Tag Archives: research

One more reason dogs are better than cats; they can drive cars. Seriously, there’s video.

Two stray dogs in New Zealand went through an extensive 5-week training program where they learned how to shift and steer a car. This is real life. They started out on little “doggie go-karts” then upgraded to modified Mini Coopers.

For the four-legged competitors, two months of hard work – and a fair few treats – ensured they were raring to get on the racetrack. So when the big day rolled around, the only ones likely to get hot under the collar were any bystanders who spotted a Mini hurtling towards them with a dog at the wheel. Two mutts made history yesterday by driving a car down a racetrack. Ten-month-old beardie cross Porter put his paws to the pedals first, steering the Mini down the straight and then turning a corner.

He was followed by Monty, an 18-month-old giant schnauzer cross, who completed the same feat. As the Mail reported last week, the pair – along with one-year-old beardie whippet cross Ginny – had been taking driving lessons, which began with them learning to steer a wooden cart pulled along on a string by their trainers.

In just eight weeks, they progressed to driving a real car – a modified Mini in which they sat on their haunches in the driver’s seat. Their front paws were on the steering wheel, while their back paws were on levers attached to the accelerator and the brake.


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Scientists successfully grow a human eye from stem cells

Will the magic of stem cells never cease? Scientists in Japan have reached a milestone in regenerating human organs by teasing stem cells to create the precursor to a human eye without any scaffolding structure.

The structure, which was developed by Yoshiki Sasai of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology (CBD) in Japan, was an “optic cup” only 550 micrometers in diameter, but it had all the hallmarks of an eye-in-the-making, including multiple layers of retinal cells and photoreceptors. Until now, stem-cell biologists have been unable to grow precursors like this, limited to two-dimensional sheets of tissue. Moreover, Sasai’s breakthrough marks the first time that such a complicated feat was done with human cells.

And just as excitingly, Sasai’s experiment revealed that the cues for complex cellular formation comes from inside the cell rather than from external triggers. Once the retinal precursor was up-and-running, it spontaneously formed a ball of epithelial tissue cells and then bulged outwards to form a bubble called an eye vesicle. It then folded back on itself to form a pouch, creating the optic cup with an outer wall (which in time would be the retinal epithelium) and an inner wall comprising layers of retinal cells including photoreceptors, bipolar cells, and ganglion cells.

The achievement is particularly promising for those hoping to advance cell transplantation. Sasai’s organically layered structure could result in the transplantation of photoreceptor tissue. It could also lead to treatments for diseases, and the possibility that such tissue could be frozen in anticipation of future transplants.

Sasai is confident that his model will work for transplantation, noting that these cells are “pure” and without residual embryonic stem cells – a factor that significantly reduces the chance of cancerous offshoots or growths of fragments of unrelated tissue (like bones or other organs).


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Thinking in a foreign language makes people make more rational decisions

A series of experiments on more than 300 people from the U.S. and Korea found that thinking in a second language reduced deep-seated, misleading biases that unduly influence how risks and benefits are perceived. In other words— in order to think clearly about a problem, it’s best to do so in a foreign language.

“Would you make the same decisions in a foreign language as you would in your native tongue?” asked psychologists led by Boaz Keysar of the University of Chicago in an April 18 Psychological Science study.

“It may be intuitive that people would make the same choices regardless of the language they are using, or that the difficulty of using a foreign language would make decisions less systematic. We discovered, however, that the opposite is true: Using a foreign language reduces decision-making biases,” wrote Keysar’s team.

Psychologists say human reasoning is shaped by two distinct modes of thought: one that’s systematic, analytical and cognition-intensive, and another that’s fast, unconscious and emotionally charged.

In light of this, it’s plausible that the cognitive demands of thinking in a non-native, non-automatic language would leave people with little leftover mental horsepower, ultimately increasing their reliance on quick-and-dirty cogitation. Equally plausible, however, is that communicating in a learned language forces people to be deliberate, reducing the role of potentially unreliable instinct. Research also shows that immediate emotional reactions to emotively charged words are muted in non-native languages, further hinting at deliberation.

