Chapter 16. None

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By KATIE THOMAS Nolan and Jack Willis, twins from upstate New York, and just 10 other boys took part in a clinical trial that led to the approval last fall of the very first drug to treat their rare, deadly muscle disease. Now the Willis boys are again test cases as a different type of medical question comes to the fore: whether insurers will cover the controversial drug, Exondys 51, which can cost more than $1 million a year even though it’s still unclear if it works. The boys’ insurer, Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, refused to cover the cost of the drug because the twins, who are 15, can no longer walk. Their disease, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, overwhelmingly affects boys and causes muscles to deteriorate, killing many of them by the end of their 20s. “I’m cycling between rage and just sadness,” their mother, Alison Willis Hoke, said recently, on the day she learned that an appeal for coverage had been denied. For now, the company that sells the drug, Sarepta Therapeutics, is covering the treatment’s costs, but Mrs. Hoke does not know how long that will last. The desperation in Mrs. Hoke’s voice reflects a sobering reality for families of boys with the disease since their elation last fall over the drug’s approval. Because the Food and Drug Administration overruled its own experts — who weren’t convinced the Exondys 51 had shown sufficiently good results — and gave the drug conditional approval, many insurers are now declining to cover it or are imposing severe restrictions that render patients ineligible. The story of Exondys 51 raises complex and emotionally charged questions about what happens when the F.D.A. approves an expensive drug based on a lower bar of proof. In practice, health insurers have taken over as gatekeeper in determining who will get the drug. © 2017 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Muscles; Movement Disorders
Link ID: 23768 - Posted: 06.23.2017

By Kat McGowan Doctors at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital could not figure out what was wrong with the 29-year-old man sitting before them. An otherwise healthy construction worker from Nicaragua, the patient was suffering from a splitting headache, double vision and ringing in his ears. Part of his face was also numb. The cause could have been anything—from an infection to a stroke, a tumor or some kind of autoimmune disease. The Emergency Department (ED) staff took a magnetic resonance imaging scan of the man’s brain, performed a spinal tap and completed a series of other tests that did not turn up any obvious reason for the swelling in his brain—a condition that is formally known as encephalitis. Most likely, it was some kind of infection. But what kind? Nineteen standard tests are available to help clinicians try to pin down the source of encephalitis, but they test for the presence of only the most common infections; more than 60 percent of cases go unsolved each year. Physicians looked in the patient’s cerebrospinal fluid (which surrounds the brain and protects it) for evidence of Lyme disease, syphilis and valley fever, among other things. Nothing matched. So the S.F. General ED staff settled on the most likely culprit as a diagnosis: a form of tuberculosis (TB) that causes brain inflammation but cannot always be detected with typical tests. Doctors gave the man a prescription for some steroids to reduce the swelling plus some anti-TB drugs and sent him home. © 2017 Scientific American,

Keyword: Miscellaneous
Link ID: 23767 - Posted: 06.23.2017

Jon Hamilton Thanks to Sigmund Freud, we all know what it means to dream about swords, sticks and umbrellas. Or maybe we don't. "For 100 years, we got stuck into that Freudian perspective on dreams, which turned out to be not scientifically very accurate," says Robert Stickgold, a sleep researcher and associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. "So it's only been in the last 15 to 20 years that we've really started making progress." Today, most brain scientists reject Freud's idea that dreams are highly symbolic representations of unconscious (and usually sexual) desire. That dream umbrella, they say, is probably just an umbrella. But researchers are still trying to figure out what dreams do represent, and what their purpose is. "There's not really a solid theory about why dreaming is there," says Benjamin Baird, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Sleep and Consciousness at the University of Wisconsin ­– Madison. "It's a big mystery." We all have a future self, a version of us that is better, more successful. It can inspire us to achieve our dreams, or mock us for everything we have failed to become. In this episode of the NPR podcast Invisibilia, hosts Alix Spiegel and Hanna Rosin talk to a woman who believes she can connect with her younger self in dreams. © 2017 npr

