No sedative necessary: Scientists discover new ‘sleep node’ in the brain

Artist's concept (stock illustration). A sleep-promoting circuit located deep in the primitive brainstem has revealed how we fall into deep sleep. Credit: © James Steidl / Fotolia
Artist’s concept (stock illustration). A sleep-promoting circuit located deep in the primitive brainstem has revealed how we fall into deep sleep.
Credit: © James Steidl / Fotolia

[dropcap]A[/dropcap] sleep-promoting circuit located deep in the primitive brainstem has revealed how we fall into deep sleep. Discovered by researchers at Harvard School of Medicine and the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, this is only the second “sleep node” identified in the mammalian brain whose activity appears to be both necessary and sufficient to produce deep sleep.

Published online in August in Nature Neuroscience, the study demonstrates that fully half of all of the brain’s sleep-promoting activity originates from the parafacial zone (PZ) in the brainstem. The brainstem is a primordial part of the brain that regulates basic functions necessary for survival, such as breathing, blood pressure, heart rate and body temperature.

“The close association of a sleep center with other regions that are critical for life highlights the evolutionary importance of sleep in the brain,” says Caroline E. Bass, assistant professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology in the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and a co-author on the paper.

The researchers found that a specific type of neuron in the PZ that makes the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is responsible for deep sleep. They used a set of innovative tools to precisely control these neurons remotely, in essence giving them the ability to turn the neurons on and off at will.

“These new molecular approaches allow unprecedented control over brain function at the cellular level,” says Christelle Ancelet, postdoctoral fellow at Harvard School of Medicine. “Before these tools were developed, we often used ‘electrical stimulation’ to activate a region, but the problem is that doing so stimulates everything the electrode touches and even surrounding areas it didn’t. It was a sledgehammer approach, when what we needed was a scalpel.”

“To get the precision required for these experiments, we introduced a virus into the PZ that expressed a ‘designer’ receptor on GABA neurons only but didn’t otherwise alter brain function,” explains Patrick Fuller, assistant professor at Harvard and senior author on the paper. “When we turned on the GABA neurons in the PZ, the animals quickly fell into a deep sleep without the use of sedatives or sleep aids.”

How these neurons interact in the brain with other sleep and wake-promoting brain regions still need to be studied, the researchers say, but eventually these findings may translate into new medications for treating sleep disorders, including insomnia, and the development of better and safer anesthetics.

“We are at a truly transformative point in neuroscience,” says Bass, “where the use of designer genes gives us unprecedented ability to control the brain. We can now answer fundamental questions of brain function, which have traditionally been beyond our reach, including the ‘why’ of sleep, one of the more enduring mysteries in the neurosciences.”

The work was funded by the National Institutes of Health.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University at Buffalo. The original article was written by Ellen Goldbaum. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Christelle Anaclet, Loris Ferrari, Elda Arrigoni, Caroline E Bass, Clifford B Saper, Jun Lu, Patrick M Fuller. The GABAergic parafacial zone is a medullary slow wave sleep–promoting center. Nature Neuroscience, 2014; 17 (9): 1217 DOI:10.1038/nn.3789

 

If You Do These 20 Things Every Day, You’ll Become Smarter

If You Do These 20 Things Every Day, You’ll Become Smarter

Although many people believe intelligence is limited to those with high I.Q.s, there are a number of potential methods to boost one’s cognitive abilities and become more effective at various professional and personal pursuits.

With enough motivation and determination, anyone can expand their mental capabilities and become smarter. Integrating new habits into your regular routine and providing proper stimulation can sharpen your intellect quickly and leave you inspired to take on new challenges each day. Brain health is an important key in complete physical health. The list below includes the best brain-engaging activities in daily life.

Inviting Novelty

To create new neural pathways and strengthen the brain, it’s critical for people to continually incorporate new experiences and information into their lives. At first, these moments might feel useless, but eventually, you will find yourself looking forward to quiet moments alone.

Visit New Places

Whether this means studying in a new coffee shop, taking a different route to work, or traveling to a different country, displacement is good for the brain. This might be difficult to recognize in the moment since it usually feels rather awkward – at least initially. At the coffee shop, you can’t order the “usual.” You have to study a new menu, pick something you have never tried before, and make a decision.

While this seems simple, people enjoy the comfort of habit. We like to know what to expect at all times. When you travel to a new country, the language is strange, the customs are unfamiliar, and the culture presents a strange new rhythm of life. Adjusting to these new elements forces the brain to tackle new, unexpected challenges. Learning how to communicate through a language barrier forces the brain to develop creative ways to express needs and emotions. Listening to new music, trying new foods, and navigating foreign streets all work to challenge your brain’s capacity to adapt to new situations.

Continue Your Education

Adult education is one of the best investments of time, money, and energy you can make. While education is valuable throughout childhood and adolescence, adults often underestimate their ability to learn new concepts and skills. Challenge yourself to take a class, academic or creative. Voluntarily choosing to continue education provides a perfect opportunity for your brain to create new connections and build higher intelligence.

Read and Watch the News

This is one activity that maintains the appearance of habit while nurturing healthy brain waves. Setting aside half an hour every morning or evening to read a newspaper or watch the news will help your brain stay active. Digesting new information is a good daily habit. The news introduces interesting topics to consider, and will leave your brain churning with new information.

