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By Ryan Dalton You might be forgiven for having never heard of the NotPetya cyberattack. It didn’t clear out your bank account, or share your social media passwords, or influence an election. But it was one of the most costly and damaging cyberattacks in history, for what it did target: shipping through ports. By the time the engineers at Maersk realized that their computers were infected with a virus, it was too late: worldwide shipping would grind to a halt for days. Imagine a similar situation, in which the target was another port: the synapse, the specialized port of communication between neurons. Much of our ability to learn and remember comes down to the behavior of synapses. What would happen then, if one neuron infected another with malware? Ports and synapses both run on rules, meant to ensure that their cargo can be exchanged not only quickly and reliably, but also adaptably, so that they can quickly adjust to current conditions and demands. This ‘synaptic plasticity’, is fundamental to the ability of animals to learn, and without it we would no more be able to tie our shoes than to remember our own names. Just as shipping rules are determined by treaties and laws, the rules of synaptic plasticity are written into a multitude of genes in our DNA. For example, one gene might be involved in turning up the volume on one side of the synapse, while another gene might ask the other side of the synapse to turn up the gain. Studying the function of these genes has been one of the core approaches to understanding what it is, at the microscopic level, to learn and to remember. © 2018 Scientific American

Keyword: Learning & Memory; Intelligence
Link ID: 25782 - Posted: 12.12.2018

Diana Kwon The effects of antidepressant exposure during early development can pass down through three generations of offspring—at least in zebrafish. A new study, published today (December 10) in PNAS, reveals that fluoxetine, a commonly used antidepressant that goes by the brand name Prozac, can alter hormone levels and blunt stress responses in an exposed embryo and its descendants. “The paper is very intriguing,” says Tim Oberlander, a developmental pediatrician at the British Columbia Children’s Hospital who was not involved in this work. The question of whether these medications have a transgenerational effect is “a really important one that requires further study in other animal models, and ultimately, when we have the data, we need to figure out whether it’s also true in humans.” Fluoxetine is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), a class of drugs widely used to treat depression as well as other conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety disorders. Recent data from the US National Health and Nutrition Survey show increasing antidepressant use, from approximately 7.7 percent of the population in 1999–2002 to 12.7 percent from 2011–2014. SSRIs are often prescribed as the first-line treatment for pregnant women with depression, and prior studies in humans suggest infants exposed to SSRIs while in the womb may experience developmental disturbances such as delayed motor development and increased levels of anxiety later in childhood. Oberlander, whose research is focused on the influence of prenatal exposure to these medications, notes that it has been unclear whether those correlations represent a direct result of the drugs or if other factors, such as a genetic propensity for those outcomes or growing up with a parent with a mood disorder, may also play a part. © 1986 - 2018 The Scientist

Keyword: Epigenetics; Depression
Link ID: 25781 - Posted: 12.12.2018

In his enthralling 2009 collection of parables, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, the neuroscientist David Eagleman describes a world in which a person only truly dies when they are forgotten. After their bodies have crumbled and they leave Earth, all deceased must wait in a lobby and are allowed to pass on only after someone says their name for the last time. “The whole place looks like an infinite airport waiting area,” Eagleman writes. “But the company is terrific.” Most people leave just as their loved ones arrive — for it was only the loved ones who were still remembering. But the truly famous have to hang around for centuries; some, keen to be off, are with an “aching heart waiting for statues to fall”. Eagleman’s tale is an interpretation of what psychologists and social scientists call collective memory. Continued and shared attention to people and events is important because it can help to shape identity — how individuals see themselves as part of a group — and because the choice of what to commemorate, and so remember, influences the structures and priorities of society. This week in Nature Human Behaviour, researchers report a surprising discovery about collective memory: the pattern of its decay follows a mathematical law (C. Candia et al. Nature Hum. Behav. http://doi.org/cxq2; 2018). The attention we pay to academic papers, films, pop songs and tennis players decays in two distinct stages. In theory, the findings could help those who compete for society’s continued attention — from politicians and companies to environmental campaigners — to find ways to stay in the public eye, or at least in the public’s head. © 2018 Springer Nature Publishing AG

