Dec 18, 2010

Does sleep increase creativity?

“Sleep is making memories stronger,” says Jessica D. Payne of the University of Notre Dame, who co-wrote the review with Elizabeth A. Kensinger of Boston College. “It also seems to be doing something which I think is so much more interesting, and that is reorganizing and restructuring memories.”

Payne and Kensinger study what happens to memories during sleep, and they have found that a person tends to hang on to the most emotional part of a memory. For example, if someone is shown a scene with an emotional object, such as a wrecked car, in the foreground, they’re more likely to remember the emotional object than, say, the palm trees in the background — particularly if they’re tested after a night of sleep. They have also measured brain activity during sleep and found that regions of the brain involved with emotion and memory consolidation are active.

“In our fast-paced society, one of the first things to go is our sleep,” Payne says. “I think that’s based on a profound misunderstanding that the sleeping brain isn’t doing anything.” The brain is busy. It’s not just consolidating memories, it’s organizing them and picking out the most salient information. She thinks this is what makes it possible for people to come up with creative, new ideas.

Full article at Science Daily

Cold Plasma Kills Bacteria Better Than Antibiotics

Russian and German scientists may have found a better way to treat infections than using antibiotics. The solution is not another drug, but a feat of physics: cold plasma.

Before you ask whether that is an oxymoron, let me explain. Cold here is not cold in the Arctic sense; rather the opposite of scalding hot. Plasma -- an ionized gas sometimes called the fourth state of matter -- typically exists at thousands of degrees Celsius, and hot plasmas are regularly used to sterilizing surgical equipment.

And only recently have researchers been able to make plasmas at a steady 35 to 40 degrees Celsius and at atmospheric pressure. This is cold enough to touch safely -- watch this woman on YouTube run her finger beneath a cold plasma flame.

Cold plasmas are closer to room temperatures. Svetlana Ermolaeva and her research team at the Gamaleya Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow wanted to see how well cold plasma could work against nasty microbes that lead to infections.They used a cold plasma torch in the lab to combat two common bacteria, Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Staphylococcus aureus, which show up frequently in wound infections, but are resistant to antibiotics because they have a protective layer called a biofilm.

After five minutes, the plasma torch killed 99 percent of bacteria grown in a Petri dish, and after ten minutes, it killed 90 percent of bacteria present in the wounds of a rat wounds. And because the torch can be directed at a specific, small area of infection, surrounding tissue is left unharmed.

Read more at Discovery News

Dec 17, 2010

Meet the woman who literally has no fear of anything

A 44-year-old woman who doesn’t experience fear has led to the discovery of where that fright factor lives in the human brain.

Researchers put out their best foot to try to scare the patient, who they refer to as “SM” in their write-up in the most recent issue of the journal Current Biology. Haunted houses, where monsters tried to evoke an avoidance reaction, instead evoked curiosity; spiders and snakes didn’t do the trick; and a battery of scary film clips entertained SM.

The patient has a rare condition called Urbach–Wiethe disease that has destroyed her amygdala, the almond-shaped structure located deep in the brain. Over the past 50 years studies have shown the amygdala plays a central role in generating fear responses in various animals from rats to monkeys.

Full article at LiveScience

Bulgarian TV reports of 8000 year old sun temple

The oldest temple of the Sun has been discovered in northwest Bulgaria, near the town of Vratsa, aged at more then 8000 years, the Bulgarian National Television (BNT) reported on December 15 2010.

The Bulgarian ‘Stonehenge’ is hence about 3000 years older than its illustrious English counterpart. But unlike its more renowned English cousin, the Bulgarian sun temple was not on the surface, rather it was dug out from under tons of earth and is shaped in the form of a horse shoe, the report said.

The temple was found near the village of Ohoden. According to archaeologists, the prehistoric people used the celestial facility to calculate the seasons and to determine the best times for sowing and harvest. The site was also used for rituals, offering gifts to the Sun for fertility as BNT reported.

This area of Bulgaria was previously made famous because remnants of the oldest people who lived in this part of Europe were found. Archaeologists also found dozens of clay and stone disks in the area of the temple.

“The semantics of the disks symbolise the disk of the Sun itself, which means that this is the earliest ever temple dedicated to the worship of the Sun God, discovered on our lands,” archaeologist Georgi Ganetsovski told the BNT.


Dec 16, 2010

Child regains sight after stem cell treatment in China

Izabelle Evans, who was born with septo-optic dysplasia, a condition that affects five in one million babies, can now see objects that are up to 3 feet away after the £50,000 treatment.

