold water; I once burned myself without realizing it. . . . When I drive, I can’t really tell how hard I’m pushing on the pedals. I watch others really enjoy it when someone kisses their arm or get tingly when someone hugs them, but I can’t even feel anything during sex.” Erin Napoleone, 31, from Havre de Grace, Md., describes losing her sense of smell: “As a teen, I was in a car accident. A few days later, I watched my father make homemade tomato sauce — but I didn’t smell a thing. Then I couldn’t detect my mom’s familiar perfume. A head CT scan confirmed my sense of smell was gone for good.” The magazine points out that some senses naturally deteriorate with age and that taking care of your skin — say, by keeping it moisturized and protecting it from damage — can help preserve the sense of touch. But olfactory nerves facing “prolonged exposure to rank odors (think freeway fumes or curbside trash)” can be permanently damaged.
Music can be a transformative experience, especially for your brain. Musicians’ brains respond more symmetrically to the music they listen to. And the size of the effect depends on which instrument they play. People who learn to play musical instruments can expect their brains to change in structure and function. When people are taught to play a piece of piano music, for example, the part of their brains that represents their finger movements gets bigger. Musicians are also better at identifying pitch and speech sounds – brain imaging studies suggest that this is because their brains respond more quickly and strongly to sound. Other research has found that the corpus callosum – the strip of tissue that connects the left and right hemisphere of the brain – is also larger in musicians. Might this mean that the two halves of a musician’s brain are better at communicating with each other compared with non-musicians? To find out, Iballa Burunat at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland and her colleagues used an fMRI scanner to look at the brains of 18 musicians and 18 people who have never played professionally. The professional musicians – all of whom had a degree in music – included cellists, violinists, keyboardists and bassoon and trombone players. While they were in the scanner, all of the participants were played three different pieces of music – prog rock, an Argentinian tango and some Stravinsky. Burunat recorded how their brains responded to the music, and used software to compare the activity of the left and right hemispheres of each person’s brain. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Now hear this. Anthropologists have estimated the hearing abilities of early hominins – reconstructing a human ancestor’s sensory perception. Rolf Quam from Binghamton University in New York and his colleagues studied skulls and ear bones from Australopithecus africanus and Paranthropus robustus, two species that lived between 1 million and 3 million years ago, as well as modern humans and chimpanzees. Using CT scans of the bones, they built 3D reconstructions of the ear of each species. Then they fed a series of anatomical measurements into a computer model to predict their hearing abilities. The results for humans and chimpanzees fitted well with laboratory data, suggesting the model aligned well with real performance. For each species, they then estimated the frequency range they can hear best. Modern humans and chimpanzees perform similarly below 3 kilohertz, but humans have better hearing than chimps in the 3-5 kHz range. The early hominins had a similar sensitive range to chimpanzees, but shifted slightly towards that of modern humans, so they have better hearing than chimps do for 3-4 kHz sounds. Australopithecus and Paranthropus are not believed to have been capable of language, but they almost certainly communicated vocally as other primates do, says Quam. Quam thinks this shift in hearing sensitivity would have helped them communicate in open environments, such as African savannahs, where human ancestors are thought to have evolved bipedalism. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Bill McQuay and Christopher Joyce Acoustic biologists who have learned to tune their ears to the sounds of life know there's a lot more to animal communication than just, "Hey, here I am!" or "I need a mate." From insects to elephants to people, we animals all use sound to function and converse in social groups — especially when the environment is dark, or underwater or heavily forested. "We think that we really know what's going on out there," says Dartmouth College biologist Laurel Symes, who studies crickets. But there's a cacophony all around us, she says, that's full of information still to be deciphered. "We're getting this tiny slice of all of the sound in the world." Recently scientists have pushed the field of bioacoustics even further, to record whole environments, not just the animals that live there. Some call this "acoustic ecology" — listening to the rain, streams, wind through the trees. A deciduous forest sounds different from a pine forest, for example, and that soundscape changes seasonally. Neuroscientist Seth Horowitz, author of the book The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind, is especially interested in the ways all these sounds, which are essentially vibrations, have shaped the evolution of the human brain. "Vibration sensitivity is found in even the most primitive life forms," Horowitz says — even bacteria. "It's so critical to your environment, knowing that something else is moving near you, whether it's a predator or it's food. Everywhere you go there is vibration and it tells you something." © 2015 NPR
