Get Smarter The Dirty Way October 5, 2010Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Brain Power, Human Body, Psychology and Behavior, Tough Stuff.
Tags: bacteria, dirt, intelligence, learning, smarter
Sometimes, intelligence can happen in the dirtiest of places. A new study suggests that exposure to certain kinds of bacteria outside could help improve learning.
Researchers at The Sage Colleges in New York studied Mycobacterium vaccae, which earlier studies showed might have antidepressant properties. In this new study, it seems that M. vaccae could help increase learning behavior. Their work was presented at the 110th General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in San Diego.
To learn how the research began, let’s ask some mice.
What Do Mice Say About It?
Why mice? It’s one way to initially test out an idea. If all goes well, then we might see how it affects humans. But to find out what happens when mice get up close and personal to bacteria, we have to take a step back and check out an experiment some other researchers did years ago.
Let’s Start With Dead Bacteria
In an earlier experiment, mice were injected with heat-killed bacteria. It got neurons in their brains growing, which then led to more serotonin – a brain messenger – being released. Serotonin is a member of a chemical crew called neurotransmitters that have all sorts of neat roles.
Time To Try Living Stuff
Since one of serotonin’s roles is to contribute to learning, a different group of researchers wondered if live bacteria could improve learning in mice. They fed the mice some live bacteria and then got the mice to navigate a maze. Another bunch of mice didn’t get the bacteria and still had to do the maze. This way, researchers could compare the two results. So who won?
Fast, Wee Critters
The mice who got live bacteria navigated the maze twice as fast as those who got none. Another cool thing was that those bacteria-guzzling mice showed less anxiety. Imagine if you had to do a maze? You might be nervous too! Researchers think the bacteria helped the mice get less worked up about finding their way out, plus helped them figure it out quicker too.
But do these benefits last? Unfortunately, nope. Three weeks later, researchers tested the mice again, but didn’t give them bacteria. This time, the mice couldn’t do it any faster. We can’t say for sure that this will help humans. But the results tell us that M. vaccae might play a role in learning and anxiety in mammals.
Getting More Out Of Playtime
It could be that when kids spend time outdoors – like during lunchtime – exposure to the bacteria may have some pretty smart benefits. If not, at least you can have fun kicking up some dirt. At my age, I’d probably be considered daft if I do that but maybe the bacteria will balance it all out? Somehow though, I think if my dog Tiko was perched nearby, he’d loudly bark “no.”
Don’t Believe Everything You See September 15, 2009Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Brain Power, Easy As Pie, Environment, Human Body, Ocean, Psychology and Behavior, Technology.
Tags: Believe It or Not, Ripley's, science books, Seeing is Believing
1 comment so far
Should you believe everything you see? Well, in the case of the Ripley’s book that I was recently sent to review, you can believe most of it! The new Seeing is Believing book by Ripley’s Believe It or Not is a bright, colorful book with a rather creepy but intriguing eyeball on the cover.
Over the course of the last few weeks, my favorite magazines – BBC Focus, Scientific American and New Scientist – along with various other science books strewn around have been glanced at and quickly dismissed by friends and family who pop over (how cheeky!). Yet when they see the glossy Ripley’s cover, virtually all of them do what I might begin to now coin the Ripley’s Rxn, which involves a lingering look, followed by a gleeful exclamation of “Ooooh cool.”
What does this tell me?
No matter what age, people like weird stuff and they like simplicity. Ripley’s manages to do both and do it creatively in a way that speaks to young and old alike. My excited thirty-one-year-old friend enjoyed the book as did his nine-year-old son.
Just how much of the new Ripley’s book is believable though? While the publishers do put a disclaimer that they aren’t responsible for the accuracy of the book, it’s still reasonably expected that the tidbits of information are true. Not so. I spotted a headline titled Glandular Fever. Of course, my UK readers will likely recognize this as the term for what we call infectious mononucleosis or mono here in North America. It’s caused by the Epstein Barr virus and because it can be transmitted through saliva, it’s often called the kissing disease as well.
Expecting to read about mono, I was surprised to read about a woman who had an imbalance of hormones that caused her to experience excessive hair growth all over her body. My sense is that Glandular Fever was meant to be a catchy title but nobody realized it was the term for another health condition.
Still, a minor inaccuracy or few doesn’t at all break the fantastic impact and enjoyment of this quirky book, but it’s perhaps a reminder to kids and adults that there is a lot more to science than meets the eye.
Find out more at the Ripley’s website.
A Weird Science Contest: Win The New Ripley’s Book!
I like contests. Do you? If so, I want to invite my readers to send an email telling me about the grossest or weirdest thing they’ve ever seen in science. It could be something from science class or maybe just a creepy picture of a bug. If you do send a picture, make sure you include a description of why you think it’s so weird! Anyone aged ten to sixteen can enter. The contest closes on the 15th of October, 2009.
Send your stories and pictures to firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll share the winning entry in November on the blog here. Plus, I will also mail you the new Seeing is Believing book by Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Please include your:
Please also get permission from your parents before entering. Any entries from under 13s must be done through a parent’s email address and must also include a telephone contact number for the parent. If you’re a winner, either you or your parents will be contacted for a mailing address to receive your Ripley’s book.
