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Tue, 25 Apr 2017
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Brain protein may unlock key to multiple sclerosis treatment - study

© Neil Hall / Reuters
Scientists have made significant progress in finding the cause of multiple sclerosis (MS), discovering the presence of a protein in brain tissue that may help lead to a treatment for the disease that affects 2.5 million people worldwide.

Researchers at the University of Exeter in the UK and the University of Alberta in Canada found large quantities of the protein Rab32 in brain tissue samples taken from people who had MS but was almost entirely absent in those without the condition.

Info

How Little Ice Age displaced the tropical rain belt

© Wikipedia / Mats Halldin
The annual see-saw of the tropical rain belt.
The tropical rain belt, also known as the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), is in a state of constant migration. It continuously changes position in response to the seasons and follows the sun's zenith, with a slight delay. This in turn determines the wet and dry periods in the tropics and subtropics over the course of the year. The tropical rain belt therefore effectively controls the climate in most of the tropical and subtropical regions, such as the monsoon season in Southeast Asia and Central America.

An international team of researchers led by Franziska Lechleitner from the Geological Institute at ETH Zurich has proven for the first time that the migration of the tropical rain belt is quite sensitive to even small changes in global temperatures. The team's findings have been published in the journal Scientific Reports, where they present the most comprehensive reconstruction of rainfall patterns within the Intertropical Convergence Zone for the past 2000 years.

Lower temperatures worldwide

In the past, scientists have only studied the migration of the tropical rain belt over very long timespans, such as glacial and interglacial cycles over tens of thousands of years, with correspondingly sizeable temperature differences of several degrees. "So far, however, scientists have not investigated the past two millennia on a global scale, when temperature changes have been far less pronounced," explains the climate geologist.

The ETH researcher and her colleagues have now managed to demonstrate how the tropical weather system shifted a good way south between 1450 and 1850, a period known as the Little Ice Age. "This migration is linked to the lower global temperatures during this time," explains Lechleitner.

The latest climate reconstructions show that the average temperatures during this period were around 0.4 degrees Celsius lower than before and after the Little Ice Age. The migration of the tropical rain belt also caused substantial changes in the tropical and subtropical climate during this time, affecting the areas of drought and heavy rainfall.

Brain

Research finds psychedelic drugs create a different consciousness in the brain

© Beckley/Imperial Research Foundation
Measuring neuron activity has revealed that psychedelic drugs really do alter the state of the brain, creating a different kind of consciousness.

"We see an increase in the diversity of signals from the brain," says Anil Seth, at the University of Sussex, UK. "The brain is more complex in its activity."

Seth and his team discovered this by re-analysing data previously collected by researchers at Imperial College London. Robin Carhart-Harris and his colleagues had monitored brain activity in 19 volunteers who had taken ketamine, 15 who had had LSD, and 14 who were under the influence of psilocybin, a hallucinogenic compound in magic mushrooms. Carhart-Harris's team used sets of sensors attached to the skull to measure the magnetic fields produced by these volunteers' neurons, and compared these to when each person took a placebo.

"We took the activity data, cleaned it up then chopped it into 2-second chunks," says Seth, whose team worked with Carhart-Harris on the re-analysis. "For each chunk, we could calculate a measure of diversity."

Info

What we know so far about the Larry Page-backed 'flying car' coming later this year

© Kitty Hawk
The Kitty Hawk Flyer.
The mysterious flying-car startup funded by Google cofounder Larry Page, Kitty Hawk, finally took the wraps off its first vehicle on Monday.

The Kitty Hawk Flyer looks a mix between a flying jet-ski and, as John Markoff of The New York Times put it, "something Luke Skywalker would have built out of spare parts." It's designed to be flown over water and will be available for sale by the end of this year.

Kitty Hawk says that its flyer can be operated without a pilot's license as long as you fly it in "uncongested areas." The startup hasn't said how much the flyer will cost, but it's offering an early $2,000 discount for people who are willing to pay $100 now to get on the waitlist.

Bulb

Medieval medical books could hold the recipe for new antibiotics

For a long time, medieval medicine has been dismissed as irrelevant. This time period is popularly referred to as the "Dark Ages," which erroneously suggests that it was unenlightened by science or reason. However, some medievalists and scientists are now looking back to history for clues to inform the search for new antibiotics.

The evolution of antibiotic-resistant microbes means that it is always necessary to find new drugs to battle microbes that are no longer treatable with current antibiotics. But progress in finding new antibiotics is slow. The drug discovery pipeline is currently stalled. An estimated 700,000 people around the world die annually from drug-resistant infections. If the situation does not change, it is estimated that such infections will kill 10 million people per year by 2050. I am part of the Ancientbiotics team, a group of medievalists, microbiologists, medicinal chemists, parasitologists, pharmacists and data scientists from multiple universities and countries. We believe that answers to the antibiotic crisis could be found in medical history. With the aid of modern technologies, we hope to unravel how premodern physicians treated infection and whether their cures really worked.

