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Many older brains have plasticity, but in a different place

© 3D Slicer / Wikimedia Commons
An MRI image of the brain shows the structure of myelin-sheathed wiring (white matter).
Brain scientists have long believed that older people have less of the neural flexibility (plasticity) required to learn new things. A new study shows that older people learned a visual task just as well as younger ones, but the seniors who showed a strong degree of learning exhibited plasticity in a different part of the brain than younger learners did.

A widely presumed problem of aging is that the brain becomes less flexible -- less plastic -- and that learning may therefore become more difficult. A new study led by Brown University researchers contradicts that notion with a finding that plasticity did occur in seniors who learned a task well, but it occurred in a different part of the brain than in younger people.

When many older subjects learned a new visual task, the researchers found, they unexpectedly showed a significantly associated change in the white matter of the brain. White matter is the the brain's "wiring," or axons, sheathed in a material called myelin that can make transmission of signals more efficient. Younger learners, meanwhile, showed plasticity in the cortex, where neuroscientists expected to see it.

"We think that the degree of plasticity in the cortex gets more and more limited with older people," said Takeo Watanabe, the Fred M. Seed Professor at Brown University and a co-author of the study published in Nature Communications. "However, they keep the ability to learn, visually at least, by changing white matter structure."
Robot

'Philae' lander discovers organic molecules on Comet 67P

The Philae lander has managed to discover carbon-based organic molecules on a Comet 67P some 500 million kilometers from Earth before going into hibernation mode to preserve remaining power after extensive drilling on the surface and a rough landing.

"COSAC was able to 'sniff' the atmosphere and detect the first organic molecules after landing. Analysis of the spectra and the identification of the molecules are continuing," the German Aerospace Center (DLR) confirmed in a statement.

European Space Agency scientists are still interpreting the data the lander sent back after a 57-hour mission on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Before its primary battery died out, Philae was able to explore the comet using its 10 devices as the "mini laboratory sniffed the atmosphere, drilled, hammered and studied," DLR said.

"We have collected a great deal of valuable data, which could only have been acquired through direct contact with the comet. Together with the measurements performed by the Rosetta orbiter, we are well on our way to achieving a greater understanding of comets. Their surface properties appear to be quite different than was previously thought," DLR's director for the project, Ekkehard Kührt said.
While @Philae2014 takes time out to rest after #CometLanding I've still got a lot of this to do at #67P: http://t.co/CV9Ysfow32

- ESA Rosetta Mission (@ESA_Rosetta) November 15, 2014
The European Space Agency (ESA) team found that the surface of the comet is "hard as ice," which made it difficult for the lander to dig into the surface especially after a harsh landing. The drilling has been dubbed a 'tough nut to crack'.
Cell Phone

Russian and Chinese telecom giants to jointly develop 5G network

© Sputnik / Yakov Andreev
Russia's largest mobile phone operator MegaFon and Chinese telecommunication giant Huawei have agreed to develop and implement 5G standards in Russia, MegaFon said on its official website Wednesday.

"The partners agreed to cooperate closely to create and accelerated [rapidly] roll out 5G next generation communications standard networks in Russia," said the Russian company's statement, which followed a memorandum of understanding signed between the parties in Shanghai.

According to MegaFon's press release, 5G technology is expected to contribute to the efficiency of network infrastructure in Russia and will meet the demand for increased data traffic. The new standard is expected to be introduced in the run-up to the FIFA World Cup 2018 hosted by Russia.

"The 2018 FIFA World Cup provides a unique platform in wireless history to demonstrate Huawei's leadership in 5G development. As always, I am delighted we once again join hands with MegaFon, the most promising and innovative carrier in Russia," President of Huawei Products and Solutions Ryan Ding said. The president added that the Russian-Chinese project will run ahead of the planned 5G introduction goal set for 2020 by the global telecommunication industry.

The 5G project will become another example of cooperation between Chinese and Russian telecommunication companies on new technologies. At the beginning of 2014, MegaFon launched the world's first commercial LTE Advanced network using Huawei infrastructure and subscriber equipment.

Comment: Hopefully these new standards will improve safety for human use.