Keyword: Learning & Memory
Link ID: 25780 - Posted: 12.12.2018

By Joshua Tan Recently, a blog by Tam Hunt was published at Scientific American which provocatively declared that “The Hippies Were Right: It’s All About Vibrations, Man.” Hunt’s claim is that consciousness emerges from resonant effects found in nature at a wide range of scales. This is reminiscent of arguments that have been made since the development of the science of thermodynamics more than two hundred years ago. In brief, very intriguing and surprising characteristics of complex systems have been discovered and rigorously defined with such tantalizing terms as “emergence,” “resonance” and “self-organization.” These kinds of features of the natural world are so amazing—even uncanny—that they have inspired wild speculation as to their possible implications. Are there deep connections between these phenomena and the more mysterious aspects of our existence such as life, consciousness, and intelligence? Might they even provide us with insight into possible answers to expansively fundamental questions like why there is something rather than nothing? Speculating on such mysteries is an understandable pastime. Diverse thinkers from physicists to philosophers, psychologists to theologians have written libraries worth of treatises attempting to shed light on the possible answers to these deep questions. Along the way, ideas inspired by scientific results have had varying degrees of success. Concepts such as animal magnetism, vitalism, synchronicity, and quantum mysticism all had their day in the Sun, only to end up debunked or dismissed by skeptics and scientists who either pointed out a lack of empirical data supporting the claims or showed that the ideas were incompatible with what we have discovered about the natural world. © 2018 Scientific American

Keyword: Consciousness
Link ID: 25779 - Posted: 12.12.2018

Bruce Bower A nearly complete hominid skeleton known as Little Foot has finally been largely freed from the stony shell in which it was discovered in a South African cave more than 20 years ago. And in the first formal analyses of the fossils, researchers say the 3.67-million-year-old Little Foot belonged to its own species. In four papers posted online at bioRxiv.org between November 29 and December 5, paleoanthropologist Ronald Clarke of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and colleagues assign Little Foot to a previously proposed species, Australopithecus prometheus, that has failed to gain traction among many researchers. Clarke has held that controversial view for more than a decade (SN: 5/2/15, p. 8). He found the first of Little Foot’s remains in a storage box of fossils from a site called Sterkfontein in 1994. Excavations of the rest of the skeleton began in 1997. Many other researchers, however, regard Little Foot as an early member of a hominid species called Australopithecus africanus. Anthropologist Raymond Dart first identified A. africanus in 1924 from an ancient youngster’s skull called the Taung Child. Hundreds of A. africanus fossils have since been found in South African caves, including Sterkfontein. One of those caves, Makapansgat, produced a partial braincase that Dart assigned to A. prometheus in 1948. But Dart dropped that label after 1955, assigning the braincase and another Makapansgat fossil to A. africanus. |© Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2018.

Keyword: Evolution
Link ID: 25778 - Posted: 12.12.2018

Jef Akst Alan McElligott, an animal behavior researcher at the University of Roehampton in the UK, continues to be impressed by goats. Since he started studying the charismatic ungulates a decade ago, he’s found that mothers remember the calls of their kids several months after they’ve been separated, and that goats can solve a two-step puzzle box akin to those typically used in primate research—and remember how to do it a year later. Now his team has found that goats at the Buttercups Sanctuary in Kent, UK, can distinguish between happy and angry human expressions. “Given some of the other things that we’ve found out about goats, I guess we shouldn’t really be that surprised,” says McElligott, who’s hoping to improve welfare guidelines for the animals by revealing their smart and social nature. McElligott’s experiment was simple. Working with 20 goats at the sanctuary, he and his colleagues presented each with two black-and-white images—one of a person smiling, and the other of the same person making an angry expression—then sat back and watched what the animal did. “If the goats ignored the photographs, for example, or walked up to the photographs and ripped them off metal panels and chewed on them, would I have been shocked? Possibly not,” says McElligott. “But . . . the goats did seem to take the time to have a look at these photographs and actually study them, believe it or not.” And based on the time they spent interacting with each image, the goats seemed to prefer the happy snapshot (R Soc Open Sci, 5:180491, 2018). © 1986 - 2018 The Scientist

