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Sun, 26 Mar 2017
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Brain

Using GPS navigation switches off parts of the brain

© Reuters/Robin van Lonkhuysen/United Photos
A TomTom navigation device is seen in this photo illustration taken in Amsterdam, Netherlands, February 28, 2012.
If you have long feared that using a "satnav" navigation system to get to your destination is making you worse at finding the way alone, research now suggests you may be right.

Scientists studying what satnavs do to the brain have found that people using them effectively switch off parts of the brain that would otherwise be utilized to simulate different routes and boost navigational skills.

Publishing the findings in the journal Nature Communications on Tuesday, the researchers said that when volunteers in an experiment navigated manually, their hippocampus and prefrontal cortex brain regions had spikes of activity. But these were not seen when the volunteers simply followed satnav instructions.

"When we have technology telling us which way to go ... these parts of the brain simply don't respond to the street network," said Hugo Spiers of University College London's (UCL)department of experimental psychology.

"In that sense our brain has switched off its interest in the streets around us."

Comment: Other researchers agree:
When we stop trying to figure out routes for ourselves and instead rely solely on the turn-by-turn directions of our GPS, our ability to work out spatial maps seems to get worse. "One Japanese study," Stromberg wrote, "found that compared with people who were given paper maps and figured out routes for themselves, GPS users later drew maps with less detail and accuracy."

McKinlay frets that this could lead to problems. Lack of navigational skills is how a Belgian bus driver could take 50 tourists 800 miles in the wrong direction because he punched in the wrong address on his GPS device. It means that when our mapping devices stumble, we're completely powerless. "You see increasing stories about people going hiking with their smartphones as their only guide," he says. "Then their phone dies and they're incapable of navigating for themselves" and have to be rescued.



Fish

Researchers propose using sea urchin spines to heal broken bones

© American Chemical Society
Scientists have developed a bone grafting material made out of sea urchin spines.
More than 2 million procedures every year take place around the world to heal bone fractures and defects from trauma or disease, making bone the second most commonly transplanted tissue after blood. To help improve the outcomes of these surgeries, scientists have developed a new grafting material from sea urchin spines. They report their degradable bone scaffold, which they tested in animals, in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

Physicians have various approaches at hand to treat bone defects: Replacement material can come from a patient's own body, donated tissue, or a synthetic or naturally derived product. All of these methods, however, have limitations. For example, current bioceramics, such as hydroxyapatite, that have been used as scaffolds for bone repair tend to be weak and brittle, which can lead to pieces breaking off. These pieces can then move into adjacent soft tissue, causing inflammation. Recent studies have shown that biological materials, such as sea urchin spines, have promise as bone scaffolds because of their porosity and strength. Xing Zhang, Zheng Guo, Yue Zhu and colleagues wanted to test this idea in more detail.

Using a hydrothermal reaction, the researchers converted sea urchin spines to biodegradable magnesium-substituted tricalcium phosphate scaffolds while maintaining the spines' original interconnected, porous structure. Unlike hydroxyapatite, the scaffolds made from sea urchin spines could be cut and drilled to a specified shape and size. Testing on rabbits and beagles showed that bone cells and nutrients could flow through the pores and promote bone formation. Also, the scaffold degraded easily as it was replaced by the new growth. The researchers say their findings could inspire the design of new lightweight materials for repairing bones.

Bulb

Researchers discover a flash of light that occurs at the moment of conception

© Northwestern University
Scientists have discovered that a "breathtaking" flash of light occurs at the moment of conception.

For the first time, researchers from Northwestern University have now demonstrated that when a human sperm first meets an egg a bright zinc spark can be seen, not only a "remarkable" phenomenon but also one that might be a game-changer for in vitro fertilization.

"It was remarkable," said the study's co-author Professor Teresa Woodruff. "We discovered the zinc spark just five years ago in the mouse, and to see the zinc radiate out in a burst from each human egg was breathtaking. All of biology starts at the time of fertilization, yet we know next to nothing about the events that occur in the human."

