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Emily Willingham In 2016, pharmacologist Susan Howlett wrote up a study on how hormone levels during pregnancy affect heart function and sent it off to a journal. When the reviewers’ comments came back, two of the three had asked an unexpected question: where were the tissues from male mice? Because they were studying high hormone levels related to pregnancy, Howlett, at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, and her team had used only female animals. “I was really surprised that they wanted us to repeat everything in males,” she said. Nonetheless, they obliged, and their findings were published in 2017. As expected, they found no effect of the hormone progesterone on heart function in males; in females, it influenced the activity of cardiac cells1. Howlett had mixed feelings about the request to add males. “It was a big ask and it was a lot more research.” But in general, she adds, it’s really important to factor sex into studies. “I’m a big proponent of doing experiments in both males and females.” Many of science’s gatekeepers — granting agencies and academic journals — feel the same way. Over the past decade or so, a growing list of funders and publishers, including the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the European Union, have been asking researchers to include two sexes in their work with cells and animal models. Two major catalysts motivated these policies. One was a growing recognition that sex-based differences, often related to hormone profiles or genes on sex chromosomes, can influence responses to drugs and other treatments. The other was the realization that including two sexes can increase the rigour of scientific inquiry, enhance reproducibility and open up questions for scientific pursuit. © 2022 Springer Nature Limited

Keyword: Sexual Behavior
Link ID: 28473 - Posted: 09.14.2022

ByRodrigo Pérez Ortega We humans are proud of our big brains, which are responsible for our ability to plan ahead, communicate, and create. Inside our skulls, we pack, on average, 86 billion neurons—up to three times more than those of our primate cousins. For years, researchers have tried to figure out how we manage to develop so many brain cells. Now, they’ve come a step closer: A new study shows a single amino acid change in a metabolic gene helps our brains develop more neurons than other mammals—and more than our extinct cousins, the Neanderthals. The finding “is really a breakthrough,” says Brigitte Malgrange, a developmental neurobiologist at the University of Liège who was not involved in the study. “A single amino acid change is really, really important and gives rise to incredible consequences regarding the brain.” What makes our brain human has been the interest of neurobiologist Wieland Huttner at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics for years. In 2016, his team found that a mutation in the ARHGAP11B gene, found in humans, Neanderthals, and Denisovans but not other primates, caused more production of cells that develop into neurons. Although our brains are roughly the same size as those of Neanderthals, our brain shapes differ and we created complex technologies they never developed. So, Huttner and his team set out to find genetic differences between Neanderthals and modern humans, especially in cells that give rise to neurons of the neocortex. This region behind the forehead is the largest and most recently evolved part of our brain, where major cognitive processes happen. The team focused on TKTL1, a gene that in modern humans has a single amino acid change—from lysine to arginine—from the version in Neanderthals and other mammals. By analyzing previously published data, researchers found that TKTL1 was mainly expressed in progenitor cells called basal radial glia, which give rise to most of the cortical neurons during development. © 2022 American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Keyword: Development of the Brain; Evolution
Link ID: 28472 - Posted: 09.10.2022

Yasemin Saplakoglu You’re on the vacation of a lifetime in Kenya, traversing the savanna on safari, with the tour guide pointing out elephants to your right and lions to your left. Years later, you walk into a florist’s shop in your hometown and smell something like the flowers on the jackalberry trees that dotted the landscape. When you close your eyes, the store disappears and you’re back in the Land Rover. Inhaling deeply, you smile at the happy memory. Now let’s rewind. You’re on the vacation of a lifetime in Kenya, traversing the savanna on safari, with the tour guide pointing out elephants to your right and lions to your left. From the corner of your eye, you notice a rhino trailing the vehicle. Suddenly, it sprints toward you, and the tour guide is yelling to the driver to hit the gas. With your adrenaline spiking, you think, “This is how I am going to die.” Years later, when you walk into a florist’s shop, the sweet floral scent makes you shudder. “Your brain is essentially associating the smell with positive or negative” feelings, said Hao Li, a postdoctoral researcher at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California. Those feelings aren’t just linked to the memory; they are part of it: The brain assigns an emotional “valence” to information as it encodes it, locking in experiences as good or bad memories. And now we know how the brain does it. As Li and his team reported recently in Nature, the difference between memories that conjure up a smile and those that elicit a shudder is established by a small peptide molecule known as neurotensin. They found that as the brain judges new experiences in the moment, neurons adjust their release of neurotensin, and that shift sends the incoming information down different neural pathways to be encoded as either positive or negative memories. To be able to question whether to approach or to avoid a stimulus or an object, you have to know whether the thing is good or bad. All Rights Reserved © 2022