Keyword: Sleep
Link ID: 23765 - Posted: 06.23.2017

By Sharon Begley, STAT To anyone who’s aware that efforts to develop Alzheimer’s drug treatments have met failure after failure, and to have therefore decided that prevention is the only hope, a U.S. panel of experts issued a sobering message on Thursday: Don’t count on it. From physical activity to avoiding high blood pressure to brain training, a 17-member committee assembled by the National Academies of Sciences concluded, no interventions are “supported by high-strength evidence.” Instead, some high-quality studies found that one or another intervention worked, but other equally rigorous studies found they didn’t. 1. Cognitive training The evidence for programs aimed at boosting reasoning, problem-solving, memory, and speed of processing does include randomized trials that reported benefits from brain training, but the report calls that evidence “low to moderate strength.” One problem: There seemed to be benefits for two years, but not after five or 10. Results in other randomized studies were even more equivocal. There are also data from studies that are less rigorous, leading the committee to conclude that brain training (computer-based or not) can delay or slow age-related cognitive decline—but not Alzheimer’s. 2. Controlling blood pressure Evidence that this helps is weaker still. © 2017 Scientific American

Keyword: Alzheimers
Link ID: 23763 - Posted: 06.23.2017

Researchers have identified structural changes in two genes that increase the risk of developing Tourette syndrome, a neurological disorder characterized by involuntary motor and vocal tics. The study, published in the journal Neuron, was supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), part of the National Institutes of Health. “Our study is the tip of the iceberg in understanding the complex biological mechanisms underlying this disorder. With recent advancements in genetic research, we are at the cusp of identifying many genes involved in Tourette syndrome,” said Jeremiah Scharf, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of neurology and psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, and co-corresponding author of the study. The research was part of an international collaboration co-led by Dr. Scharf; Giovanni Coppola, M.D., professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of California, Los Angeles; Carol Mathews, M.D., professor of psychiatry at the University of Florida in Gainesville; and Peristera Paschou, Ph.D., associate professor in the department of biological sciences at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana. The scientific team conducted genetic analyses on 2,434 individuals with Tourette syndrome and compared them to 4,093 controls, focusing on copy number variants, changes in the genetic code resulting in deletions or duplications in sections of genes. Their results determined that deletions in the NRXN1 gene or duplications in the CNTN6 gene were each associated with an increased risk of Tourette syndrome. In the study, approximately 1 in 100 people with Tourette syndrome carried one of those genetic variants.

Keyword: Tourettes; Genes & Behavior
Link ID: 23761 - Posted: 06.22.2017

Parkinson’s disease is commonly thought of as a movement disorder, but after years of living with the disease, approximately 25 percent of patients also experience deficits in cognition that impair function. A newly developed research tool may help predict a patient’s risk for developing dementia and could enable clinical trials aimed at finding treatments to prevent the cognitive effects of the disease. The research was published in Lancet Neurology and was partially funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), part of the National Institutes of Health. “This study includes both genetic and clinical assessments from multiple groups of patients, and it represents a significant step forward in our ability to effectively model one of the most troublesome non-motor aspects of Parkinson’s disease,” said Margaret Sutherland, Ph.D., program director at the NINDS. For the study, a team of researchers led by Clemens Scherzer, M.D., combined data from 3,200 people with Parkinson’s disease, representing more than 25,000 individual clinical assessments and evaluated seven known clinical and genetic risk factors associated with developing dementia. From this information, they built a computer-based risk calculator that may predict the chance that an individual with Parkinson’s will develop cognitive deficits. Dr. Scherzer is head of the Neurogenomics Lab and Parkinson Personalized Medicine Program at Harvard Medical School and a member of the Ann Romney Center for Neurologic Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston.