Keyword: Emotions; Attention
Link ID: 25777 - Posted: 12.12.2018

By Tom Garlinghouse Male and female bees may look similar, but they have dramatically different dining habits, according to a new study. Despite both needing nectar to survive, they get this nutrient from different flowers—so different, in fact, that males and females might as well belong to separate species. To make the find, researchers spent 11 weeks observing the foraging habits of 152 species of bees in several flower-rich New Jersey fields. Then they brought the insects—nearly 19,000 in all—back to the lab and meticulously identified their species and sex. Males and females rarely drank nectar from the same type of flower, the team will report in Animal Behaviour. Using a statistical test the researchers found that male and female bee diets overlap significantly less than would be expected at random. © 2018 American Association for the Advancement of Science

Keyword: Sexual Behavior
Link ID: 25776 - Posted: 12.12.2018

By Gina Kolata You’d think that scientists at an international conference on obesity would know by now which diet is best, and why. As it turns out, even the experts still have widely divergent opinions. At a recent meeting of the Obesity Society, organizers held a symposium during which two leading scientists presented the somewhat contradictory findings of two high-profile diet studies. A moderator tried to sort things out. In one study, by Christopher Gardner, a professor of medicine at Stanford, patients were given low-fat or low-carb diets with the same amount of calories. After a year, weight loss was the same in each group, Dr. Gardner reported. Another study, by Dr. David Ludwig of Boston Children’s Hospital, reported that a low-carbohydrate diet was better than a high-carbohydrate diet in helping subjects keep weight off after they had dieted and lost. The low-carbohydrate diet, he found, enabled participants to burn about 200 extra calories a day. So does a low-carbohydrate diet help people burn more calories? Or is the composition of the diet irrelevant if the calories are the same? Does it matter if the question is how to lose weight or how to keep it off? There was no consensus at the end of the session. But here are a few certainties about dieting amid the sea of unknowns. What we know People vary — a lot — in how they respond to dieting. Some people thrive on low-fat diets, others do best on low-carb diets. Still others succeed with gluten-free diets or Paleo diets or periodic fasts or ketogenic diets or other options on the seemingly endless menu of weight-loss plans. Most studies comparing diets have produced results like Dr. Gardner’s: no difference © 2018 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Obesity
Link ID: 25775 - Posted: 12.11.2018

By Kelly Servick If you’ve ever unwittingly grabbed a hot pan, you know our bodies have exquisite reflexes for avoiding or minimizing injuries. But once the damage is done, we also have a spontaneous urge to sooth the pain—to blow on a burned hand, cradle a broken toe, or suck on a cut finger. A new study reveals a neural circuit behind this soothing response in mice. Many common animal tests of pain don’t involve this circuit, the authors contend, which could explain why some painkillers that seem to work in mice prove ineffective in people. “We know there is not just one ‘pain pathway’ or a single brain site involved in processing pain,” says Kathleen Sluka, a neuroscientist at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, who was not involved in the new work. “Understanding the different pathways that underlie unique behaviors could one day help us to individualize treatments” for patients based on how they respond to pain. Harvard University neurobiologist Qiufu Ma and his team wanted to tease apart different aspects of pain, not just in the brain but in the neurons throughout our bodies that relay signals up the spinal cord. Ma and his collaborators previously proposed two general groups of sensory neurons: ones that project to the outermost layer of skin and ones that branch to deeper tissue throughout the body—the underlying skin layers, bones, joints, and muscles. Ma suggests the first group is a first-line defense that monitors our surroundings for danger and prompts us to pull away from a hot pan or a sharp prick. The deeper nerves, he suggests, are attuned to the lasting pain of an injury or illness—and may drive the experience of unpleasantness and distress that comes with pain. Our reflexes avoid potential harm, Ma explains; “the suffering of pain is very different.” © 2018 American Association for the Advancement of Science