Her parents James Evans and Hollie McHugh raised the money in just over a year after finding out about the procedure online.

The family spent over a month in the Chinese city of Tsingtao where Izabelle frequently became upset as she endured the gruelling five-days-a-week treatment.

However, since returning to Hayling Island, Hants, Izabelle's parents have been delighted with the results.

Miss McHugh said: "We thought that if it did work it may be a bit of light perception but for her to be able to tell the difference between faces and objects has been amazing."

Read more and see video at The Telegraph

Brain only fully 'matures' in middle age, claims neuroscientist

Scientists used to believe that your brain stopped physically evolving in early childhood but new research has shown that keeps changing well into middle age.

Brain scans have shown that prefrontal cortex – the area just behind your forehead – continues to change shape in your 30s and 40s.

The discovery is particularly significant as the prefrontal cortex is a key area of the brain and is often thought said to be key to what makes us human.

It is said to be involved with decision making, social interaction and many other personality traits.

Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a neuroscientist at University College London, revealed the new thinking at the British Neuroscience Christmas symposium in London.

She said: "Until about 10 years ago we pretty much assumed that the human brain stopped developing in early childhood.

"But we now understand from brain imaging that that is far from the truth and that many human brains keep on developing for many decades.

"The area of the brain that goes through the most protracted development is the prefrontal cortex right at the front of the brain.

"It is the part of the brain that is involved in high cognitive function such as decision making, planning and social behaviour. It is also to do with understanding other people.

Read more at The Telegraph

The size of your brain’s visual cortex determines whether optical illusions fool you

“How we perceive the world is determined by the visual cortex, but not everybody’s cortex is created equal. One person’s visual cortex can be up to three times bigger than someone else’s, and size matters when it comes to perception.

The primary visual cortex has a far more active role in shaping how we see the world than anyone had suspected. Researchers at University College London discovered this when they were testing a pair of optical illusions on some test subjects. Here’s the first one, known as the Ebbinghaus illusion:

Which of the two circles at the center of the other circles is smaller? Most people will say the circle on the left is smaller than the circle on the right, but they’re actually the exact same size.”

Read more at io9

Dec 15, 2010

Murdered French King's Remains Identified

A mummified head has been confirmed to belong to Henri IV, the French king who was stabbed to death by a Catholic fundamentalist 400 years ago.

The head has been identified using a combination of anthropological, paleopathological, radiological and forensic strategies by a multi-disciplinary team of 20 experts, who report their findings in Christmas issue of the British Medical Journal.

One of France's most popular monarchs, also known as the "Green Gallant" for his allure on women, Henry IV is credited with ending the wars between Catholics and Protestants.

Following the St Bartholomew's Day massacre of Protestants, he was forced to convert to Catholicism, allegedly declaring, "Paris is worth a Mass," before becoming “good King Henry”.

Despite his popularity, he was assassinated on May 14, 1610, at age 57, by Catholic fanatic Francois Ravaillac, who slashed him twice in the throat while the royal coach was stopped in traffic congestion.

Henry IV’s embalmed body was solemnly buried with the other kings of France in the basilica of Saint-Denis, north of Paris.

Read more at Discovery News

Can't learn a foreign language? Not true, say scientists

All one needs to do is listen to a word 160 times over that period, found Cambridge neuroscientists.

After that the brain will have formed a whole new network of neurons specifically tasked with remembering that word.
The process happens far quicker than previously thought, they found.
Dr Yury Shtyrov and his team made the discovery after placing electrodes on the heads of 16 healthy volunteers to monitor their brain activity.
First they recorded the pulses generated when they listened to a familiar word. Then the volunteers were made to listen to a made-up word, over and over again.

Initially the brain had to work hard to recognise the new word. But after 160 repetitions over 14 minutes, the new memory traces were "virtually indistinguishable" from those of the already familiar word, said Dr Shtyrov.
He said: "What this suggests is that practising language is important. Every little helps.

"Just perception - listening - is helpful. Our volunteers didn't repeat the words."

Getting them to repeat the words would "probably extend the new neural networks" to the part of the brain tasked with speech, he said.

However, he and colleagues at the Medical Research Council's Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit developed the approach, called constraint-induced aphasia therapy (CIAT), not to help tourists learn French, but to help stroke patients regain their speech.

He said: "This research suggests that faster rehabilitation may be possible if treatments for people with brain damage, such as stroke patients, target the brain’s ability to rapidly create these memory traces."