Read Books

Reading is the most basic way to facilitate brain activity, but it often presents some of the most diverse opportunities for stretching brain capacity. Reading provides practical assistance by introducing new vocabulary, presenting examples of proper grammar usage, and showing the elegance of a well-written sentence. However, this is only half of the magic of reading.

Whether you choose fiction, non-fiction, historical literature, or poetry, reading offers an opportunity for the reader to make big-picture connections between the literature and real life. In this way, reading is an alternative way to make your brain travel to a new place. As your imagination works to create tangible people, places, and experiences from the words on the page, your brain is rewiring to understand all the new information.

Approach Work in New Ways

The workplace is a canvas for new experiences. Regardless of what type of job you might hold, everyone is at one time or another presented with opportunities to think outside the box, problem solve in a creative way, and contribute fresh ideas to the team. Instead of stressing over each new problem, it’s important to relax and starting imagining alternatives for reaching an end goal.

Challenging Yourself

Like a weightlifter who develops muscles, one must exercise the brain on a daily basis, pushing it just beyond its current capabilities. As Albert Einstein once said, “One should not pursue goals that are easily achieved. One must develop an instinct for what one can just barely achieve through one’s greatest efforts.”

This quote encapsulates what I believe about the brain. With enough focus and stretching, the brain can truly surprise people. Underestimating yourself holds you back from success. When people begin believing in their abilities, they often go beyond what they thought was possible.

Brain Train

Organizations like Lumosity offer fantastic daily brain training. With puzzles and games designed to increase neuroplasticity, Lumosity was created to challenge the brain to make new connections. A group of neuroscientists at University of California Berkeley developed this program to provide stimuli for the brain to push it to adapt and re-train itself in uncharted territory. Success stories abound concerning the results of this public experiment.

Ask 5 Whys When Encountering Problems

One of the most standard problem solving solutions, the 5 whys still provide a solid start to uncovering the root of a problem. Asking a question gets the brain working to find an answer. Instead of worrying about the problem, always start by asking why.

Eschew Technology to Keep the Brain in Shape

Technology does wonders for the modern world, but in some ways, technological dependence stunts the brain’s capacity for problem solving, adapting to new environments, and being a reliable resource for practical things like simple mathematics and navigation. Try going on a trip without a GPS. Work a few algebra problems without a calculator. Make your brain work for you; you’ll see the results.

Fostering Creativity

Finger-painting in preschool was not only a fun activity; it helped open up the mind to new possibilities and ways of solving problems. An artistic mindset creates new opportunities to find new solutions, fresh inspiration, and peaceful confidence.

The blend of these elements in both personal and professional environments allows ordinary people to shine by becoming an innovative thinker and inventive leader. Find ways to incorporate creativity into the dull grind of daily tasks.

Draw

You don’t have to be an artist to appreciate the benefits of drawing, which cultivates brain activity in a unique way. In addition to nurturing basic hand-eye coordination, it sends synapses to neurotransmitters to help more permanently and vividly store your memories. From doodles on a piece of scrap paper to charcoal portraits, drawing is a healthy brain activity for everyone.

Paint

Painting is an extension of drawing. It feeds the same areas of the brain, but unlike drawing, painting often introduces new and unfamiliar textures and colors to stimulate the brain. Painters often have a keen sense of awareness towards their surroundings. Engaging in painting encourages people to notice minute details of the world around them. Focusing the brain in this manner brings a heightened state of alertness.

Play an Instrument

Learning to play an instrument also has outstanding benefits for the brain. Hand-eye coordination, memory, concentration, and mathematic skills all improve through playing an instrument. While some are more challenging to learn than others, any instrument facilitates increased and improved cognitive functioning.

From training your fingers to master complex musical passages on the piano to counting the beats in a musical measure, instruments force various regions of the brain to work together to create music.

Write

Like reading, writing encourages vocabulary growth, grammar skills, and use of proper syntax. Writing helps the brain store information more effectively and fosters better memory skills. Studies show that students who regularly take handwritten notes during college classes consistently score better on tests. Writing forces a person to pay attention to their memories, experiences, and internal dialogues – a combination that increases brain function altogether.

Role-Play

Put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and your brain starts to rewire to help you think like a different person. For those struggling to form creative ideas, role-playing can help the wheels start turning in the brain to help develop unique solutions for difficult problems.

Working with Others

Although logical intelligence is important, emotional intelligence plays an equally vital part in overall success. Interacting with others helps people expand beyond their own limited thinking, gain new ideas, and see things from a different perspective.

People are challenging. Smart people often enjoy isolation because it protects them from being critical of others. However, this discomfort is necessary for truly smart people because it pushes them outside their bubble. When you start to believe you have all the right answers, start collaborating with others to expand perspective.

Teach and Share Information with Others

Whether this is achieved virtually or face-to-face, pursue colleagues and peers to share experience and wisdom. Fresh faces and new ideas spur inspiration and create an amplified learning environment for the brain. By creating a network for sharing ideas, your brain starts developing a new network for formulating and executing innovative concepts.

