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Douglas Heaven Human faces pop up on a screen, hundreds of them, one after another. Some have their eyes stretched wide, others show lips clenched. Some have eyes squeezed shut, cheeks lifted and mouths agape. For each one, you must answer this simple question: is this the face of someone having an orgasm or experiencing sudden pain? Psychologist Rachael Jack and her colleagues recruited 80 people to take this test as part of a study1 in 2018. The team, at the University of Glasgow, UK, enlisted participants from Western and East Asian cultures to explore a long-standing and highly charged question: do facial expressions reliably communicate emotions? Researchers have been asking people what emotions they perceive in faces for decades. They have questioned adults and children in different countries and Indigenous populations in remote parts of the world. Influential observations in the 1960s and 1970s by US psychologist Paul Ekman suggested that, around the world, humans could reliably infer emotional states from expressions on faces — implying that emotional expressions are universal2,3. These ideas stood largely unchallenged for a generation. But a new cohort of psychologists and cognitive scientists has been revisiting those data and questioning the conclusions. Many researchers now think that the picture is a lot more complicated, and that facial expressions vary widely between contexts and cultures. Jack’s study, for instance, found that although Westerners and East Asians had similar concepts of how faces display pain, they had different ideas about expressions of pleasure. © 2020 Springer Nature Limited

Keyword: Emotions
Link ID: 27079 - Posted: 02.27.2020

Ian Sample Science editor It’s the sort a sneaky trick only a gull would learn: by watching how people handle their food, the birds can work out when there are snacks to be had. Researchers found that herring gulls were more likely to peck at items left on the ground if humans had pretended to eat them first. The study suggests that gulls take cues from human behaviour to help them home in on tasty scraps in the rubbish people leave behind. “People don’t tend to think of wild animals as using cues from humans like this,” said Madeleine Goumas, a researcher at the University of Exeter. “It’s the kind of behaviour that’s more often associated with domesticated animals or those kept in captivity.” Goumas, who has become one of the more prominent gull researchers in Britain, reported last year that maintaining eye contact can deter seagulls from snatching food. In tests with bags of chips in seaside towns, she found that staring the birds out put them off their daring raids. To follow up that work, Goumas wanted to see whether gulls pick up on subtle human cues to help them find their next meal. And so she set off to the Cornish towns of Falmouth, St Ives, Newquay and Penzance, and Plymouth in Devon, armed with shop-bought flapjacks in shiny blue wrappers, a supply of blue sponges, and a pair of dark glasses. For the first experiment, Goumas donned the sunglasses and walked towards her chosen bird, carrying a bucket with a flapjack in each hand. When she was about eight metres from the gull, she sat down, flipped the buckets over so they concealed the snacks, and pushed them out to her sides. She then lifted off the buckets, picked up one of the flapjacks, stood up and pretended to eat it. After 20 seconds, she put the flapjack back and retreated a safe distance. © 2020 Guardian News & Media Limited

Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 27078 - Posted: 02.27.2020

By Gretchen Reynolds Taking up exercise could alter our feelings about food in surprising and beneficial ways, according to a compelling new study of exercise and eating. The study finds that novice exercisers start to experience less desire for fattening foods, a change that could have long-term implications for weight control. The study also shows, though, that different people respond quite differently to the same exercise routine and the same foods, underscoring the complexities of the relationship between exercise, eating and fat loss. I frequently write about exercise and weight, in part because weight control is a pressing motivation for so many of us to work out, myself included. But the effects of physical activity on waistlines are not straightforward and coherent. They are, in fact, distressingly messy. Both personal experience and extensive scientific studies tell us that a few people will lose considerable body fat when they start exercising; others will gain; and most will drop a few pounds, though much less than would be expected given how many calories they are burning during their workouts. At the same time, physical activity seems to be essential for minimizing weight gain as we age and maintaining weight loss if we do manage to shed pounds. Precisely how exercise influences weight in this topsy-turvy fashion is uncertain. On the one hand, most types of exercise increase appetite in most people, studies show, tempting us to replace calories, blunting any potential fat loss and even initiating weight creep. But other evidence suggests that physical fitness may affect people’s everyday responses to food, which could play a role in weight maintenance. In some past studies, active people of normal weight displayed less interest in high-fat, calorie-dense foods than inactive people who were obese. © 2020 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Obesity
Link ID: 27077 - Posted: 02.27.2020