Keyword: Parkinsons
Link ID: 23759 - Posted: 06.22.2017

By Matthew Hutson Artificial neural networks, computer algorithms that take inspiration from the human brain, have demonstrated fancy feats such as detecting lies, recognizing faces, and predicting heart attacks. But most computers can’t run them efficiently. Now, a team of engineers has designed a computer chip that uses beams of light to mimic neurons. Such “optical neural networks” could make any application of so-called deep learning—from virtual assistants to language translators—many times faster and more efficient. “It works brilliantly,” says Daniel Brunner, a physicist at the FEMTO-ST Institute in Besançon, France, who was not involved in the work. “But I think the really interesting things are yet to come.” Most computers work by using a series of transistors, gates that allow electricity to pass or not pass. But decades ago, physicists realized that light might make certain processes more efficient—for example, building neural networks. That’s because light waves can travel and interact in parallel, allowing them to perform lots of functions simultaneously. Scientists have used optical equipment to build simple neural nets, but these setups required tabletops full of sensitive mirrors and lenses. For years, photonic processing was dismissed as impractical. Now, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge have managed to condense much of that equipment to a microchip just a few millimeters across. © 2017 American Association for the Advancement of Science

Keyword: Robotics
Link ID: 23758 - Posted: 06.21.2017

Ian Sample Science editor Older men tend to have “geekier” sons who are more aloof, have higher IQs and a more intense focus on their interests than those born to younger fathers, researchers claim. The finding, which emerged from a study of nearly 8,000 British twins, suggests that having an older father may benefit children and boost their performance in technical subjects at secondary school. Researchers in the UK and the US analysed questionnaires from 7,781 British twins and scored them according to their non-verbal IQ at 12 years old, as well as parental reports on how focused and socially aloof they were. The scientists then combined these scores into an overall “geek index”. Magdalena Janecka at King’s College London said the project came about after she and her colleagues had brainstormed what traits and skills helped people to succeed in the modern age. “If you look at who does well in life right now, it’s geeks,” she said. Drawing on the twins’ records, the scientists found that children born to older fathers tended to score slightly higher on the geek index. For a father aged 25 or younger, the average score of the children was 39.6. That figure rose to 41 in children with fathers aged 35 to 44, and to 47 for those with fathers aged over 50. The effect was strongest in boys, where the geek index rose by about 1.5 points for every extra five years of paternal age. The age of the children’s mothers seemed to have almost no effect on the geek index. © 2017 Guardian News and Media Limited

Keyword: Epigenetics; Development of the Brain
Link ID: 23757 - Posted: 06.21.2017

By Karl Gruber Birds, fish, and even humans have shattered barriers when it comes to mating rituals, from which partner initiates the courting to which one picks up the check at a fancy restaurant. But things are a bit simpler for frogs, as males and females stick to clearly defined roles: Males serenade the females, and females pick their favorite males to mate. Now, a new study suggests that the smooth guardian frog of Borneo (Limnonectes palavanensis) is an exception to that rule. During the mating season, the female frogs sing to the males in an attempt to win them over—a reversal of the normal process. In fact, if you see a single frog surrounded by a bunch of serenading croakers, called a “lek,” it’s most likely a lucky male being courted by a chorus of females. Males occasionally belt out “advertisement calls” to let females know that they are available. After mating, it’s the males who stay behind to care for the eggs, even taking tadpoles to small ponds after they hatch. This is the first known example of role reversal in singing frogs, scientists write in a recent issue of Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology. It may even represent the first case of full-blown sex role reversal, which would also require that males do the mate choosing. Researchers are working on that now, but they say that—judging by the high rate of female serenading—males may be the picky ones. © 2017 American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Keyword: Sexual Behavior
Link ID: 23755 - Posted: 06.21.2017