Keyword: Learning & Memory; Emotions
Link ID: 28471 - Posted: 09.10.2022

By Jonathan Moens An artificial intelligence can decode words and sentences from brain activity with surprising — but still limited — accuracy. Using only a few seconds of brain activity data, the AI guesses what a person has heard. It lists the correct answer in its top 10 possibilities up to 73 percent of the time, researchers found in a preliminary study. The AI’s “performance was above what many people thought was possible at this stage,” says Giovanni Di Liberto, a computer scientist at Trinity College Dublin who was not involved in the research. Developed at the parent company of Facebook, Meta, the AI could eventually be used to help thousands of people around the world unable to communicate through speech, typing or gestures, researchers report August 25 at arXiv.org. That includes many patients in minimally conscious, locked-in or “vegetative states” — what’s now generally known as unresponsive wakefulness syndrome (SN: 2/8/19). Most existing technologies to help such patients communicate require risky brain surgeries to implant electrodes. This new approach “could provide a viable path to help patients with communication deficits … without the use of invasive methods,” says neuroscientist Jean-Rémi King, a Meta AI researcher currently at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. King and his colleagues trained a computational tool to detect words and sentences on 56,000 hours of speech recordings from 53 languages. The tool, also known as a language model, learned how to recognize specific features of language both at a fine-grained level — think letters or syllables — and at a broader level, such as a word or sentence. © Society for Science & the Public 2000–2022.

Keyword: Language; Robotics
Link ID: 28470 - Posted: 09.10.2022

By Alice Callahan Katherine Flegal wanted to be an archaeologist. But it was the 1960s, and Flegal, an anthropology major at the University of California, Berkeley, couldn’t see a clear path to this profession at a time when nearly all the summer archaeology field schools admitted only men. “The accepted wisdom among female archaeology students was that there was just one sure way for a woman to become an archaeologist: marry one,” Flegal wrote in a career retrospective published in the 2022 Annual Review of Nutrition. And so Flegal set her archaeology aspirations aside and paved her own path, ultimately serving nearly 30 years as an epidemiologist at the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), part of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There, she spent decades crunching numbers to describe the health of the nation’s people, especially as it related to body size, until she retired from the agency in 2016. At the time of her retirement, her work had been cited in 143,000 books and articles. In the 1990s, Flegal and her CDC colleagues published some of the first reports of a national increase in the proportion of people categorized as overweight based on body mass index (BMI), a ratio of weight and height. The upward trend in BMI alarmed public health officials and eventually came to be called the “obesity epidemic.” But when Flegal, along with other senior government scientists, published estimates on how BMI related to mortality — reporting that being overweight was associated with a lower death rate than having a “normal” BMI — she became the subject of intense criticism and attacks. Flegal and her coauthors were not the first to publish this seemingly counterintuitive observation, but they were among the most prominent. Some researchers in the field, particularly from the Harvard School of Public Health, argued that the findings would detract from the public health message that excess body fat was hazardous, and they took issue with some of the study’s methods. Flegal’s group responded with several subsequent publications reporting that the suggested methodological adjustments didn’t change their findings. © 2022 Annual Reviews