By Joshua Sokol As an astronomer at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium, Lucianne Walkowicz usually has to stretch to connect the peculiarities of space physics with things that people experience on Earth. Then came the email about whales. Sönke Johnsen, a biologist at Duke University, told Dr. Walkowicz that his team had stumbled upon a bizarre correlation: When the surface of the sun was pocked with dark sunspots, an indicator of solar storms, gray whales and other cetacean species seemed more likely to strand themselves on beaches. The team just needed an astronomer’s help wrangling the data. “This was like a dream request,” Dr. Walkowicz said. “And I finally got to do something in marine biology, even though I didn’t study it.” With that assistance, there is some evidence of this peculiar correlation, the researchers said in a paper published Monday in Current Biology. “The study convinced me there is a relationship between solar activity and whale strandings,” said Kenneth Lohmann, a biologist at the University of North Carolina who did not participate in the research. This coincidence across 93 million miles of space is more plausible than it might seem. Sunspots are a harbinger of heightened solar weather, marking times when the tangled plasma of the sun’s atmosphere coughs out more photons and charged particles than usual. These disturbances sail outward and smash into our planet’s magnetic field, creating colorful light shows like the aurora borealis and sometimes disrupting communications. Biologists have already demonstrated that many animals can navigate by somehow sensing Earth’s magnetic field lines. Gray whales, which migrate over 10,000 miles a year through a featureless expanse of blue, might be relying on a similar hidden sense. But unlike a migrating bird, a whale is not easily placed in a magnetized box for controlled experiments. Instead, Jesse Granger, a Duke graduate student, looked at whale strandings, which previous studies had suggested seemed to track with sunspot activity. She narrowed a list of gray whale strandings kept by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to highlight the percentage of whales that were stranded alive, as well as whales that were released back to sea and seemed to recover. In theory, those cases were examples of healthy whales that had merely taken a wrong turn. © 2020 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Animal Migration
Link ID: 27076 - Posted: 02.27.2020

Ashley Yeager Genes that code for the structure and function of brain regions essential for learning, memory, and decision-making are beginning to be revealed, according to a report published last October in Nature Genetics. Analyzing MRI scans and blood samples from more than 38,000 individuals, as well as gene expression, methylation, and neuropathology of hundreds of postmortem brains, an international team of researchers identified 199 genes that affect the development of the brain, the connections and communication among nerve cells, and susceptibility to neurological disorders. New tools for studying neural tissue, such as RNA sequencing, have spurred a “very strong revival in studying human postmortem brains,” says Sabina Berretta, director of the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center at McLean Hospital in Boston. The Nature Genetics study and others like it have the potential to answer many questions about how the healthy brain functions, but they highlight one of the major challenges neuroscientists face right now—limited access to donated brain tissue, specifically from individuals unaffected by neurological disorders. While the Nature Genetics study included massive amounts of data from scans and blood, the researchers had gene expression data from only 508 postmortem brains. “We are really fortunate to get donations from people with a very large variety of dementias and other neurological disorders, such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease,” Berretta says. “But we get very few donations from people that suffer from psychiatric disorders, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, and anxiety, and [even fewer from] unaffected donors.” As a result, brain banks are reaching out to religious groups and also scientific communities not tied to any particular neurological condition to increase donations of healthy brains. © 1986–2020 The Scientist.