By SAM QUINONES COVINGTON, KY. — Not long ago, I visited a Narcotics Anonymous meeting where men with tattoos and short-cropped hair sat in a circle and talked out their errors. One had lived under an overpass, pimping his girlfriend’s daughter for cash to buy heroin. As the thought brought him to tears, his neighbor patted his shoulder. Others owned to stealing from grandparents, to losing jobs and children. Soon, most in the room — men with years of street addiction behind them — were wiping their eyes. What made the meeting remarkable, however, was not the stories, but where it was taking place. Unit 104 is a 70-man pod in Kenton County Detention Center in northern Kentucky, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. The unit, and an equivalent one for women, is part of a new approach to jail made necessary by our nationwide epidemic of opiate addiction. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50. As the country has awakened to that epidemic, a new mantra has emerged: “We can’t arrest our way out of this,” accompanied by calls for more drug-addiction treatment. Yet the opiate epidemic has swamped our treatment-center infrastructure. Only one in 10 addicts get the treatment they need, according to a 2016 surgeon general’s report. New centers are costly to build, politically difficult to find real estate for and beyond the means of most uninsured street addicts, anyway. So where can we quickly find cheap new capacity for drug treatment accessible to the street addict? Jail is one place few have thought to look. Jails typically house inmates awaiting trial or serving up to a year for a misdemeanor crime. Many inmates are drug addicts. They vegetate for months, trading crime stories in an atmosphere of boredom and brutality. Any attempt at treatment is usually limited to a weekly visit by a pastor or an Alcoholics Anonymous volunteer. When inmates are released, they’re in the clothes they came in with, regardless of the weather, and have no assistance to re-enter the real world. This kind of jail has always been accepted as an unavoidable fixed cost of government. © 2017 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Drug Abuse
Link ID: 23754 - Posted: 06.20.2017

By Michael Price Whether it’s giving to charity or helping a stranger with directions, we often assist others even when there’s no benefit to us or our family members. Signs of such true altruism have been spotted in some animals, but have been difficult to pin down in our closest evolutionary relatives. Now, in a pair of studies, researchers show that chimpanzees will give up a treat in order to help out an unrelated chimp, and that chimps in the wild go out on risky patrols in order to protect even nonkin at home. The work may give clues to how such cooperation—the foundation of human civilization—evolved in humans. “Both studies provide powerful evidence for forms of cooperation in our closest relatives that have been difficult to demonstrate in other animals besides humans,” says Brian Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who was not involved with the research. In the first study, psychologists Martin Schmelz and Sebastian Grüneisen at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, trained six chimps at the Leipzig Zoo to play a sharing game. Each chimp was paired with a partner who was given a choice of four ropes to pull, each with a different outcome: give just herself a banana pellet; give just the subject a pellet; give both of them pellets; or forgo her turn and let her partner make the decision instead. © 2017 American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Keyword: Evolution
Link ID: 23753 - Posted: 06.20.2017

By Timothy Revell Feeling sad? Soon your dolls will be able to tell. To demonstrate the power of a new chip that can run artificially intelligent algorithms, researchers have put it in a doll and programmed it to recognise emotions in facial images captured by a small camera. The doll can recognise eight emotions in total, including surprise and happiness, all while running on a small battery and without doing any processing in the cloud. The total cost of putting the new chip together is just €115 – an indicator of how easy it is becoming to give devices basic AI abilities. “In the near future, we will see a myriad of eyes everywhere that will not just be watching us, but trying to help us,” says project leader Oscar Deniz at the University of Castilla-La Mancha in Ciudad Real, Spain. Recent advances in AI mean we already have algorithms that can recognise objects, lip-read, make basic decisions and more. It’s only a matter of time before these abilities make their way on to little cheap chips like this one, and then put into consumer devices. “We will have wearable devices, toys, drones, small robots, and things we can’t even imagine yet that will all have basic artificial intelligence,” says Deniz. © Copyright New Scientist Ltd.