Talk to Interesting People

No two people share the same life experiences. Everyone interprets information uniquely, stores memories differently, and digests daily life with their own intellectual flare. This makes collaboration a necessity for brain health. Although we are all inclined to think our method is the best approach, gaining perspective from another person helps our brain consider new solutions and new techniques for both personal and professional issues.

Whether the conversation is centered on religion, finances, politics, or diet trends, people should practice being a good listener. Silencing your own thoughts while the other person speaks is often challenging, but the brain needs discipline to stay sharp.

Work in a Team Environment

Collaborative environments are essential for enhancing brain activity. Some people who enjoy working independently dread the moment when they are forced to participate in a team-focused workplace. However, these independent individuals are highly intelligent and can benefit the most from a little teamwork.

Author Steve Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From, focuses on the benefits of collaborating with peers and coworkers to develop original ideas and effective strategies for their execution. The modern workplace continues to shift towards this team-oriented approach.

Cultivating Physical Health

The body feeds the brain, and keeping oneself in top physical condition is crucial to adequate fueling and operation of the brain. Lack of motivation, mental fatigue, and absence of inspiration are typically connected to poor exercise, diet, and focus.

Exercise

Studies constantly show people who exercise regularly have higher I.Q. scores. In addition to maintaining a strong body, people who exercise regularly actually stimulate brain cell growth. A process called neurogenesis occurs during rigorous exercise, which increases the production of neurotransmitters. With side effects like increased dopamine, active people enjoy less stress, better concentration, and more energy.

Dr. Michael Nilsson of Sahlgrenska Academy and Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Sweden conducted extensive research on the topic. “Being fit means that you also have a good heart and lung capacity and that your brain gets plenty of oxygen,” the doctor said. His research focused on over a million Swedish military men, and Dr. Nilsson found a direct correlation between physical fitness and high scores on I.Q. tests.

Pursue Athletics

Multiple studies have shown active children typically do better in school and have a better chance of continuing their education after high school graduation. Although athletic pursuits can feel grueling at the time, the overall benefits of intense physical activity are wise for your future.

Whether it’s finding one thing you are good at, like basketball, running, or lifting weights, or trying something new every day, maintaining an athletic routine is important for optimal brain health.

Meditate

Controlling and calming the brain is as powerful as enhancing activity through instruments and puzzles. Doctors have been studying the effects of mediation on the brain for several years, and the results are impressive. In one famous study, Dr. Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsincollaborated with the Dalai Lama to study what happens to the brain during meditation.

Transcendental Meditation yields impressive results for the brain. People who struggle with fear, anxiety, depression, and other mental ailments should experiment with meditation to calm themselves and develop a stronger sense of focus.

Maintain a Nutritious Diet

Children and adults interested in boosting brain activity should begin by transforming their diet. Research from the University of Bristol in England points to a strong connection between unhealthy diet and low I.Q. scores in children. To begin reversing unhealthy tendencies, try cutting out excess fat, sugar, and fast foods, and start adding more vegetables, fruit, and lean meats.

There are also a number of unusual drinks proven to help brain function. Matcha Green Tea, Raw Cacao hot chocolate, and Gingko Biloba tea all show benefits for the brain. Some scientist claim Gingko Biloba helps pump more blood to the brain, improving circulation.

Active Learning

Start children young with interactive video games, jump roping, juggling, and other activities to feed brain stimulation. Assign a musical instrument, a physical activity, or a Sudoku puzzle to get their brains moving. Parents, remember to join in the fun!

Creating daily routines to promote healthy brain activity doesn’t require the advice of a neuroscientist. While plenty of studies provide convincing evidence, increasing brain activity can be accomplished with a few basic steps. Be intentional about your time and energy to start working towards a smarter and more fulfilling life.

Crew Wraps Up Mock Mars Mission With Reddit AMA

If you took a six-month or two-year (or maybe even a one-way) trip to Mars, what would your life really be like once you land? How would you exercise? What would you eat? And, laundry? Pssh. How would you even have water in the first place?

Scientists participating in the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) mission here on Earth have spent the past four months studying these questions in a Martian-like environment in Hawaii. They opened up their communication systems to answer questions on Sunday in Reddit’s Ask Me Anything, and by the looks of it, they may have gone a little cooky.

(Story continues below.)

The HI-SEAS program, which is funded by NASA and organized by the University of Hawaii, simulates the living conditions and challenges future astronauts may face on Mars. It was designed to study how a crew adjusts to a Mars-like habitat both mentally and physically.

The “Mars” mission crew, made up of six researchers, is stationed in a 1,000 square-foot domed habitat a mile up a rocky road on Hawaii Island’s Mauna Loa volcano — a landscape similar to the Tharsis region on Mars. The mission began March 28 and ends this Friday, July 25.

In the AMA Q&A, conversation ranged from how to deal if somebody dies, to the perils of boredom, to whether a Mars resident would be 100 percent vegetarian.

Below, we’ve listed some of our favorite insights from the AMA.

What do you people do for fun?

Ross Lockwood (crew member): Movie nights, boardgames, exercise all top the list of things we do for fun. We don’t have a lot of spare time, but I count work as part of the fun as well. Planning EVAs, preparing food, even chores – these are all enjoyable activities.

marsmission1

Let’s face it — space can be dangerous, no matter the precautions and training, so I’m wondering: has there been any training/discussion on how to cope with severe medical crises, or — heaven forbid — death, while far from Earth or even on the Martian surface?