Comet 2

Russian experiment confirms meteorite may have brought life to Earth

Russian scientists experimentally confirmed a possibility that life might have been brought to Earth from space, traveling 'on board' a meteorite. Using a satellite, scientists proved bacteria can survive landing through our planet's dense atmosphere.

Samples of various bacteria were placed by Russian scientists on the surface of Russia's Foton-M4 satellite, which was launched into space earlier this year and returned to Earth after spending some six weeks in orbit.

The Foton was dubbed a "sex satellite," as it contained a bio capsule with various organisms, such as geckos, fruit flies and plant seeds, aimed at testing how space conditions affect fertility and reproduction.

"We've managed to show that one of our termophilic bacteria can survive atop a meteorite surface while passing through Earth's dense atmosphere," Aleksandr Slobodkin, a researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences' microbiology institute told a space biology conference in Moscow, Tass reported.

The experiment was conducted with the use of two basalt discs, each four inches in diameter and 0.4 inches thick, which contained holes filled with samples of various bacteria, and was placed on the satellite's surface, Slobodkin said.
Lemon

New study claims self-directed brain training exercises are a waste of time, trained supervision more effective

brain training
Brain training computer games designed to boost the mental ability of elderly people are a waste of time and money, scientists have warned.

Companies which make handheld gadgets and games consoles have created a £640million global industry aimed at baby boomers entering their twilight years.

They claim to stimulate the brain, improve cognition and boost memory - and have in recent years been advertised by actors such as Nicole Kidman and Julie Walters.

Previous research has even suggested that engaging in challenging mental activities can lower the risk of dementia.

But a University of Sydney study published last night found that self-directed brain training conducted at home had no beneficial effect.
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"Forgotten" brain region rediscovered a century later

© Jason Yeatman and Kevin Weiner
A drawing of a postmortem brain that includes the vertical occipital fasciculus (bottom right) published by neuroscientist E.J. Curran in 1909.
A major pathway of the human brain involved in visual perception, attention and movement - and overlooked by many researchers for more than a century - is finally getting its moment in the sun.

In 2012, researchers made note of a pathway in a region of the brain associated with reading, but "we couldn't find it in any atlas," said Jason Yeatman, a research scientist at the University of Washington's Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences. "We'd thought we had discovered a new pathway that no one else had noticed before."

A quick investigation showed that the pathway, known as the vertical occipital fasciculus (VOF), was not actually unknown. Famed neuroscientist Carl Wernicke discovered the pathway in 1881, during the dissection of a monkey brain that was most likely a macaque.

But besides Wernicke's discovery, and a few other mentions throughout the years, the VOF is largely absent from studies of the human brain. This made Yeatman and his colleagues wonder, "How did a whole piece of brain anatomy get forgotten?" he said.
Mars

Study suggests warmth, flowing water on early Mars were episodic

© NASA
Although the surface is now cold and desiccated, in early Mars history water formed an open-basin lake, filling the crater, forming a delta, and breaching the lower rim as water flowed to lower elevations (blue).
Ample evidence of ancient rivers, streams, and lakes make it clear that Mars was at some point warm enough for liquid water to flow on its surface. While that may conjure up images of a tropical Martian paradise, new research published today in Nature Geoscience throws a bit of cold water on that notion.

The study, by scientists from Brown University and Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science, suggests that warmth and water flow on ancient Mars were probably episodic, related to brief periods of volcanic activity that spewed tons of greenhouse-inducing sulfur dioxide gas into the atmosphere. The work, which combines the effect of volcanism with the latest climate models of early Mars, suggests that periods of temperatures warm enough for water to flow likely lasted for only tens or hundreds of years at a time.

With all that's been learned about Mars in recent years, the mystery of the planet's ancient water has deepened in some respects. The latest generation of climate models for early Mars suggests an atmosphere too thin to heat the planet enough for water to flow. The sun was also much dimmer billions of years ago than it is today, further complicating the picture of a warmer early Mars.