The next step was to test the theory in stroke patients, he added.

The research is published today (WED) in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Read more at The Telegraph

Massive Volcanism May Have Caused Biggest Extinction Ever

SAN FRANCISCO — The greatest extinction in the history of life may have been caused, in part, by ozone-depleting gases spewed in a massive volcanic eruption, a new study suggests. Geologists have found surprisingly high amounts of the elements fluorine and chlorine in Siberian lavas dating back 250 million years — when about 90 percent of marine species and 70 percent of terrestrial species went extinct.

Benjamin Black, a graduate student at MIT, and his colleagues described their theory Dec. 13 in a poster presentation at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

Researchers have long struggled to explain the “Great Dying” that occurred at the end of the Permian period. Some think that the extinction was a long, drawn-out affair caused by multiple factors — perhaps gradual changes in oceanic or atmospheric chemistry (SN: 5/28/05, p. 339). Others have blamed a single catastrophic event such as a belch of methane from the seafloor or an asteroid impact (SN: 2/24/01, p. 116) like the one thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs and other species 65 million years ago.

Full Story at Wired Science

Dec 14, 2010

Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People: a Christmas show that promises fun for all the faithless

On paper, it shouldn't really work. How many takers could there be for a science-themed variety show, mingling orchestral numbers, stand-up comedy and lectures from Simon Singh, Brian Cox and Richard Dawkins, before concluding with a rousing singalong led by Barry Cryer?

Yet against all the odds, Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People has become something of a seasonal institution. Tomorrow, it starts a sold-out run at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London; last year's show attracted such buzz that it was screened on BBC Four.

The event is the brainchild of comedian Robin Ince, who acts as host and general impresario. "It's sort of a mix of the Royal Variety Show and the Royal Institution's Christmas Lectures," he explains. "You're mixing physics with Jarvis Cocker singing I Believe in Father Christmas, before Richard Dawkins talks about cobweb formation. Hopefully, we manage to iron out the kinks."

The show's success has certainly surprised those who thought that gags about the Uncertainty Principle would never be big box office – and it is part of a more general trend. "Until recently, television in particular hasn't had as much science on it as when I was growing up," says Ince. "But what sometimes gets forgotten is that people are receptive to having ideas thrown at them."

One problem, he argues, is that science is often dismissed as dry. "I had the normal path, which was to love science as a child, then find it really dull when I became a teenager, because it's hard to make it interesting while sticking to the curriculum. But 10 years ago, I picked up a book by Carl Sagan called Pale Blue Dot, about mankind's place in the universe, which set me back on the path."

Now, he is evangelical on the topic. "How can science be dry," he asks, "when it covers everything, from human behaviour to the Sun? In fact, the whole behaviour of the universe is so eccentric that there's an endless amount of material for comedy."

This enthusiasm comes across in the show – which last year featured stand-up from Dara O'Briain, an "evolutionary rap" and Al Murray's proof that God exists (how else could the bacon sandwich have been created?). Yet it was also possible to detect a certain smugness: profits go to the Rationalist Association, and there's definitely a chiding tone towards those credulous enough to believe in the Bible.

Ince rejects the accusation that he's anti-religion. "It's not like Richard Dawkins and I are building a giant tank that we'll drive into Canterbury Cathedral. Actually, I come from a long line of vicars. And one thing I ask all the performers is to avoid talking about religion or having a go at the Bible, and instead to celebrate the universe."

Read more at The Telegraph

Have we finally cured HIV? Doctors claim success

Doctors who carried out a stem cell transplant on an HIV-infected man with leukaemia in 2007 say they now believe the man to have been cured of HIV infection as a result of the treatment, which introduced stem cells which happened to be resistant to HIV infection.

The man received bone marrow from a donor who had natural resistance to HIV infection; this was due to a genetic profile which led to the CCR5 co-receptor being absent from his cells. The most common variety of HIV uses CCR5 as its ‘docking station’, attaching to it in order to enter and infect CD4 cells, and people with this mutation are almost completely protected against infection.

The case was first reported at the 2008 Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Boston, and Berlin doctors subsequently published a detailed case history in the New England Journal of Medicine in February 2009.

They have now published a follow-up report in the journal Blood, arguing that based on the results of extensive tests, “It is reasonable to conclude that cure of HIV infection has been achieved in this patient.”

Full story over at

Ancient Chinese pyramids baffle scientists

No one seems to know the origin or the meaning behind a mysterious pyramid that sits atop Mount Baigong in western China that local legends claim is an alien UFO launch tower.

