Oct 16, 2010

The function of love is to ease pain according to new brain research

Brain scans suggest many of the areas normally involved in pain response are also activated by amorous thoughts. Stanford University researchers gave 15 students mild doses of pain, while checking if they were distracted by gazing at photos of their beloved.

The study focused on people early in a romance, journal PLoS One reported, so the “drug of love” may wear off. The scientists who carried out the experiment used “functional magnetic resonance imaging” (fMRI) to measure activity in real-time in different parts of the brain.

Full details over at BBC News

Oct 15, 2010

The Platypus Can Poison You 80 Different Ways

“The platypus is a bit like a fruitcake. Shove a bunch of leftover genes in there, mix it up and send it to your relatives see what kind of animal you get.

That’s kind of the approach evolution used when designing this odd creature’s venom; scientists have just determined that the venom contains over 80 different toxins in 13 different classes. The poison can kill small animals, and can leave humans in pain for weeks. The venom is delivered through a barb on the male’s foot–it’s thought that the fellas use the poison during mating season to show dominance.

At least three of the toxins are unique to the platypus and the rest are strikingly similar to proteins from a variety of animals including snakes, lizards, starfish, and sea anemones. It seems that some of these toxins have evolved separately in different animal lineages to perform the same function, a process called convergent evolution. The study’s lead author, Wesley Warren, told Nature News:

Warren says that this probably happens when genes that perform normal chores, such as blood coagulation, become duplicated independently in different lineages, where they evolve the capacity to carry out other jobs. Animals end up using the same genes as building blocks for venom because only a subset of the proteins the genes encode have the structural and functional properties to become venoms, he adds.

Learning more about how these toxins attack our system and induce inflammation, nerve damage, muscle contraction, and blood coagulation, could teach us how to design drugs with these effects (like coagulation for hemopheliacs), or their opposite (like new pain relievers).”

Read more at Discover Magazine

Oct 14, 2010

People join the herd even on Facebook

“Technology may have moved on but it seems people cannot shake off the herding instinct, a study of 50 million Facebook users found today. The Oxford University-led research looked at the rate at which members of the networking site added software applications, known as apps, to their pages – and found social influence had a large role to play. Analysing the anonymous data, the researchers found people display a herding instinct, making them want to use the same product as others, but only once it has reached a certain level of popularity.

Dr Felix Reed-Tsochas from Oxford University’s Institute for Science, Innovation and Society, said: “Our analysis reveals a very interesting new finding. Users only appear to be influenced by the choices of other users above a certain level of popularity, and at that point, popularity drives future popularity. “Below this threshold, the effects of social influence are imperceptible. Because popularity seems to depend mainly on the choices of others in the community, rather than intrinsic characteristics of the applications themselves, it does not appear possible to predict which applications will succeed and which will fail ahead of time.”

A computer was set up to monitor Facebook automatically every hour, recording how many of the website’s then 50 million users had signed up for each app. When the research was carried out, Facebook published a list of the most popular apps on its website, and also notified people when their friends downloaded a new one. This meant that users were open to influence not just from their local network, but from the whole community of Facebook members, the researchers found. Dr Reed-Tsochas said: “It was very interesting, because usually when you see the spread of a product or an idea, you don’t know to what extent that is because there has been a media campaign, and to what extent it’s word of mouth.”"

Read more at Sunday Mercury

Baby Born From Embryo Frozen For 20 Years

“NewsCore – A healthy baby boy was born from an embryo frozen for almost 20 years in what was hailed Sunday as scientific breakthrough that could allow women to start families much later in life. The infant’s mother, who is 42, underwent infertility treatment for 10 years before she was given the embryo last year. She gave birth to a baby boy in May this year. News of the birth, reported in the medical journal Fertility and Sterility, comes as British lawmakers extend the period that embryos can be stored for up to 55 years.

The baby boy was born from a batch of five embryos frozen in 1990 in the U.S. by a couple who no longer needed them after they conceived their own child through IVF treatment. That means the two children are siblings although born 20 years apart. The woman’s doctor, Sergio Oehninger, director of the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine at the Eastern Virginia medical school said, “She has been going through treatment for a long time. She was a patient here in 2000. She was a persistent lady.”

The previous record was a baby boy born to a Spanish woman after having been frozen as an embryo for 13 years. The success story gives hope to single women who want to postpone having children until they find a suitable partner or women who want to delay conceiving for health reasons. Critics argue the techniques could lead to an increase in elderly mothers.”

Read more at MyFoxNY

Oct 13, 2010

Willy Wonka chewing gum could become reality

“Researchers have developed a technology that allows different flavours to be captured inside microscopic capsules, which can be designed to release the flavours at different times. They claim it could be used to produce a real life version of Willy Wonka’s three course meal gum, which features in Roald Dahl’s famous children’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

The microcapsules were originally developed to provide a way of delivering drugs to specific parts of the digestive system, but now scientists at the Institute of Food Research in Norwich want to use them to recreate Wonka’s eccentric creation. Some of the capsules could be filled with flavouring for tomato soup that would break open on contact with saliva, while tougher capsules would contain the flavour for roast beef that would break open as the gum is chewed. A final flavour for blueberry pie could be packaged in capsules that require vigorous chewing to burst.