Keyword: Obesity
Link ID: 28469 - Posted: 09.10.2022

Short ribs glazed in a sweet sticky sauce and slow-cooked to perfection, potato chips hand-fried and tossed with a generous coating of sour cream, chicken wings battered and double-fried so that they stay crispy for hours. What is it about these, and other, mouth-watering — but incredibly fatty — foods that makes us reach out, and keep coming back for more? How they taste on the tongue is one part of the story, but to really understand what drives “our insatiable appetite for fat,” we have to examine what happens after fat is consumed, says Columbia University’s Charles Zuker, a neuroscientist and molecular geneticist who has been a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Investigator since 1989. Two years ago, Zuker and his team reported how sugar, upon reaching the gut, triggers signals that are sent to the brain, thus fueling cravings for sweet treats. Now, in an article published in Nature on September 7, 2022, they describe a similar gut-to-brain circuit that underlies a preference for fat. “The gut is the source of our great desire for fat and sugar,” says Zuker. The topic in question is an incredibly timely one, given the current global obesity epidemic. An estimated 13 percent of adults worldwide are obese — thrice that in 1975. In the US, that figure is even higher — at a staggering 42 percent. “It’s a very significant and important health problem,” says Zuker. Having a high body-mass index is a risk factor for stroke, diabetes, and several other diseases. “It’s clear that if we want to help make a difference here, we need to understand the biological basis for our strong appetite for fat and sugar,” he says. Doing so will help us design interventions in the future to “suppress this strong drive to consume” and combat obesity.

Keyword: Obesity; Hormones & Behavior
Link ID: 28468 - Posted: 09.10.2022

By Laurie McGinley Independent advisers to the Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday voted 7 to 2 to recommend approval of an experimental ALS drug with strong support from patients and advocates, making it likely the hotly debated treatment will be cleared by the agency within weeks. The vote was a stunning turnaround from late March when the panel voted 6 to 4 to recommend against FDA approval. At that meeting, the FDA’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee concluded the evidence from a single clinical trial — with just 137 patients and some follow-up data — was not sufficient to show the drug, called AMX0035, slowed a degenerative disease that usually kills people within three to five years. But on Wednesday, after hours of discussion, several advisers said that additional analyses submitted by the drug’s manufacturer, Cambridge-based Amylyx, bolstered the case for approval, even though uncertainties remain. Advisers were also affected by the disease’s severity and the lack of effective treatments. A vow by a top Amylyx official to pull the drug from the market if a larger study, with 600 patients, fails to show effectiveness was also a factor in the vote. The FDA, which usually follows the recommendation of its outside advisers but is not required to, is expected to decide whether to approve the drug by Sept. 29. The improved fortunes of the medicine came despite criticism from FDA staff as recently as last week about the treatment’s effectiveness, the conduct of its clinical trial and the researchers’ interpretation of the data. But the medicine is considered safe, and the agency has been under intense pressure from ALS patients and physicians who say the treatment holds promise for a fatal disease that typically causes rapid deterioration and death.

Keyword: ALS-Lou Gehrig's Disease
Link ID: 28467 - Posted: 09.10.2022

By Helen Santoro I barreled into the world — a precipitous birth, the doctors called it — at a New York City hospital in the dead of night. In my first few hours of life, after six bouts of halted breathing, the doctors rushed me to the neonatal intensive care unit. A medical intern stuck his pinky into my mouth to test the newborn reflex to suck. I didn’t suck hard enough. So they rolled my pink, 7-pound-11-ounce body into a brain scanner. Lo and behold, there was a huge hole on the left side, just above my ear. I was missing the left temporal lobe, a region of the brain involved in a wide variety of behaviors, from memory to the recognition of emotions, and considered especially crucial for language. My mother, exhausted from the labor, remembers waking up after sunrise to a neurologist, pediatrician and midwife standing at the foot of her bed. They explained that my brain had bled in her uterus, a condition called a perinatal stroke. They told her I would never speak and would need to be institutionalized. The neurologist brought her arms up to her chest and contorted her wrists to illustrate the physical disability I would be likely to develop. In those early days of my life, my parents wrung their hands wondering what my life, and theirs, would look like. Eager to find answers, they enrolled me in a research project at New York University tracking the developmental effects of perinatal strokes. But month after month, I surprised the experts, meeting all of the typical milestones of children my age. I enrolled in regular schools, excelled in sports and academics. The language skills the doctors were most worried about at my birth — speaking, reading and writing — turned out to be my professional passions. My case is highly unusual but not unique. Scientists estimate that thousands of people are, like me, living normal lives despite missing large chunks of our brains. Our myriad networks of neurons have managed to rewire themselves over time. But how? © 2022 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Development of the Brain; Language
Link ID: 28466 - Posted: 09.07.2022