Christopher Joyce Ornithologist Arthur Allen of the Cornell Lab or Ornithology was a pioneer, hauling balky recording gear into the wilderness in the 1940s, and actually cutting acetate records of bird song on-site. Let's fast forward 45 years, and talk to Ted Parker, who inherited Allen's gift for recording birds and but added a twist. "Up here in the canopy, these are the hardest birds to detect," he told an NPR Radio Expeditions team in 1991 in the Bolivian rain forest. Parker was an ornithologist with Conservation International who spent months at a time in the tropics, lugging around a portable tape recorder. His skill in using his ears to investigate the world was legendary. "My parents bought me records of bird recordings that were made by people at Cornell," Parker tells the NPR team in 1991. "I spent hours moving the needle back and forth, and back and forth, and my mother would say, 'You are going to destroy the record player.' " Some called Parker the Mozart of ornithology. He'd memorized the sounds of more than 4,000 bird species. He used this knowledge and his tape recorder to quickly take an extensive and detailed census of birds in the tropics. "These birds spend all their time in that foliage that's 130 to 140 feet above the ground," Parker explains on the tape. "And if you don't know their voices, there's no way you could come to a place like this and come up with a good list of canopy species." © 2015 NPR
They are rather diminutive to be kings of the jungle, but two species of mirid bug make sounds similar to the roars of big cats. These calls have never before been heard in insects, and we’re not sure why, or how, the insects produce the eerie calls. The roars are too weak to be heard by humans without a bit of help. But Valerio Mazzoni of the Edmund Mach Foundation in Italy and his team made them audible by amplifying them using a device called a laser vibrometer. The device detects the minute vibrations that the bugs produce on the leaves on which they live. “When you listen to these sounds through headphones you’d think you were next to a tiger or lion,” Mazzoni. The team found that when two males were introduced on the same leaf, they seemed to compete in roaring duets. When one insect heard a roar, it always sounded its own, apparently in response. This suggests that, as in big cats, the roars might serve to establish dominance or attract females. Female mirids don’t seem to roar. But unlike the roars of big cats, the sounds produced by bugs are transmitted through the solid material beneath their feet, usually a leaf, rather than by the vibration of air molecules. Thousands of insect species communicate through such vibration, but these roars are unlike any other known insect noise. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Nell Greenfieldboyce Picking a mate can be one of life's most important decisions. But sometimes people make a choice that seems to make no sense at all. And humans aren't the only ones — scientists have now seen apparently irrational romantic decisions in frogs. Little tungara frogs live in Central America, and they're found everywhere from forests to ditches to parking lot puddles. These frogs are only about 2 centimeters long, but they are loud. The males make calls to woo the females. Amanda Lea, a biologist in the laboratory of Mike Ryan at the University of Texas, Austin, says past studies have given scientists a pretty good idea of what the females find appealing. "They tend to like longer calls. They also like lower-frequency calls," says Lea. "Then, the other thing that's a really big one for these gals is the 'call rate.' They love faster call rates. The faster a male can call, the better." But in real life, love is complicated. Female frogs face countless suitors. So Lea and Ryan wondered: Would a female really always pick the male that scored highest on the froggy love-call meter? To find out, they put female frogs in a room with some loudspeakers. From one speaker the scientists played a recording of frog call that had a really fast rate. But other features in this voice were less attractive. Then the researchers played a second, different call for the female frogs. This voice was more attractive, but it was slower. The ladies had to make a choice. "They have two traits to evaluate," Lea explains. "They have the call rate and they have the attractiveness of the call." © 2015 NPR