Keyword: Emotions
Link ID: 23752 - Posted: 06.20.2017

/ By Joshua C. Kendall Dr. Joshua A. Gordon, the new director of the National Institute of Mental Health, took office in the final year of Barack Obama’s presidency. But he has this much in common with Obama’s successor: He has little patience for incremental reforms. As Gordon defines it, the job involves both advocating for the mental health needs of Americans and developing science to guide policymakers and clinicians. A 49-year-old psychiatrist who made his reputation as a brilliant researcher of mice with mutations that mimic human mental disorders, Gordon is convinced that radical changes are needed in the treatment of illnesses like schizophrenia. In an interview in his office at the NIMH campus in Bethesda, Maryland, he lamented that while modest improvements have been made in patient care over the last few decades, we don’t know enough about the brain to “even begin to imagine what the transformative treatments of tomorrow will be like.” Few psychiatrists would disagree that change is overdue. Take depression: Current approaches, which employ drugs like Prozac or cognitive-behavioral therapy, or a combination of the two, can relieve major symptoms in only some patients. The hope is that “precision medicine” — treatments targeted to the specific biological makeup of the patient — can do for psychiatry what scientists like Gordon’s Nobel Prize-winning mentors J. Michael Bishop and Harold E. Varmus did for cancer treatment a generation ago. Unfortunately, as Gordon is well aware, mental illness is particularly challenging in this regard. In contrast to many types of cancer, where one genetic mutation can cause unregulated cell growth, psychiatric diseases rarely stem from any single faulty gene; instead, they are typically rooted in a complex interplay of genetic, environmental, and cultural factors. Copyright 2017 Undark

Keyword: Depression; Schizophrenia
Link ID: 23751 - Posted: 06.17.2017

By ABBY GOODNOUGH WASHINGTON — Weeks before the presidential election, at a packed rally in New Hampshire, Donald J. Trump recounted the story of a young woman and her boyfriend who had fatally overdosed within a year of each other. He promised not just a border wall to keep drugs out, but also more access to treatment. “We’re going to take care of it,” he said of the opioid addiction epidemic, which has disproportionately hit states that were crucial to his election victory. “What’s taking so long?” Five months into his term, though, President Trump has enthusiastically supported a health care bill that would deeply cut the Medicaid program that has provided treatment to thousands of addicted Americans. He has yet to fill the nation’s top public health and drug policy jobs. And while he has appointed a bipartisan commission on the opioid crisis, which held its first official meeting on Friday, it remains to be seen how much attention the panel can command from Mr. Trump’s turbulent administration. Some addiction specialists say that waiting for a commission’s recommendations when hundreds of people are dying each week — and when countless groups around the country have studied the issue already — is wasting time. What is really needed, the specialists say, is the type of concerted, emergency action that public health officials have used to fight outbreaks of infectious diseases. “There really isn’t anything this commission is going to figure out that we don’t know already,” said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, who directs opioid policy research at Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management. “What we need is an enormous federal investment in expanding access to addiction treatment, and for the different federal agencies that have a piece of this problem to be working in a coordinated fashion.” © 2017 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Drug Abuse
Link ID: 23750 - Posted: 06.17.2017

By Ashley Yeager Researchers led by Bert O’Malley of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, identified a set of metabolism and stress genes in mouse liver cells that followed a pattern of expression on a 12-hour cycle—starting in the morning and again in the evening. O’Malley’s team also found that a 12-hour clock, distinct from the 24-hour circadian clock, drives this morning-evening rhythm in gene expression. The clock’s origin, the scientists suggest, may be rooted in organisms’ initial evolution in the ocean millions of years ago. “It’s a provocative argument,” Cambridge University biologist Michael Hastings tells The Scientist in a phone interview. He’s cautious about the claim of an evolutionary connection between the 12-hour clock in sea creatures and the 12-hour cycles seen in mammals. Still, he commends the team on taking a “cross-biology” approach toward exploring 12-hour gene-expression rhythms in a range of animals. In past studies, researchers have shown that coastal sea animals, such as the crustacean Eurydice pulchra have a dominant body clock driven by the 12-hour ebb and flow of the tides. Rhythms of gene expression every 12-hours have also been found in mammals, such as mice. Whether mammals’ 12-hour rhythms are driven by the body’s circadian clock or something else, however, has remained a mystery. Interested in that question and also observations that the time of day can affect humans’ ability to think clearly, handle stress, and respond to medicine, O’Malley and colleagues began to look more closely at mammals’ 12-hour gene-expression rhythms. In the new study, they analyzed gene-expression data of 18,108 mouse liver genes. Using a mathematical technique developed by researchers at Rice University, the team identified 3,652 genes that had 12-hour rhythms that didn’t appear to be associated with the mouse’s circadian clock. © 1986-2017 The Scientist

