Mar 5, 2011

Beat Deafness: A Man Lost in Musical Time

The Go-Go's had a 1982 hit record with "We Got the Beat," but a 23-year-old man named Mathieu never got their message. Researchers have identified Mathieu as the first documented case of beat deafness, a condition in which a person can't feel music's beat or move in time to it.

Mathieu flails in a time zone of his own when bouncing up and down to a melody, unlike people who don't dance particularly well but generally move in sync with a musical beat, according to a team led by psychologists Jessica Phillips-Silver and Isabelle Peretz, both of the University of Montreal. What's more, Mathieu usually fails to recognize when someone else dances out of sync to a tune, the researchers report in a paper that will appear in Neuropsychologia.

"We suspect that beat deafness is specific to music and is quite rare," Phillips-Silver says. She and her colleagues plan to investigate whether Mathieu takes an offbeat approach to nonmusical activities, such as conversational turn-taking and adjusting one's gait to that of someone else.

Language lacks the periodic rhythms found in music, so it's unlikely that Mathieu's problem affects speech perception, remarks cognitive scientist Josh McDermott of New York University. If periodic sounds of all kinds confuse Mathieu, this problem may loom large when he confronts complex musical beats, McDermott suggests.

Mathieu does much better -- although still with room for improvement -- at bouncing in sync to a metronome's periodic tone, indicating that he has a timing problem specific to music, Phillips-Silver says. Mathieu sings in tune and recognizes familiar melodies, so musical pitch doesn't elude him.

Hearing and motor areas of Mathieu's brain appear to be healthy, the researchers add.

They hypothesize that the young man's beat deafness arises from disconnects in a widespread brain network involved in musical beat, rhythm and meter. Babies recognize simple musical beats within days of birth, possibly reflecting the operation of an inborn neural timekeeper (SN: 8/14/10, p. 18).

With further research, beat deafness may join tone deafness as a music-specific disorder. Researchers regard tone deafness an inherited disruption of a brain network that decodes musical pitch.

Phillips-Silver's group found Mathieu as part of a project to recruit people who feel that they can't keep musical beats, such as clapping in time at a concert or dancing at a club. So far, no other beat-deaf individuals have been identified.

Mathieu and 33 adults who had no musical timing problems were told to bounce with their knees to a popular merengue song -- Suavemente by Elvis Crespo. Mathieu and 10 other participants then bounced to eight additional musical excerpts from a variety of genres.

Dancers wore devices around their waists that measured the acceleration of bouncing, from which the researchers calculated the extent to which bounces followed a song's beat.

Read more at Discovery News

Mar 4, 2011

Surgeon Prints New Kidney on Stage

A surgeon specializing in regenerative medicine on Thursday "printed" a real kidney using a machine that eliminates the need for donors when it comes to organ transplants.

"It's like baking a cake," Anthony Atala of the Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine said as he cooked up a fresh kidney on stage at a TED Conference in the California city of Long Beach.

Scanners are used to take a 3-D image of a kidney that needs replacing, then a tissue sample about half the size of postage stamp is used to seed the computerized process, Atala explained.

The organ "printer" then works layer-by-layer to build a replacement kidney replicating the patient's tissue.
College student Luke Massella was among the first people to receive a printed kidney during experimental research a decade ago when he was just 10 years old.

He said he was born with Spina Bifida and his kidneys were not working.

"Now, I'm in college and basically trying to live life like a normal kid," said Massella, who was reunited with Atala at TED.

"This surgery saved my life and made me who I am today."

About 90 percent of people waiting for transplants are in need of kidneys, and the need far outweighs the supply of donated organs, according to Atala.

Read more at Discovery News

Mar 3, 2011

Pope finds Jews not to blame for death of Jesus

GUARDIAN: The pope has written a detailed and personal repudiation of the idea that the Jews were collectively responsible for the death of Jesus.

In a book to be published next week, he concludes that those responsible for the crucifixion were the “Temple aristocracy” and supporters of the rebel Barabbas.

Dismissing the centuries-old interpretation of St John’s assertion that it was “the Jews” who demanded Barabbas’s release and Jesus’s execution, the pontiff asks: “How could the whole people have been present at this moment to clamour for Jesus’s death?”