Christopher Joyce Male treehoppers make their abdomens thrum like tuning forks to transmit very particular vibrating signals that travel down their legs and along leaf stems to other bugs — male and female. Male treehoppers make their abdomens thrum like tuning forks to transmit very particular vibrating signals that travel down their legs and along leaf stems to other bugs — male and female. Courtesy of Robert Oelman Animals, including humans, feel sound as well as hear it, and some of the most meaningful audio communication happens at frequencies that people can't hear. Elephants, for example, use these low-frequency rumbles to, among other things, find family or a mate across long distances. Whales do it, too. But you don't have to weigh a ton to rumble. In fact, you don't have to be bigger than a pea. Consider, for example, the treehopper, a curious little sap-sucking insect that lives on the stems of leaves. Or the tree cricket, which communicates by rubbing together tooth-like structures on its wings, the way you might draw your thumb across the teeth of a comb. University of Missouri biologist Rex Cocroft has spent much of his career listening closely to treehoppers. In 1999, a team from NPR's Radio Expeditions program rendezvoused with Cocroft at a locust tree in a backyard in Virginia. Soft-spoken and bespectacled, he was pressing a phonograph needle up against the stem of a leaf. © 2015 NPR
Dan Charles Ah, sugar — we love the sweetness, but not the calories. For more than a century, food technologists have been on a quest for the perfect, guilt-free substitute. Ah, sugar — we love the sweetness, but not the calories. For more than a century, food technologists have been on a quest for the perfect, guilt-free substitute. Ryan Kellman/NPR There's a new candidate in the century-old quest for perfect, guiltless sweetness. I encountered it at the annual meeting of the Institute of Food Technologists, a combination of Super Bowl, Mecca, and Disneyland for the folks who put the processing in processed food. It was right in the middle of the vast exhibition hall, at the Tate & Lyle booth. This is the company that introduced the British Empire to the sugar cube, back in 1875. A century later, it invented sucralose, aka Splenda. "We have a deep understanding of sweetening," says Michael Harrison, Tate & Lyle's vice president of new product development. This year, his company launched its latest gift to your sweet tooth. It's called allulose. "This is a rare sugar. A sugar that's found in nature," Harrison explains. Chemically speaking, it's almost identical to ordinary sugar. It has the same chemical formula as fructose and glucose, but the atoms of hydrogen and oxygen are arranged slightly differently. © 2015 NPR
A new clinical trial is set to begin in the United Kingdom using the powerful noses of dogs to detect prostate cancer in humans. While research has been done before, these are the first trials approved by Britain's National Health Service. The trials, at the Milton Keynes University Hospital in Buckinghamshire, will use animals from a nonprofit organization called Medical Detection Dogs, co-founded in 2008 by behavioral psychologist Claire Guest. "What we've now discovered is that lots of diseases and conditions — and cancer included — that they actually have different volatile organic compounds, these smelly compounds, that are associated with them," Guest tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "And dogs can smell them." The dogs offer an inexpensive, non-invasive method to accompany the existing blood tests for prostate cancer, which detect prostate-specific antigen, or PSA, Guest says. "It's a low false-negative but a very high false-positive, meaning that three out of four men that have a raised PSA haven't got cancer," she explains. "So the physician has a very difficult decision to make: Which of the four men does he biopsy? What we want to do is provide an additional test — not a test that stands alone but an additional test that runs alongside the current testing, which a physician can use as part of that patient's picture." The samples come to the dogs — the dogs never go to the patient. At the moment, our dogs would be screening about between a .5- to 1-ml drop of urine [or 1/5 to 1/10 teaspoon], so a very small amount. In the early days, of course, we know whether the samples have come from a patient with cancer or if the patient has another disease or condition, or is in fact healthy. © 2015 NPR
Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste)
Link ID: 21302 - Posted: 08.17.2015
Teresa Shipley Feldhausen Move over, umami. Fat is the newest member of the pantheon of basic tastes, joining salty, sweet, sour, bitter and savory, or umami. Researchers at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., conducted taste tests pitting a variety of fats against flavors in the other taste categories, such as monosodium glutamate for umami. The result: People recognize some fats as separate from the other five taste categories, even with plugged noses. The researchers dub this sixth sense oleogustus. For instance, nearly two-thirds of tasters identified one type of fat — linoleic acid, found in vegetable and nut oils — as a distinct flavor. Texture wasn’t a factor; the researchers whipped up tasting samples that gave the same mouthfeel. Pure oleogustus doesn’t invoke notes of olive oil or fresh butter. It’s unpleasant, the researchers report online July 3 in Chemical Senses. Mix oleogustus with some of the other five flavors, however, and you could end up with doughnuts or potato chips. Citations C.A. Running, B.A. Craig and R.D. Mattes. Oleogustus: The unique taste of fat. Chemical Senses. Published online July 3, 2015. doi: 10.1093/chemse/bjv036. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2015.
Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste)
Link ID: 21252 - Posted: 08.02.2015
By Gary Stix A decline in hearing acuity is not only an occurrence that happens in the aged. An article in the August Scientific American by M. Charles Liberman, a professor of otology and laryngology at Harvard Medical School and director of the Eaton-Peabody Laboratories at Massachusetts Eye and Ear, focuses on relatively recent discoveries that show the din of a concert or high-decibel machine noise is enough to cause some level of hearing damage. After reading the article check out this video by medical illustrator Brandon Pletsch and its narrated animation explaining how the sensory system that detects sound functions. © 2015 Scientific American
Link ID: 21250 - Posted: 08.02.2015
By David Noonan Leaping through the air with ease and spinning in place like tops, ballet dancers are visions of the human body in action at its most spectacular and controlled. Their brains, too, appear to be special, able to evade the dizziness that normally would result from rapid pirouettes. When compared with ordinary people's brains, researchers found in a study published early this year, parts of dancers' brains involved in the perception of spinning seem less sensitive, which may help them resist vertigo. For millions of other people, it is their whole world, not themselves, that suddenly starts to whirl. Even the simplest task, like walking across the room, may become impossible when vertigo strikes, and the condition can last for months or years. Thirty-five percent of adults older than 39 in the U.S.—69 million people—experience vertigo at one time or another, often because of damage to parts of the inner ear that sense the body's position or to the nerve that transmits that information to the brain. Whereas drugs and physical therapy can help many, tens of thousands of people do not benefit from existing treatments. “Our patients with severe loss of balance have been told over and over again that there's nothing we can do for you,” says Charles Della Santina, an otolaryngologist who studies inner ear disorders and directs the Johns Hopkins Vestibular NeuroEngineering Laboratory. Steve Bach's nightmare started in November 2013. The construction manager was at home in Parsippany, N.J. “All of a sudden the room was whipping around like a 78 record,” says Bach, now age 57. He was curled up on the living room floor in a fetal position when his daughter found him and called 911. He spent the next five days in the hospital. © 2015 Scientific American
Keyword: Movement Disorders
Link ID: 21248 - Posted: 08.01.2015
Michael Sullivan It's 5:45 in the morning, and in a training field outside Siem Reap, home of Angkor Wat, Cambodia's demining rats are already hard at work. Their noses are close to the wet grass, darting from side to side, as they try to detect explosives buried just beneath the ground. Each rat is responsible for clearing a 200-square-meter (239-square-yard) patch of land. Their Cambodian supervisor, Hulsok Heng, says they're good at it. "They are very good," he says. "You see this 200 square meters? They clear in only 30 minutes or 35 minutes. If you compare that to a deminer, maybe two days or three days. The deminer will pick up all the fragmentation, the metal in the ground, but the rat picks up only the smell of TNT. Not fragmentation or metal or a nail or a piece of crap in the ground." That's right: Someone using a metal-detecting machine will take a lot longer to detect a land mine than a rat using its nose. There's plenty of work for the rats here in Cambodia. The government estimates there are 4 million to 6 million land mines or other pieces of unexploded ordnance — including bombs, shells and grenades — littering the countryside, remnants of decades of conflict. Neighboring Vietnam and Laos also have unexploded ordnance left over from the Vietnam War. Dozens of people are killed or maimed in the region every year — and there's a financial toll as well, since the presence of these potentially deadly devices decreases the amount of land available to farmers. © 2015 NPR