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Thu, 20 Oct 2016
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Organs in a jar: Human brains being grown outside the body

© National News and Pictures
A magnified picture of an organoid, three to four millimetres across, with a structure similar to that of a human brain is shown.

From what makes us right or left-handed to why we develop autism, there are many mysteries about the human brain we are yet to solve. Some of these questions can be answered by studying the brains of other animals like mice, for example. But this isn't possible for other phenomena that are unique to human brains.

Researchers are now growing hundreds of tiny human brains in labs, in an attempt to understand what gives us unique disorders like autism and schizophrenia - and the method they use to create these brains is surprisingly simple. Scientists across the world are developing cerebral organoids, or mini brains, to solve a variety of problems. Many of these groups are trying to understand other complex neurological diseases that are unique to humans, like autism and schizophrenia.

One such researcher is Madeline Lancaster, who works at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Laboratory of Molecular Medicine in Cambridge. The brains are created using cells. The team uses skin cells but, they could start with any cell type. 'The brains develop in the same way you would see in an embryo,' Dr Lancaster told BBC Future.

They turn these cells into stem cells, using proteins, and as these grow, brain cells begin to develop. The researchers starve the cells and, for an unknown reason, the brain cells seem to be the most robust ones, so they survive. These brain cells are placed in a special jelly and put into an incubator.
© National News and Pictures
Scientists created pea-sized brains from a patient's skin that could lead to cures for common neurological disorders such as schizophrenia and autism. Image shows a comparison between a developing brain (left) and the organoid (right) that the team created.


Can great apes read minds? Study suggests capacity to track others' beliefs is not unique to humans

Bonobo Jasongo at Leipzig Zoo has a hunch about what you’re thinking.
All great mind reading begins with chocolate. That's the basis for a classic experiment that tests whether children have something called theory of mind—the ability to attribute desires, intentions, and knowledge to others. When they see someone hide a chocolate btheoryar in a box, then leave the room while a second person sneaks in and hides it elsewhere, they have to guess where the first person will look for the bar. If they guess "in the original box," they pass the test, and show they understand what's going on in the first person's mind—even when it doesn't match reality.

For years, only humans were thought to have this key cognitive skill of attributing "false belief," which is believed to underlie deception, empathy, teaching, and perhaps even language. But three species of great apes—chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans—also know when someone holds a false belief, according to a new study published today in Science. The groundbreaking study suggests that this skill likely can be traced back to the last common ancestor of great apes and humans, and may be found in other species.

"Testing the idea that nonhuman [animals] can have minds has been the Rubicon that skeptics have again and again said no nonhuman has ever, or will ever, cross," says Brian Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who was not involved in the study. "Well, back to the drawing board!"


The bigger an animal's yawn, the bigger its brain, study finds

© Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times
How long an animal takes to yawn predicts its brain size and the number of neurons in its brain, a new study finds.
Do you know someone who spends a long time yawning? He may not be lazy; he may just have a big, neuron-rich brain.

A new study published this week in Biology Letters found the amount of time it takes for a mammal to complete a yawn strongly predicts the size of the critter's brain and number of neurons in its cortex, or gray matter.

Among vertebrates, yawning is a widespread — and poorly understood — phenomenon.

Yawning is generally viewed as a sign of sleepiness or boredom, but it plays an important physiological role in the body, said Andrew Gallup, an evolutionary psychologist and "yawnologist" at the State University of New York at Oneonta.

Indeed, yawning does for our brain what stretching does for our muscles.

Comment: See also:


Hubble detects giant 'plasma balls' ejected near dying star

© NASA, ESA & A. Feild (STScI)
This four-panel graphic illustrates how the binary-star system V Hydrae is launching balls of plasma into space. Panel 1 shows the two stars orbiting each other. One of the stars is nearing the end of its life and has swelled in size, becoming a red giant. In panel 2, the smaller star's orbit carries the star into the red giant's expanded atmosphere. As the star moves through the atmosphere, it gobbles up material from the red giant, which settles into a disk around the star. The buildup of material reaches a tipping point and is eventually ejected as blobs of hot plasma along the star's spin axis, shown in panel 3. This ejection process is repeated every eight years, the time it takes for the orbiting star to make another pass through the bloated red giant's envelope, shown in panel 4.
Great balls of fire! NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has detected superhot blobs of gas, each twice as massive as the planet Mars, being ejected near a dying star. The plasma balls are zooming so fast through space it would take only 30 minutes for them to travel from Earth to the moon. This stellar "cannon fire" has continued once every 8.5 years for at least the past 400 years, astronomers estimate.

The fireballs present a puzzle to astronomers, because the ejected material could not have been shot out by the host star, called V Hydrae. The star is a bloated red giant, residing 1,200 light-years away, which has probably shed at least half of its mass into space during its death throes. Red giants are dying stars in the late stages of life that are exhausting their nuclear fuel that makes them shine. They have expanded in size and are shedding their outer layers into space.

The current best explanation suggests the plasma balls were launched by an unseen companion star. According to this theory, the companion would have to be in an elliptical orbit that carries it close to the red giant's puffed-up atmosphere every 8.5 years. As the companion enters the bloated star's outer atmosphere, it gobbles up material. This material then settles into a disk around the companion, and serves as the launching pad for blobs of plasma, which travel at roughly a half-million miles per hour.

This star system could be the archetype to explain a dazzling variety of glowing shapes uncovered by Hubble that are seen around dying stars, called planetary nebulae, researchers say. A planetary nebula is an expanding shell of glowing gas expelled by a star late in its life.


Saturn's moon Dione probably has subsurface ocean, too

© NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
Dione with Saturn and its rings in the background. This image was taken by the Cassini spacecraft on 17 August 2015.
The icy Saturn moon Dione appears to have an underground ocean of liquid water, just like two of its more famous neighbors, a new study suggests.

