Science & Technology


Neuronal circuits filter out distractions in the brain

neural connections
© Bo Li, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory scientists have identified neural connections between the cortex, thalamus, and TRN (TRN neurons shown in red, left and right panels) that help filter out distractions. Loss of a single protein in the TRN (shown here in green, middle and right panels) dramatically affects the function of the neural circuit and changes how mice focus.
The next time you are in a crowded room, or a meeting, or even at the park with your kids, take a look around. How many people are on their phone? Distractions invade every aspect of our lives. Status updates, text messages, email notifications all threaten to steal our attention away from the moment. While we fight the urge to check the phone, our brains are making constant judgment calls about where to focus attention. The brain must continually filter important information from irrelevant interference.

Scientists have hypothesized for decades about how the brain might accomplish this, but it has been challenging to find evidence to support the theories. Now, researchers at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) have identified a neural circuit in the mouse brain that controls attention and sensory processing, providing insight into how the brain filters out distractions. The work has implications for devastating psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia that are characterized at least in part by significant attention deficits.

The cortex is the region of the brain where most cognitive function happens. It is there that information is processed and interpreted, and decisions are made. But sensory information must pass through a neuronal gate, called the thalamus, on its way to the cortex. The thalamus, a ball-shaped bundle of neurons, is coated in a thin neuronal skin called the thalamic reticular nucleus, or TRN. As early as 1984, Nobel laureate Francis Crick hypothesized that the TRN might function like a guardian of the gate, regulating precisely which information is worthy of being passed on through the thalamus to the cortex for further analysis.

Potentially hazardous asteroid surprises astronomers

"Watch therefore, for ye know not the day nor the hour," could be still an actual description of our ability to predict asteroid threats to Earth. The sentence from the Bible (Matthew 25:13) sound like a reminder of a vast number of more than 1,500 currently potentially hazardous objects, floating in space, meandering around in the Solar System. Some of them may be destined to pay our planet a close visit someday, unexpectedly, Chelyabinsk-style, as the one that hit Russia in February 2013, causing serious damages and injuring about 1,500 people.

Who would have predicted that? Lately, one of the potentially hazardous asteroids, named 2014 UR116, created quite a buzz when various media reported that the 370-wide space rock may hit Earth. Its impact would cause an explosion 1,000 times greater than the Chelyabinsk meteor. But the discoverer of 2014 UR116, Vladimir Lipunov, a professor at Moscow State University, becalms the public. "This asteroid will not collide with Earth during the next 100 years," Lipunov told

Comment: Remember though, that on February 15th, 2013, when space agencies, 'experts' and the mainstream media reassured the general public that asteroid 2012-DA14 was due to safely pass by our planet. It did, but within hours another separate asteroid/comet fragment unexpectedly slammed into the atmosphere and exploded over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk.

Comment: "...but just to make sure and avoid any potential catastrophe, it's better to track them constantly". Forget about funding for advanced warning systems - NASA et al. are broke. Look to the past for what is to come! Celestial Intentions: Comets and the Horns of Moses

See also: NASA map downplays sharp rise in meteor fireball impacts over last 20 years
9,384 fireball events in 2013 large enough to produce fragmentation trails that were visible from the ground, and produce atmospheric explosions loud enough to be heard from the ground


Picture perfect proof that Mars once had wet seasons

Gale Crater's Hidden Valley
Cross-bedded sandstones imaged at the edge of Gale Crater's Hidden Valley.
It looks like a freeze dried desert now, but this image taken by the Mars Curiosity rover is proof that the red planet once had regular wet seasons, and was capable of supporting life. This layered rock photographed by the Mast Camera on NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover shows thick-laminated, evenly-stratified sandstone layers, which are commonly found on Earth where river deltas flow into lakes and seas.

The suspended material in the water then settled onto the ancient lake bed and gradually, over years, built up the many layers, which are now exposed in this rock outcrop. These multiple layers of sedimentary deposits are evidence that there were regular cycles of water carrying plumes of river sediments flowing into the lake which once filled Gale crater.