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 27075 - Posted: 02.27.2020

By Jillian Kramer Scientists often test auditory processing in artificial, silent settings, but real life usually comes with a background of sounds like clacking keyboards, chattering voices and car horns. Recently researchers set out to study such processing in the presence of ambient sound—specifically the even, staticlike hiss of white noise. Their result is counterintuitive, says Tania Rinaldi Barkat, a neuroscientist at the University of Basel: instead of impairing hearing, a background of white noise made it easier for mice to differentiate between similar tones. Barkat is senior author of the new study, published last November in Cell Reports. It is easy to distinguish notes on opposite ends of a piano keyboard. But play two side by side, and even the sharpest ears might have trouble telling them apart. This is because of how the auditory pathway processes the simplest sounds, called pure frequency tones: neurons close together respond to similar tones, but each neuron responds better to one particular frequency. The degree to which a neuron responds to a certain frequency is called its tuning curve. The researchers found that playing white noise narrowed neurons’ frequency tuning curves in mouse brains. “In a simplified way, white noise background—played continuously and at a certain sound level—decreases the response of neurons to a tone played on top of that white noise,” Barkat says. And by reducing the number of neurons responding to the same frequency at the same time, the brain can better distinguish between similar sounds. © 2020 Scientific American,

Keyword: Hearing
Link ID: 27074 - Posted: 02.26.2020

Eric Westervelt It's recreation time at a Los Angeles County jail known as the Twin Towers. Nearly a dozen disheveled young men stand docilely as they munch on sandwiches out of brown paper bags. They're half-naked except for sleeveless, thick, blanket-like restraints wrapped around them like medieval garments. All are chained and handcuffed to shiny metal tables bolted to the floor. "It's lunchtime and they're actually [in] programming right now," says a veteran guard, LA County Sheriff's Deputy Myron Trimble. Programming, in theory, means a treatment regimen. But it's difficult to determine what treatment they're actually receiving. A whiteboard nearby tracks how many days since guards on this floor had to forcibly restrain anyone: 54. These inmates haven't been violent, he says. So why are all of the men shackled to tables for recreation? "Just to make sure that they're not walking around," Trimble says. "If they don't take their medications, they could be deemed unpredictable." No one is under the illusion that shackles are helping mentally ill inmates get well. "I think everyone can agree that it's rather inhumane to have the inmate handcuffed while out," says LA Sheriff's Capt. Tania Plunkett, with the Twin Towers' Access to Care Bureau. "However, because of spacing and the lack of programming, we're not able to really focus on getting the inmate better to eventually lead to having them in a program without being handcuffed." New inmates with a mental illness arrive daily in the LA County jail system. It now holds more than 5,000 inmates with a mental illness who've had run-ins with the law. Some 3,000 are held in the jail's Twin Towers. © 2020 npr

Keyword: Schizophrenia
Link ID: 27073 - Posted: 02.26.2020

David Nutt I was a scientific adviser to the UK government from 2000 to 2009. During this time, it became clear to me that drugs policy was being formed, not based on evidence, but on the political expediency of winning votes and pandering to the hysteria whipped up by a media more concerned with increased sales than decreased drug harms. When I was sacked, I wrote Drugs Without the Hot Air and used the proceeds to set up a charity, DrugScience.org.uk, dedicated to researching the truth about drugs. The book is set for its upcoming US release in a revised and updated second edition.The first research funded by DrugScience, published in The Lancet in 2010, quantified the overall harm of 20 drugs in the UK. The scores, which were derived from a powerful new technique called multi-criteria decision analysis, tabulated both the harms done to the users of these drugs and harms done to others. Alcohol topped this list with a score of 72, heroin scored 55, tobacco 26, cannabis in eighth place with 20, and LSD had a score of 7. Another European study in 2013 and Australian research published in 2019 showed strikingly similar patterns. There is evidence in the scientific literature that psychedelics could be helpful in treating depression, alcoholism, and cluster headaches. Similarly, researchers have shown MDMA (ecstasy) to be useful in the treatment of PTSD and alcoholism. Ketamine, a version of which was just FDA approved, is another illegal recreational drug that has shown great promise in treating depression. Is it not utterly inhumane that legal restrictions drive sufferers to be criminals to get the treatment they need? © 1986–2020 The Scientist.