Jack Cope (mission support): Good point, it certainly is dangerous and we do need to prepare for everything! During this mission we have not studied medical crises per say but we did have a simulation where the crew were asked to prepare an emergency shelter outside the habitat in a lava tube for rapid evac during increased solar partial activity. I am sure that we will expand on this during our subsequent (and longer) missions as it is hugely important.

marsmission2

How efficient is your water recovery/resupply process? I also wonder about laundry. Laundry uses water, and needs a lot of space to hang clothes. Even tumble dryers aren’t an answer to everything. And laundry generates humidity, which generates other issues.

Joseph Gruber (mission support): Great point and this is one of the areas being researched in the HI-SEAS missions through the NASA Johnson Space Center Advanced Clothing Study. One of the goals is long-duration wear so that laundry is less of a concern than here on Earth. Even on the International Space Station clothing is worn for a long duration then thrown away as opposed to doing laundry.

marsmission3

Have you considered transportation on the surface [of Mars], for a long stay? If you are there for three years, you could travel say, 1,000 km over the surface, and back again, if you have a motorized Mars buggy or a rocket powered hopper of some sort.

Ross Lockwood (crew member): The HI-SEAS mission does geological work while out on EVA to explore and identify possible natural structures for human habitation and materials storage. However, we are very limited to what we can actually do in the field, mostly out of respect for the natural environment around the habitat. The lava fields themselves are almost impossible to traverse on foot, and would be impossible and perilous to traverse in any type of vehicle (4-wheel drives included). So as far as the HI-SEAS mission is concerned, we’ve all but eliminated the possibility of vehicular travel in this study. With that being said, there are a lot of groups exploring the idea of small buggies (think MDRS) and robotic vehicles (think PICSES).

marsmission4

How would you suggest spacecraft habitat designers improve the experience of going to or staying on Mars?

Gary Strawn (mission support): How can we improve the experience of staying on Mars? Well, I can think of a lot of really important things like bringing air, water, food and a radiation shelter. What I worry about is the potential to forget little things like zippers that can be operated while wearing large space suit gloves, water jugs with special lids and handles and some kind of spacesuit backpack or fanny pack. Hopefully, when we send humans to Mars, we will have done enough missions like HI-SEAS that we’ll remember to bring the really important stuff like extra toilet paper.

marsmission5

When do you think we’ll actually be doing this on Mars? What is the biggest accomplishment you see us achieving in our very near future?

Jack Cope (mission support): In the near future, I’m again looking to perhaps someone sending a man to the Moon and actually staying there for a good amount of time (we only scratched the surface with Apollo). I think we need something like this to bring back the excitement we had during the 60s; probes and rovers may bring you a lot of science but there is nothing like looking up into the sky and knowing ‘someone like me is up there.’

Four-winged dinosaur is ‘biggest ever’

Changyuraptor used its remarkably long tail feathers to smooth its landing
Changyuraptor used its remarkably long tail feathers to smooth its landing

A new four-winged dinosaur has been discovered, with exceptionally long feathers on its tail and “hindwings”.

Changyuraptor yangi was a gliding predator which lived in the Cretaceous period in what is now Liaoning, China.

Its remarkable tail feathers – measuring up to 30cm – are the longest in any non-avian dinosaur.

This unusual plumage helped the creature to slow down during flight and land safely, say scientists writing in Nature Communications.

The tail would have acted as a pitch control structure reducing descent speed… which could be critical to a safe landing or precise attack on prey” – Lizhuo HanBohai University, China

C. yangi is a new species of microraptorine, a group related to early avians.

These ancient creatures offer clues to the origin of flight – and the transition from feathered dinosaurs to birds.

Palaeontologists once thought that four-winged gliders were a stepping stone in the path to two-winged flight.

But recent fossil discoveries suggest that microraptorines were an evolutionary side-branch.

Flight probably evolved many times in different feathered species – not only the lineage which ultimately became birds.

Microraptor gui - another ancient four-winged species
Microraptor gui – another ancient four-winged species

The skeleton of C. yangi was discovered by a team from Bohai University, China, and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, US.

Measuring 132cm from its snout to the tip of its tail feathers, it is the largest four-winged dinosaur ever discovered – longer than an eagle or an albatross today.

The feathers on its hind limbs are unusually prominent – suggesting they were actually “hindwings” and played a role in flight, the researchers write.

By calculating the lift and drag generated by the feathers, they concluded that C. yangi used its long tail to compensate for its large size and maintain control while airborne.

“The low-aspect-ratio tail of the new fossil would have acted as a pitch control structure reducing descent speed… which could be critical to a safe landing or precise attack on prey,” the authors write.

“Such pitch stabilisation could be particularly important for larger microraptorines (since they would tend to fly and/or descend more rapidly than small individuals), and this effect explains why the tail fan is exceptionally long.”

Any science in new Planet of the Apes film?

