Rapid eye movement sleep: Keystone of memory formation

May 16, 2016

For decades, scientists have fiercely debated whether rapid eye movement (REM) sleep – the phase where dreams appear – is directly involved in memory formation.

Now, a study published in Science by researchers at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute (McGill University) and the University of Bern provides evidence that REM sleep does, indeed, play this role – at least in mice.

“We already knew that newly acquired information is stored into different types of memories, spatial or emotional, before being consolidated or integrated,” says Sylvain Williams, a researcher and professor of psychiatry at McGill. Read more

Brain’s stopping system may be at fault for derailed train of thought

April 19, 2016

Have you had the experience of being just on the verge of saying something when the phone rang? Did you then forget what it is you were going to say? A study of the brain’s electrical activity offers a new explanation of how that happens.

Published in Nature Communications, the study comes from the lab of neuroscientist Adam Aron at the University of California San Diego, together with collaborators at Oxford University in the UK, and was led by first author Jan Wessel, while a post-doctoral scholar in the Aron Lab. The researchers suggest that the same brain system that is involved in interrupting, or stopping, movement in our bodies also interrupts cognition — which, in the example of the phone ringing, derails your train of thought. Read more

Fairy circles discovered in Australia by researchers

March 29, 2016

Researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) and Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig, Germany are unraveling the mystery behind what causes “fairy circles.” Recently discovered in the uninhabited Australian outback, fairy circles were thought to exist only in Africa.

According to a new study in the PNAS journal (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), the research team found new evidence that these barren circular patches of land — previously thought to exist only in the dry Namibia grassland of southern Africa — occur due to the way plants organize themselves in response to water shortage. Read more

Scientists find stem cells capable of repairing skull, face bones

February 2, 2016

A team of Rochester scientists has, for the first time, identified and isolated a stem cell population capable of skull formation and craniofacial bone repair in mice–achieving an important step toward using stem cells for bone reconstruction of the face and head in the future, according to a new paper in Nature Communications. Read more

Record warm years almost certainly due to human-made climate change

January 26, 2016

Recent record warm years are with extremely high likelihood caused by human-made climate change. Without greenhouse-gas emissions from burning coal and oil, the odds are vanishingly small that 13 out of the 15 warmest years ever measured would all have happened in the current, still young century. These odds are between 1 in 5000 and 1 in 170.000, a new study by an international team of scientists now shows. Including the data for 2015, which came in after the study was completed, makes the odds even slimmer.

“2015 is again the warmest year on record, and this can hardly be by chance,” says co-author Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. The scientists performed a sophisticated statistical analysis, combining observational data and comprehensive computer simulations of the climate system. Their new approach allowed them to better separate natural climate variability from human-caused climate change.

“Natural climate variability causes temperatures to wax and wane over a period of several years, rather than varying erratically from one year to the next,” says lead-author Michael Mann, distinguished professor of meteorology and director, Earth System Science Center, Penn State (US). “That makes it more challenging to accurately assess the chance likelihood of temperature records. Given the recent press interest, it just seemed like it was important to do this right, and address, in a defensible way, the interesting and worthwhile question of how unlikely it is that the recent run of record temperatures might have arisen by chance alone.”

Global warming increases risk of local heat extremes

The newly computed odds for experiencing the recent runs of record temperatures by chance, without accounting for human-caused greenhouse gases, are greater than odds previously reported in some media – between 1 in 27 million and 1 in 650 million – but they are still incredibly slim.

In contrast, taking human-caused global warming into account makes the recent record temperatures quite likely, as the study further shows. Rahmstorf sums up the findings: “Natural climate variations just can’t explain the observed recent global heat records, but man-made global warming can.” What is more, the anomalous global average warmth comes with substantial impacts. “It has led to unprecedented local heat waves across the world – sadly resulting in loss of life and aggravating droughts and wildfires,” says Rahmstorf. “The risk of heat extremes has been multiplied due to our interference with the Earth system, as our data analysis shows.”

Physicists propose the first scheme to teleport the memory of an organism

January 13, 2016

In “Star Trek”, a transporter can teleport a person from one location to a remote location without actually making the journey along the way. Such a transporter has fascinated many people. Quantum teleportation shares several features of the transporter and is one of the most important protocols in quantum information. In a recent study, Prof. Tongcang Li at Purdue University and Dr. Zhang-qi Yin at Tsinghua University proposed the first scheme to use electromechanical oscillators and superconducting circuits to teleport the internal quantum state (memory) and center-of-mass motion state of a microorganism. They also proposed a scheme to create a SchrÃdinger’s cat state in which a microorganism can be in two places at the same time. This is an important step towards potentially teleporting an organism in future. Read more

Do we have free will?

January 4, 2016

The background to this new set of experiments lies in the debate regarding conscious will and determinism in human decision-making, which has attracted researchers, psychologists, philosophers and the general public, and which has been ongoing since at least the 1980s. Back then, the American researcher Benjamin Libet studied the nature of cerebral processes of study participants during conscious decision-making. He demonstrated that conscious decisions were initiated by unconscious brain processes, and that a wave of brain activity referred to as a ‘readiness potential’ could be recorded even before the subject had made a conscious decision. Read more

Super-Earths feature ‘Forbidden’ substances

December 27, 2015

Using mathematical models, scientists have ‘looked’ into the interior of super-Earths and discovered that they may contain compounds that are forbidden by the classical rules of chemistry — these substances may increase the heat transfer rate and strengthen the magnetic field on these planets. The findings have been presented in a paper published in the journal Scientific Reports.