Keyword: Pain & Touch
Link ID: 25774 - Posted: 12.11.2018

Alison Abbott Doris Tsao launched her career deciphering faces — but for a few weeks in September, she struggled to control the expression on her own. Tsao had just won a MacArthur Foundation ‘genius’ award, an honour that comes with more than half a million dollars to use however the recipient wants. But she was sworn to secrecy — even when the foundation sent a film crew to her laboratory at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena. Thrilled and embarrassed at the same time, she had to invent an explanation, all while keeping her face in check. It was her work on faces that won Tsao awards and acclaim. Last year, she cracked the code that the brain uses to recognize faces from a multitude of minuscule differences in shapes, distances between features, tones and textures. The simplicity of the coding surprised and impressed the neuroscience community. “Her work has been transformative,” says Tom Mrsic-Flogel, director of the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour at University College London. But Tsao doesn’t want to be remembered just as the scientist who discovered the face code. It is a means to an end, she says, a good tool for approaching the question that really interests her: how does the brain build up a complete, coherent model of the world by filling in gaps in perception? “This idea has an elegant mathematical formulation,” she says, but it has been notoriously hard to put to the test. Tsao now has an idea of how to begin. © 2018 Springer Nature Publishing AG

Keyword: Attention
Link ID: 25773 - Posted: 12.11.2018

By Benedict Carey A generation ago, parents worried about the effects of TV; before that, it was radio. Now, the concern is “screen time,” a catchall term for the amount of time that children, especially preteens and teenagers, spend interacting with TVs, computers, smartphones, digital pads, and video games. This age group draws particular attention because screen immersion rises sharply during adolescence, and because brain development accelerates then, too, as neural networks are pruned and consolidated in the transition to adulthood. On Sunday evening, CBS’s “60 Minutes” reported on early results from the A.B.C.D. Study (for Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development), a $300 million project financed by the National Institutes of Health. The study aims to reveal how brain development is affected by a range of experiences, including substance use, concussions, and screen time. As part of an exposé on screen time, “60 Minutes” reported that heavy screen use was associated with lower scores on some aptitude tests, and to accelerated “cortical thinning" — a natural process — in some children. But the data is preliminary, and it’s unclear whether the effects are lasting or even meaningful. Does screen addiction change the brain? Yes, but so does every other activity that children engage in: sleep, homework, playing soccer, arguing, growing up in poverty, reading, vaping behind the school. The adolescent brain continually changes, or “rewires” itself, in response to daily experience, and that adaptation continues into the early to mid 20s. What scientists want to learn is whether screen time, at some threshold, causes any measurable differences in adolescent brain structure or function, and whether those differences are meaningful. Do they cause attention deficits, mood problems, or delays in reading or problem-solving ability? © 2018 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Development of the Brain; Learning & Memory
Link ID: 25772 - Posted: 12.11.2018

Doing crossword puzzles and Sudoku does not appear to protect against mental decline, according to a new study. The idea of "use it or lose it" when it comes to our brains in later life has previously been widely accepted. The new Scottish study showed that people who regularly do intellectual activities throughout life have higher mental abilities. This provides a "higher cognitive point" from which to decline, say the researchers. But the study did not show that they decline any slower. The work, published in the BMJ, was undertaken by Dr Roger Staff at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary and the University of Aberdeen. It looked at 498 people born in 1936 who had taken part in a group intelligence test at the age of 11. This current study started when they were about 64 years old and they were recalled for memory and mental-processing-speed testing up to five times over a 15-year period. It found engagement in problem solving did not protect an individual from decline. However, engaging in intellectually stimulating activities on a regular basis was linked to level of mental ability in old age. The study uses modelling to look at associations and cannot prove any causal link. Also, many of the participants were unable to complete the whole study - some dropped out, others died. Image copyright Getty Images Previously, some studies have found that cognitive training can improve some aspects of memory and thinking, particularly for people who are middle-aged or older. They found so-called brain training may help older people to manage their daily tasks better. No studies have shown that brain training prevents dementia. And last year a report from the Global Council on Brain Health recommended that people should take part in stimulating activities such as learning a musical instrument, designing a quilt or gardening rather than brain training to help their brain function in later life. © 2018 BBC