Professor Dave Hart, a food scientist at the Institute has already developed a boiled sweet that uses different layers to provide changes in flavour, but he hopes the new technology could help produce more dramatic results. He said: “There are a number of groups here at the Institute who have been working with these capsules to provide a new way of delivering drugs to the colon, which means they have to be able to survive passing through the rest of the digestive system. “Researchers in America have been looking at using these capsules as a way of delivering flavour in food. So using it in this way would allow us to provide new experiences for people when eating. “Wonka’s fantasy concoction has been nothing but a dream for millions of kids across the world. But science and technology is changing the future of food, and these nanoparticles may hold the answer to creating a three course gourmet gum.”

Read more at The Telegraph

Magic Software Eliminates Objects From Reality Itself

“Witchcraft! That’s what you’ll scream after watching how this program makes objects disappear from a live video—in real time. It’s the opposite of augmented reality: Instead of adding digital things, this technology eliminates objects from the real world.

The research team led by Professor Dr. Wolfgang Broll—Head of the Department of Virtual Worlds and Digital Games at the Technische Universit├Ąt in Ilmenau, Germany—calls it Disminishing Reality System. Think about it as Adobe Photoshop Content-Aware fill but in real time, using a video camera connected to your computer or smartphone.

How it works?
Their software takes a live video feed and does some pretty neat seemingly magic tricks with it. After roughly selecting the object, their program reduces the quality of the frames coming from the camera. Then it removes the object from the reduced quality version. Once this is done, it improves the quality of the result and blends it with the actual frame, which is returned to the viewer in just 41ms. At that speed, the human brain doesn’t notice any delay.

The results seem truly magical. I wish I could go around the world with eyeglasses that had this feature built-in. And with an “execute disintegration” button too. ”

Read more at Gizmodo

Moonlighting as a Conjurer of Chemicals

“Sir Isaac Newton was a towering genius in the history of science, he knew he was a genius, and he didn’t like wasting his time. Born on Dec. 25, 1642, the great English physicist and mathematician rarely socialized or traveled far from home. He didn’t play sports or a musical instrument, gamble at whist or gambol on a horse. He dismissed poetry as “a kind of ingenious nonsense,” and the one time he attended an opera he fled at the third act. Newton was unmarried, had no known romantic liaisons and may well have died, at the age of 85, with his virginity intact. “I never knew him to take any recreation or pastime,” said his assistant, Humphrey Newton, “thinking all hours lost that were not spent on his studies.”

No, it wasn’t easy being Newton. Not only did he hammer out the universal laws of motion and gravitational attraction, formulating equations that are still used today to plot the trajectories of space rovers bound for Mars; and not only did he discover the spectral properties of light and invent calculus. Sir Isaac had a whole other full-time career, a parallel intellectual passion that he kept largely hidden from view but that rivaled and sometimes surpassed in intensity his devotion to celestial mechanics. Newton was a serious alchemist, who spent night upon dawn for three decades of his life slaving over a stygian furnace in search of the power to transmute one chemical element into another.

Newton’s interest in alchemy has long been known in broad outline, but the scope and details of that moonlighting enterprise are only now becoming clear, as science historians gradually analyze and publish Newton’s extensive writings on alchemy — a million-plus words from the Newtonian archives that had previously been largely ignored.”

Read more at The NY Times

Oct 12, 2010

Human Ancestors Hunted by Prehistoric Beasts

Early humans may have evolved as prey animals rather than as predators, suggest the remains of our prehistoric primate ancestors that were devoured by hungry birds and carnivorous mammals.

The discovery of multiple de-fleshed, chomped and gnawed bones from the extinct primates, which lived 16 to 20 million years ago on Rusinga Island, Kenya, was announced today at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology's 70th Anniversary Meeting in Pittsburgh.

At least one of the devoured primates, an early ape called Proconsul, is thought to have been an ancestor to both modern humans and chimpanzees. It, and other primates on the island, were also apparently good eats for numerous predators.

"I have observed multiple tooth pits and probable beak marks on these fossil primates, which are direct evidence for creodonts and raptors consuming these primates," researcher Kirsten Jenkins told Discovery News.

Creodonts were ancient carnivorous mammals that filled a niche similar to that of modern carnivores, but are unrelated to today's meat eaters, she explained. The Rusinga Island creodonts that fed on our primate ancestors were likely wolf-sized.

"There is one site on Rusinga Island with multiple Proconsul individuals all together and these are covered in tooth pits," added Jenkins, a University of Minnesota anthropologist. "This kind of site was likely a creodont den or location where prey could be easily acquired."

