Science & Technology


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.

"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.

Study suggests warmth, flowing water on early Mars were episodic

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."

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.

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

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

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."

Argentine student invents submarine style shoes to replace cane for the blind

© Still from Ruptly video
An Argentine student has invented shoes with ultrasound sensors which allow people with visual impairments to walk without a cane. The shoes vibrate when the wearer approaches an object.

The new shoes for blind people, dubbed 'Duspavoni,' were developed by Juan Manuel Bustamante, a student at Industrial College #4, and presented at the National Science Fair in Buenos Aires on Friday. He says he worked on the project for six months.

"I wish Duspavoni, my creation, could get to revolutionize the lives of people with sight problems, partial or total visual impairment," he told Ruptly.

The shoes have three ultrasound sensors placed inside the sole - in the frontal, lateral, and back areas. The sensors emit ultrasound waves which are reflected by surrounding objects and come back to the sensor. The shoe vibrates depending on the distance and position of the objects.

Up to 80 million bacteria sealed with a kiss

© milanmarkovic78 / Fotolia
Couple about to kiss (stock image). As many as 80 million bacteria are transferred during a 10 second kiss, according to research published in the open access journal Microbiome.
As many as 80 million bacteria are transferred during a 10 second kiss, according to research published in the open access journal Microbiome. The study also found that partners who kiss each other at least nine times a day share similar communities of oral bacteria.

The ecosystem of more than 100 trillion microorganisms that live in our bodies -- the microbiome -- is essential for the digestion of food, synthesizing nutrients, and preventing disease. It is shaped by genetics, diet, and age, but also the individuals with whom we interact. With the mouth playing host to more than 700 varieties of bacteria, the oral microbiota also appear to be influenced by those closest to us.

Researchers from Micropia and TNO in the Netherlands studied 21 couples, asking them to fill out questionnaires on their kissing behaviour including their average intimate kiss frequency. They then took swab samples to investigate the composition of their oral microbiota on the tongue and in their saliva.

The results showed that when couples intimately kiss at relatively high frequencies their salivary microbiota become similar. On average it was found that at least nine intimate kisses per day led to couples having significantly shared salivary microbiota.

'Starry Night' solar powered bike path unveiled in the The Netherlands

Van Gogh-Roosegaarde bicycle path

Van Gogh-Roosegaarde bicycle path
In The Netherlands, solar-powered paths seems to be all the rage. There's SolaRoad, which we blogged about yesterday. And now today, we bring you the Van Gogh-Roosegaarde bicycle path, which opened to the public this week in the Dutch town of Nuenen, where Van Gogh lived in 1883.

The path, created by local artist and designer Daan Roosegaarde in collaboration with Heijmans Infrastructure, was inspired by Van Gogh's iconic Starry Night painting.

The path is made of thousands of stones that absorb sunlight during the day and then glow at night. Embedded in concrete, the bikeway should last the lifetime of any cement path.
Snowflake Cold

New study suggests hailstones form around a biological embryo

© SCMP Pictures
'freak' giant hailstones - which are becoming more common. A 'sign of the times'?
Hailstones from three Rocky Mountain storms formed around biological material, then bounced around the clouds picking up layers of ice, according to a new Montana State University study.

The discovery of a biological embryo extends previous findings about the formation of snow and rain, applies to hailstones globally and provides basic information about a little-studied topic, said the researchers who published their findings Nov. 6 in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres.

"This is the first paper to really show that biological material makes hailstones," said John Priscu, a renowned polar scientist and professor in MSU's Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences. "Despite the millions in dollars of damage the storm caused in Bozeman (Mont.), the damaging hailstones provided us with a better understanding of hailstone formation, which will help us understand the role of aerosol particles in the formation of precipitation."

Alex Michaud - MSU doctoral student and first author of the paper - normally studies Antarctic microorganisms with Priscu, but he took on a side project after hailstones pummeled Bozeman, Mont., on June 30, 2010.

"If it weren't for his inquisitive nature of how things work, no good would have come from the devastating storm," Priscu said.

Once the storm subsided, Michaud collected hailstones and stored them in an MSU freezer at minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit. The hailstones averaged 1.5 inches in diameter. Then Michaud gathered hailstones from two more area storms that occurred in 2010 and 2011. Those averaged about half an inch in diameter.

Examining some 200 hailstones in MSU's Subzero Science and Engineering Research Facility showed that the hailstones formed around a biological embryo, Michaud said. Analyzing stable isotopes of water in an Ohio State University laboratory showed that most of the hailstone embryos froze at relatively warm temperatures, generally above 6.8 degrees Fahrenheit, which corroborates freezing temperatures of biological embryos recovered from the middle of hailstones.

Two different research methods showed that a warm temperature of ice nucleation indicates biological material is the likely nuclei, Michaud said. He added that hailstones grow in such a way that makes them a nice model system for studying atmospheric ice nucleation and cloud processes.

Comment: In order to gain a "better understanding of hailstone formation" and other phenomena, researchers really ought to consider the winning 'Electric Universe' model - see Earth Changes and the Human-Cosmic Connection, available here.