May 17, 2013 2:32 pm
Math haters: If slight electric shocks to your brain would improve your ability to crunch numbers, would you do it? Alternatively, would you sign your child up to undergo this treatment if it meant better grades in algebra class? If new research published in Current Biology pans out, those of us who are not mathematically gifted may someday face these questions. The Guardian reports:
Psychologists at Oxford University found that students scored higher on mental arithmetic tasks after a five-day course of brain stimulation.
If future studies prove that it works – and is safe – the cheap and non-invasive procedure might be used routinely to boost the cognitive power of those who fall behind in maths, the scientists said. Researchers led by Roi Cohen Kadosh zapped students’ brains with a technique called transcranial random noise stimulation (TRNS) while they performed simple calculations, or tried to remember mathematical facts by rote learning.
Twenty-five students received these “gentle” brain shocks, and 26 served as control students, though they believed they were receiving treatment, the Guardian continues. Those who received the real treatment completed math questions 27 percent faster than those who received the placebo, the researchers reported in their paper.
ScienceNOW points out that, while this may sound extreme, electroshock treatment finds use in a range of medical applications:
The idea of using electrical current to alter brain activity is nothing new—electroshock therapy, which induces seizures for therapeutic effect, is probably the best known and most dramatic example. In recent years, however, a slew of studies has shown that much milder electrical stimulation applied to targeted regions of the brain can dramatically accelerate learning in a wide range of tasks, from marksmanship to speech rehabilitation after stroke.
In this latest study, the researchers additionally claimed that at least six of the students who returned to the lab for further testing still enjoyed the mathematical benefits of their treatment six months after it was administered. Other researchers told the Guardian, however, that six is a very small sample number so should not be counted as definitive evidence, so more thorough follow-ups will be needed to confirm that observation.
Even though the amount of electricity used in this study—1 milliamp, just a fraction of the voltage of an AA battery—is very small, ScienceNOW writes, there could be unintended side effects, so researchers discourage overenthusiastic parents from trying the technique at home.
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May 17, 2013 11:26 am
Since fire ants first invaded the U.S. through cargo ships docking in Mobile, Alabama, the aggressive pest has taken a firm hold in the South and Southwest. More than $5 billion is spent each year on medical treatment and fire ant control, according to Food and Drug Administration, and the ants cost an additional $750 million in agricultural damage.
Now, however, there’s a new ant on the block. The crazy ant – also an invader from South America – is displacing fire ants in the U.S. by gobbling them up. But this unprescribed cure is likely worse than the disease it’s treating. The Los Angeles Times reports:
Like fire ants, these South American invaders seem to be fond of electrical equipment. But unlike their stinging red counterparts, the tawny crazy ants create mega-colonies, sometimes in homes, and push out local populations of ants and arthropods.
Thus far, the crazy ants are not falling for the traditional poisons used to eliminate fire ant mounds. And when local mounds are destroyed manually, they are quickly regenerated.
Though the crazy ants don’t deliver the same burning bite as fire ants, they do stubbornly make their nests in bathroom plumbing or in walls. So far, researchers haven’t documented any native animals preying on the crazy ants, so their colonies are allowed to run amok, sometimes growing 100 times the size of other species of ants living in the area.
This isn’t the first time one ant invader has been displaced by another. The Argentine ant arrived back in 1891, followed by the black ant in 1918. But the fire ant put an end to those two invasive species when it arrived a couple decades later. Now, the fire ant’s own day of invasive reckoning may have arrived, but rather than feel relieved, researches are worried. Southern ecosystems have had time to adjust to fire ants. Crazy ants—well, who knows what they’ll do?
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May 16, 2013 3:41 pm
Pregnancy tests did not always come in an easy-to-use, sterile kit that provided almost immediate results. Less than a century ago, women had to rely upon frogs instead. In 1938, Dr. Edward R. Elkan wrote in the British Medical Journal:
The discovery of what is now known as the xenopus pregnancy test is based on experiments conducted by Hogben (1930, 1931), who observed that hypophysectomy produced ovarian retrogression, and the injection of anterior pituitary extracts ovulation, in the female South African clawed toad.
The African clawed frog, as its better known today, was imported around the world for its use in pregnancy tests. Doctors would ship urine samples to frog labs, where technicians would inject female frogs with a bit of the urine into their hind leg. The animals would be placed back into their tanks, and in the morning the technicians would check for tell-tale frog eggs dotting the water. If the female frog had ovulated, that meant the woman who provided the urine was pregnant and the pregnancy hormone, human chorionic gonadotropin, had kicked off ovulation in the frog. Researchers referred to this procedure as the Hogben test.
Among the 295 tests which I have done so far and in which 2,112 frogs were used I have not seen one clear positive that did not indicate a pregnancy. There were a few negative results which when repeated after a fortnight became positive, but I do not think that these can be regarded as failures.
Frogs were actually a great improvement on the previous means of testing whether or not a woman was pregnant. Welcome History describes:
Prior to Xenopus, female mice and rabbits had been used, but these had to be slaughtered, dissected and carefully examined for ovarian changes. Because toads were reusable and could be conveniently kept in aquaria, Xenopus made pregnancy testing practical on a larger scale than before.
Thousands of the frogs were exported across the world from the 1930s to 1950s for use as pregnancy testers.
Immunological test kits finally replaced Xenopus in the 1960s and were rapidly taken up by private companies and feminist organisations offering diagnostic services directly to women. The first over-the-counter home test was sold in pharmacies in the early 1970s, but it resembled a small chemistry set and so was not user-friendly. It was not until 1988 that the first recognisably ‘modern’ one-step-stick hit the shelves.