Nine scientists form the team that will travel to the western province of Qinghai and the mouth of this 165-198 foot tall structure known as the “ET Relics.”

“The pyramid has three caves with openings shaped like triangles on its fa├žade and is filled with red-hued pipes leading into the mountain and a nearby salt water lake,” says China’s state-run Xinhua agency.

The site in question with its high altitude and thin, crisp air has long been considered an ideal astronomical location. Two of the three caves at the foot of the mountain have collapsed and are inaccessible. The remaining middle one, which is the largest, stands with its floor about 6 feet above the ground and its top about 9 feet above the surface.

Inside the cave, there is s a half-pipe about 40 centimeters in diameter tilting from the top to the inside of the cave. Another pipe of the same diameter goes into the earth with only its top visible above the ground. Dozens of strange pipes surround the opening with diameters ranging from 10 to 40 centimeters. Their structures indicate a highly advanced and completely unknown construction technique.

More info and pictures at Weird Asia

Dec 13, 2010

Wireless at the speed of plasma

Antennas that use plasma to focus beams of radio waves could bring us superfast wireless networks

BEFORE you leave for work in the morning, your smartphone downloads the latest episode of a television series. Your drive to work is easy in spite of fog, thanks to in-car radar and the intelligent transport software that automatically guides you around traffic jams, allowing you to arrive in time for a presentation in which high-definition video is streamed flawlessly to your tablet computer in real time.

This vision of the future may not be far off, thanks to a new type of antenna that makes use of plasma consisting of only electrons. It could revolutionise high-speed wireless communications, miniature radar and even energy weapons.

Existing directional antennas that transmit high-frequency radio waves require expensive materials or precise manufacturing. But the new antenna, called Plasma Silicon Antenna, or PSiAN, relies on existing low-cost manufacturing techniques developed for silicon chips. It has been developed by Plasma Antennas of Winchester, UK.

PSiAN consists of thousands of diodes on a silicon chip. When activated, each diode generates a cloud of electrons - the plasma - about 0.1 millimetres across. At a high enough electron density, each cloud reflects high-frequency radio waves like a mirror. By selectively activating diodes, the shape of the reflecting area can be changed to focus and steer a beam of radio waves. This "beam-forming" capability makes the antennas crucial to ultrafast wireless applications, because they can focus a stream of high-frequency radio waves that would quickly dissipate using normal antennas.

"Beam-forming antennas are the key for enabling next-generation, high-data-rate indoor wireless applications," says Anmol Sheth, at Intel Labs in Seattle. "Without beam-forming antennas it would be difficult to scale to the levels of density of wireless devices we expect to have in future homes."

There are two types of plasma antenna: semiconductor or solid-state antennas, such as PSiAN, and gas antennas. Both could fit the bill, but solid-state antennas are favoured as they are more compact and have no moving parts.

Read more at New Scientist

Prehistoric People Ate Each Other, Bones Show

Prehistoric humans, along with Neanderthals and Homo antecessor, made meals of each other, suggests new research on probable human teeth marks found on prehistoric human bones.

The findings, which will be published in the January issue of The Journal of Human Evolution, support prior theories that the first humans to re-colonize Britain after the last ice age practiced nutritional cannibalism 12,000 years ago at a site called Gough's Cave in what is now Somerset, England.

It was a survival strategy, according to authors Yolanda Fernandez-Jalvo and Peter Andrews.

"Think that a member of your group dies," Fernandez-Jalvo told Discovery News. "The body can give one day off from hunting, which was always dangerous at that time, and what to do with the dead body that may attract other dangerous carnivores that may attack the group."

"This could be a good solution," she added, reminding that cannibalism does not always mean the cannibal killed the consumed individual.

To determine what patterns humans leave behind when they chew or gnaw on bones, the researchers had four different groups of European people chew raw and cooked meat bones from various animals.

The scientists also studied bones, now in a museum, which were chewed in the 1960's by the Koi people of Namibia. The Koi tended not to cook food as much as the Europeans did, so the researchers wanted to see what kind of damage they left behind on discarded bones.

The scientists also analyzed fossilized bone collections from ancient hominid sites in Spain, the U.K. and the Caucasus region.

They determined that when humans chew and gnaw bones, a distinctive pattern is left behind. It includes bent ends of bones, puncture marks, superficial linear marks, peeling, crenulated ends and double arch punctures on the chewed edge. Not all of these features are unique to human chewing, but in combination, the researchers believe the features provide evidence for human eating.