To investigate these possibilities, Keysar’s team developed several tests based on scenarios originally proposed by psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who in 2002 won a Nobel Prize in economics for his work on prospect theory, which describes how people intuitively perceive risk.

In one famous example, Kahneman showed that, given the hypothetical option of saving 200 out of 600 lives, or taking a chance that would either save all 600 lives or none at all, people prefer to save the 200 — yet when the problem is framed in terms of losing lives, many more people prefer the all-or-nothing chance rather than accept a guaranteed loss of 400 lives.


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MIT discovers that memories are stored in individual neurons

The image above isn’t from some sort of candy-coated rave porn. It’s a false color image of mouse neurons holding on to some sort of mousy memory. MIT researchers have shown, for the first time ever, that memories are stored in specific brain cells. By triggering a small cluster of neurons, the researchers were able to force the subject to recall a specific memory. By removing these neurons, the subject would lose that memory.

As you can imagine, the trick here is activating individual neurons, which are incredibly small and not really the kind of thing you can attach electrodes to. To do this, the researchers used optogenetics, a bleeding edge sphere of science that involves the genetic manipulation of cells so that they’re sensitive to light. These modified cells are then triggered using lasers; you drill a hole through the subject’s skull and point the laser at a small cluster of neurons.

Now, just to temper your excitement, we should note that MIT’s subjects in this case are mice — but it’s very, very likely that the human brain functions in the same way. To perform this experiment, though, MIT had to breed genetically engineered mice with optogenetic neurons — and we’re a long, long way off breeding humans with optogenetic brains.

In the experiment, MIT gave mice an electric shock to create a fear memory in the hippocampus region of the brain — and then later, using laser light, activated the neurons where the memory was stored. The mice “quickly entered a defensive, immobile crouch,” strongly suggesting the fear memory was being recalled.

The main significance here is that we finally have proof that memories (engrams, in neuropsychology speak) are physical rather than conceptual. We now know that, as in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, specific memories could be erased. It also gives us further insight into degenerative diseases and psychiatric disorders, which are mostly caused by the (faulty) interaction of neurons. “The more we know about the moving pieces that make up our brains,” says Steve Ramirez, co-author of the paper. “The better equipped we are to figure out what happens when brain pieces break down.”

Bear in mind, too, that this research follows on from MIT’s discovery last year of Npas4, the gene that controls the formation of memories; without Npas4, you cannot remember anything. MIT has successfully bred mice without the Npas4 gene.

All of this is incredibly impressive, but it still doesn’t tell us how memories are encoded in the brain, but it does tell us at least where to look. It’s a huge step to a future where one day you might be able to have memories of a dangerous vacation to Mars implanted in your head.


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Robotic fish accepted by real fish as leader of their school


Fish are stupid, yes, but this is a pretty neat story. Even though I doubt it would work on any other type of animal, researches made a robotic fish and introduced it to a school of fish. By mimicking the normal behaviors of the fish leaders with the robot, it was accepted as a leader.

Through a series of experiments, researchers from Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly) aimed to increase understanding of collective animal behavior, including learning how robots might someday steer fish away from environmental disasters. Nature is a growing source of inspiration for engineers, and the researchers were intrigued to find that their biomimetic robotic fish could not only infiltrate and be accepted by the swimmers, but actually assume a leadership role.

In a paper published online in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, Stefano Marras, at the time a postdoctoral fellow in mechanical engineering at NYU-Poly and currently a researcher at Italy’s Institute for the Marine and Coastal Environment-National Research Council, and Maurizio Porfiri, NYU-Poly associate professor of mechanical engineering, found conditions that induced golden shiners to follow in the wake of the biomimetic robot fish, taking advantage of the energy savings generated by the robot.

The researchers designed their bio-inspired robotic fish to mimic the tail propulsion of a swimming fish, and conducted experiments at varying tail beat frequencies and flow speeds. In nature, fish positioned at the front of a school beat their tails with greater frequency, creating a wake in which their followers gather. The followers display a notably slower frequency of tail movement, leading researchers to believe that the followers are enjoying a hydrodynamic advantage from the leaders’ efforts.