But the frogs’ legacy lives on. African clawed frogs can be found living around many urban centers today, where they were likely released into the wild after hospitals no longer had use for them. Additionally, the imported frogs are common pets, and no doubt some of those pets wear out their welcome and get chucked into a local stream or pond.
In 2006, researchers realized that the frog may be carriers for the deadly amphibian chytrid fungus, which has caused the extinction and decline of around 200 amphibian species around the world. Now, research published in PLoS One shows for the first time that populations of African clawed frogs living in California carry the fungus. The frogs can carry the disease for long periods without being affected themselves, so researchers suspect that they may be the original vectors that introduced the fungus around the world—a sort of revenge for being used as egg-laying research subjects for all those years.
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May 16, 2013 12:01 pm
There is no plumbing on Mount Everest. When nature calls, climbers must use makeshift holes dug by sherpas, or use buckets as substitute toilets. With the ever-increasing number of climbers attempting to scale the mountain, containing all of that human waste is no small problem.
Currently, National Geographic reports, much of the excrement is carried in sealed containers on the backs of porters to the nearby village of Gorak Shep (which also lacks plumbing or sanitation facilities), where it is emptied into open pits. Up to 12 metric tons of the stuff can be hauled to Gorak Shep in a single year. But the village is running out of space for containing the mess, and last year researchers discovered that the refuse had contaminated one of the village’s two major water sources.
Seattle climber and engineer Garry Porter witnessed the problem first hand when he attempted to scale Everest ten years ago. Since then, the image of all of that waste has stuck with him. ”I couldn’t shake the feeling that my final tribute to Nepal and the people of Everest was having my waste dumped in these open pits. It just didn’t seem right,” he told National Geographic.
Porter decided to found the Mount Everest Biogas Project as a potential fix, along with Everest guide Dan Mazur.
In biogas production, bacteria feed on organic waste (like feces) and produce several gases as a byproduct. One of these is methane, which is the primary component of natural gas and can be burned for heat and light, or converted to electricity. One cubic meter of biogas provides about two kilowatt-hours of useable energy. This is enough to power a 60-watt light bulb for more than a day, or an efficient 15-watt CFL bulb for nearly six days. A biogas reactor at Gorak Shep could address the fecal contamination problem while providing the perennially low-income community with a sustainable source of methane gas for energy, especially for cooking, Porter says.
The team plans to keep the biogas digester tanks warm (they stop working if temperatures drop below freezing) with solar panels.
In addition to getting rid of all the feces, the team hopes that the biogas project will relieve some of the pressure on Everest’s natural resources. All of those poop-producing climbers also need to eat, and cooking fuel often takes the form of native plants harvested around Everest, including an endangered species, the alpine juniper. If successful, the project will be the world’s highest elevation biogas reactor and could be introduced to other high altitude areas around the world.
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May 16, 2013 10:11 am
In 1700, a massive earthquake struck the west and northwest coast of the United Sates. Modern scientists first caught wind of the natural disaster through the scars it left on the land—massive, toppled red cedar trees and sand deposits washed far inland. Written records weren’t being kept in that region when the earthquake happened, but several years ago, scientists managed to pinpoint the date of that mysterious earthquake. In 2005, Smithsonian explained how they unraveled the mystery:
In Japan, officials had recorded an “orphan” tsunami—unconnected with any felt earthquake— with waves up to ten feet high along 600 miles of the Honshu coast at midnight, January 27, 1700. Several years ago, Japanese researchers, by estimating the tsunami’s speed, path and other properties, concluded that it was triggered by a magnitude 9 earthquake that warped the seafloor off the Washington coast at 9 p.m. Pacific Standard Time on January 26, 1700. To confirm it, U.S. researchers found a few old trees of known age that had survived the earthquake and compared their tree rings with the rings of the ghost forest cedars. The trees had indeed died just before the growing season of 1700.
The earthquake occurred along the Cascadia Subduction Zone, a major fault line running from the Pacific Northwest to Vancouver. In recent decades, scientists have determined that this fault line may produce mega-earthquakes of 9.0 or higher on the Richter scale.
Considering all the geologic evidence, scientists now say a major earthquake strikes the Pacific Northwest every few hundred years—give or take a few hundred years. That means the next one could strike tomorrow.
This is why researchers hope to learn as much as they can, as quickly as they can about the devastating quake that rocked the land back in 1700. Earthquake prediction remains notoriously sketchy (just look at the recent example of researchers in Italy who failed to predict an earthquake in L’Aquila), so the more scientists can learn about what happened in the past, the better prepared they can be for the next disaster. And that next one could be coming soon, according to new research:
The Cascadia subduction zone is of particular interest to geologists and coastal managers because geological evidence points to recurring seismic activity along the fault line, with intervals between 300 and 500 years. With the last major event occurring in 1700, another earthquake could be on the horizon. A better understanding of how such an event might unfold has the potential to save lives.
The University of Pennsylvania team turned to a fossil-based technique for studying the Cascadia Subduction Zone. They took core samples throughout the region and then picked through the samples to find microscopic foraminifera fossils, a type of single-celled aquatic protist. They used radiocarbon dating to estimate the age of these ancient creatures and to recreate past changes in land and sea level along the coastline. Through their analyses, they saw that the coastline ruptured in a heterogenous manner, or that the earthquake struck in different locations with different severity.
The earthquakes that occurred in this part of North America, they report, behaved similarly to recent major earthquakes in Japan and Chile, which arrived with very little warning. While the results are useful for modeling and understanding the next West Coast mega-earthquake, the researchers warn that some areas in Oregon will likely have just 20 minutes to evacuate before the tsunami waves arrive.
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