British actor Andy Serkis plays the intelligent chimp Caesar, who is the leader of the ape community
British actor Andy Serkis plays the intelligent chimp Caesar, who is the leader of the ape community

The latest instalment in the Planet of the Apes film franchise opens in the US on Friday. The rubber masks of the 60s and 70s films have been discarded in favour of motion capture suits and CGI. But how much did science inform the new movie’s portrayal of our close relatives?

In a career spanning nearly 40 years, Frans de Waal has cemented a reputation as one of the leading authorities on the behaviour of great apes.

The Dutch-born professor at Emory University in Georgia, US, has made a major contribution to our understanding of primate communities – uncovering many parallels with human societies.

But he’s not impressed with the way our evolutionary cousins have often been portrayed on screen.

“If they were shown in a respectful way, that would be one thing. But they are usually made to be clowns, which is not helpful for the conservation case or the ethical case,” he tells me.

So what did this top primatologist think of the new instalment in the Planet of the Apes franchise?

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which goes on release in the US on Friday, is a bold sequel to the 2011 re-boot. That movie – Rise of the Planet of the Apes – saw a group of genetically modified primates revolt against their human masters.

Aggression may be a feature of chimp society, but so is reconciliation
Aggression may be a feature of chimp society, but so is reconciliation

The new film continues the story of that rebellion’s instigator, an intelligent chimpanzee by the name of Caesar, but picks up his story after a manmade virus has devastated the human population. Amid the rubble of our civilisation, the apes are pitted against surviving pockets of Homo sapiens in a battle for mastery of the planet.

Prof de Waal calls the storyline “impressive”, adding: “I’m not usually into action films like this one, but this held my attention.

“The apes are very humanised: They walk on two legs, they talk – somewhat – they shed tears. In real life, apes do a lot of crying and screaming, but they don’t produce tears like we do.”

However, other aspects of ape behaviour in the film, he says, are true to life.

“We know chimpanzees are aggressive and territorial – they wage war. The use of tools and weapons is also a possibility,” he explains.

To quote a colleague in his field, he said: “If you gave guns to chimps, they would use them.”

The primatologist says the reconciliation following a fight between Caesar and Koba – a bonobo character in the film – rang true in terms of ape interactions. He says he also recognised real-life behaviour in a scene where the apes are seen bowing before their appointed leader.

In real groups, Prof de Waal says, “when an alpha male makes an appearance, the other apes grovel and make themselves appear small”.

If you gave a gun to a chimp, would they use it?
If you gave a gun to a chimp, would they use it?

But he draws attention to the contrast between the thoughtful male chimp Caesar and Koba – a bonobo – who is the most aggressive character in the film.

“It’s strange because, in reality, the bonobo is a more peaceful ape than the chimpanzee. There is also the character of an orang-utan, who is interested in teaching and in books, so they have added some twists to it.”

Fans will recognise this as an allusion to the position of orangs as a clerical caste in the ape society depicted by the 60s and 70s films and the 1963 novel by French writer Pierre Boule, on which the movies were based.

In real life, orang-utan males are rather solitary, but actress Karin Konoval, who plays the orang Maurice in both Dawn and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, says she understands why the forest primates were characterised as wise elders.

“At core, they are the watchers, who are able to assess everything. They never do anything gratuitously,” she told BBC News.

“There is nothing gratuitous that I’ve ever seen with any of the orang-utans I’ve known. They are very specific and clear in every choice that they make.”

To prepare for the role of Maurice – the trusted confidant of Caesar, played by British actor Andy Serkis – Ms Konoval studied videos of the animals and read “every book that had been written” about the apes.

“The movement of a mature male orang-utan is very specific. So one of the challenges I had on Rise [of the Planet of the Apes] was getting the weight right in my performance. I’m a 120lb woman, and Maurice is a 250lb orang-utan male. One of the things we did in the original film was to weight down my arm stilts,” she says.

But she says that being invited to spend time with the five orang-utans at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle gave her a wealth of experience to bring to her performance in Dawn. Her initial introduction to the group was via a 40-year-old orang male called Tuan, who has something of an artistic streak.

Karin Konoval portrayed Maurice using a motion capture suit
Karin Konoval portrayed Maurice using a motion capture suit

“I watched him paint on a canvas for an hour, an hour-and-a-half at a time. He moves the canvas around and considers it as he goes; this is not slapping the paint around. It was a real artwork. It was amazing,” she says.

If the studio were to make another instalment, Prof de Waal says he would advise the filmmakers to include more female and juvenile ape characters, to give a sense of real group dynamics among the animals. In the wild, gorilla and orang males rarely co-operate, as they do in the film, though this is more likely for chimps.

But he praises the film’s “astonishing” visual effects, which leads us on to an issue that exercises the professor – the welfare of primates in entertainment.

Prof de Waal strongly opposes the use of real primate actors in advertising, film and television, and comments that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ realistic depictions of apes using computer technology alone proves that the industry has no need for the genuine article.

“I hope the practice disappears completely,” he tells me.

“The first Planet of the Apes movie raised some philosophical issues: What are the ethics of keeping humans in a cage? Which is a reversal of the issue we are faced with now: What are the ethics of keeping an ape in a cage?”

So if apes really did usurp humans as the dominant group on the planet, what does de Waal think it would be like with chimps, bonobos, gorillas and orangs at the top of the pecking order?