In an attempt to create a robotic leader, Marras and Porfiri placed their robot in a water tunnel with a golden shiner school. First, they allowed the robot to remain still, and unsurprisingly, the “dummy” fish attracted little attention. When the robot simulated the familiar tail movement of a leader fish, however, members of the school assumed the behavior patterns they exhibit in the wild, slowing their tails and following the robotic leader.


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Redheads experience pain differently than their brunette and blonde counterparts

So apparently for years some doctors have been noticing that redheads have required more anesthetic to be put to sleep than the typical patient, and the studies below have are just pretty damn interesting.

For years, there existed a well-established anecdotal impression within the medical community that redheads require more anesthetic than the typical patient.

In 2004 and 2005, two studies led by anesthesiologist Edwin B. Liem and funded by the National Institutes of Health helped explore these options in greater detail, and found compelling evidence that redheads actually have different sensitivity to pain compared to people with other hair colors.

The first study revealed that redheads are more sensitive to thermal pain (i.e. perception of pain brought on by excessive cold and heat), and that they’re also more resistant to the pain-numbing effects of certain anesthetics. The second study found that redheads required, on average, 19% more anesthetic than dark-haired (black or brown-haired) women. (Interestingly, neither study recruited blonde test participants.)

But the life of a redhead isn’t all pain and suffering; a study led last year by researcher Lars Arendt-Nielson revealed that redheaded women are actually less sensitive to stinging sensations (like that of a pinprick) than either blondes or brunettes. So what’s going on here? Researchers aren’t entirely sure, but one hypothesis ties back — perhaps unsurprisingly — to redheads’ mutant melanocortin 1 receptor (MC1R).

Like most cell surface receptors, MC1R’s activity is regulated by the binding of a specific set of complementary proteins. When it comes to pigment production, those proteins are called melanocyte stimulating hormones (MSH). In 98% of the population, MSH cause MC1R to production dark eumelanin, but in redheads, their mutant MC1R lead to the production of a red-tinged pheomelanin, instead. But here’s the catch: melanocortin 1 receptors also interact with molecules that are structurally similar to melanocyte stimulating hormones, including hormones called endorphins. Endorphins have a whole bunch of physiological functions, but one of their primary roles is one of pain relief. Just remember: “endorphin” stands for “endogenous morphine,” and morphine is a powerful painkiller.


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The T-Rex had the strongest bite of any animal, ever. (Still had girly arms)

The T-Rex has been the badass of the dinosaurs for as long as I can remember. In recent years however they have come under attack from stupid idiots who said that they were nothing more than giant scavengers and weren’t that badass at all. Thank god a new study has been released that gives good ol’ Rexy a little ego boost. The study found that the T-Rex had a much stronger bite fore than previously thought, stronger than any other animal in the history of the world. So fuck you sharks and crocodiles, you pussies.

Previous estimates of the prehistoric predator’s bite suggested it was much more modest – comparable to modern predators such as alligators.

This measurement, based on a laser scan of a T. rex skull, showed that its bite was equivalent to three tonnes – about the weight of an elephant.

The findings are published in the journal Biology Letters.

Dr Karl Bates from the biomechanics laboratory at the University of Liverpool led the research.

He and his colleague, Peter Falkingham from the University of Manchester, used the life-sized copy of a T. rex skeleton exhibited at Manchester Museum as a model for their study. “We digitised the skull with a laser scanner, so we had a 3-D model of the skull on our computer,” Dr Bates explained.

“Then we could map the muscles onto that skull.”

The scientists then reproduced the full force of a bite by activating the muscles to contract fully – snapping the digital jaws shut.

“Those [simulated] muscles closed the jaw as they would in life and… we measured the force when the teeth hit each other,” Dr Bates explained to BBC Nature.

“The maximum forces we found – up at the [back] teeth – were between 30,000 and 60,000 Newtons,” he said.

“That’s equivalent to a medium-sized elephant sitting on you.”

Previous studies had estimated that T. rex’s bite had a force of 8,000-13,000 Newtons.


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