The sandstone has slowly eroded away over billions of years through the actions of sand blasting winds. These cross-bedded sandstones were imaged at the edge of a location called Hidden Valley, which is on the foot hills of the crater's five kilometre high central peak, Mount Sharp. The scene combines multiple frames taken with Curiosity's right-eye camera on August 7th, 2014, during the 712th Martian day or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars.
Comet 2

New Comet: P/2014 X1 (ELENIN)

CBET nr. 4034, issued on 2014, December 14, announces the discovery of a comet (magnitude ~18) by Leonid Elenin on three CCD images taken on 2014, December 12 with a 0.4-m f/3 astrograph at the ISON-NM Observatory near Mayhill, NM, USA. The new comet has been designated P/2014 X1 (ELENIN).

We performed follow-up measurements of this object, while it was still on the neocp. Stacking of 10 unfiltered exposures, 120-sec each, obtained remotely on 2014, December 12.4 from H06 (iTelescope network - Mayhill) through a 0.43-m f/6.8 astrograph + CCD + f/4.5 focal reducer, under bad seeing conditions, shows that this object is slightly diffuse with FWHM about 20% - 30% wider than that of nearby field stars of similar brightness.

Our confirmation image (click on it for a bigger version)
Comet P/2014 X1 Elenin
© Remanzacco Observatory
M.P.E.C. 2014-X66 (including pre-discovery Pan-STARRS1 and Mount Lemmon observations, found by G. V. Williams in the MPC archive from September and October) assigns the following elliptical orbital elements to comet P/2014 X1: T 2015 Jan. 7.74; e= 0.71; Peri. = 34.36; q = 1.81; Incl.= 25.97

Congrats to Leonid for the discovery of his third comet!
Comet 2

Comet Lovejoy heading our way

Comet Lovejoy
© Gerald Rhemann
The new Comet Lovejoy, C/2014 Q2, as imaged on November 27th by Gerald Rhemann in Austria using a remotely operated 12-inch f/3.6 astrograph in Namibia.
A new Comet Lovejoy, designated C/2014 Q2, is heading our way out of deep space and out of the deep southern sky. It may brighten to 5th magnitude from late December through much of January as it climbs into excellent viewing position for the Northern Hemisphere, high in the dark winter night.

This is Australian amateur Terry Lovejoy's fifth comet discovery. He turned it up at 15th magnitude in Puppis last August, in search images that he took with a wide-field 8-inch scope. It hasn't moved very much since then - it's still in Puppis as of December 11th - but it's hundreds of times brighter now at visual magnitude 6.8, reports David Seargent in Australia. On the 9th "I saw it easily using a pair of 6x35 binoculars," he writes. Using a 4-inch binocular telescope at 25×, he says it was a good 8 arcminutes wide with a strong central condensation and no visible tail.

And it's picking up speed across the sky for a long northward dash.

Can cops predict crime?

Predicting Crime
© Thinkstock
New software uses records of previous crimes to predict areas or "hot spots" where police are then dispatched.
The field of "predictive policing" is becoming more and more common as law enforcement officials take advantage of new tools of computer science, machine learning and big data to figure out where criminals may strike next.

These programs are a far cry from Minority Report, the Tom Cruise film/Philip K. Dick novel in which citizens were arrested days or weeks before they committed crimes. But prediction methods are getting better, focusing not on an individual's brain or personality, but rather individual kinds of behavior of large groups of people -- in this case, the habits of bad guys.

Predictive policing "is not about replacing police officers with Robo-Cop," said Jeff Brantingham, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has developed predictive policing software for several big city departments.

"It's about predicting where and when crime might occur."

Brantingham's software uses records of previous crimes -- their location, time of day and type of crime -- to predict areas or "hot spots" where similar events may occur. Police are then dispatched to the area to keep a lookout, or just disrupt any possible criminal behavior.

The PredPol (Predictive Policing) software program is deployed in Los Angeles, Atlanta and Tacoma, Wa., among other cities.

Officials with the Cambridge (Mass.) Police Department are working with statistics experts from the Massachusetts Institution of Technology in another direction -- trying to find patterns of behavior in the "modus operandi" previous criminal cases to stop future ones.

