New genetic theory might pave way to understanding human intelligence – Tim Radford  Monday 21 December 2015 11.27 EST

The researchers found that genes that influenced the intelligence and ability of healthy people were the same ones that impaired cognitive ability and caused epilepsy when mutated. Photograph: Science Picture Co./Corbis

New genetic theory might pave way to understanding human intelligenceScientists from Imperial College believe that intelligence may be influenced by two networks of genes, possibly controlled by a master regulatory system

British scientists believe they have made a huge step forward in the understanding of the mechanisms of human intelligence. That genetic inheritance must play some part has never been disputed. Despite occasional claims later dismissed, no-one has yet produced a single gene that controls intelligence.

But Michael Johnson of Imperial College London, a consultant neurologist and colleagues report in Nature Neuroscience that they may have discovered a very different answer: two networks of genes, perhaps controlled by some master regulatory system, lie behind the human gift for lateral thinking, mental arithmetic, pub quizzes, strategic planning, cryptic crosswords and the ability to laugh at limericks.

Source: New genetic theory might pave way to understanding human intelligence | Science | The Guardian

Academics land £2m prizes at Zuckerberg-backed ‘science Oscars’ – Ian Sample Sunday 8 November 2015 21.00 EST

British researcher John Hardy among those to win a Breakthrough prize at ceremony hosted by Seth MacFarlane in the US

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, left, and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner

Science is starting to pay big for a small minority who land major prizes. At a ceremony in California on Sunday night, six researchers became substantially wealthier when they were handed Breakthrough prizes, set up by the Russian billionaire Yuri Milner along with some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley.

Among those honoured were Karl Deisseroth of Stanford University and Edward Boyden of MIT for developing a procedure called optogenetics – a means of turning neurons on and off using light. They took home $3m (£2m) apiece for winning the Breakthrough prize in life sciences.

The same prize winnings went to John Hardy, who studies Alzheimer’s disease at University College London; Helen Hobbs, of the University of Texas South-western medical centre, for discovering gene variants linked to cholesterol; Svante Pääbo at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig for reading Neanderthal and other ancient genomes; and Ian Agol, a mathematician at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, for his work on problems that language cannot easily convey: virtual Hakenvirtual fibering conjectures and tameness.

A group of 1,300 researchers won the Breakthrough prize in fundamental physics, but the $3m will be shared among five team leaders whose experiments confirmed that ghostly subatomic particles called neutrinos have mass. The same landmark discovery won the Nobel prize in physics this year.

In keeping with Milner’s aim of raising scientists to rock star status in the eyes of the public, the Breakthrough prizes – sometimes called the Oscars of science – were handed out at a ceremony at Hangar One in Silicon Valley hosted by Seth MacFarlane, the creator of Family Guy.

Pharrell Williams was down to perform, with Russell Crowe, Hilary Swank and Lily Collins among the guest presenters. The plan for the evening, with a theme of “life in the universe”, included a live video link to the Nasa astronaut Scott Kelly on the International Space Station.

The prizes, totalling $21.9m this year – taking the total handed out to more than $160m since they were established in 2012 – are backed by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his partner, Priscilla Chan, Google’s Sergey Brin, Anne Wojcicki of 23andme, and Jack Ma of and his wife, Cathy Zhang. Unlike Nobel prizes, the Breakthrough prizes are explicitly directed at researchers who are still active in their fields.

Hardy, nicknamed Scruffy by his former colleagues – he was once crowned the worst dressed scientist in the field at a major neuroscience conference – won the prize for his discovery of genetic mutations that give rise to early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and for inspiring new treatments for preventing the disease.

He said he was having bacon and eggs in his kitchen one Saturday morning when Mahlon DeLong, a US neurologist from the prize committee, called with the news of his win. “I was speechless. It was a 15-minute call that changed my life. I had to have another cup of coffee,” he said.

Hardy is the most cited Alzheimer’s researcher in Britain, and may be the most storied too. He once rang up a $1,000 bill at an Osaka karaoke bar, drinking whiskey and singing Yellow Submarine, while in the city for a conference. One tale has him travelling with a colleague and mistakenly picking up the wrong suitcase before retiring to bed. The next day, Hardy appeared in the other man’s clothes. “He said he just thought his wife had bought him some new clothes,” a former colleague, Karen Duff, told the journal Nature Medicine in 2004.

He made a major breakthrough in 1990 at Imperial College London when his team found mutations that helped to explain how amyloid plaques form in the brain. Later, he showed that tangles of a protein called tau appeared to happen as the disease progressed. It was part of a strategy to understand the order in which Alzheimer’s takes hold.

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So It Turns Out There’s A Lot We Don’t Know About Ebola – RAE ELLEN BICHELL OCTOBER 17, 2015 7:03 AM ET

Dr. Ian Crozier survived Ebola, only to have his normally blue left eye turn green because of inflammation. Though the rest of his body was Ebola-free, his eye was teeming with the virus.