The notion of collective Jewish guilt, which bedevilled relations between the two faiths, was disowned by the Roman Catholic church at the second Vatican council in 1965. But this is thought to be the first time a pope has carried out such a detailed, theological demolition of the concept.

It is particularly significant coming from the pen of a German-born pontiff who has more than once been at the eye of a storm in Jewish-Catholic relations. Elan Steinberg, vice-president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, told Reuters: “This is a major step forward. This is a personal repudiation of the theological underpinning of centuries of antisemitism.”

Full article at the Guardian

People with full bladders ‘make better decisions’

“Researchers discovered the brain’s self-control mechanism provides restraint in all areas at once. They found people with a full bladder were able to better control and “hold off” making important, or expensive, decisions, leading to better judgement. Psychologists from the University of Twente in the Netherlands linked bladder control to the same part of the brain that activates feelings of desire and reward.

The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, also concluded that just thinking about words related to urination triggered the same effect. Their findings contradict previous research which found people who are forced to “restrain themselves” put more pressure on their brain and found it difficult exerting self-control.

Dr Mirjam Tuk, who led the study, said that the brain’s “control signals” were not task specific but result in an “unintentional increase” in control over other tasks. “People are more able to control their impulses for short term pleasures and choose more often an option which is more beneficial in the long run,” she said. “The brain area sending this signal, is activated not only for bladder control, but for all sorts of control. “Controlling our impulsive desires for an immediate reward, in favour of a larger reward at a later date, is a similar type of response, originating from this same neurological area.”

Read more at The Telegraph

Plague scientist dies of… the plague

“It must be a recurrent nightmare for researchers who work with deadly microbes: being killed by your own research subjects. Microbe hunters know better than anyone else just how nasty infectious disease can be, and they spend much of their professional lives wielding bleach and maintaining stringent lab protocols to keep the objects of their fascination at bay. But sometimes one jumps the fence. Just such a tragedy caused the death in 2009 of Malcolm Casadaban, aged 60, a respected plague researcher at the University of Chicago. But how it did so was a mystery, until now.

Plague has a fearsome reputation, being blamed (unfairly, some believe) for the medieval Black Death. But the bacteria are far harder to catch than many lab pathogens – in nature you must inhale lots of bacteria, or have them injected by a flea bite. The plague bacteria Casadaban was working with were deliberately weakened, and unlike ordinary plague, they aren’t even on the US list of potential bioweapons bugs. Medical investigators later found they couldn’t even kill mice with the bacteria that killed the scientist.

So how did Casadaban die? It turns out his death was a medical coincidence worthy of the hit TV series House, in which crack diagnosticians try to figure out tough cases. Their patients typically have unusual combinations of conditions, something Casadaban unfortunately fell prey to.

Casadaban’s lab bugs were weak because they have trouble taking up iron, which they need to make crucial enzymes. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to him, Casadaban had haemochromatosis, a genetic disorder in which people accumulate high levels of iron in their blood and organs. When the weakened bacteria somehow hit Casadaban’s blood, they suddenly received an influx in iron and regained their strength.

There are several tragedies here, besides the loss of a good scientist. One, the bacteria may have entered his bloodstream because, like many experienced researchers, he occasionally didn’t take all the safety precautions, such as rubber gloves. Why bother, with such safe bacteria? ”

Read more at New Scientist

Mar 2, 2011

Sight Gets Repurposed in Brains of the Blind

In the brains of people blind from birth, structures used in sight are still put to work — but for a very different purpose. Rather than processing visual information, they appear to handle language.

Linguistic processing is a task utterly unrelated to sight, yet the visual cortex performs it well.

“It suggests a kind of plasticity that’s even broader than the kinds observed before,” said Marina Bedny, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It’s a really drastic change. It suggests there isn’t a predetermined function an area can serve. It can take a wide range of possible functions.”

In a study published Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Bedny’s team monitored the brain activity of five congenitally blind individuals engaged in language-intensive tasks.

Immense neurological plasticity was suggested by research conducted in the late 1990s on “rewired” ferrets — after their optical nerves were severed and rerouted into their auditory cortices, they could still see — but such studies, already ethically troubling in animals, would be unconscionable in humans.

