Archive for 'News about research'

“The more we learn, the less we understand”

Thursday, May 21st, 2015

“The more we learn, the less we understand,” says geneticist Steve Jones about genes and genetics, in this Lost Lecture:

David Dobbs pursues this theme in the essay “Weighing The Promises Of Big Genomics“, in Buzzfeed:

…“Many genes of small effect” became a sort of tepid curse. I myself prefer the stronger, more memorable phrase “Many Assorted Genes of Tiny Significance,” or MAGOTS — a mass of barely significant genes explaining little.

MAGOTS infest most GWA studies for a simple, brutal reason: If a gene variant reliably plays a large role in causing disease, both the variant and the disease it causes tend to be rare, because its carriers tend to die without leaving offspring. This is why the genetic contributions for common diseases and conditions usually come from MAGOTS — the effects of which, it bears repeating, are usually maddeningly obscure and unpredictable. This applies even to diseases and traits that run in families. Take height: Hundreds of genes of small effect, few clues to how they contribute, and no real target to tweak if, say, you want to make someone tall. The best way to engineer a tall person? Tell two tall people to tango.

Similarly, deep digs at cancer, schizophrenia, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, intelligence, bipolar disorder, and height have found mostly MAGOTS….

So let me offer a hype filter. This one comes courtesy of the oceanographer Henry Bryant Bigelow, who helped found Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. A century ago, Bigelow opened a letter his brother had written him from Cuba. His brother reported that while weathering a hurricane there, he had seen, flying by, what he was almost sure was a donkey.

With three words, Bigelow gently told his brother he didn’t quite believe him — and stated a maxim for maintaining the ever-curious but ever-skeptical stance that marks the good scientist.

“Interesting if true,” he wrote.

Dignity and intelligence of plants

Thursday, May 21st, 2015

Dignity of plantsPlants not only have dignity, as enshrined in Swiss law and explained in the pamphlet The Dignity of Living Beings with Regard to Plants. Plants are intelligent, in ways some humans are slow to recognize. That first notion was honored with the an Ig Nobel Peace Prize, the second notion is explored in a new book called Brilliant Green: The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence.

The 2008 Ig Nobel Prize for peace was awarded to The Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology (ECNH) and the citizens of Switzerland for adopting the legal principle that plants have dignity.

The book Brilliant Green is written by Stefano Mancuso [profiled in the video, below], a plant behaviorist, and Alessandra Viola [pictured here], a science journalist. 

Here’s part of an interview with Mancuso, by Lindsay Abrams, in Salon:

Are violathere things that you’re still trying to prove or haven’t been able to figure out? Can you be sure whether there’s really intention there?

Today in my lab, we are studying in two different, let’s say parallel, ways. One is the social relationship among plants. I think that would be incredibly interesting to try to explain how plants behave differently according to their neighbors. If the neighbors are relatives, there is a kind of behavior. If they are strangers, there is a completely new, completely different behavior. This is something that we are trying to find, how the plants are able to recognize the plants around them and how they can change their behavior accordingly.

brlliant greenThe second point is memory and learning. This is the most important and the most fascinating. At the beginning of the past year, we published a paper where we were able to demonstrate that the plants were able to learn — for example, that a specific stimulus was not dangerous. They were able also to learn not to react, not to spend energy responding to a non-dangerous stimulus. What was incredibly surprising for us was that we left plants completely undisturbed for almost two months; at the end of the second month, the plants were all the time remembering that a specific stimulus was not dangerous. What we learned from that experiment was that plants had a memory. We don’t know how they can memorize, because they have no brain. There should be another, completely new system to store information that could be incredibly interesting to find out. The other thing we want to find out is how long this kind of memory is. Two months is a lot. Just to give you an example, in insects, the average length of the memory of information is 24 hours.

Podcast #12: Ostrich courtship of humans

Wednesday, May 20th, 2015

Ostriches, sea monsters, and sex figure heavily in this week’s Improbable Research podcast.