Michael Heithaus Could you explain how fish sleep? Do they drift away on currents, or do they anchor themselves to a particular location when they sleep? – Laure and Neeraj, New York From the goldfish in your aquarium to a bass in a lake to the sharks in the sea – 35,000 species of fish are alive today, more than 3 trillion of them. All over the world, they swim in hot springs, rivers, ponds and puddles. They glide through freshwater and saltwater. They survive in the shallows and in the darkest depths of the ocean, more than five miles down. If those trillions of fish, three major types exist: bony fish, like trout and sardines; jawless fish, like the slimy hagfish; and sharks and rays, which are boneless – instead, they have skeletons made of firm yet flexible tissue called cartilage. And all of them, every last one, needs to rest. Whether you’re a human or a haddock, sleep is essential. It gives a body time to repair itself, and a brain a chance to reset and declutter. As a marine biologist, I’ve always wondered how fish can rest. After all, in any body of water, predators are all over the place, lurking around, ready to eat them. But somehow they manage, like virtually all creatures on Earth. See the mysterious spot off the coast of Mexico where sharks take a nap. How they do it Scientists are still learning about how fish sleep. What we do know: Their sleep is not like ours. © 2010–2022, The Conversation US, Inc.

Keyword: Sleep; Evolution
Link ID: 28465 - Posted: 09.07.2022

By Christina Jewett Juul Labs, fighting for its survival in the United States, on Tuesday tentatively agreed to pay $438.5 million to settle an investigation by nearly three dozen states over marketing and sales practices that they contend set off the nation’s teenage vaping crisis. The company said that it did not acknowledge any wrongdoing in the settlement, but that it was trying to “resolve issues from the past” while awaiting a decision by the Food and Drug Administration over whether it would be permitted to continue to sell its products. Juul has been trying to reposition itself as a seller of vaping products that could help adults quit smoking traditional cigarettes, in an effort to rehabilitate its tarnished reputation and improve its diminished market value. The tentative settlement prohibits the company from marketing to youth, funding education in schools and misrepresenting the level of nicotine in its products. But Juul had already discontinued several marketing practices and withdrawn many of its flavored pods that appealed to teenagers, under public pressure from lawmakers, parents and health experts a few years ago when the vaping crisis was at a peak. “We think that this will go a long way in stemming the flow of youth vaping,” William Tong, Connecticut’s attorney general, said at a news conference on Tuesday. “We are under no illusions and cannot claim that it will stop youth vaping. It continues to be an epidemic. It continues to be a huge problem. But we have essentially taken a big chunk out of what was once a market leader.” The multistate investigation found that the company appealed to young people by hiring young models, using social media to court teenagers and giving out free samples, he said. And, he added, the inquiry revealed that the company had a “porous” age verification system for its products and that 45 percent of its Twitter followers were ages 13 to 17. Jason Miyares, the attorney general for Virginia, pointed out in a statement that the company’s former strategy of selling flavors like mango and crème brûlée appealed to youth as did the sleek design of its device that was easy to conceal. One term of the settlement banned the company from depicting anyone under 35 in its marketing images, Mr. Miyares’ statement said. © 2022 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Drug Abuse
Link ID: 28464 - Posted: 09.07.2022

Perspective by Steven Petrow A few weeks ago, I mentioned to a friend that I was interested in learning more about psychedelics, especially how they might help me with depression and anxiety. That’s a broad category of plant medicines including psilocybin (“magic”) mushrooms, MDMA (ecstasy), DMT (Dimitri or the Businessman’s Trip), ketamine (“special K”) and some others. I’d been hesitant to be open about my search, because I’m old enough to remember the warnings about “bad trips” that scramble your brain. Imagine my surprise when my friend told me he’d recently taken his first “trip,” which he described as life-changing. I asked him — a real estate developer living in Northern California, married with kids — why he decided to try a psychedelic substance. “My work felt increasingly stale and meaningless,” he explained to me over a beer. “Despite a massive amount of reflection and coaching around how to break the rut, I felt as though I was still off track.” He and the others who have used these medicines spoke on the condition of anonymity because most of these psychedelics are Schedule I substances, meaning they are illegal to manufacture, buy, possess or distribute. When I confided my interest in psychedelics to a few other friends, several said they had tried the drugs and experienced several benefits: from easing anxiety to finding spiritual insights to combating depression and, among some with cancer, helping to reduce the fear of dying. They are hardly outliers. According to a new YouGovAmerica study, “one in four Americans say they’ve tried at least one psychedelic drug,” amounting to some 72 million U.S. adults. (The study included the medicines mentioned earlier, plus LSD, mescaline and salvia.) Was I missing a beat by not getting onboard?