Dr. Ian Crozier survived Ebola, only to have his normally blue left eye turn green because of inflammation. Though the rest of his body was Ebola-free, his eye was teeming with the virus.

Emory Eye Center

“If there’s anything that this outbreak has taught me, it’s that I’m often wrong,” says Dr. Daniel Bausch.

He’s talking about Ebola. He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the virus — an infectious disease specialist at Tulane University and a senior consultant to the World Health Organization.

And as he makes clear, he’s still got a lot to learn.

The virus came roaring back into headlines this past week. A Scottish nurse who survived Ebola is back in isolation in London, being “treated for Ebola,” according tothe Royal Free Hospital. The hospital says the patient’s “condition has deteriorated and she is now critically ill.”

And two new research papers found that the virus can live in a male survivor’s semen for up to nine months, and that one man passed it to his sexual partner months after he was released from the Ebola ward.

“If you look back at the classic teaching about Ebola and survivors, it was that once you get better from this disease, even though it may take a while to recover, you made a full recovery and that kind of was the end of it,” says Bausch.

And now, with an estimated 17,000 survivors, researchers are discovering all kinds of twists and turns. The semen study is particularly puzzling to Ilhem Messaoudi.

“It’s an explosive virus. It replicates like crazy … and it destroys everything in its path,” says Messaoudi, a viral immunologist and professor of biomedical sciences at the University of California, Riverside, who is studying how the virus works in the human body. “So, how is it just hanging out in the testes for like nine months?”

There hasn’t been much research — in animals or humans — about what happens after survival. What we do know is mostly from past outbreaks of the virus, in particular, two studies looking at past survivors of the disease and comparing their health to Ebola-free friends and family.

Research on 19 survivors of a 1995 outbreak in Kikwit in the Democratic Republic of the Congo found that most had joint pain and vision problems after the virus. One lost sight. Studies from the 1970s and 1980s had, like recent research, found the virus persisting in the semen and eyes of survivors.

Researchers following 49 survivors of a 2007 Ebola outbreak in Uganda found that— even two years after the illness — they had eye problems like inflammation and blurred vision as well as joint pain, difficulty sleeping, difficulty swallowing and even hearing loss, memory loss and confusion.

A third study examining 105 survivors of the 2014-15 outbreak in Guinea found that about 90 percent had chronic joint pain and 98 percent had poor appetites or an aversion to food. They also reported difficulty with short-term memory, headaches, sleeplessness, insomnia, dizziness, abdominal pain, constipation, sexual dysfunction, and decreased libido and exercise tolerance.

Bausch says, aside from arthritis and eye inflammation, it’s still unclear which issues are directly related to the Ebola virus and which could be caused by the physical and emotional toll on the body. But something is going on.

“It’s clear that there is a post-Ebola syndrome,” he says.


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The strange star that has serious scientists talking about an alien megastructure – The Washington Post

“Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider,” one astronomer told the Atlantic, “but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilization to build.”

Source: The strange star that has serious scientists talking about an alien megastructure – The Washington Post

Sandrine Thuret: You can grow new brain cells. Here’s how – Filmed June 2015 at TED@BCG London

Can we, as adults, grow new neurons? Neuroscientist Sandrine Thuret says that we can, and she offers research and practical advice on how we can help our brains better perform neurogenesis—improving mood, increasing memory formation and preventing the decline associated with aging along the way.

Mars News: “Major Science Finding” To Be Announced Monday – Phil Plait SEPT. 27 2015 5:35 PM

 Are these gullies in the wall of Russel crater carved by briny water?  -- Photo by NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Are these gullies in the wall of Russel crater carved by briny water?
— Photo by NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

By now, many of you have heard about some big announcement NASA is about to make about Mars. The news is embargoed until the press conference Monday (which you can watch live at 11:30 EDT), but of course speculation is rampant, especially since the press release says it’s a “major science finding”.

In the email NASA sent out, the names of some panelists were given: Alfred McEwen, Lujendra Ojha, and Mary Beth Wilhelm. McEwen is the Principal Investigator for the wonderful HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Ojha studies recurrent features on Mars that look very much like they were carved from water, like gullies down the sides of craters. Wilhelmstudies many things, including the habitability of ancient Martian terrain.

As many people have pointed out on social media, at a European planetary science conference on Monday, McEwen and Ojha are presenting results of a study showing that seepage in crater walls appears to be seasonal, and most likely due to water. Not only that, but Ojha and Wilhelm are presenting results that show the presence of salts in crater wall gullies, too, implying strongly they are due to water leakage.

I’m posting this now to hopefully extinguish rampant speculation (what I write here is based on evidence, so call it mild speculation). I assume these new results will be a major part of the news conference, but there might be more as well.

I also wanted to give a little bit of background on these gullies, since they’re pretty cool. As far back as 2007, NASA announced they might be from water, though a year later a study was released indicating many might be better explained as dry grains flowing downhill. In 2010 more gullies popped upthat looked like they could be from liquid flowing, but the evidence was still a bit circumstantial. We know water once flowed on Mars, a long time ago, and there’s plenty of evidence for ancient standing lakes and even oceans. Also, even now there’s lots of water ice just below the surfaceacross a wide range of latitudes, too.