LISTEN on or iTunes (or DOWNLOAD it, and listen later).
SUBSCRIBE on or iTunes, to get a new episode every week, free.
[NEWS: Soon, the podcast will also be available on Spotify.]

This week, Marc Abrahams tells about:


The mysterious John Schedler perhaps did the sound engineering this week.

The Improbable Research podcast is all about research that makes people LAUGH, then THINK — real research, about anything and everything, from everywhere —research that may be good or bad, important or trivial, valuable or worthless. CBS distributes it, both on the new CBS web site, and on iTunes (and soon, also on Spotify).

Finnish solution of the nude body / brain question

Wednesday, May 20th, 2015

A team of Finnish researchers reached new partial understanding of how human brains react to nude bodies. They published a study about it:

Facilitated early cortical processing of nude human bodies,” Jussi Alho, Nelli Salminen, Mikko Sams, Jari K. Hietanen, Lauri Nummenma, Biological Psychology, epub May 7, 2015. (Thanks to Neil Martin for bringing this to our attention.) The authors at Aalto University, the University of Tampere, and the University of Turku, Finland, report:

“it remains unresolved whether nude and clothed bodies are processed by same cerebral networks or whether processing of nude bodies recruits additional affective and arousal processing areas. We recorded simultaneous MEG and EEG while participants viewed photographs of clothed and nude bodies. Global field power revealed a peak ∼145 ms after stimulus onset to both clothed and nude bodies, and ∼205 ms exclusively to nude bodies. Nude-body-sensitive responses were centered first (100–200 ms) in the extrastriate and fusiform body areas, and subsequently (200–300 ms) in affective-motivational areas including insula and anterior cingulate cortex. We conclude that visibility of sexual features facilitates early cortical processing of human bodies, the purpose of which is presumably to trigger sexual behavior and ultimately ensure reproduction.”

Here’s further detail from the study:



BONUS (possibly unrelated): Measuring a person’s incoherence

PR of the week: Video game-playing might cause Alzheimer’s disease

Wednesday, May 20th, 2015

This week’s Impressively-Complicated-Chain-of-Logic Press Release of the Week implies that playing video games might cause Alzheimer’s disease. Or, more precisely, it says that no one has ruled out the possibility that playing video games causes or might cause Alzheimer’s disease.

It’s complicated. McGill University issued the press release, which says:

West“For more than a decade now, research has demonstrated that action video game players display more efficient visual attention abilities, and our current study has once again confirmed this notion,” says first author Dr. Gregory West [pictured here]. “However, we also found that gamers rely on the caudate-nucleus to a greater degree than non-gamers. Past research has shown that people who rely on caudate nucleus-dependent strategies have lower grey matter and functional brain activity in the hippocampus. This means that people who spend a lot of time playing video games may have reduced hippocampal integrity, which is associated with an increased risk of neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.”

Because past research has shown video games as having positive effects on attention, it is important for future research to confirm that gaming does not have a negative effect on the hippocampus. Future research using neuroimaging will be necessary to further qualify our current findings, and these studies should investigate the direct effects of specific video games on the integrity of the reward system and hippocampus.

The key phrase: “it is important for future research to confirm that gaming does not have a negative effect on the hippocampus“.

The study is:

Habitual action video game playing is associated with caudate nucleus-dependent navigational strategies,” Greg L. West, Brandi Lee Drisdelle, Kyoko Konishi, Jonathan Jackson, Pierre Jolicoeur, Veronique D. Bohbot,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B 2015 282 20142952; Published 20 May 2015.

Reports in the The Telegraph and the Daily Mail add importance to the discovery, with the headlines “Call of Duty increases risk of Alzheimer’s disease” and “Could video games increase your risk of Alzheimer’s? Navigating virtual worlds can reduce grey matter and make you prone to mental illness, claims study“.

BONUS (possibly unrelated): Heeled shoes might cause szhizophrenia