“Hmmm,” he replies, pausing for a moment. “I’m not an optimist in that regard. The male chimpanzee is very aggressive. I’m not sure they would be angels of peace, as Caesar is in this movie.

“The bonobo would be a more peaceful character – they do not wage war on other groups as chimpanzees do. These groups have even been shown to mingle in the wild on occasion.”

“It would be more like Woodstock – and a completely different movie.”

Courtesy : bbc

The giant bird would have been an elegant flier, able to soar across the ancient ocean in search of food

Fossil of ‘largest flying bird’ found

The giant bird would have been an elegant flier, able to soar across the ancient ocean in search of food
The giant bird would have been an elegant flier, able to soar across the ancient ocean in search of food

The fossilised remains of the largest flying bird ever found have been identified by scientists.

This creature would have looked like a seagull on steroids – its wingspan was between 6.1 and 7.4m (20-24ft).

The find is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The 25m-year-old fossil was unearthed 30 years ago in South Carolina, but it has taken until now to identify that this is a new species.

Daniel Ksepka, curator of science at the Bruce Museum in Connecticut, said: “This fossil is remarkable both for the size, which we could only speculate on before the discovery, and for the preservation.

“The skull in particular is exquisite.

“And given the delicate nature of the bones… it is remarkable that the specimen made it to the bottom of the sea, became buried without being destroyed by scavengers, fossilised, and then was discovered before it was eroded or bulldozed away.”

The researchers believe this huge bird surpasses the previous recorder-holder, Argentavis magnificens – a condor-like bird from South America with an estimated wingspan of 5.7-6.1m (19-20ft) that lived about six million years ago.

The bird would have dwarfed our largest living birds - the California condor (left) and the albatross (right)
The bird would have dwarfed our largest living birds – the California condor (left) and the albatross (right)

Scientists have called the new giant Pelagornis sandersi. They believe it would have been twice the size of the wandering albatross, the largest living bird.

Like the albatross, it was a seabird, spending most of its time swooping above the ocean, preying on fish and squid.

Despite its scale, it would have been an elegant flier.

While theoretical models suggest that it would be tricky for a bird of this size to stay airborne by flapping its wings, researchers believe it used air currents to soar above the ocean.

Its long, slender wings and light, hollow bones would have made it a powerful glider.

“It would have been fast and very efficient,” said Dr Ksepka.

“Computer models suggest that it had high lift-to-drag ratios, which would allow it to glide for a very long distance for every unit of altitude it could attain.

“It could likely glide at speeds over 10m per second – faster than the human world record for the 100m dash.”

On land, though, the seabird was probably far less graceful.

“The long wings would have been cumbersome and it would have probably spent as little time as possible walking around,” Dr Ksepka explained.

Taking off would also have been an ungainly affair.

Computer models reveal that the bird could not have taken off by simply standing still and flapping its wings.

Instead, scientists think P. sandersi might have had to waddle downhill and hope to catch a gust of air.

Huge birds like this were once common, but they vanished about three million years ago.

Scientists do not yet understand why these giants of the skies died out.

Courtesy : bbc

Tibetan altitude gene inherited ‘from extinct species’

Tibetan altitude gene

A gene that allows present-day people to cope with life at high altitude was inherited from an extinct species of human, Nature journal has reported.

The variant of the EPAS-1 gene, which affects blood oxygen, is common in Tibetans – many of whom live at altitudes of 4,000m all year round.

The DNA sequence matches one found in an extinct group called the Denisovans.

Many of us carry DNA from extinct humans who interbred with our ancestors as the latter expanded out of Africa.

Both the Neanderthals – who emerged around 400,000 years ago and lived in Europe and western Asia until 35,000 years ago – and the enigmatic Denisovans contributed DNA to present-day people.

The Denisovans are known only from DNA extracted from the finger bone of a girl unearthed at Denisova Cave near the Altai Mountains in Siberia. This 40,000-50,000-year-old bone fragment, as well as a rather large tooth from another individual, are all that is known of this species.

The tiny “pinky” bone yielded the entire genome sequence of the ancient girl it belonged to, allowing scientists to compare it to the genetic sequences of modern people in order to better understand the legacy of ancient interbreeding.

Now, researchers have linked an unusual variant of the EPAS1 gene, which is involved in regulating the body’s production of haemoglobin – the molecule that carries oxygen in the blood – to the Denisovans. When the body is exposed to the low oxygen levels encountered at high elevations, EPAS1 tells other genes in the body to become active, stimulating a response that includes the production of extra red blood cells.

The unusual variant in question is common among Tibetans and probably spread under natural selection after they moved onto the high-altitude plateau in Asia several thousand years ago.

“We have very clear evidence that this version of the gene came from Denisovans,” said principal author co-author Rasmus Nielsen, from the University of California, Berkeley.

A tiny finger bone provided a high-quality DNA sequence for a new species

Prof Nielsen told : “If you and I go up to high altitude, we’ll immediately have various negative physiological effects. We’ll be out of breath, we might suffer from altitude sickness.

“After a little while, we’ll try to compensate for this by producing more red blood cells. But because we’re not adapted to the high altitude environment, our response would be maladaptive – we would produce too many red blood cells.