Keyword: Alzheimers; Learning & Memory
Link ID: 25771 - Posted: 12.11.2018

By Judi Ketteler A friend of mine who works for a jewelry company that makes necklaces inscribed with empowering sayings recently offered me one. “How about the ‘I am fearless’ one?” she asked. “I don’t think so,” I said. “I’m not fearless.” She laughed. I did too. Except I meant it. And I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. I suspect fearlessness is a concept invented by motivational speakers to sell books and command large audiences at events that feature fear-conquering exercises. I wonder, is being fearless even a real thing? “Talking about being fearless covers up where people really are with fear,” says Dr. Kerry Ressler, director of the Neurobiology of Fear Laboratory at McLean Hospital. “After all, fear is the most evolutionarily conserved behavioral reflex for survival.” Fear, he says, produces the same responses in people now as it did at the beginning of human history. We’ve needed fear to survive as a species, to run from the lion crouching in the brush, and we still need it. “The question,” he says, “is how do you not let the emotional response of the fear reflex run wild?” Dr. Ressler says the great majority of people — about 90 percent — are resilient after something frightening or tragic happens, like a car accident or the death of a loved one. They are left with a bad memory or with grief, but they have perspective. Yet about 10 percent of people generalize the fearful memory or the grief. Their brains continually get cues that the bad thing is still happening, and their bodies respond accordingly. “It becomes a black hole of emotion,” Dr. Ressler says. © 2018 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Emotions
Link ID: 25770 - Posted: 12.11.2018

By Elizabeth Pennisi Anyone who has tried to whisper sweet nothings into their lover’s ear while standing on a noisy street corner can understand the plight of the túngara frog. A tiny amphibian about the size of a U.S. quarter, the male Physalaemus pustulosus has had to make its call more complex to woo mates when they move from the forest to the city. Now, researchers have found that female túngara frogs from both the country and the city prefer these mouthy city slickers. Biologists have long studied túngara frog courtship, demonstrating that visual signals and calls by themselves are unattractive to females but together are a winning combination, and that a female’s decision to mate depends on the context. Now, researchers have recorded the calls of male frogs living in cities, small towns, and forests across Panama. As they played the calls back, they counted the females, frog-eating bats, and frog-biting insects lured in by each call. Then they transplanted forest-dwelling frogs to the city and city dwellers to the forest to see how females there reacted to their calls. Finally, in the lab, they tested female preference for each call. Males living in cities and towns called more frequently and had more complex calls—with louder “chucks” interspersed in the whine—than forest frogs, the team reports today in Nature Ecology & Evolution. When they were moved into the country, they simplified their calls; but when their country cousins were brought to the big city, they couldn’t make the switch, and kept singing simply. When the researchers played back the calls to females, the females preferred more complex calls, even if the female herself was from the country, they reported. © 2018 American Association for the Advancement of Science

Keyword: Animal Communication; Sexual Behavior
Link ID: 25769 - Posted: 12.11.2018