This huge ocean is probably buried about 60 miles (100 kilometers) beneath Dione's icy shell, according to the study. Intriguingly, Dione's putative ocean is likely in contact with the moon's rocky core, team members said.

"The contact between the ocean and the rocky core is crucial," study co-author Attilio Rivoldini, of the Royal Observatory of Belgium in Brussels, said in a statement. "Rock-water interactions provide key nutrients and a source of energy, both being essential ingredients for life."

If the researchers are correct, 700-mile-wide (1,120 kilometers) Dione would be the third Saturn moon known to harbor a subsurface ocean, after giant Titan and geyser-spouting Enceladus. Astronomers think the Jupiter moons Europa, Callisto and Ganymede also have buried oceans, and recent research indicates Pluto might as well.


The human genome - Chimeric RNA 'fusions' may not be signs of cancer

© Wikimedia Commons
The human genome is far more complex than thought, with genes functioning in an unexpected fashion that scientists have wrongly assumed must indicate cancer, research from the University of Virginia School of Medicine indicates.

Hui Li, PhD, of the Department of Pathology and the UVA Cancer Center, is a pioneer in a small but emerging field that is challenging fundamental assumptions about human genetics.

He seeks to understand what is called chimeric RNA -- genetic material that results when genes on two different chromosomes produce "fusion" RNA in a way scientists say shouldn't happen.

Researchers have traditionally assumed these chimeric RNA are signs of cancer, of something gone wrong in the genetic transcription process. But Li's work shows that's not always the case. Instead, these strange fusions can also be a normal, functional part of our genetic programming.

"This is actually a double-edged sword for cancer diagnosis and treatment. ... It basically says the old practice of finding any fusion RNA and claiming it's a cancer fusion is over. We can't just say, OK, we found a fusion, it must be a cancer marker, let's translate it into a biomarker [to detect cancer]," Li said.

"That's actually dangerous.

Because a lot of normal physiology also has fusion RNAs. There's another layer of complexity."


Doctors perform successful uterus transplant from living donor - recipient recovering well

© Baylor Scott & White Health
The first successful uterus transplant from a living donor was performed by surgeons at Baylor University. After three previous unsuccessful attempts, the procedure seems to be the most successful by far and could achieve full functionality.

One woman in Texas received a uterine transplant three weeks ago and seems to be on track to become the first successful uterus transplant recipient. On Wednesday, a statement from Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas announced that the patient had passed the three-week benchmark and looks to be recovering successfully.

"We are cautiously optimistic that she could ultimately become the first uterine transplant recipient in the US to make it to the milestone of uterine functionality," the statement said.


Apparently dogs can tell time with their noses

© Karen Kiley-Miller/Getty Images/iStockphoto
From the way a dog will ecstatically greet you at the door when you've returned from your arduous two-minute journey of putting out the garbage or checking the mail, one would assume that dogs have very poor senses of time. You were gone for minutes; your dog reacts as if you've been reunited after months away from each other. Who can explain the mind of a dog?

Alexandra Horowitz can, actually, or at least she shares some fascinating insights into the canine mind by focusing on the way they primarily engage with the world — that is, their extraordinary senses of smell. Horowitz is the founder of Barnard College's Dog Cognition Lab, and she's also written a new book drawing from her research: Being a Dog, which is out this week. In that book, she states plainly her theory concerning dogs and chronology. "As each day wears a new smell, its hours mark changes in odors that your dog can notice,"she writes. "Dogs smell time."

Arrow Down

Bayer and Syngenta knew: Ag giants discovered in secret tests that pesticides severely harmed bees

© Armando Frazao/Shutterstock
Agrochemical giants Syngenta and Bayer discovered in their own tests that their pesticides caused severe harm to bees, according to unpublished documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the environmental group Greenpeace.

The companies conducted the trials on products that used the controversial pesticides known as neonicotinoids, or neonics, which have long been linked to rapid bee decline. Neonics are also the world's most commonly used pesticide.

According to their own studies, Syngenta's thiamethoxam and Bayer's clothianidin were found to cause severe harm at high levels of use, although the effect was lessened when used under 50 parts per billion (ppb) and 40ppb respectively, the Guardian reports.

However, as Greenpeace notes, the research "assumes a very narrow definition of harm to bee health and ignores wild bees which evidence suggests are more likely to be harmed by neonicotinoids."

That means the findings may "substantially underestimate" the impact of neonics, Greenpeace said.

Comment: See also: First long-term study confirms that neonic-treated crops are responsible for mass honeybee deaths


Mysterious blackouts hitting satellites might be caused by cosmic thunderstorms

A group of three satellites have been puzzling scientists after regularly suffering GPS blackouts as they passed over the equator. Researchers now believe this may be caused by thunderstorms high in the ionosphere interfering with the GPS signal (illustrated)
They were sent into orbit to measure the Earth's invisible magnetic field. But a cluster of scientific satellites have been suffering mysterious blackouts as they circle the planet.

Scientists were left puzzled about why the three satellites launched by the European Space Agency have regularly lost their navigation signal when passing over the equator above the Atlantic Ocean. Now they believe they may have uncovered the underlying cause of the strange loss in the GPS signal that helps control the satellites - thunderstorms high in the ionosphere.

Professor Claudia Stolle, from the German Research Centre for Geosciences in Postdam, Germany, said the storms can cause the signal to the Swarm satellites to vanish for several minutes at a time. She said: 'These ionospheric thunderstorms are well known, but it's only now we have been able to show a direct link between them and the loss of the GPS.' ... 'This is possible because the Swarm satellites provide high resolution observations of both phenomena at one spacecraft.'

Comment: Seems these scientists are finally glimpsing the importance of understanding the Electric Universe.