To that end, we are compiling a database of medieval medical recipes. By revealing patterns in medieval medical practice, our database could inform future laboratory research into the materials used to treat infection in the past. To our knowledge, this is the first attempt to create a medieval medicines database in this manner and for this purpose.

Robot

UK government to invest millions in 'truly groundbreaking' self-driving car tech

© Oxbotica
Driverless cars are about to get a huge financial boost in the UK, as a group of technology companies, researchers and authorities such as Transport for London (TFL) have landed millions in funding from the government to get self-driving vehicles on Britain's roads.

Oxbotica, a UK tech company which spun off the Oxford Robotics Institute, will lead an ambitious 30-month program to get fully autonomous vehicles traveling between London and Oxford.

The UK public got their first extended trial of the driverless shuttlebus in March. As part of "Project Gateway", around 100 people traveled in a prototype shuttle on a route in Greenwich, London.

Monkey Wrench

The puppet masters of academia promoting GMOs and pesticides

"Reading the emails make(s) me want to throw up" tweeted the Food Babe after reading a lengthy series of them posted online by the NY Times on Sept 5th. The emails in question result from a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and are posted in the side bars of a front-page article by Times reporter Eric Lipton (Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, Emails Show). The article is highly disturbing, but, as the Food Babe implied, the Times buried the real story. The real scoop was not the perfidy and deceit of a handful of individual professors. Buried in the emails is proof positive of active collusion between the agribusiness and chemical industries, numerous and often prominent academics, PR companies, and key administrators of land grant universities for the purpose of promoting GMOs and pesticides. In particular, nowhere does the Times note that one of the chief colluders was none other than the President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

All this is omitted entirely, or buried in hard-to-notice side bars, which are anyway unavailable to print readers. So, here is the article Eric Lipton should have written.

Rose

Naked mole-rats 'turn into plants' when deprived of oxygen

© Thomas Park/UIC
Naked Mole-Rats - they're plants, well, sort of.
Deprived of oxygen, naked mole-rats can survive by metabolizing fructose just as plants do. Understanding how the animals do this could lead to treatments for patients suffering crises of oxygen deprivation, as in heart attacks and strokes.

"This is just the latest remarkable discovery about the naked mole-rat -- a cold-blooded mammal that lives decades longer than other rodents, rarely gets cancer, and doesn't feel many types of pain," says Thomas Park, professor of biological sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who led an international team of researchers from UIC, the Max Delbrück Institute in Berlin and the University of Pretoria in South Africa on the study.

In humans, laboratory mice, and all other known mammals, when brain cells are starved of oxygen they run out of energy and begin to die. But naked mole-rats have a backup: their brain cells start burning fructose, which produces energy anaerobically through a metabolic pathway that is only used by plants -- or so scientists thought.

In the new study, the researchers exposed naked mole-rats to low oxygen conditions in the laboratory and found that they released large amounts of fructose into the bloodstream. The fructose, the scientists found, was transported into brain cells by molecular fructose pumps that in all other mammals are found only on cells of the intestine. "The naked mole-rat has simply rearranged some basic building-blocks of metabolism to make it super-tolerant to low oxygen conditions," said Park, who has studied the strange species for 18 years.

Black Cat 2

If they don't have a cardboard box, cats will settle for a square drawn on the floor

© Maggie Villiger, CC BY-ND
Next best thing to a hidey-hole box?
Twitter's been on fire with people amazed by cats that seem compelled to park themselves in squares of tape marked out on the floor. These felines appear powerless to resist the call of the #CatSquare.

This social media fascination is a variation on a question I heard over and over as a panelist on Animal Planet's "America's Cutest Pets" series. I was asked to watch video after video of cats climbing into cardboard boxes, suitcases, sinks, plastic storage bins, cupboards and even wide-necked flower vases.

"That's so cute ... but why do you think she does that?" was always the question. It was as if each climbing or squeezing incident had a completely different explanation.

It did not. It's just a fact of life that cats like to squeeze into small spaces where they feel much safer and more secure. Instead of being exposed to the clamor and possible danger of wide open spaces, cats prefer to huddle in smaller, more clearly delineated areas.

Info

Bilingualism in children develops concurrently but independently

© Shutterstock
When children learn two languages from birth each language proceeds on its own independent course, at a rate that reflects the quality of the children's exposure to each language. This is the finding of a new study of Spanish-English bilingual children by researchers at Florida Atlantic University.

Additionally, the study finds that Spanish skills become vulnerable as children's English skills develop, but English is not vulnerable to being taken over by Spanish.

In their longitudinal study data, the researchers found evidence that as the children developed stronger skills in English, their rates of Spanish growth declined. Spanish skills did not cause English growth to slow, so it's not a matter of necessary trade-offs between two languages.

Lead author Erika Hoff, Ph.D., psychology professor in FAU's Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, said:
"One well established fact about monolingual development is that the size of children's vocabularies and the grammatical complexity of their speech are strongly related. It turns out that this is true for each language in bilingual children. But vocabulary and grammar in one language are not related to vocabulary or grammar in the other language."