Salty water melts at lower temperatures than fresh water, so if that’s what lurks behind crater walls, then in the spring sunlight can warm the ground and cause seepage. The results being presented at the European conference question the idea of water ice under the surface being the cause, and suggest it may be from deliquescence; absorption from the atmosphere in the ground until the water can break through. That seems unlikely, but we’ll get more info during the press conference.

Mind you, as of right now we have never seen any evidence for the presence of extant liquid water on Mars. Even the temporary existence of water in a liquid state is scientifically interesting, even exciting. However, it’s also been found that a type of chemical called perchlorates is widespread in Martian soil, which makes the hunt for life a bit more of a problem. I expect that will come up in the press conference as well.

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A Scientist Deploys Light And Sound To Reveal The Brain – Jon Hamilton JULY 27, 2015 3:57 AM ET

Lihong Wang creates the sort of medical technology you’d expect to find on the starship Enterprise.

Lihong Wang is a brain scientist who uses light and sound to photograph neurons.
Chris Nickels for NPR
Wang, a professor of biomedical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, has already helped develop instruments that can detect individual cancer cells in the bloodstream and oxygen consumption deep within the body. He’s also created a camera that shoots at 100 billion frames a second, fast enough to freeze an object traveling at the speed of light.

“It’s really about turning some of these ideas that we thought were science fiction into fact,” says Richard Conroy, who directs the Division of Applied Science & Technology at the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering.

Wang’s ultimate goal is to use a combination of light and sound to solve the mysteries of the human brain. The brain is a “magical black box we still don’t understand,” he says.

Wang describes himself as a tool maker. And when President Obama unveiled his BRAIN initiative a couple of years ago to accelerate efforts to understand how we think and learn and remember, Wang realized that brain researchers really needed a tool he’d been working on for years.

“We want to conquer the brain,” Wang says. “But even for a mouse brain, which is only a few millimeters thick, we really don’t have a technique that allows us to see throughout the whole brain.”

Current brain-imaging techniques such as functional MRI or PET scans all have drawbacks. They’re slow, or not sharp enough, or they can only see things near the surface.

So Wang has been developing another approach, one he believes will be fast enough to monitor brain activity in real time and sharp enough to reveal an individual brain cell.

Wang’s initial idea was to use light. There was a problem, though — one that’s obvious if you hold your hand up to a light bulb. When light enters the body, it starts bouncing around.

“This is why we can’t even see our own bone in the hands,” Wang says. “Because light, after like a millimeter, it becomes hopeless to get a very good sharp image.”

Wang thought he had a solution. It involved sound. Sound waves don’t bounce around much in the body, which is why an ultrasound can show a growing fetus.

Photoacoustic imaging

A photoacoustic image of a mouse’s eye shows tiny blood vessels in the iris.

Photoacoustic imaging

But ultrasound images are blurry, sometimes so blurry it’s hard to tell a boy from a girl. So Wang began experimenting with a technique that blends the speed and precision of light with the penetrating ability of sound. It’s called photoacoustic imaging.

“We’re combining the strengths of two forms of energy, light and sound, in a single form of imaging,” Wang says.

In the past few years, photoacoustic imaging has become a very big deal in the scientific world. And so has Wang.


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Paradoxical Crystal Baffles Physicists – NATALIE WOLCHOVER. 7.12.15. 07.00 AM

In a deceptively drab black crystal, physicists have stumbled upon a baffling behavior, one that appears to blur the line between the properties of metals, in which electrons flow freely, and those of insulators, in which electrons are effectively stuck in place. The crystal exhibits hallmarks of both simultaneously.

Quanta Magazine


Original story reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine, an editorially independent division of whose mission is to enhance public understanding of science by covering research developments and trends in mathematics and the physical and life sciences.

“This is a big shock,” said Suchitra Sebastian, a condensed matter physicist at the University of Cambridge whose findings appeared this month in an advance online edition of the journal Science. Insulators and metals are essentially opposites, she said. “But somehow, it’s a material that’s both. It’s contrary to everything that we know.”

The material, a much-studied compound called samarium hexaboride or SmB6, is an insulator at very low temperatures, meaning it resists the flow of electricity. Its resistance implies that electrons (the building blocks of electric currents) cannot move through the crystal more than an atom’s width in any direction. And yet, Sebastian and her collaborators observed electrons traversing orbits millions of atoms in diameter inside the crystal in response to a magnetic field—a mobility that is only expected in materials that conduct electricity. Calling to mind the famous wave-particle duality of quantum mechanics, the new evidence suggests SmB6might be neither a textbook metal nor an insulator, Sebastian said, but “something more complicated that we don’t know how to imagine.”

“It is just a magnificent paradox,” said Jan Zaanen, a condensed matter theorist at Leiden University in the Netherlands. “On the basis of established wisdoms this cannot possibly happen, and henceforth completely new physics should be at work.”

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