By Benedict Carey In mid-October, researchers in California published a study of Civil War prisoners that came to a remarkable conclusion. Male children of abused war prisoners were about 10 percent more likely to die than their peers were in any given year after middle age, the study reported. The findings, the authors concluded, supported an “epigenetic explanation.” The idea is that trauma can leave a chemical mark on a person’s genes, which then is passed down to subsequent generations. The mark doesn’t directly damage the gene; there’s no mutation. Instead it alters the mechanism by which the gene is converted into functioning proteins, or expressed. The alteration isn’t genetic. It’s epigenetic. The field of epigenetics gained momentum about a decade ago, when scientists reported that children who were exposed in the womb to the Dutch Hunger Winter, a period of famine toward the end of World War II, carried a particular chemical mark, or epigenetic signature, on one of their genes. The researchers later linked that finding to differences in the children’s health later in life, including higher-than-average body mass. The excitement since then has only intensified, generating more studies — of the descendants of Holocaust survivors, of victims of poverty — that hint at the heritability of trauma. If these studies hold up, they would suggest that we genetically inherit some trace of our parents’ and even grandparents’ experience, particularly their suffering, which in turn modifies our own day-to-day health — and perhaps our children’s, too. But behind the scenes, the work has touched off a bitter dispute among researchers that could stunt the enterprise in its infancy. Critics contend that the biology implied by such studies simply is not plausible. Epigenetics researchers counter that their evidence is solid, even if the biology is not worked out. © 2018 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Epigenetics; Stress
Link ID: 25768 - Posted: 12.10.2018

By Ramin Skibba Even when you’re fluent in two languages, it can be a challenge to switch back and forth smoothly between them. It’s common to mangle a split verb in Spanish, use the wrong preposition in English or lose sight of the connection between the beginning and end of a long German sentence. So, does mastering a second language hone our multitasking skills or merely muddle us up? This debate has been pitting linguists and psychologists against one another since the 1920s, when many experts thought that bilingual children were fated to suffer cognitive impairments later in life. But the science has marched on. Psycholinguist Mark Antoniou of Western Sydney University in Australia argues that bilingualism — as he defines it, using at least two languages in your daily life — may benefit our brains, especially as we age. In a recent article, he addressed how best to teach languages to children and laid out evidence that multiple-language use on a regular basis may help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Q: What are the benefits of bilingualism? A: The first main advantage involves what’s loosely referred to as executive function. This describes skills that allow you to control, direct and manage your attention, as well as your ability to plan. It also helps you ignore irrelevant information and focus on what’s important. Because a bilingual person has mastery of two languages, and the languages are activated automatically and subconsciously, the person is constantly managing the interference of the languages so that she or he doesn’t say the wrong word in the wrong language at the wrong time. The brain areas responsible for that are also used when you’re trying to complete a task while there are distractions. The task could have nothing to do with language; it could be trying to listen to something in a noisy environment or doing some visual task. The muscle memory developed from using two languages also can apply to different skills. © 1996-2018 The Washington Post

Keyword: Language; Alzheimers
Link ID: 25767 - Posted: 12.10.2018

Julia Wright Shot-sized bottle. Fancy label. Clearish-yellow liquid. It looks like the single-serving bottles of rum or vodka near the checkout of your local liquor store. But don't let the packaging fool you. Pace isn't your typical tipple. Health Canada says it's a controlled substance and its sale is illegal. "Pace is an illegal and unauthorized product in Canada," the federal department said in a statement to CBC News. "Health Canada is taking appropriate follow-up actions to prevent the sale of this product in Canada." But the manufacturer, Diet Alcohol Corporation of the Americas, describes Pace as legal on its website. It describes the drink as a brand-new "alcohol alternative" that packs a similar buzz to booze — with zero alcohol, calories or hangover. The company describes the active ingredient in Pace, MEAI, as a "new synthetic" that delivers "a mild inebriation along with a feeling of contentedness that curbs overconsumption and excessive drinking." It also says on its website that the product is "absolutely" legal. MEAI — the active ingredient in Pace — reduces the desire to binge drink, according to the manufacturers. But the drug's long-term health impacts haven't been studied and aren't well understood. According to Ezekiel Golan, lead scientist with Pace, "tens of thousands" of bottles have already been sold online and shipped to Canadians. ©2018 CBC/Radio-Canada.