Mysterious Mars 'cookie' formation on planet's surface is latest bizarre Martian find

© NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
A mysterious formation on the surface of Mars has been described as looking like a “brain” or “cookie.” The newly found landform appeared to be circular in shape and measured roughly 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) wide, according to NASA.
"Cookie," "brain" and "deformed waffle" are the words used to describe a mysterious formation on the surface of Mars that appeared in a photograph released last week by NASA. The strange landform is circular with raised ridges running through its center. Scientists said it measures roughly 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) wide.

Rather than being the product of some giant Martian bakery, the cookie-like formation was likely the result of ancient volcanic activity, according to researchers with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. The feature was discovered in the planet's Athabasca region, the site of some of Mar's youngest lava flows.

The Martian surface, once a violent environment, is replete with dormant volcanoes. Some of them are 100 times larger than any volcano on Earth, in part because Mars' crust, unlike Earth's, remains stationary, allowing the lava to pile higher for much longer. Lower surface gravity on Mars has resulted in much longer lava flows than those produced by Earth's volcanic eruptions, NASA said.

Comment: Mars has been more and more in the news lately:


Discovery that Mars' Gale Crater was once lake evidence of wet and warm climate

This is a part of a series of images that reconstructs the geology of the region around Mars' Mount Sharp, where NASA's Curiosity Mars rover landed and is now driving.
The discovery that Mars' Gale Crater was once Gale Lake adds a powerful piece of evidence for an ancient wet and warm climate that lasted much longer than previous predictions. Now, if only the computer models would agree.

To account for a lake that lasted for millions or even tens of millions of years means the Martian atmosphere would have had to be not only far thicker than the puny envelope of gases that surrounds it today, but also loaded with water, said Ashwin Vasavada, deputy project scientist for NASA's Curiosity Mars rover.

The Curiosity science team announced Monday that the 96-mile-wide crater where the rover landed in August 2012 was once a lake.

"The landscapes of Mount Sharp indicate that rivers, lakes and groundwater were present over millions of years, something that would be impossible on Mars today," Vasavada said.

Today, water on Mars is frozen around the planet's poles. Even if the atmosphere were thicker (generating pressure that would permit water to exist as a liquid, rather than just as solid or gas) water would still preferentially gather in the polar regions, leaving the atmosphere dry. Gale Lake would have evaporated quickly.

"To get a long-lived lake in Gale Crater there must have been so much water in the climate system that the frozen latitudes were essentially filled up, that water was forced to warmer latitudes where it would exist as liquid," Vasavada said.

Comment: What the computer models fail to take into consideration is that the Mars of today is most likely vastly different from Mars thousands of years ago. There are a number of cosmic changes that can affect a planet's climate, and it's likely that Mars at one time was able to support life due to its wet and warm climate.

Comet 2

Geminid meteor shower to occur December 12 - 14

Geminid meteors

Peak viewing for the 2014 Geminid meteor shower will probably occur on from late evening December 13 through dawn on December 14.
The peak night of the 2014 Geminid meteor shower will probably occur on the night of December 13 (morning of December 14). The night before (December 12-13) may offer a decent sprinkling of meteors as well. Geminid meteors tend to be few and far between at early evening, but intensify in number as evening deepens into late night. A last quarter moon will rise around midnight, but Geminid meteors are bright! This shower favors Earth's Northern Hemisphere, but it's visible from the Southern Hemisphere, too. If you're at a temperate latitude in the Southern Hemisphere, try waiting a little later - until close to midnight - to see the beginning of the Geminid shower.

Comment: In December 2012 NASA was able to catch one of the brightest fireballs observed by its network of meteor cameras in over four years of operation.

NASA video captures 2012 Geminid meteor shower fireball


Mastodons weren't hunted to extinction by Ice Age humans - they simply froze to death, new study finds

© National Post
Paleontology student Hillary McLean pieces together a tusk of an ancient mastodon, part of an extensive discovery unearthed from Snowmass, Colo., inside a workroom at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
Despite popular belief that North American mastodons were hunted to extinction by Ice Age humans, a new Canadian-led study is claiming that the prehistoric beasts simply froze to death.

"To think of scattered populations of Ice Age people with primitive technology driving huge animals to extinction, to me is almost silly," said Grant Zazula, chief paleontologist for the Yukon Territory and the study's lead author.

"It's not human nature just to see everything in your path and want to kill it," he said.

The paper, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, carbon dated 36 mastodon bones from across Canada and the United States.