The authors of the paper are a group of researchers from MIPT led by Artem Oganov, a professor of the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology and the head of the MIPT Laboratory of Computer Design. In a previous study, Oganov and his colleagues used an algorithm created by Oganov called USPEX to identify new compounds of sodium and chlorine, as well as other exotic substances. Read more

Intelligence ‘networks’ discovered in brain for the first time

December 22, 2015

Scientists from Imperial College London have identified for the first time two clusters of genes linked to human intelligence.

Called M1 and M3, these so-called gene networks appear to influence cognitive function – which includes memory, attention, processing speed and reasoning.

Crucially, the scientists have discovered that these two networks – which each contain hundreds of genes – are likely to be under the control of master regulator switches. The researchers are now keen to identify these switches and explore whether it might be feasible to manipulate them. The research is at a very early stage, but the scientists would ultimately like to investigate whether it is possible to use this knowledge of gene networks to boost cognitive function.

Dr Michael Johnson, lead author of the study from the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London, said: “We know that genetics plays a major role in intelligence but until now haven’t known which genes are relevant. This research highlights some of genes involved in human intelligence, and how they interact with each other.

What’s exciting about this is that the genes we have found are likely to share a common regulation, which means that potentially we can manipulate a whole set of genes whose activity is linked to human intelligence. Our research suggests that it might be possible to work with these genes to modify intelligence, but that is only a theoretical possibility at the moment – we have just taken a first step along that road.”

In the study, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, the international team of researchers looked at samples of human brain from patients who had undergone neurosurgery for epilepsy. The investigators analysed thousands of genes expressed in the human brain, and then combined these results with genetic information from healthy people who had undergone IQ tests and from people with neurological disorders such as autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disability.

They conducted various computational analyses and comparisons in order to identify the gene networks influencing healthy human cognitive abilities. Remarkably, they found that some of the same genes that influence human intelligence in healthy people were also the same genes that cause impaired cognitive ability and epilepsy when mutated.

Dr Johnson added: “Traits such intelligence are governed by large groups of genes working together – like a football team made up of players in different positions. We used computer analysis to identify the genes in the human brain that work together to influence our cognitive ability to make new memories or sensible decisions when faced with lots of complex information. We found that some of these genes overlap with those that cause severe childhood onset epilepsy or intellectual disability.

“This study shows how we can use large genomic datasets to uncover new pathways for human brain function in both health and disease. Eventually, we hope that this sort of analysis will provide new insights into better treatments for neurodevelopmental diseases such as epilepsy, and ameliorate or treat the cognitive impairments associated with these devastating diseases.”

Exposure to violence makes you more likely to lie, cheat

December 4, 2015

Can watching a violent movie make you more likely to lie, cheat or steal? What about reading a violent book? While that may seem like a stretch, a new research study shows it may be the case.

The study, published in the Journal of Business Ethics, finds that exposure to human violence is strongly linked to an increase in cheating for monetary gain. In other words, violence may be making us less ethical.

“Research shows that violent media increases aggressive behavior towards others, but what we’re showing here is that it goes beyond that,” said study coauthor Josh Gubler, a professor of political science at BYU.

Gubler and coauthor David Wood, a professor of accounting in the Marriott School of Management, carried out three experiments with roughly 1,000 participants (recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk) for the study.

In the first experiment, participants were paid to review sentences and edit those with mistakes. Half of the participants were given sentences with violent language. Subjects were told they would be paid whether or not they were correct, providing an incentive to mark all sentences “correct” to earn money quicker. Those who reviewed violent sentences were 24 percent more likely to cheat.

In another experiment, participants were hired to watch and evaluate movie clips. (They were told they needed to watch the entirety of all the clips to be paid.) One clip consisted of 10 minutes of a blue screen with a monotone voiceover. The researchers found those who viewed violent movie clips were more likely to lie about watching all the videos.

Surprisingly, while both male and female test subjects responded to violently worded media (experiment 1), only the men’s ethics were negatively influenced by violent videos.

“We have whole industries that glorify violence–in video games, in media, in Hollywood–and then, on the opposite side, we have a significant body of research showing very serious effects to this,” Wood said. “There is a disconnect between what science is saying and what we choose to do in society.”

One such study, published in 2009, found that subjects who played violent video games for only 20 minutes took five times longer to help a person in need. The study also found that people who had just seen a violent film took 26 percent longer to help an injured woman.

Last year the journal, Psychology of Popular Media Culture, published a study showing the majority of media researchers, not to mention parents and pediatricians, see the link between violent media and increased aggression.

Wood believes our society needs to have a “really serious gut check” and ask why we tolerate and glorify violence. He and Gubler said their study is the latest to show that violent media has more negative impacts than most people imagine.

“We hope this provides another piece of evidence to the debate we’re having within western society of the effects of media on behavior,” Gubler said. “We hope this information informs parents and communities as they make decisions about what types of media they consume.”

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