Keyword: Drug Abuse
Link ID: 25766 - Posted: 12.10.2018

Laura Beil Martha Carlin married the love of her life in 1995. She and John Carlin had dated briefly in college in Kentucky, then lost touch until a chance meeting years later at a Dallas pub. They wed soon after and had two children. John worked as an entrepreneur and stay-at-home dad. In his free time, he ran marathons. Almost eight years into their marriage, the pinky finger on John’s right hand began to quiver. So did his tongue. Most disturbing for Martha was how he looked at her. For as long as she’d known him, he’d had a joy in his eyes. But then, she says, he had a stony stare, “like he was looking through me.” In November 2002, a doctor diagnosed John with Parkinson’s disease. He was 44 years old. Carlin made it her mission to understand how her seemingly fit husband had developed such a debilitating disease. “The minute we got home from the neurologist, I was on the internet looking for answers,” she recalls. She began consuming all of the medical literature she could find. With her training in accounting and corporate consulting, Carlin was used to thinking about how the many parts of large companies came together as a whole. That kind of wide-angle perspective made her skeptical that Parkinson’s, which affects half a million people in the United States, was just a malfunction in the brain. “I had an initial hunch that food and food quality was part of the issue,” she says. If something in the environment triggered Parkinson’s, as some theories suggest, it made sense to her that the disease would involve the digestive system. Every time we eat and drink, our insides encounter the outside world. |© Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2018.

Keyword: Parkinsons; Neuroimmunology
Link ID: 25765 - Posted: 12.08.2018

By JoAnna Klein A macaw named Poncho starred in movies like “102 Dalmatians,” “Dr. Doolittle” and “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” before retiring in England. She recently celebrated her 90th birthday. Alex, an African grey parrot who lived to 31, knew colors, shapes and numbers, and communicated using basic expressions. He could do what toddlers only do after a certain stage of development — know when something is hidden from view. And they’re just two of the many parrots in the world who have surprised us with their intelligence, skills and longevity. “Nature does these experiments for us, and then we have to go and ask, how did this happen?” said Dr. Claudio Mello, a neuroscientist at Oregon Health and Science University. So he and a team of nearly two dozen scientists looked for clues in the genome of the blue-fronted Amazon parrot in Brazil, his home country. After comparing its genome with those of dozens of other birds, the researchers’ findings suggest that evolution may have made parrots something like the humans of the avian world. In some ways, the long-lived feathered friends are as genetically different from other birds as humans are from other primates. Their analysis, published Thursday in Current Biology, also highlights how two very different animals — parrots and humans — can wind up finding similar solutions to problems through evolution. A general rule of life span in birds and other animals is the bigger or heavier you are, the longer you live. A small bird like a finch may live five to eight years, while bigger ones like eagles or cranes can live decades. The blue-fronted Amazon and some other parrots are even more exceptional, in that they can live up to 66 years — in some cases outliving their human companions. © 2018 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Intelligence; Evolution
Link ID: 25764 - Posted: 12.08.2018

One of the animals that's thought to give creatures like apes, dolphins and crows a run for their money when it comes to intelligence is the octopus. For those other animals, there's a pattern to how they evolved to be so smart — they live long, socially complex lives. But that's not the case for octopuses that live solitary lives for the year or two they usually survive. Now scientists think they've figured out how the octopus became so so smart, and it has to do with the loss of their shell through evolution. "Octopuses, unlike many other molluscs, they do not have a protective shell," said Piero Amodio, the lead author on the new study published in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution about how cephalopods (octopuses and their relatives) gained their intelligence. "So [octopuses] are very, very vulnerable to many kinds of predators — from fishes to marine mammals to birds — and the idea is that by becoming quite smart, this is a kind of weapon they can use to avoid being eaten." Amodio, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald that this evolutionary process differs from those that led to intelligence in other groups of vertebrates. Intelligence in other vertebrates is thought to have arisen because they live long and socially complex lives. Building a brain is a metabolically labour intensive process, so it's a big investment for an animal to develop a big brain like in apes, dolphins, and crows — an investment they get a return on when they live a long time. ©2018 CBC/Radio-Canada.

Keyword: Evolution; Intelligence
Link ID: 25763 - Posted: 12.08.2018