Keyword: Drug Abuse
Link ID: 27072 - Posted: 02.26.2020

By Benedict Carey For years, Claire Bien, a research associate at Yale, strained to manage the gossipy, mocking voices in her head and the ominous sense that other people were plotting against her. Told she had a psychotic disorder, she learned over time to manage her voices and fears with a lot of psychotherapy and, periodically, medication. But sometime in late 1990, she tried something entirely different: She began generating her own voices, internal allies, to counter her internal abusers. “I truly felt I was channeling my father, my ancestors, a wise psychiatrist, giving me advice,” said Ms. Bien, who has written a book about her experience, “Hearing Voices, Living Fully.” She added: “Recovery for me means knowing that my mind is my own, and even when it doesn’t feel that way, I know it’s only temporary. Knowing that allows me to hold a job — a good job — and be productive, respected and even admired by the people with whom I work.” Mental-health researchers have numerous scales to track symptom relief, like the easing of depression during talk therapy, for instance, or the blunting of psychotic delusions on medication. But the field has a much harder time predicting, or even describing, what comes next. How do peoples’ lives change once they have learned to address their symptoms? Mental disorders are often recurrent, and treatment only partially effective. What does real recovery — if that’s the right word — actually look like, and how can it be assessed? This is what people in the thick of mental distress desperately want to know, and a pair of articles in a recent issue of the journal Psychiatric Services shows why good answers are so hard to come by. In one, the first study of its kind, Dutch researchers tested a standard life-quality measure, the Recovery Assessment Scale, that is typically used to rate an individual’s confidence, hope, sense of purpose, willingness to ask for help, and other features of a full, stable life. © 2020 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Schizophrenia; Depression
Link ID: 27071 - Posted: 02.25.2020

Jordana Cepelewicz Decisions, decisions. All of us are constantly faced with conscious and unconscious choices. Not just about what to wear, what to eat or how to spend a weekend, but about which hand to use when picking up a pencil, or whether to shift our weight in a chair. To make even trivial decisions, our brains sift through a pile of “what ifs” and weigh the hypotheticals. Even for choices that seem automatic — jumping out of the way of a speeding car, for instance — the brain can very quickly extrapolate from past experiences to make predictions and guide behavior. In a paper published last month in Cell, a team of researchers in California peered into the brains of rats on the cusp of making a decision and watched their neurons rapidly play out the competing choices available to them. The mechanism they described might underlie not just decision-making, but also animals’ ability to envision more abstract possibilities — something akin to imagination. The group, led by the neuroscientist Loren Frank of the University of California, San Francisco, investigated the activity of cells in the hippocampus, the seahorse-shaped brain region known to play crucial roles both in navigation and in the storage and retrieval of memories. They gave extra attention to neurons called place cells, nicknamed “the brain’s GPS” because they mentally map an animal’s location as it moves through space. Place cells have been shown to fire very rapidly in particular sequences as an animal moves through its environment. The activity corresponds to a sweep in position from just behind the animal to just ahead of it. (Studies have demonstrated that these forward sweeps also contain information about the locations of goals or rewards.) These patterns of neural activity, called theta cycles, repeat roughly eight times per second in rats and represent a constantly updated virtual trajectory for the animals. All Rights Reserved © 2020