Keyword: Depression; Drug Abuse
Link ID: 28463 - Posted: 09.07.2022

Nicola Davis Regular doses of a hormone may help to boost cognitive skills in people with Down’s syndrome, a pilot study has suggested. Researchers fitted seven men who have Down’s syndrome with a pump that provided a dose of GnRH, a gonadotropin-releasing hormone, every two hours for six months. Six out of the seven men showed moderate cognitive improvements after the treatment, including in attention and being able to understand instructions, compared with a control group who were not given the hormone. However, experts raised concerns about the methods used in the study, urging caution over the findings. The team behind the work said brain scans of the participants, who were aged between 20 and 37, given the hormone suggest they underwent changes in neural connectivity in areas involved in cognition. “[People] with Down’s syndrome have cognitive decline which starts in the 30s,” said Prof Nelly Pitteloud, co-author of the study from the University of Lausanne. “I think if we can delay that, this would be great, if the therapy is well tolerated [and] without side effects.” Writing in the journal Science, Pitteloud and colleagues said they previously found mice with an extra copy of chromosome 16 experienced an age-related decline in cognition and sense of smell, similar to that seen in people with Down’s syndrome – who have an extra copy of chromosome 21. In a series of experiments, the team found regular doses of gonadotropin-releasing hormone boosted both the sense of smell and cognitive performance of these mice. Pitteloud said no side effects were seen in the participants and that the hormone is already used to induce puberty in patients with certain disorders. “I think these data are of course very exciting, but we have to remain cautious,” said Pitteloud. She said larger, randomised control studies are now needed to confirm that the improvements were not driven by patients becoming less stressed during assessments and thus performing better. Prof Michael Thomas of Birkbeck, University of London, who studies cognitive development across the lifespan in Down’s syndrome, said the results were exciting. “For parents, this is good news: interventions can still yield benefits across the lifespan,” he said, although he noted it is not clear how applicable the hormone therapy would be for children. © 2022 Guardian News & Media Limited

Keyword: Hormones & Behavior; Development of the Brain
Link ID: 28462 - Posted: 09.03.2022

By Tim Vernimmen When psychologist Jonathan Smallwood set out to study mind-wandering about 25 years ago, few of his peers thought that was a very good idea. How could one hope to investigate these spontaneous and unpredictable thoughts that crop up when people stop paying attention to their surroundings and the task at hand? Thoughts that couldn’t be linked to any measurable outward behavior? But Smallwood, now at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, forged ahead. He used as his tool a downright tedious computer task that was intended to reproduce the kinds of lapses of attention that cause us to pour milk into someone’s cup when they asked for black coffee. And he started out by asking study participants a few basic questions to gain insight into when and why minds tend to wander, and what subjects they tend to wander toward. After a while, he began to scan participants’ brains as well, to catch a glimpse of what was going on in there during mind-wandering. Smallwood learned that unhappy minds tend to wander in the past, while happy minds often ponder the future. He also became convinced that wandering among our memories is crucial to help prepare us for what is yet to come. Though some kinds of mind-wandering — such as dwelling on problems that can’t be fixed — may be associated with depression, Smallwood now believes mind-wandering is rarely a waste of time. It is merely our brain trying to get a bit of work done when it is under the impression that there isn’t much else going on. Smallwood, who coauthored an influential 2015 overview of mind-wandering research in the Annual Review of Psychology, is the first to admit that many questions remain to be answered. © 2022 Annual Reviews