The Report Card Blues January 17, 2009Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Easy As Pie, Human Body, Psychology and Behavior.
Tags: depression, report card, school, teen suicide
It turns out that how you handle first grade doesn’t just affect your report card in future years, but it also affects how you feel about yourself. In turn, it could link up to feelings of depression way down the line in seventh grade.
Making The Grade
Researchers at the University of Missouri kept track of 474 girls and boys from first grade right up to seventh grade. For my UK readers who may not be familiar with the North American grade system, kids in grade 1 are usually six years old while kids in grade 7 tend to be around the age of twelve.
A lead researcher – Keith Herman, an associate professor at the university – found that the kids who had a hard time with the core subjects such as reading and math were more likely to show some of the risk factors for negative thinking and depression once they hit sixth or seventh grade. Herman thinks that differences in how kids learn will still be an issue, even if a child gets help with the difficult subjects at school.
What Can We Do About It?
So, if Herman’s theory proves true and kids are experiencing depressive thoughts due to their continued struggles with school learning, then what can we all do about it? One suggested solution is to acknowledge skills and positive growth in other areas, such as sports or singing. Herman shared his thoughts on the study and explained:
Children’s individual differences will always exist in basic academic skills, so it is necessary to explore and emphasize other assets in students, especially those with lower academic skill relative to their peers. Along with reading and math, teachers and parents should honor skills in other areas, such as interpersonal skills, non-core academic areas, athletics and music.
Researchers also found that girls responded differently to boys when it comes to self-perception. How a girl performed academically had a far more significant effect on how she viewed herself.
It meant that girls who didn’t really do as well academically saw themselves as not being in control of other parts of their lives. That feeling of not having control over important decisions in your life is considered a risk factor for depression symptoms.
A Little Backtrack
I posted about teen depression and suicide back in January of 2008 – a year ago. You can read the post here. I talked about ways in which teens can get support for depression. Afterwards, I received intense, emotional responses from a range of people – teens and adults.
But one thing that struck me is how responses seemed to bring up the aspect of a person not feeling valued or appreciated – not feeling like they have a special place in this world. There was a real sense of isolation for teens who felt depressed.
Feeling Good About Yourself
When I look at this new study, it seems as though the academic focus can maybe become so overwhelming, that we as adults forget about all the other amazing and cool abilities that teens have in life. The scary thing is that if we don’t acknowledge and share our enthusiasm, respect and admiration for these abilities, how can we expect teens to experience and acknowledge those same feelings?
The Bullying Brain December 3, 2008Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Human Body, Psychology and Behavior, Think About It.
Tags: Bully, Conduct disorder, Victim
It’s an important question for loads of scientists, parents, victims of bullies and even bullies themselves – what makes someone want to bully another person? A new imaging study in the United States sheds a bit of light on the subject. It found that in aggressive teenage boys, the parts of the brain linked to reward – the amygdala and ventral striatum – light up when the boy views a video of someone inflicting pain. We already know about the effects of bullying but finding out why it happens is super important too.
Wired Up For Bullying
Jean Decety, a researcher at the University of Chicago, used a functional MRI scan to look at the brain of each teenager who participated in the study. Researchers already knew that half of the participants had a ‘conduct’ disorder while the other half had no history of being aggressive. The teens who did have a conduct disorder had done stuff such as starting a fight or stealing from a victim.
To see what happened in the brain of a boy who had a conduct disorder, each teen was asked to look at a video where a person accidentally experienced pain. So, the video would show a person having their foot stepped on or something similar along those lines. What do you think might have happened in the brain of a person with a conduct disorder? If you guessed there was a difference from the participants with no aggressive history, you got it right!
A Fired Up Amygdala
The aggressive boys had a major, intense activation of the amygdala and ventral striatum when they looked at the video clips. Researchers think the results suggest that aggressive boys gain enjoyment from viewing pain.
On the other hand, the control group – teens who didn’t have a history of aggression – showed activation of different parts of the brain. The medial prefrontal cortex and the temporoparietal junction may sound like complicated words, but they represent areas of our brain that are important in self-regulation.
Let’s Find Out More
While this research study can teach us more about how the brain works and how it is that a teen chooses to bully another person, it was still criticized for being too small. It only looked at sixteen boys between 16-18 years old. This means that we will have to wait and see what kind of results we get from a bigger study.
Also, some scientists are worried this type of study will mean that instead of finding ways to help a bully change his behavior, we will simply use medications to ‘fix’ them. The fear comes from the fact that a study like this shows bullying has a biological basis. It’s like saying that your brain makes you harm another person, so you can’t make the choice to be nicer.
Lots of us have dealt with bullying in school and it can really make the victim’s life miserable. Finding out how and why people bully others will help us to learn better ways to prevent it from happening and it will let us deal with bullying when it strikes. Hyperactive amygdala and ventral striatum or not – bullying has to stop!