Keyword: Attention; Learning & Memory
Link ID: 27070 - Posted: 02.25.2020

By Sarah Witman Nicole Dodds first noticed her son, Rowan, was having trouble using the right side of his body when he was about 6 months old. Babies typically use both hands to pick up toys and lift their chest off the floor at that age, but Rowan was mostly using his left arm and hand, keeping his right hand balled in a fist. That started a string of doctor visits. Around Rowan’s first birthday, doctors did an MRI and diagnosed his one-sided weakness as hemiplegia, probably caused by a stroke he sustained in utero. This surprised Dodds, since as far as she knew she’d had a totally normal pregnancy and birth Perinatal stroke — when an infant loses blood supply to the brain in late pregnancy, during birth or in the first month of life — is one of the most common causes of hemiplegia in infants, affecting anywhere from 1 in 2,500 to 1 in 4,000 live births in the United States every year. Like adult stroke, perinatal stroke is usually caused by a blood clot that jams brain arteries, or else by bleeding in or around the infant’s brain. Babies with heart disease, clotting disorders such as hemophilia, and bacterial infection among other factors have a higher risk of perinatal stroke, but the exact cause is often unknown. As in the case with Rowan, there are often no outward signs for up to a year that something is amiss, resulting in delayed or inconclusive diagnosis. It’s nearly impossible to detect a stroke in utero, or even in the first few weeks after birth, since the symptoms can seem within the norm for infants: favoring one side, extreme sleepiness, mild seizures that seem like shivering or sudden stiffening. More obvious behaviors such as trouble walking and talking don’t usually become apparent until the child turns 2, and are associated with other childhood problems.

Keyword: Stroke; Development of the Brain
Link ID: 27069 - Posted: 02.25.2020

By Abby Sher The rules were simple. Whenever Madonna sang, we strutted our stuff up and down the matted blue carpet. If the music stopped, we struck a pose in front of the full-length mirror. “Your face is crooked!” my friend Diana shrieked. “Your legs are 10 feet long!” I yelled back. It wasn’t an insult; it was true. The mirror in my bedroom was old and warped, like in a fun house. We spent hours in front of it, jutting out our hips and crossing our eyes; laughing at how ugly we looked. How round and pointy, long and short we could be, all at the same time. I don’t know exactly when it became painful for me to look at my reflection. Maybe when I was told to cover the mirrors in our house for my father’s funeral (a Jewish tradition). I was 11 at the time and couldn’t understand how these pale lips and string bean legs of mine were here, while my dad was forever gone. So I kept staring at my body in that glass, feeling a new kind of grief and confusion rip through me. A few weeks later, I started junior high, where looks were everything. I used a mirror so I could run turquoise eyeliner across my lids or zero in on a blooming pimple. But I got more and more frustrated by what I saw. My splotchy skin and bushy eyebrows felt untamable; my arms too long. By high school, I grew out my frizzy bangs to hide my face and wore baggy overalls with a tiny cowbell around my neck, as if I were lost in the fields and needed to find my way home. It wasn’t until after college that I dove headlong into an eating disorder. There was no definitive moment where I said, I’m going to try starving myself today. Instead it was a gradual whittling away at my body. I became obsessed with shrinking myself down to a size 0; spending hours at the gym until I was dizzy and frantic, fueling myself on coffee and sugarless gum. © 2020 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Anorexia & Bulimia; Attention
Link ID: 27068 - Posted: 02.25.2020

By Susanne Antonetta Last September, I believed my brain was on fire. Not in some metaphorical way. It was, as far as I was concerned, on fire. I am bipolar and I was hallucinating. My hallucinations can be sensory, like the brain burn, but many are auditory — I know hallucinations are coming when I hear birds speak. I can tell you what the birds say, but what matters is how intensely personal it is, being shouted at by a fierce small crowd: persist persist persist from one, six degrees yes yes yes from another. I couldn’t sleep in all the chatter. Then I heard whispering everywhere, semi trucks coming to a halt right under my bedroom window. A small part of me sensed all this was not really happening, but most of me thought it was. There’s another hallucinatory change that’s harder to describe, one that comes every time, mild episode or intense. The world feels malleable, like felt, or soft paper. Walls rock and steady themselves. What’s around me becomes alive, air itself humming and moving. As with the birds, these changes feel intensely personal — everything around me shifts as I watch. During the six months leading up to this brain-fire time, I’d been having milder hallucinations, on and off. I took a medication that controlled my psychotic symptoms until my cholesterol skyrocketed and kept going up. The drugs used to treat people like me — atypical antipsychotics like Zyprexa and the one I take, Seroquel — have metabolic side effects. These include soaring cholesterol and triglycerides, as well as diabetes. There may be no way out of these side effects except dropping the medication, going, as I did, from one that works to one that doesn’t. Doctors, and the occasional friend, kept telling me something meant to be cheering: “This is just a disease, the same as a broken bone or a bout of pneumonia.” As though my antipsychotic could just as easily be penicillin. I’ve heard this statement in one form or another for several decades, since my diagnosis at age 29. I don’t accept this mechanistic view of the brain, which suggests that if you pump in drugs (at levels often determined by drug company-funded research), the cogs will start working smoothly again. This model dismisses patients’ individual experience of medications, which vary wildly. © 2020 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Schizophrenia
Link ID: 27067 - Posted: 02.24.2020