Keyword: Attention
Link ID: 28461 - Posted: 09.03.2022

By Rebecca Sohn Distinctive bursts of sleeping-brain activity, known as sleep spindles, have long been generally associated with strengthening recently formed memories. But new research has managed to link such surges to specific acts of learning while awake. These electrical flurries, which can be observed as sharp spikes on an electroencephalogram (EEG), tend to happen in early sleep stages when brain activity is otherwise low. A study published in Current Biology shows that sleep spindles appear prominently in particular brain areas that had been active in study participants earlier, while they were awake and learning an assigned task. Stronger spindles in these areas correlated with better recall after sleep. “We were able to link, within [each] participant, exactly the brain areas used for learning to spindle activity during sleep,” says University of Oxford cognitive neuroscientist Bernhard Staresina, senior author on the study. Staresina, Marit Petzka of the University of Birmingham in England and their colleagues devised a set of tasks they called the “memory arena,” which required each participant to memorize a sequence of images appearing inside a circle. While the subjects did so, researchers measured their brain activity with an EEG, which uses electrodes placed on the head. Participants then took a two-hour nap, after which they memorized a new image set—but then had to re-create the original image sequence learned before sleeping. During naps, the researchers recorded stronger sleep spindles in the specific brain areas that had been active during the pre-sleep-memorization task, and these areas differed for each participant. This suggested that the spindle pattern was not “hardwired” in default parts of the human brain; rather it was tied to an individual's thought patterns. The researchers also observed that participants who experienced stronger sleep spindles in brain areas used during memorization did a better job re-creating the images' positions after the nap. © 2022 Scientific American

Keyword: Sleep; Learning & Memory
Link ID: 28460 - Posted: 09.03.2022

By Elizabeth Landau Ken Ono gets excited when he talks about a particular formula for pi, the famous and enigmatic ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. He shows me a clip from a National Geographic show where Neil Degrasse Tyson asked him how he would convey the beauty of math to the average person on the street. In reply, Ono showed Tyson, and later me, a so-called continued fraction for pi, which is a little bit like a mathematical fun house hallway of mirrors. Instead of a single number in the numerator and one in the denominator, the denominator of the fraction also contains a fraction, and the denominator of that fraction has a fraction in it, too, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum. Written out, the formula looks like a staircase that narrows as you descend its rungs in pursuit of the elusive pi. The calculation—credited independently to British mathematician Leonard Jay Rogers and self-taught Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan—doesn’t involve anything more complicated than adding, dividing, and squaring numbers. “How could you not say that’s amazing?” Ono, chair of the mathematics department at the University of Virginia, asks me over Zoom. As a fellow pi enthusiast—I am well known among friends for hosting Pi Day pie parties—I had to agree with him that it’s a dazzling formula. But not everyone sees beauty in fractions, or in math generally. In fact, here in the United States, math often inspires more dread than awe. In the 1950s, some educators began to observe a phenomenon they called mathemaphobia in students,1 though this was just one of a long list of academic phobias they saw in students. Today, nearly 1 in 5 U.S. adults suffers from high levels of math anxiety, according to some estimates,2 and a 2016 study found that 11 percent of university students experienced “high enough levels of mathematics anxiety to be in need of counseling.”3 Math anxiety seems generally correlated with worse math performance worldwide, according to one 2020 study from Stanford and the University of Chicago.4 While many questions remain about the underlying reasons, high school math scores in the U.S. tend to rank significantly lower than those in many other countries. In 2018, for example, American students ranked 30th in the world in their math scores on the PISA exam, an international assessment given every three years. © 2022 NautilusThink Inc,