“The blood becomes too thick and raises our blood pressure, placing us at risk of stroke and pre-eclampsia (in pregnant women).”

But Tibetans are protected against these risks by producing many fewer red blood cells at high altitude. This keeps their blood from thickening.

The Tibetan variant of EPAS1 was discovered by Prof Nielsen’s team in 2010. But the researchers couldn’t explain why it was so different from the DNA sequences found in all other humans today, so they looked to more ancient genome sequences for an answer.

“We compared it to Neanderthals, but we couldn’t find a match. Then we compared it to Denisovans and to our surprise there was an almost exact match,” said Prof Nielsen.

He says the interbreeding event with Denisovans probably happened a very long time ago.

“After the Denisovan DNA came into modern humans, it lingered in different Asian populations at low frequencies for a long time,” Prof Nielsen explained.

“Then, when the ancestors of Tibetans moved up to high altitudes, it favoured this genetic variant which then spread to the point where most Tibetans carry it today.”

He says it remains unclear whether the Denisovans were also adapted to high altitude. Denisova Cave lies at an elevation of 760m – not very high. But it is close to the Altai Mountains which rise above 3,000m.

He said it was a clear and direct example of humans adapting to new environments through genes acquired via interbreeding with ancient human species.

There are other hints of this. Previous research has shown that ancient humans introduced genes that may help us cope with viruses outside Africa.

And a study of Eurasian populations showed that Neanderthal DNA is over-represented in parts of the genome that are involved with making skin, hair and nails, which may have been advantageous in the novel climatic conditions they encountered.

What Music Do Animals Like?

Patrick Kicken | flickr
Patrick Kicken | flickr

Research published today by the American Psychological Association has shownthat chimpanzees prefer listening to West African akan and North Indian raga over listening to silence. What does this say about the evolutionary purpose of music?

Previous work by McDermott and Hauser showed that when tamarins and marmosets were given a choice between a lullaby played on a flute, an excerpt of German techno, or silence, they preferred silence. This new research was investigating whether non-Western music might provoke a different response in nonhuman primates. Would the different rhythmic structures and musical scales in non-Western music change preferences?

The study played African, Indian, and Japanese music near large chimp enclosures and looked at whether the animals spent time in places where the music was loud and clear or in places further from the loudspeakers, where it was quiet or inaudible. For African and Indian music the chimps spent significantly more time in places where the music could be heard. For Japanese music they more often went to places where the music was difficult or impossible to hear.

The researchers think the preference may be due to the rhythmic content of the music. The African and Indian pieces didn’t have an obvious pulse to them that you could tap your foot along to, whereas the Japanese music had a strong regular pulse.

Study co-author Frans de Waal, Ph.D., of Emory University, commented, “Chimpanzees may perceive the strong, predictable rhythmic patterns as threatening, as chimpanzee dominance displays commonly incorporate repeated rhythmic sounds such as stomping, clapping and banging objects.”

One reason for this sort of study is to try to understand the evolutionary basis for music. Experimental psychologist Steven Pinker famously described music as “auditory cheesecake,” something that is pleasurable but has no adaptive function, arising as a byproduct of other evolutionary pressures, like the pressure that led to the development of language. But if music is purely a byproduct of the pressures that led to language, then why would chimpanzees show a preference for some types of music?

The number of scientific papers looking into the role of rhythm in music is surprisingly small. This bias is something that needs addressing if we are to fully understand why we make and love music.

NASA Mars ‘Flying Saucer’ Returns To Earth

nasa-flying-saucer

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A saucer-shaped NASA vehicle testing new technology for Mars landings rocketed high over the Pacific on Saturday and deployed a novel inflatable braking system, but its massive parachute failed to fully unfurl as it descended to a splashdown.

Control room cheers that greeted successful steps in the complex test rapidly died as the parachute appeared to emerge tangled.

“Please inform the recovery director we have bad chute,” a mission official ordered.

NASA planned to hold a news conference on the flight Sunday.

The vehicle, called the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator, was testing methods for slowing big, heavy spacecraft hurtling into the thin Martian atmosphere.

Despite the parachute problem, “what we just saw was a really good test,” said NASA engineer Dan Coatta with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

After taking off at 11:40 a.m. PDT from the Pacific Missile Range Facility on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, the balloon boosted the disc-shaped vehicle over the Pacific. Its rocket motor then ignited, carrying the vehicle to more than 30 miles high at supersonic speeds.

The environment that high up is similar to the thin Martian atmosphere. As the vehicle prepared to drop back the Earth, a tube around it expanded like a Hawaiian puffer fish, creating atmospheric drag to dramatically slow it down from Mach 4, or four times the speed of sound.

Then the parachute unfurled — if only partially — and the vehicle splashed down about three hours later.

Since the twin Viking spacecraft landed on the red planet in 1976, NASA has relied on a parachute to slow landers and rovers.

But the $150 million experimental flight tested a novel vehicle and parachute. At 110 feet in diameter, the chute was twice as big as the one that carried the 1-ton Curiosity rover through the Martian atmosphere in 2011.

Coatta said engineers won’t look at the parachute problem as a failure but as a way to learn more and apply that knowledge during future tests.

“In a way, that’s a more valuable experience for us than if everything had gone exactly according to plan,” he said.