Dominique Sisley Nothing is quite as shattering as a broken heart. A bad breakup has been known to trigger a range of psychological and physical symptoms, from nausea and insomnia to clinical depression. In more extreme scenarios, broken heart syndrome – when a person’s heart stops pumping blood properly after an emotional shock – can lead to death. Fortunately, recent breakthroughs suggest we may soon be able to beat it. In March, a Spanish study found propofol, a sedative used for anaesthesia, may also be able to mute the painful memories that come with heartbreak. Participants were injected with the drug immediately after recalling a distressing story and, when asked to recount it again 24 hours later, they found the memory to be less vivid. Advertisement The principal goal of the research was to relieve the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but it seems there may be scope for the drug to be used to suppress other upsetting memories. An unexpected loss such as heartbreak can also be traumatic, and some people report similar symptoms. Dr Bryan Strange, who led the study, says: “Combining anaesthesia with evoking an emotionally charged memory impairs its subsequent recall. We will need to derive a set of criteria that identify people for whom it works well, and where the benefit justifies the risk of anaesthesia. There may well be those for whom heartbreak is so distressing that the criteria is fulfilled.” In the past year, a wave of apps such as Mend, Rx Breakup and Break-Up Boss have been released, promising guidance, advice and distracting activities to help soothe the pain of heartbreak. It is a lofty promise, but one that appears to be rooted in logic: a study in 2017 found similar brain-training style exercises could help curb embarrassing or impulsive post-breakup behaviour and strengthen self-control. © 2020 Guardian News & Media Limited

Keyword: Depression; Sexual Behavior
Link ID: 27066 - Posted: 02.24.2020

By Aimee Cunningham The stories that Judith Feinberg hears from people with substance use disorder are riddled with loss: of jobs, opportunity, security, dignity. “People really are struggling to see that they have a viable future,” Feinberg says. “Then you take a drug … and you don’t care until you need the drug again.” For years, that drug was very likely an opioid. But Feinberg, a physician at West Virginia University School of Medicine in Morgantown who studies infectious diseases and injection drug use, recently has seen shifts in the addictive substances used. And it’s occurring not just in West Virginia — which has the highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the nation, at 51.5 deaths per 100,000 people — but across the country, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported January 30. Fueled by a plentiful supply, people have increasingly been turning to such stimulants as cocaine and methamphetamine — so much so that the rates of overdose deaths for those drugs each surpassed that of prescription opioids in 2018. There’s a small bit of hope: After two decades of rising numbers, around 3,000 fewer people overall died of a drug overdose in 2018 than in 2017. But with 67,367 deaths, 2018 ranks as the second-worst year for drug overdoses in U.S. history. It’s too soon to say whether the nudge downward is a blip or the start of a meaningful drop. In part, that may depend upon whether the rise in stimulant use over much of the last decade continues. In 2018, the rate of overdose deaths involving cocaine was 4.5 per 100,000, more than triple what it was in 2012; for methamphetamine and similar drugs, the rate jumped from 0.8 to 3.9 per 100,000 during that period. Each now surpasses the death rate from prescription opioids, and cocaine’s rate is just shy of heroin’s. © Society for Science & the Public 2000–2020