Keyword: Attention; Learning & Memory
Link ID: 28459 - Posted: 09.03.2022

By Emily Anthes My cat is a bona fide chatterbox. Momo will meow when she is hungry and when she is full, when she wants to be picked up and when she wants to be put down, when I leave the room or when I enter it, or sometimes for what appears to be no real reason at all. But because she is a cat, she is also uncooperative. So the moment I downloaded MeowTalk Cat Translator, a mobile app that promised to convert Momo’s meows into plain English, she clammed right up. For two days I tried, and failed, to solicit a sound. On Day 3, out of desperation, I decided to pick her up while she was wolfing down her dinner, an interruption guaranteed to elicit a howl of protest. Right on cue, Momo wailed. The app processed the sound, then played an advertisement for Sara Lee, then rendered a translation: “I’m happy!” I was dubious. But MeowTalk provided a more plausible translation about a week later, when I returned from a four-day trip. Upon seeing me, Momo meowed and then purred. “Nice to see you,” the app translated. Then: “Let me rest.” (The ads disappeared after I upgraded to a premium account.) The urge to converse with animals is age-old, long predating the time when smartphones became our best friends. Scientists have taught sign language to great apes, chatted with grey parrots and even tried to teach English to bottlenose dolphins. Pets — with which we share our homes but not a common language — are particularly tempting targets. My TikTok feed brims with videos of Bunny, a sheepadoodle who has learned to press sound buttons that play prerecorded phrases like “outside,” “scritches” and “love you.” MeowTalk is the product of a growing interest in enlisting additional intelligences — machine-learning algorithms — to decode animal communication. The idea is not as far-fetched as it may seem. For example, machine-learning systems, which are able to extract patterns from large data sets, can distinguish between the squeaks that rodents make when they are happy and those that they emit when they are in distress. Applying the same advances to our creature companions has obvious appeal. “We’re trying to understand what cats are saying and give them a voice” Javier Sanchez, a founder of MeowTalk, said. “We want to use this to help people build better and stronger relationships with their cats,” he added. © 2022 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Animal Communication; Learning & Memory
Link ID: 28458 - Posted: 08.31.2022

Sofia Quaglia Dolphins form decade-long social bonds, and cooperate among and between cliques, to help one another find mates and fight off competitors, new research has found – behaviour not previously confirmed among animals. “These dolphins have long-term stable alliances, and they have intergroup alliances. Alliances of alliances of alliances, really,” said Dr Richard Connor, a behavioural ecologist at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and one of the lead authors of the paper. “But before our study, it had been thought that cooperative alliances between groups were unique to humans.” The findings, published on Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, appear to support the “social brain” hypothesis: that mammals’ brains evolved to be larger in size for animals that keep track of their social interactions and networks. Humans and dolphins are the two animals with the largest brains relative to body size. “It’s not a coincidence,” Connor said. Connor’s team of researchers collected data between 2001 and 2006 by conducting intensive boat-based surveys in Shark Bay, Western Australia. The researchers tracked the dolphins by watching and listening to them, using their unique identifying whistles to tell them apart. They observed 202 Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus), including during the peak mating season between September and November. Back in the lab, they pored over data focusing on 121 of these adult male dolphins to observe patterns in their social networks. And for the next decade they continued to analyse the animals’ alliances. Dolphins’ social structures are fluid and complex. The researchers found alliances among two or three male dolphins – like best friends. Then the groups expanded to up to 14 members. Together, they helped each other find females to herd and mate with, and they help steal females from other dolphins as well as defend against any “theft” attempts from rivals. © 2022 Guardian News & Media Limited

Keyword: Sexual Behavior; Evolution
Link ID: 28457 - Posted: 08.31.2022

By Carl Zimmer One of the most remarkable things about our species is how fast human culture can change. New words can spread from continent to continent, while technologies such as cellphones and drones change the way people live around the world. It turns out that humpback whales have their own long-range, high-speed cultural evolution, and they don’t need the internet or satellites to keep it running. In a study published on Tuesday, scientists found that humpback songs easily spread from one population to another across the Pacific Ocean. It can take just a couple of years for a song to move several thousand miles. Ellen Garland, a marine biologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and an author of the study, said she was shocked to find whales in Australia passing their songs to others in French Polynesia, which in turn gave songs to whales in Ecuador. “Half the globe is now vocally connected for whales,” she said. “And that’s insane.” It’s even possible that the songs travel around the entire Southern Hemisphere. Preliminary studies by other scientists are revealing whales in the Atlantic Ocean picking up songs from whales the eastern Pacific. Each population of humpback whales spends the winter in the same breeding grounds. The males there sing loud underwater songs that can last up to half an hour. Males in the same breeding ground sing a nearly identical tune. And from one year to the next, the population’s song gradually evolves into a new melody. Dr. Garland and other researchers have uncovered a complex, language-like structure in these songs. The whales combine short sounds, which scientists call units, into phrases. They then combine the phrases into themes. And each song is made of several themes. © 2022 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Animal Communication; Language
Link ID: 28456 - Posted: 08.31.2022