"These new climate models that predict a cold and ice-covered world have been difficult to reconcile with the abundant evidence that water flowed across the surface to form streams and lakes," said James W. Head, professor of earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Brown University and co-author of the new paper with Weizmann's Itay Halevy. "This new analysis provides a mechanism for episodic periods of heating and melting of snow and ice that could have each lasted decades to centuries."
Comet

Magnetic field of ancient meteorite holds clues to solar system formation

© MIT Paleomagnetism Laboratory
Magnified image of the section of the Semarkona meteorite used in this study. Chondrules are millimeter sized, light-colored objects.
By analyzing a meteorite that crash-landed in India eight decades ago, researchers have discovered the first experimental evidence suggesting that our solar system's protoplanetary disk was shaped by an intense magnetic field which propelled massive amounts of gas into the sun over the course of just a few million years.

In the study, MIT graduate student Roger Fu and colleagues from Cambridge University, Arizona State University and elsewhere studied a space rock known as a Semarkona, which fell to Earth in northern India back in 1940 and is said to be one of the most pristine relics of the early solar system. They extracted individual pellets known as chondrules from a small sample of the meteorite and measured the magnetic orientations of each grain.

As the study authors reported Friday in the journal Science, they found that the meteorite had not been altered since its formation. With that established, they then measured the magnetic strength of each chondrule and calculated the original magnetic field in which those grains were created. Their calculations revealed the early solar system's magnetic field was between five and 54 microteslas, or up to 100,000 times stronger than what currently exists in interstellar space.
Fireball

NASA map downplays sharp rise in meteor fireball impacts over last 20 years

© NASA/JPL
NASA's Near Earth Object (NEO) Program published a diagram a few days ago, showing 556 mapped comet/asteroid fragment impacts on Earth over the last 20 years (see above). NASA says it's based on data gathered from 1994-2013 on small asteroids impacting Earth's atmosphere to create 'fireballs', adding that "the sizes of yellow dots (daytime impacts) and blue dots (nighttime impacts) are proportional to the optical radiated energy of impacts measured in billions of Joules (GJ) of energy, and show the location of impacts from objects about 1 meter (3 feet) to almost 20 meters (60 feet) in size."

Note the random distribution of impacts around the globe. But note also what the map and accompanying NASA report do not indicate: the year-on-year distribution of those impact events over that 20-year period. This omission enables them to give the following misleading subheading to their report:
It happens all the time: small asteroids impact Earth's atmosphere
By not providing a year-on-year breakdown of the impacts, and by including their rather banal headline, NASA leaves us to assume that these events were more or less evenly distributed over those 20 years - on average, 27 fireball events of note in 2013 (556 total events/20 years). But we have serious doubts about this.

We know from the American Meteor Society that there were nearly 3,500 observed events in 2013 alone - and just in the US. Check out the data for yourself: browse through the AMS Events database. Select for events in 2013 with both 'sound' and 'fragmentation' reported. Note how many of last year's 184 US fireball events, that were large enough to be both seen breaking up and heard exploding, were witnessed from multiple US states. Now go back to the NASA world fireball map from 1994-2013. Assuming its random global distribution is accurate, we can try a little exercise in extrapolation to get a figure for significant fireball events globally in 2013.
Fireball 3

NASA Scientists find diamonds, other treasures in 'Sutter's Mill' Gold Rush Meteorite

© NASA
Researchers digging deeper into the origins of the Sutter's Mill meteorite, which fell in California's Gold Country in 2012, found diamonds and other "treasures" that provide important new insight into the early days of our solar system. They report their results in thirteen papers in the November issue of Meteoritics & Planetary Science.

"Sutter's Mill gives us a glimpse of what future NASA spacecraft may find when they bring back samples from a primitive asteroid," said consortium lead Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. "From what falls naturally to the ground, much does not survive the violent collision with Earth's atmosphere."

Jenniskens found one of the first and one of the most unusual of the Sutter's Mill meteorites before rain hit the area. In his search, Jenniskens was guided by Marc Fries of NASA's Johnson Space Center, in Houston, who describes in detail how Doppler weather radar enabled the rapid and pristine collection of the meteorites. "The two 10-micron diamond grains we found in this meteorite are too small to sparkle in a ring," said Mike Zolensky, space scientist of Johnson, working with associate professor Yoko Kebukawa late of Hokkaido University, Japan, "But their size is much larger than the nanometer-sized diamonds commonly found in such meteorites."
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