Keyword: Drug Abuse
Link ID: 27065 - Posted: 02.24.2020

By Jane Wakefield Technology reporter An ambitious project to develop a wearable device to detect early signs of Alzheimer's disease has been launched. The Early Detection of Neurodegenerative diseases (Edon) is being spearheaded by charity Alzheimer's Research UK. It will initially analyse data from continuing studies into the disease, using artificial intelligence. And this data will be used to design a prototype device within three years. Wearables collect a variety of data including gait, heart rate and sleep patterns and the hope is by analysing this data, researchers can begin to map signs of the disease years before symptoms develop. The global initiative has already won funding from tech founder turned philanthropist Bill Gates. But it also forms part of the UK government's wider ambition to use artificial intelligence and data to help better understand and prevent chronic diseases. Initially, EDoN will work with the UK's national institute for data science and artificial intelligence, The Alan Turing Institute, to trawl through data from continuing studies into Alzheimer's disease. Prof Chris Holmes, health programme director at the institute, said: "Artificial intelligence has the potential to transform the learning opportunities from large-scale data studies such as Edon by integrating information from multiple sources. "We will use AI to deliver new insights into the early signals of disease by combining digital data measurements with traditional sources such as brain imaging and memory tests." There are currently 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK, according to Alzheimer's Research UK. © 2020 BBC.

Keyword: Alzheimers
Link ID: 27064 - Posted: 02.24.2020

By James Gorman There’s something about a really smart dog that makes it seem as if there might be hope for the world. China is in the midst of a frightening disease outbreak and nobody knows how far it will spread. The warming of the planet shows no signs of stopping; it reached a record 70 degrees in Antarctica last week. Not to mention international tensions and domestic politics. But there’s a dog in Norway that knows not only the names of her toys, but also the names of different categories of toys, and she learned all this just by hanging out with her owners and playing her favorite game. So who knows what other good things could be possible? Right? This dog’s name is Whisky. She is a Border collie that lives with her owners and almost 100 toys, so it seems like things are going pretty well for her. Even though I don’t have that many toys myself, I’m happy for her. You can’t be jealous of a dog. Or at least you shouldn’t be. Whisky’s toys have names. Most are dog-appropriate like “the colorful rope” or “the small Frisbee.” However, her owner, Helge O. Svela said on Thursday that since the research was done, her toys have grown in number from 59 to 91, and he has had to give some toys “people” names, like Daisy or Wenger. “That’s for the plushy toys that resemble animals like ducks or elephants (because the names Duck and Elephant were already taken),” he said. During the research, Whisky proved in tests that she knew the names for at least 54 of her 59 toys. That’s not just the claim of a proud owner, and Mr. Svela is quite proud of Whisky, but the finding of Claudia Fugazza, an animal behavior researcher from Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, who tested her. That alone makes Whisky part of a very select group, although not a champion. You may recall Chaser, another Border collie that knew the names of more than 1,000 objects and also knew words for categories of objects. And there are a few other dogs with shockingly large vocabularies, Dr. Fugazza said, including mixed breeds, and a Yorkie. These canine verbal prodigies are, however, few and far between. “It is really, really unusual, and it is really difficult to teach object names to dogs,” Dr. Fugazza said. © 2020 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Language; Learning & Memory
Link ID: 27063 - Posted: 02.21.2020

By Sara Reardon To many people’s eyes, artist Mark Rothko’s enormous paintings are little more than swaths of color. Yet a Rothko can fetch nearly $100 million. Meanwhile, Pablo Picasso’s warped faces fascinate some viewers and terrify others. Why do our perceptions of beauty differ so widely? The answer may lie in our brain networks. Researchers have now developed an algorithm that can predict art preferences by analyzing how a person’s brain breaks down visual information and decides whether a painting is “good.” The findings show for the first time how intrinsic features of a painting combine with human judgment to give art value in our minds. Most people—including researchers—consider art preferences to be all over the map, says Anjan Chatterjee, a neurologist and cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania who was not involved in the study. Many preferences are rooted in biology–sugary foods, for instance, help us survive. And people tend to share similar standards of beauty when it comes to human faces and landscapes. But when it comes to art, “There are relatively arbitrary things we seem to care about and value,” Chatterjee says. To figure out how the brain forms value judgments about art, computational neuroscientist Kiyohito Iigaya and his colleagues at the California Institute of Technology first asked more than 1300 volunteers on the crowdsourcing website Amazon Mechanical Turk to rate a selection of 825 paintings from four Western genres including impressionism, cubism, abstract art, and color field painting. Volunteers were all over the age of 18, but researchers didn’t specify their familiarity with art or their ethnic or national origin. © 2020 American Association for the Advancement of Science