Keyword: Biological Rhythms
Link ID: 23748 - Posted: 06.17.2017

By GRETCHEN REYNOLDS Better grades might be found on the playground. A new study of elementary-age children shows that those who were not part of an after-school exercise program tended to pack on a particular type of body fat that can have deleterious impacts on brain health and thinking. But prevention and treatment could be as simple as playing more games of tag. Most children do not meet the federal health guidelines for exercise, which call for at least an hour of it a day for anyone under the age of 18. Physical inactivity can result in weight gain, especially around the midsection — including visceral fat, a type of tissue deep inside the abdomen that is known to increase inflammation throughout the body. It is also linked to heightened risks for diabetes and cardiovascular complications, even in children, and may contribute to declining brain function: Obese adults often perform worse than people of normal weight on tests of thinking skills. But little has been known about visceral fat and brain health in children. For a soon-to-be-published study, researchers from Northeastern University in Boston and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign tracked hundreds of 8-to-10-year-old children in a nine-month after-school exercise program in Urbana. Every day, one group of children played tag and other active games for about 70 minutes. The subjects in a control group continued with their normal lives, with the promise that they could join the program the following year. All the children completed tests of fitness, body composition and cognitive skills at the start and end of the program. The researchers did not ask the children to change their diets. © 2017 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Obesity
Link ID: 23747 - Posted: 06.17.2017

Laurel Hamers When things get hot, embryonic bearded dragon lizards turn female — and now scientists might know why. New analyses, reported online June 14 in Science Advances, reveal that temperature-induced changes in RNA’s protein-making instructions might set off this sex switch. The findings might also apply to other reptile species whose sex is influenced by temperature. Unlike most mammals, many species of reptiles and fish don’t have sex chromosomes. Instead, they develop into males at certain temperatures and females at others. Bearded dragon lizards are an unusual case because chromosome combinations and temperature are known to influence sex determination, says ecologist Clare Holleley of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Canberra, Australia (SN: 7/25/15, p.7). When eggs are incubated below 32° Celsius, embryonic bearded dragons with two Z chromosomes develop as male, while dragons with a Z and a W chromosome develop as female. But as temperatures creep above 32°, chromosomally male ZZ dragons will reverse course and develop as females instead. “They have two sex chromosomes, but they also have this temperature override,” Holleley says. By comparing bearded dragons that are female because of their chromosomes and those that are female because of environmental influences, Holleley and her colleagues hoped to sort out genetic differences that might point to how the lizards make the switch. The team collected RNA from the brain, reproductive organs and other tissues of normal female, normal male and sex-reversed female Australian central bearded dragons (Pogona vitticeps). Then, the researchers compared that RNA, looking for differences in the ways the lizards were turning on genes. |© Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2017.