Since bone chewing usually occurs when the consumer is trying to get at marrow and the last bit of meat, the marks can help to distinguish nutritional cannibalism from ritual de-fleshing. The findings can also reveal which animals prehistoric humans and human ancestors ate.

"Indications of Homo habilis eating hedgehog and using tools to eat them" has already been identified, Fernandez-Jalvo said.

She also said evidence suggests Neanderthals consumed marine mammals shortly after these animals gave birth, "chasing the youngest as an easy and clever strategy and avoiding the adults that were quite dangerous."

Read more at Discovery News

WikiLeaks backlash: The first global cyber war has begun, claim hackers

“He is one of the newest recruits to Operation Payback. In a London bedroom, the 24-year-old computer hacker is preparing his weaponry for this week’s battles in an evolving cyberwar. He is a self-styled defender of free speech, his weapon a laptop and his enemy the US corporations responsible for attacking the website WikiLeaks.

He had seen the flyers that began springing up on the web in mid-September. In chatrooms, on discussion boards and inboxes from Manchester to New York to Sydney the grinning face of a Guy Fawkes mask had appeared with a call to arms. Across the world a battalion of hackers was being summoned.

“Greetings, fellow anons,” it said beneath the headline Operation Payback. Alongside were a series of software programs dubbed “our weapons of choice” and a stark message: people needed to show their “hatred”.

Like most international conflicts, last week’s internet war began over a relatively modest squabble, escalating in days into a global fight.

Before WikiLeaks, Operation Payback’s initial target was America’s recording industry, chosen for its prosecutions of music file downloaders. From those humble origins, Payback’s anti-censorship, anti-copyright, freedom of speech manifesto would go viral, last week pitting an amorphous army of online hackers against the US government and some of the biggest corporations in the world.

Charles Dodd, a consultant to US government agencies on internet security, said: “[The hackers] attack from the shadows and they have no fear of retaliation. There are no rules of engagement in this kind of emerging warfare.”

The battle now centres on Washington’s fierce attempts to close down WikiLeaks and shut off the supply of confidential US government cables. By Thursday, the hacktivists were routinely attacking those who had targeted WikiLeaks, among them icons of the corporate world, credit card firms and some of the largest online companies. It seemed to be the first sustained clash between the established order and the organic, grassroots culture of the net.”

Read more at The Guardian

Skin was the first organ to evolve

“In the evolution of organs, skin came first. The discovery that even sponges have a proto-skin shows that the separation of insides from outsides in multicellular animals was key to their evolution.

It has been known since the 1960s that sponges have a distinct outer layer of cells, or epithelium. But because sponges lack the genes involved in expelling molecules, it was assumed that this was not a functional organ. Sally Leys and her team at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, have now shown otherwise. When they grew flat sponges on thin membranes, with liquid above and below, they found that the epithelium kept some molecules out, sometimes only allowing 0.8 per cent through in 3 hours (PLoS ONE, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0015040).

Sponges were the first multicellular animals to evolve, so the finding means all complex life has a skin. Leys thinks the organ was vital as it isolated animals’ insides from their surroundings. As a result, cells could send chemical signals to each other without interference, setting the stage for complex organs to evolve.

Scott Nichols of the University of California, Berkeley, says the findings hint that sponges were the ancestors of other animals rather than a sister group.”

Read more at New Scientist

Dec 12, 2010

Fake Watchful Eyes Discourage Naughty Behavior

Being watched by a photograph of staring eyes can be enough encouragement to behave, follow orders or do the right thing, a study has found.

Psychology researchers at Newcastle University hung two different posters at a restaurant, to see how customers would react. They both featured text asking patrons to bin their rubbish, but one had a picture of flowers on it and the other had a pair of staring eyes.

The number of people who paid attention to the sign, and cleaned up after their meal, doubled when confronted with a pair of gazing peepers. The research team, lead by Dr. Melissa Bateson and Dr. Daniel Nettle of the Centre for Behaviour and Evolution found that twice as many customers followed the orders when met with eyes, compared to figures for the flower poster from the day before.

The study is based on the theory of “nudge psychology,” which suggests people behave better if the best option is highlighted, but not forced upon them. Linking that with the eyes grabs peoples’ attention, and makes that nudge even more effective.

It’s a followup to a 2006 study where similar posters were hung up in a communal tea room, by the honesty box. Subjects were found to pay up nearly three times as much cash when stared at by eyes, rather than flowers. Luckily, we’re far too honest to need one of these posters in the Wired offices.

Read more at Wired