Researchers have published two papers describing how they identified a potential new pathway for treating a sporadic form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The studies were published as part of a cooperative research agreement between the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), part of the National Institutes of Health, and the Switzerland-based biotechnology company GeNeuro Inc. One unusual side effect of hundreds of thousands of years of evolution is that the human genome now contains DNA sequences from ancient retroviruses—referred to as human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs). Though most remain dormant, reactivation of HERVs have been implicated in several neurodegenerative diseases, including ALS. The first of these papers shows that a specific HERV produces a protein that can be found in the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) of people with ALS. This protein, called HERV-K ENV, is toxic when added to neurons grown in laboratory dishes. In addition, a special kind of mouse genetically designed to create HERV-K ENV develops symptoms very similar to ALS. Adding the CSF from people with ALS to lab-grown neurons resulted in damage to the cells. When a synthetic antibody designed specifically to recognize HERV-K ENV was added as well to those neurons, the toxic effects were reduced. These findings together suggest that the improper activation of the HERV-K ENV gene could be the cause of the symptoms seen in certain cases of sporadic ALS. The discovery that a synthetic antibody to HERV-K ENV could be protective led the researchers to look at whether the immune system of people with ALS produced any antibodies, as well. In the second paper, the authors show that indeed higher levels of antibodies against HERV-K ENV were seen in the blood of a group of people with ALS as compared to healthy donors. The pattern of antibodies against this viral protein was also more complex in persons with ALS. In addition, there was also a correlation between higher antibody levels against HERV-K ENV and longer overall survival.

Keyword: ALS-Lou Gehrig's Disease
Link ID: 28455 - Posted: 08.31.2022

Steven Strogatz Dreams are so personal, subjective and fleeting, they might seem impossible to study directly and with scientific objectivity. But in recent decades, laboratories around the world have developed sophisticated techniques for getting into the minds of people while they are dreaming. In the process, they are learning more about why we need these strange nightly experiences and how our brains generate them. In this episode, Steven Strogatz speaks with sleep researcher Antonio Zadra of the University of Montreal about how new experimental methods have changed our understanding of dreams. Steven Strogatz (00:03): I’m Steve Strogatz, and this is The Joy of Why, a podcast from Quanta Magazine that takes you into some of the biggest unanswered questions in math and science today. (00:13) In this episode, we’re going to be talking about dreams. What are dreams exactly? What purpose do they serve? And why are they often so bizarre? We’ve all had this experience: You’re dreaming about something fantastical, some kind of crazy story with a narrative arc that didn’t actually happen, with people we don’t necessarily know, in places we may have never even been. Is this just the brain trying to make sense of random neural firing? Or is there some evolutionary reason for dreaming? Dreams are inherently hard to study. Even with all the advances in science and technology, we still haven’t really found a way to record what someone else is dreaming about. Plus, as we all know, it’s easy to forget our dreams as soon as we wake up, unless we’re really careful to write them down. But even with all these difficulties, little by little, dream researchers are making progress in figuring out how we dream and why we dream. (01:11) Joining me now to discuss all this is Dr. Antonio Zadra, a professor at the University of Montreal and a researcher at the Center for Advanced Research in Sleep Medicine. His specialties include the study of nightmares, recurrent dreams and lucid dreaming. He’s also the coauthor of the recent book When Brains Dream, exploring the science and mystery of sleep. Tony, thank you so much for joining us today. Strogatz (01:39): I’m very excited to talk to you about this. So let’s start with thinking about the science of dreams as you and your colleagues see it today. Why are dreams so hard to study? All Rights Reserved © 2022

Keyword: Sleep; Evolution
Link ID: 28454 - Posted: 08.27.2022