Keyword: Sexual Behavior
Link ID: 23745 - Posted: 06.15.2017

Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis Whether tapping a foot to samba or weeping at a ballad, the human response to music seems almost instinctual. Yet few can articulate how music works. How do strings of sounds trigger emotion, inspire ideas, even define identities? Cognitive scientists, anthropologists, biologists and musicologists have all taken a crack at that question (see go.nature.com/2sdpcb5), and it is into this line that Adam Ockelford steps. Comparing Notes draws on his experience as a composer, pianist, music researcher and, most notably, a music educator working for decades with children who have visual impairments or are on the autistic spectrum, many with extraordinary musical abilities. Through this “prism of the overtly remarkable”, Ockelford seeks to shed light on music perception and cognition in all of us. Existing models based on neurotypical children could overlook larger truths about the human capacity to learn and make sense of music he contends. Some of the children described in Comparing Notes might (for a range of reasons) have trouble tying their shoelaces or carrying on a basic conversation. Yet before they hit double digits in age, they can hear a complex composition for the first time and immediately play it on the piano, their fingers flying to the correct notes. This skill, Ockelford reminds us, eludes many adults with whom he studied at London's Royal Academy of Music. Weaving together the strands that let these children perform such stunning feats, Ockelford constructs an argument for rethinking conventional wisdom on music education. He positions absolute pitch (AP) as central to these abilities to improvise, listen and play. © 2017 Macmillan Publishers Limited,

Keyword: Hearing
Link ID: 23744 - Posted: 06.15.2017

by Helen Thompson Paper wasps have a knack for recognizing faces, and a new study adds to our understanding of what that means in a wasp’s brain. Most wasps of a given species look the same, but some species of paper wasp (Polistes sp.) display varied colors and markings. Recognizing these patterns is at the core of the wasps’ social interactions. One species, Polistes fuscatus, is especially good at detecting differences in faces — even better than they are at detecting other patterns. To zero on the roots of this ability, biologist Ali Berens of Georgia Tech and her colleagues set up recognition exercises of faces and basic patterns for P. fuscatus wasps and P. metricus wasps — a species that doesn’t naturally recognize faces but can be trained to do so in the lab. After the training, scientists extracted DNA from the wasps’ brains and looked at which bits of DNA or genes were active. The researchers found 237 genes that were at play only in P. fuscatus during facial recognition tests. A few of the genes have been linked to honeybee visual learning, and some correspond to brain signaling with the neurotransmitters serotonin and tachykinin. In the brain, picking up on faces goes beyond basic pattern learning, the researchers conclude June 14 in the Journal of Experimental Biology. It’s possible that some of the same genes also play a broader role in how organisms such as humans and sheep tell one face from another. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2017

Keyword: Attention
Link ID: 23742 - Posted: 06.15.2017

Kathryn Hess can’t tell the difference between a coffee mug and a bagel. That’s the old joke anyway. Hess, a researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, is one of the world’s leading thinkers in the field of algebraic topology—in super simplified terms, the mathematics of rubbery shapes. It uses algebra to attack the following question: If given two geometric objects, can you deform one to another without making any cuts? The answer, when it comes to bagels and coffee mugs, is yes, yes you can. (They only have one hole apiece, lol.) If that all sounds annoyingly abstract, well, it kind of is. Algebraic topologists have lived almost exclusively in multidimensional universes of their own calculation for decades. It’s only recently that pure mathematicians like Hess have begun applying their way of seeing the world to more applied, real-world problems. If you can call understanding the dynamics of a virtual rat brain a real-world problem. In a multimillion-dollar supercomputer in a building on the same campus where Hess has spent 25 years stretching and shrinking geometric objects in her mind, lives one of the most detailed digital reconstructions of brain tissue ever built. Representing 55 distinct types of neurons and 36 million synapses all firing in a space the size of pinhead, the simulation is the brainchild of Henry Markram. Markram and Hess met through a mutual researcher friend 12 years ago, right around the time Markram was launching Blue Brain—the Swiss institute’s ambitious bid to build a complete, simulated brain, starting with the rat. Over the next decade, as Markram began feeding terabytes of data into an IBM supercomputer and reconstructing a collection of neurons in the sensory cortex, he and Hess continued to meet and discuss how they might use her specialized knowledge to understand what he was creating. “It became clearer and clearer algebraic topology could help you see things you just can’t see with flat mathematics,” says Markram. But Hess didn’t officially join the project until 2015, when it met (and some would say failed) its first big public test.

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 23741 - Posted: 06.14.2017