The researchers say that the size of the flash of light provides valuable information about the health of the eggs. The brighter the flash, the more viable the egg, and thus the better option for in vitro fertilization, which has a high failure rate (around 50%) and often involves clinicians using imprecise means of testing or simply choosing whichever eggs they think appear to be most viable.

"This means if you can look at the zinc spark at the time of fertilization, you will know immediately which eggs are the good ones to transfer in in vitro fertilization," explained Woodruff. "It's a way of sorting egg quality in a way we've never been able to assess before."

Pi

Black holes and super-cooled helium atoms follow same physics law

© Adrian Del Maestro
Scientists have discovered that a sphere of cold helium atoms (in green)—interacting with a surrounding larger container of the same kind of atoms (in blue)—follows a bizarre law of physics also observed in black holes. This discovery points to a “deeper reality,” says UVM physicist Adrian Del Maestro and may be a step toward using this “superfluid” helium as the fuel of a new generation of ultra-fast quantum computers.
A team of scientists has discovered that a law controlling the bizarre behavior of black holes out in space—is also true for cold helium atoms that can be studied in laboratories.

"It's called an entanglement area law," says Adrian Del Maestro, a physicist at the University of Vermont who co-led the research. That this law appears at both the vast scale of outer space and at the tiny scale of atoms, "is weird," Del Maestro says, "and it points to a deeper understanding of reality."

The new study was published March 13 in the journal Nature Physics—and it may be a step toward a long-sought quantum theory of gravity and new advances in quantum computing.

Arrow Down

'Boom - it would drop': Earthquake could cause California land to sink rapidly, up to 3 feet

© fullerton.edu
Scientists look for microscopic charcoal to radiocarbon date mud samples collected from the Seal Beach wetlands.
Land within major California seismic faults could sink by between 1.5 and 3 feet in a matter of seconds, causing catastrophic devastation, says a new study. It also shows that the Newport-Inglewood fault is more active than previously thought.

"It's not just a gradual sinking. This is boom — it would drop. It's very rapid sinking," Robert Leeper, lead author of a new study published in Nature, carried out with the help of the US Geological Survey, told the LA Times.

Leeper's team took 55 samples at the Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge in southern Los Angeles, by submerging 20-feet pipes that collected samples of the sediment, initially looking for evidence for a prehistoric tsunami.

Instead, the team from Cal State Fullerton found an identical pattern, of living vegetation suddenly dropping and being buried underneath the ground. "We identified three of these buried layers composed of vegetation or sediment that used to be at the surface," said Leeper.

Mars

Trump signs NASA funding bill to send astronauts to Mars

© Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
President Donald Trump has signed a bill authorizing $19.5 billion in funding for NASA, which includes an increased focus on deep space exploration and a new goal of a manned mission to Mars.

The NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017, or S. 442, provides funding for fiscal year 2018, which begins October 1. It specifically appropriates money for NASA's deep space exploration, including the Space Launch System and the Orion spacecraft, as well as for the ongoing medical monitoring and treatment of astronauts. It builds on the current public-private partnership for space, with commercial companies transporting American astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) and NASA focusing on deep space and the mission to Mars.

"For almost six decades, NASA's work has inspired millions and millions of Americans to imagine distant worlds and a better future right here on Earth. I'm delighted to sign this bill," Trump said. "With this legislation, we support NASA's scientists, engineers, astronauts and their pursuit of discovery. We support jobs. It's about jobs, also."

Brain

Stanford scientists find a previously unknown role for the cerebellum

Researchers long believed that the cerebellum did little more than process our senses and control our muscles. New techniques to study the most densely packed neurons in our brains reveal that it may do much more.

© Mark Wagner
Stanford researchers have found a previously unknown, cognitive role for the cerebellum’s granule cells, which show up as green in this image.
Pity the cerebellum, tucked in the back of the brain mostly just keeping our muscles running smoothly. Its larger neighbor, the cerebrum, gets all the attention. It's the seat of intelligence, the home of thinking and planning. It's what separates humans from our less quick-witted ancestors. The cerebellum - which literally means "little brain" - is thought to just sit there helping us balance and breathe, like some kind of wee heating and ventilation system.