Viewers around the world with an Internet connection followed portions of the mission in real time thanks to cameras on board the vehicle that beamed back low-resolution footage.

A ship was sent to recover a “black box” designed to separate from the vehicle and float. Outfitted with a GPS beacon, the box contains the crucial flight data that scientists are eager to analyze.

“That’s really the treasure trove of all the details,” Coatta said. “Pressure, temperature, force. High-definition video. All those measurements that are really key to us to understanding exactly what happens throughout this test.”

The test was postponed six times because of high winds. Conditions needed to be calm so that the balloon didn’t stray into no-fly zones.

Engineers planned to conduct several more flights next year before deciding whether to fly the vehicle and parachute on a future Mars mission.

“We want to test them here where it’s cheaper before we send it to Mars to make sure that it’s going to work there,” project manager Mark Adler of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory said during a pre-launch news conference in Kauai in early June.

The technology envelope needs to be pushed or else humanity won’t be able to fly beyond the International Space Station in low-Earth orbit, said Michael Gazarik, head of space technology at NASA headquarters.

Technology development “is the surest path to Mars,” Gazarik said at the briefing.

New device allows brain to bypass spinal cord, move paralyzed limbs

robotic arm understands thoughts
A man in Ohio has become the first patient ever to move his paralyzed hand by using his thoughts. Credit: Image courtesy of Ohio State University, Wexner Medical Center

[dropcap]F[/dropcap]or the first time ever, a paralyzed man can move his fingers and hand with his own thoughts thanks to an innovative partnership between The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and Battelle.

Ian Burkhart, a 23-year-old quadriplegic from Dublin, Ohio, is the first patient to use Neurobridge, an electronic neural bypass for spinal cord injuries that reconnects the brain directly to muscles, allowing voluntary and functional control of a paralyzed limb. Burkhart is the first of a potential five participants in a clinical study.

“It’s much like a heart bypass, but instead of bypassing blood, we’re actually bypassing electrical signals,” said Chad Bouton, research leader at Battelle. “We’re taking those signals from the brain, going around the injury, and actually going directly to the muscles.”

The Neurobridge technology combines algorithms that learn and decode the user’s brain activity and a high-definition muscle stimulation sleeve that translates neural impulses from the brain and transmits new signals to the paralyzed limb. In this case, Ian’s brain signals bypass his injured spinal cord and move his hand, hence the name Neurobridge.

Burkhart, who was paralyzed four years ago during a diving accident, viewed the opportunity to participate in the six-month, FDA-approved clinical trial at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center as a chance to help others with spinal cord injuries.

“Initially, it piqued my interested because I like science, and it’s pretty interesting,” Burkhart said. “I’ve realized, ‘You know what? This is the way it is. You’re going to have to make the best out of it.’ You can sit and complain about it, but that’s not going to help you at all. So, you might as well work hard, do what you can and keep going on with life.”

This technology has been a long time in the making. Working on the internally-funded project for nearly a decade to develop the algorithms, software and stimulation sleeve, Battelle scientists first recorded neural impulses from an electrode array implanted in a paralyzed person’s brain. They used that data to illustrate the device’s effect on the patient and prove the concept.

Two years ago, Bouton and his team began collaborating with Ohio State neuroscience researchers and clinicians Dr. Ali Rezai and Dr. Jerry Mysiwto design the clinical trials and validate the feasibility of using the Neurobridge technology in patients.

During a three-hour surgery on April 22, Rezai implanted a chip smaller than a pea onto the motor cortex of Burkhart’s brain. The tiny chip interprets brain signals and sends them to a computer, which recodes and sends them to the high-definition electrode stimulation sleeve that stimulates the proper muscles to execute his desired movements. Within a tenth of a second, Burkhart’s thoughts are translated into action.

“The surgery required the precise implantation of the micro-chip sensor in the area of Ian’s brain that controls his arm and hand movements,” Rezai said.

He said this technology may one day help patients affected by various brain and spinal cord injuries such as strokes and traumatic brain injury.

Battelle also developed a non-invasive neurostimulation technology in the form of a wearable sleeve that allows for precise activation of small muscle segments in the arm to enable individual finger movement, along with software that forms a ‘virtual spinal cord’ to allow for coordination of dynamic hand and wrist movements.

The Ohio State and Battelle teams worked together to figure out the correct sequence of electrodes to stimulate to allow Burkhart to move his fingers and hand functionally. For example, Burkhart uses different brain signals and muscles to rotate his hand, make a fist or pinch his fingers together to grasp an object, Mysiw said. As part of the study, Burkhart worked for months using the electrode sleeve to stimulate his forearm to rebuild his atrophied muscles so they would be more responsive to the electric stimulation.

“I’ve been doing rehabilitation for a lot of years, and this is a tremendous stride forward in what we can offer these people,” said Mysiw, chair of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Ohio State. “Now we’re examining human-machine interfaces and interactions, and how that type of technology can help.”

Burkhart is hopeful for his future.

“It’s definitely great for me to be as young as I am when I was injured because the advancements in science and technology are growing rapidly and they’re only going to continue to increase.”


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Ohio State University, Wexner Medical CenterNote: Materials may be edited for content and length.