Instead, researchers have used brain imaging to study plasticity resulting from natural sensory deprivation in people. They’ve found that the visual cortices of blind people become active as they read Braille. It wasn’t clear, however, whether this was a function of Braille’s spatial demands, which overlap with the spatial aspects of sight, or a radical repurposing of supposedly specialized areas.

Wired Science

Photo of Stevie Wonder by Al Satterwhite

The ‘wolf child’ delighted to be named the world’s hairiest girl

Her nicknames may include ‘wolf girl’ and ‘monkey face’.

But 11-year-old Thai girl Supatra Sasuphan today insisted that she was after being officially recognised as the world’s hairiest girl.

Although the schoolgirl from Bangkok has faced merciless teasing at school, Supatra says being given a Guinness World Record for her hair has helped her become extremely popular.

‘I’m very happy to be in the Guinness World Records! A lot of people have to do a lot to get in,’ she said. ‘All I did was answer a few questions and then they gave it to me.’

Supatra is one of just 50 known sufferers of Ambras Syndrome – caused by a faulty chromosome – to be documented since the Middle Ages. Before the disease was understood, sufferers were branded ‘werewolves.’

Full Story at The Mail

Dogs Can Hear How Big You Are

Lots of animals are well aware that bigger means scarier. In stressful or aggressive situations, for example, the hair or fur of chimpanzees, rats, cats, and even humans stands up on end (in humans, given our lack of fur, this results in goose bumps) in an effort to dissuade a potential attack. Elephant seals use a display called “rearing up” to make themselves look bigger – as if they need to look bigger in the first place!

Since some animals tend to be good at looking bigger than they truly are, visual cues may not actually be a reliable method of sizing up another individual. In addition, using vision alone to determine body size is error-prone due to distance and visibility. It would seem prudent, then, that some animals would need an alternative mechanism to use in determining body size. It seems as if domestic dogs have just such a method: they listen.

Full article at The Thoughtful Animal

Mar 1, 2011

Paranormality – Why we see what isn’t there – Richard Wiseman

Britain’s most charming and lovely psychologist Richard Wiseman will not be a stranger to the people on this blog. He’s appeared on several of Derren’s shows and his last book is a constant reference for all of us.

For the past twenty years, he’s immersed himself in the weird world of supernatural science; testing telepaths, spending nights in haunted castles and attempting to talk with the dead.

In Paranormality he cuts through the hype and goes in search of the truth behind extraordinary stories of poltergeists, possession and second sight.  And along the way he shows us some really rather remarkable things about how our brains work, how it is possible to have an out-of-body experience or lucid dream of our own, and just why we feel the need to believe. .

Following up from his extremely successful 59 Seconds Wiseman has tapped in to the reasons why our minds dictate reality to us even when the message it’s giving us has no scientific basis.

As usual it’s written in standard bullshit-free Wiseman style but manages to tap in to fairly complex ideas and subjects with beautiful ease. Throughout the book are various QR codes linking to external content and untrusting exercises and the short sharp chapters make it very easy to pick up and delve in to, or just read from front to back. Learning psychology isn’t supposed to be this much fun, Mr Wiseman’s managed to make it so.

Covering subjects such as fortune telling, out-of-body experiences, talking to the dead and ghost hunting, it’s also the perfect skeptics guide with solid science to back it up. For me the obvious favourite is chapter 6 about the world’s second greatest mind reader – Washington Irving Bishop. There’s even a little guide in there on how to read minds and tips on how to play tricks on your friends and get in to some light-hearted but effective mind trickery.

95% of all pop-psychology books can easily be reduced down to a fraction of the content without losing any of the message, often there’s a lot of fluffing around these subjects to prepare you for the really meaty bits in the middle and you can find yourself switching off a little after 20 pages and 19 repeats of the same message. But like Quirkology and 59 Seconds, Wiseman has managed to visit multiple topics, look at them from several angles and make this an invaluable book with plenty of content.

59 seconds took me 2 reads. One to get through it and the second to go back and absorb the content in detail. I’ve only just finished my first read of Paranormality and will be going back through it again to try out some of the tests myself. It’s certainly one to leave on the coffee table and is a guaranteed conversation starter anywhere.