But maybe not for long. In a series of experiments published March 20 in Nature, Stanford researchers show that neurons within the cerebellum respond to and learn to anticipate rewards, a first step toward a much more exciting future for the cerebrum's largely overlooked little brother and one that could open up new avenues of research for neuroscientists interested in the roots of cognition.

Comment:



Bulb

Engineers develop inexpensive bio-friendly material that generates electricity through thermoelectric process involving heat and cold air

© Dan Hixson/University of Utah College of Engineering
University of Utah materials science and engineering professor Ashutosh Tiwari and his team have an inexpensive and bio-friendly material that can generate electricity through a thermoelectric process involving heat and cold air. The material (the black blocks between the two plates pictured) could be used with cooking pots to charge phones or jewelry to power health sensors.
Thanks to the discovery of a new material by University of Utah engineers, jewelry such as a ring and your body heat could generate enough electricity to power a body sensor, or a cooking pan could charge a cellphone in just a few hours.

The team, led by University of Utah materials science and engineering professor Ashutosh Tiwari, has found that a combination of the chemical elements calcium, cobalt and terbium can create an efficient, inexpensive and bio-friendly material that can generate electricity through a thermoelectric process involving heat and cold air.

Their findings were published in a new paper March 20 in the latest issue of Scientific Reports. The first author on the paper is University of Utah materials science and engineering postdoctoral researcher, Shrikant Saini.

Fireball

Lunar impact event sighted

© Aberystwyth University
X marks the spot where the meteorite hit the moon.
Space scientists at Aberystwyth University have reported what they believe to be the first confirmed sighting in the British Isles of a meteorite hitting the Moon.

A Lunar Impact Flash - a flash of light when something hits the Moon's surface - was recorded on the southern hemisphere of the Moon and probably caused by a small meteorite the size of a golf ball.

Lasting less that one tenth of a second, the image was caught on New Year's Day 2017 on a remotely operated telescope at Aberystwyth University.
Lunar Impact Flashes are notoriously difficult to record. The meteorite would be travelling at anywhere between 10 to 70 km per second as it hit the surface of the Moon. That is the equivalent of travelling from Aberystwyth to Cardiff in just a few seconds, and the resulting impact would be over in a fraction of a second.

A similar meteorite hitting the Earth's atmosphere would produce a beautiful shooting star, but as the Moon has no atmosphere it slams into the surface, causing a crater the size of very large pot hole. Just under 1% of the meteorite's energy is converted into a flash of light, which we were able to record here in Aberystwyth.

- Dr Tony Cook, Aberystwyth University
Scientists estimate the Moon is hit by similar sized meteorites as often as once every 10 to 20 hours.

Airplane Paper

Interceptors: Counter-drone systems emerge in new aerial frontier

© Reuters/Stephen Lam
Jaz Banga, co-founder and chief executive of Airspace Systems, stands next to an Interceptor autonomous aerial drone his company developed to capture enemy drones during a product demonstration in Castro Valley, California March 6, 2017.
The enemy drone whined in the distance. The Interceptor, a drone-hunting machine from Silicon Valley startup Airspace Systems, slinked off its launch pad and dashed away in hot pursuit.

The hunter twisted through the air to avoid trees, homed in on its target, fired a Kevlar net to capture it, and then carried the rogue drone back to its base like a bald eagle with a kill.

Airspace is among some 70 companies working on counter-drone systems as small consumer and commercial drones proliferate. But unlike others, it aims to catch drones instead of disabling them or shooting them down.

A demonstration at Airspace headquarters in San Leandro, California, showed a compact aircraft just a few feet wide, yet capable of sophisticated, autonomous navigation and accurate targeting of a drone in motion.

It is still early days in the drone-defense business. Security professionals both public and private worry about dangerous drones at military sites, airports, data centers, and public venues like baseball stadiums. But counter-measures carry risk, too.