Analysis of tooth pits, de-fleshing marks, bone breakage patterns, gnawing and other damage to the primate bones indicate that raptors were also hunting down these distant relatives of humans.

"Primatologists have observed large raptors taking monkeys from trees," Jenkins said. "When a raptor approaches a group of monkeys, those monkeys will make alarm calls to warn their group and attempt to retreat to lower branches. The primates on Rusinga had monkey-like postcrania and likely had very similar locomotor behavior."

The study presents the first evidence of raptor predation on fossil primates from Rusinga, which was part of the side of a large volcano 20 million years ago.

Multiple ash layers suggest that eruptions killed countless animals from time to time. But when the volcano was inactive, the site supported a wooded area.

Jenkins is not certain what selective pressures predators placed on these very early primate ancestors to humans, but she said they "can affect behavior, group structure, body size and ontogeny (the life cycle of a single organism)."

Read more at Discovery News

Giant Pterosaurs Could Fly 10,000 Miles Nonstop

PITTSBURGH — Predating jet travel by at least 65 million years wasn’t a problem for the biggest pterosaurs. These prehistoric creatures might have been able to fly up to 10,000 miles nonstop, according to research presented October 10 at the annual meeting of the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology.

sciencenewsThe original elite flyers included four species of what biomechanist Michael Habib, of Chatham University in Pittsburgh, calls supergiant pterosaurs: flying reptiles such as Quetzalcoatlus northropi from Texas. Appearing in the fossil record 70 million years ago, they stood about as tall as a modern giraffe and launched into the air spreading membrane wings to a total span of roughly 10 meters.

These supergiants “are big by pterosaur standards,” Habib said. “They are truly gruesomely huge by bird and bat standards.”

If current estimates for pterosaur body masses and wing dimensions are realistic, and if the pterosaurs could catch thermals and glide the way a bird can, “it would make them the longest single-trip-distance fliers in the Earth’s history,” Habib said. Birds have logged impressive distances considering their small size, such as Arctic terns that basically migrate pole to pole, but birds don’t do so in one go.

The new pterosaur calculations raise the possibility that the supergiant fossils found on separate continents can’t automatically be considered different species, Habib suggested. “A pterosaur from Big Bend could be mating with a pterosaur from Transylvania,” he said.

Huge distances for non-stop travel may sound extreme, said David Unwin, a pterosaur researcher at the University of Leicester in England, but “we didn’t fall on the floor laughing” hearing of the idea. Unwin said he welcomes the new figures for at last providing some specifics for discussion.

Read more at Wired

Oct 11, 2010

Deaf ‘rewire brain’ to see better

People deaf from birth may be able to reassign the area of their brain used for hearing to boost their sight, suggests a study. Improved peripheral vision, often reported by deaf people, could be generated by the brain area which would normally deal with peripheral hearing. The Canadian research, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, tested the theory using congenitally deaf cats.

The researcher involved said the brain did not let unused space “go to waste”. Both deaf and blind people frequently say their other senses are sharper by way of compensation. However, it has not been obvious how the brain might achieve this. The researchers from the University of Western Ontario used their cat studies to test which parts of the brain were responsible. Their cats were given tests in which lights flashed at the very periphery of their normal vision. When only the auditory cortex – the part of the brain which normally processes sound information – was deactivated temporarily, their enhanced peripheral vision appeared to be switched off as well.

Narrowing the search, the team found that the part of the auditory cortex responsible was the part which would ordinarily detect peripheral sounds. Dr Stephen Lomber, who led the research, said: “The brain is very efficient, and doesn’t let unused space go to waste. “The brain wants to compensate for the lost sense with enhancements that are beneficial. “For example, if you’re deaf, you would benefit by seeing a car coming far off in your peripheral vision, because you can’t hear that car approaching from the side – the same with being to more accurately detect how fast something is moving.” He said that understanding what happens within the auditory cortex in the absence of sound information coming in could help doctors work out what is happening when someone with hearing loss is given a cochlear implant. “If the brain has rewired itself to compensate for the loss of hearing, what happens when hearing is restored?”

Read more at BBC News

Can You Believe This is a Wall Painting?

See more amazing realistic wall paintings over at Moillusions

Oct 10, 2010

Evidence of water in megacanyon on Mars

“Melas Chasma, a huge canyon forming part of the 4000 km Valles Marineris rift valley on Mars, plunges 9 km below the surrounding plains in this image, which was taken by the High Resolution Stereo Camera on the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter, making it one of the deepest depressions on the planet.

Released today by the German Aerospace Centre, the image also shows evidence that water once flowed and lakes once stood on the Martian surface. White lines are channels cut by water and lighter-coloured regions indicate deposits of sulphate components. Rock formations display evidence of flow textures, indicating that they were once deposited by liquid water, water ice or mud.”

Read more at New Scientist