Keyword: Vision; Attention
Link ID: 27062 - Posted: 02.21.2020

By Viviane Callier In 1688 Irish philosopher William Molyneux wrote to his colleague John Locke with a puzzle that continues to draw the interest of philosophers and scientists to this day. The idea was simple: Would a person born blind, who has learned to distinguish objects by touch, be able to recognize them purely by sight if he or she regained the ability to see? The question, known as Molyneux’s problem, probes whether the human mind has a built-in concept of shapes that is so innate that such a blind person could immediately recognize an object with restored vision. The alternative is that the concepts of shapes are not innate but have to be learned by exploring an object through sight, touch and other senses, a process that could take a long time when starting from scratch. An attempt was made to resolve this puzzle a few years ago by testing Molyneux's problem in children who were congenitally blind but then regained their sight, thanks to cataract surgery. Although the children were not immediately able to recognize objects, they quickly learned to do so. The results were equivocal. Some learning was needed to identify an object, but it appeared that the study participants were not starting completely from scratch. Lars Chittka of Queen Mary University of London and his colleagues have taken another stab at finding an answer, this time using another species. To test whether bumblebees can form an internal representation of objects, Chittka and his team first trained the insects to discriminate spheres and cubes using a sugar reward. The bees were trained in the light, where they could see but not touch the objects that were isolated inside a closed petri dish. Then they were tested in the dark, where they could touch but not see the spheres or cubes. The researchers found that the invertebrates spent more time in contact with the shape they had been trained to associate with the sugar reward, even though they had to rely on touch rather than sight to discriminate the objects. © 2020 Scientific American

Keyword: Development of the Brain; Vision
Link ID: 27061 - Posted: 02.21.2020

By Richard Klasco, M.D. A. The theory of the “sugar high” has been debunked, yet the myth persists. The notion that sugar might make children behave badly first appeared in the medical literature in 1922. But the idea did not capture the public’s imagination until Dr. Ben Feingold’s best-selling book, “Why Your Child Is Hyperactive,” was published in 1975. In his book, Dr. Feingold describes the case of a boy who might well be “patient zero” for the putative connection between sugar and hyperactivity: [The mother’s] fair-haired, wiry son loved soft drinks, candy and cake — not exactly abnormal for any healthy child. He also seemed to go completely wild after birthday parties and during family gatherings around holidays. In the mid-’70s, stimulant drugs such as Ritalin and amphetamine were becoming popular for the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. For parents who were concerned about drug side effects, the possibility of controlling hyperactivity by eliminating sugar proved to be an enticing, almost irresistible, prospect. Some studies supported the theory. They suggested that high sugar diets caused spikes in insulin secretion, which triggered adrenaline production and hyperactivity. But the data were weak and were soon questioned by other scientists. An extraordinarily rigorous study settled the question in 1994. Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, a group of scientists tested normal preschoolers and children whose parents described them as being sensitive to sugar. Neither the parents, the children nor the research staff knew which of the children were getting sugary foods and which were getting a diet sweetened with aspartame and other artificial sweeteners. Urine was tested to verify compliance with the diets. Nine different measures of cognitive and behavioral performance were assessed, with measurements taken at five-second intervals. © 2020 The New York Times Company

Keyword: ADHD; Obesity
Link ID: 27060 - Posted: 02.21.2020