Available now from Amazon – Click Here

Ketamine reveals truth about the out-of-body experience

A popular “club drug” promises to open a scientific window on the strange world of out-of-body experiences, researchers say.

Recreational users of a substance called ketamine often report having felt like they left their bodies or underwent other bizarre physical transformations, according to an online survey conducted by psychologist Todd Girard of Ryerson University in Toronto and his colleagues.

Ketamine, an anesthetic known to interfere with memory and cause feelings of detachment from one’s self or body, reduces transmission of the brain chemical glutamate through a particular class of molecular gateways. Glutamate generally jacks up brain activity. Ketamine stimulates sensations of illusory movement or leaving one’s body by cutting glutamate’s ability to energize certain brain areas, the researchers propose in a paper published online Feb. 15 in Consciousness and Cognition.

“Ketamine may disrupt patterns of brain activation that coalesce to represent an integrated body and self, leading to out-of-body experiences,” Girard says.

Full article at WiredScience

Feb 28, 2011

Prehistoric Dog Lived, Died Among Humans

Burial remains of a dog that lived over 7,000 years ago in Siberia suggest the male Husky-like animal probably lived and died similar to how humans did at that time and place, eating the same food, sustaining work injuries, and getting a human-like burial.

"Based on how northern indigenous people understand animals in historic times, I think the people burying this particular dog saw it as a thinking, social being, perhaps on par with humans in many ways," said Robert Losey, lead author of a study about the dog burial, which has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.

"I think the act of treating it as a human upon its death indicates that people knew it had a soul, and that the mortuary rites it received were meant to ensure that this soul was properly cared for," added Losey, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta.

For the study, Losey collaborated with excavation director Vladimir Bazaliiskii and researchers Sandra Garvie-Lok, Mietje Germonpre, Jennifer Leonard, Andrew Allen, Anne Katzenberg, and Mikhail Sablin. Bazaliiskii found the buried dog at the Shamanka cemetery near Lake Baikal, Siberia.

"Just like the humans in the cemetery, the dog was buried with other items, (such as) a long spoon made of antler," Losey said.

The dog was carefully laid to rest lying on his right side in a grave pit that, at other levels, also contained five partial human skeletons.

DNA and stable isotope analysis determined the animal was indeed a dog and that he ate exactly what humans at the site consumed: fish, freshwater seal meat, deer, small mammals, and some plant foods.

The canine's life, as well as that of the people, wasn't easy, though.

"The dog's skeleton, particularly its vertebrate spines, suggests that it was repeatedly used to transport loads," Losey explained. "This could have included carrying gear on its back that was used in daily activities like hunting, fishing, and gathering plant foods and firewood. The dog also could have been used to transport gear for the purposes of relocating settlements on a seasonal basis."

Additional fractures suggest the dog suffered numerous blows during its lifetime, possibly from the feet of red deer during hunting outings. The researchers cannot rule out that humans hit the dog, but its older age at burial, food provisions, and more suggest otherwise.

From the same general time period, the scientists also found a wolf burial at a site called Lokomotiv near the Irkut and Angara rivers in Siberia.

The wolf, which did not consume human-provided foods, appears to have died of old age. Its remains were found wrapped around a human skull. There is no evidence the wolf interacted with the person when alive.

Read more at Discovery News

The Greatest Unsolved Problems

In 2000, the Clay Mathematics Institute published a list of seven unsolved problems in mathematics called the Millennium Prize Problems. There is a prize of US$1,000,000 for solving each problem.One of these problems has already been solved. In 1900, David Hilbertpublished a list of 23 unsolved problems in mathematics. Looking at the status of these problems on Wikipedia, only five of them remain unresolved.

Although there are many unsolved problems in science and mathematics, we have been making steady progress in solving open problems. Fermat’s Last Theorem was conjectured in 1637 and was solved in 1995. The four color theorem was stated in 1852 and proven in 1976. Throughout human history we seem to be systematically progressing and accumulating scientific knowledge.

5 important problems are as follows:

1) Theory of Everything, 2) Intelligence, 3) Dark Energy and Dark Matter, 4) One-way Functions, 5) Abiogenesis.

Full article over at Byron Knoll

Pope asks doctors to deny abortions

Pope Benedict XVI has urged doctors to protect women from the “deceptive” thought that an abortion might be a solution to social or economic difficulties or health problems.

The Pope reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s firm opposition to abortion in a speech to members of the Pontifical Academy for Life, the Vatican’s bioethics advisory board.

He argued that women are often convinced, sometimes by their own doctors, that abortion is a legitimate choice and in some cases even a therapeutic act to prevent their babies from suffering.

Saying “abortion solves nothing”, he called on doctors not to give up their duty to defend the consciences of women from such “deception”.

Catholic Church teaching holds that human life begins at conception.

Full article via Independent

Feb 27, 2011

Exotic Superfluid Found in Ultra-Dense Stellar Corpse

The ultra-dense meains of the galaxy’s youngest supernova are full of bizarre quantum matter.

Two new studies show for the first time that the core of the neutron star Cassiopeia A, is a superfluid, a friction-free state of matter that normally only exists in ultra-cold laboratory settings.

“The interior of neutron stars is one of the best kept secrets of the universe,” said astrophysicist Dany Page of the National Autonomous University in Mexico, lead author of a paper in the Feb. 25 Physical Review Letters describing the state of the star. “It looks like we broke one of them.”

Cassiopeia A (Cas A) was a massive star 11,000 light-years away whose explosion was observed from Earth about 330 years ago. The supernova left behind a tiny, compact body called a neutron star, in which matter is so densely packed that electrons and protons are forced to fuse into neutrons. Neutron star material is some of the most extreme matter in the universe. Just a teaspoonful of neutron star stuff weighs about 6 billion tons.

The neutron star in Cas A was first spotted in 1999, shortly after the Chandra X-Ray Observatory began scanning the sky for objects that emit X-rays.

Last year, astronomers Craig Heinke of the University of Alberta and Wynn Ho of the University of Southampton noticed something odd: The neutron star was cooling down at an alarmingly fast rate. In just 10 years, the star had cooled from 2.12 million degrees to 2.04 million degrees, a drop of 4 percent.

Theoretical models predicted that neutron stars should cool slowly as the neutrons inside decayed into electrons, protons and nearly-massless particles called neutrinos that flee the star quickly, taking heat with them.

But ordinary neutron decay is too slow. Two competing groups of physicists, one led by Page and one including Heinke and Ho, saw that something else must be going on in Cas A.

Almost simultaneously, both teams came to the same solution: The matter inside the neutron star is converting to a superfluid as astronomers watch. Heinke and Ho’s paper will appear in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Read more at Wired

'Walking Cactus' Fossil Reveals Body Armor Evolution

Fossils of an ancient "walking cactus" suggest how ancestors of today's lobsters, insects, spiders and related groups went from squishy to spiky.

Dating back about 520 million years, the fossilized prickly creature is not a plant but a thumb-sized, wormlike animal with 10 pairs of long, sturdy legs, says Jianni Liu of Northwest University in Xi'an, China. Discovered in southwestern China, it probably scuttled along the bottom of shallow seas, she says. In the Feb. 24 Nature, she and her colleagues christen the species Diania cactiformis, in honor of its spiky look.

Its armored leggy look surprised Liu when she first saw it. "I fell in love with this strange guy," she says. "Later when I observed it carefully under the microscope, I realized it was not only a funny one but an important one."

The creature's 10 legs appear to have carried a hard, outer covering of armor and joints that let them bend. Those features would make the species the earliest known worm-with-legs to have a hardened outer covering and also the first to have jointed legs, Liu says. An armored outer skeleton and jointed legs today distinguish the arthropods, the major lineage including crustaceans, insects, spiders and mites. Thus the cactus sea creature might be a sister to arthropod ancestors.

"The significance of the find is that arthropods are, in terms of species, the most successful group on the planet," Liu says. "The secret of their success seems to be their legs." Ancient appendages evolved with diverse lifestyles, forming claws for example, or gilled structures for underwater life. Even legs for moving around diversified into paddles for swimming or launchers for jumping.

Liu points out that paleontologists pursuing the history of the remarkable arthropod legs have debated such puzzles as whether the armored bodies came before or after armored legs.

Read more at Discovery News