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A Clever Condom August 13, 2009

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Brain Power, Diseases, Human Body, Think About It.
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Most teens today are probably familiar with how condoms work. If you’re sexually active, you already know that condoms can help to protect you from sexually transmitted diseases and also reduce the likelihood of an unwanted pregnancy.

But, researchers at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, United States, are trying to create a new gel that acts like a condom. Sounds a bit strange, doesn’t it? Yet if all goes well, this new gel could be a surprisingly clever weapon against semen and any bacteria or viruses contained within it! This includes viruses such as HIV.

Creating A Trap

Standard condoms protect against pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.  In developing countries, women need cheaper options that give them control over their sexual health.

Standard condoms protect against pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. But in developing countries, women need cheaper options that give them control over their sexual health.

When you picture a condom, you likely picture something more solid, while a gel would be softer, wouldn’t it? Not always so. This particular gel is a liquid when it’s in contact with the vagina – a highly acidic environment. Once alkaline semen makes its way in there though, the gel turns solid. In fact, any particles that are bigger than 50 nanometres are trapped. This includes semen, HIV and even viruses such as the herpes virus.

Getting It Right

This research team isn’t the first to try making a gel to combat HIV. Unfortunately, other teams haven’t been successful at creating an effective gel to protect women against HIV. In fact, one study found that the gel actually increased the rate of HIV infection. You can see that it’s a tough task to get it right.

It’s Not For You

Why isn’t this condom for you? It’s not that you shouldn’t be using one, of course. Researchers are working on this new condom mostly for women in countries where HIV is common. They also want this condom to be a low-cost alternative for women to get protection if their partner won’t wear a condom. In this way, women can take control of their sexual health.

Pick and Choose

With most of my readers being in the United States, Canada and Britain, you can pick and choose from a number of birth control options and condoms. For many of you, these will be provided without cost through your school or sexual health clinics. We’re lucky here to have access to all of these choices. We also live in a society where you can say “no” to sex without a condom and generally, our culture is one where your choice is respected.

So, shouldn’t women all around the world have choices too?

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Delaying Death February 8, 2009

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Diseases, Human Body, Science and Politics, Think About It.
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Cartoon credit: Nick Kim.

We all want to live a long, healthy life. But, this cartoon left me wondering if perhaps, we sometimes go too far in our quest to preserve life. Are there situations where a person’s life is simply so poor in quality due to their health condition – that keeping them alive represents an unfair fight with death?

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The Bullying Brain December 3, 2008

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Human Body, Psychology and Behavior, Think About It.
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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.

Stop Bullying!

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!

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The Bold Traveler October 19, 2008

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Environment, Microbes, Think About It.
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Imagine a world where you are all alone and surrounded by complete and total darkness. Now, take away all of your oxygen. Sound scary? Not necessarily. For the Desulforudis audaxviator – or bold traveler – this is the normal way of life. This bug relies on some important things for its survival: water, hydrogen and sulphate. It was recently discovered by a group of scientists led by Dr Dylan Chivian of California’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The results of the research were published in the journal Science.

J. Craig Venter Institute, and Gordon Southam, University of Western Ontario

Credit: Greg Wanger, J. Craig Venter Institute, and Gordon Southam, University of Western Ontario. This lonely baterium travels in complete darkness.

So, why should we care about this lonely bug that braves its world alone? Well, if we think about how this rod-shaped bacterium can survive without oxygen, we might be able to get some important clues about whether life exists on other planets. If we found life on other planets, we would maybe learn that those bugs and creatures are able to get by without oxygen while still obtaining energy from chemicals such as sulphate.

Excited Scientists

Let me tell you, scientists were really excited when they discovered the bacterium. But, it wasn’t easy! They found it 1.74 miles (2.8 km) below the Earth’s surface near Mponeng mine, which is close to Johannesburg, South Africa. The bug was in total darkness and 60 C (140 F) heat. Now that’s hot! Scientists originally found the bacterium in DNA that was drawn from cracks in the mine – filled with water. Who would have thought that it would be a gold mine where scientists would discover the first ecosystem that only has one biological species? Sometimes, it seems that darkness can be full of special surprises and this is especially true in the case of our bold, lonely traveler.

A Day In The Life Of The Lonely Traveler

Since our isolated bacterium lives all alone, it has to get organic molecules without any help from other species. To do this, it builds what it needs to survive from water, inorganic carbon and nitrogen. These are all sourced from ammonia in the nearby rocks and fluid. But it sure does live deep in the Earth, doesn’t it? Thanks to evolution, our traveling friend can handle all sorts of tough situations and conditions. Over time, it has developed ways to handle stuff like fixing nitrogen straight from elemental nitrogen in the environment.

But wait, it can’t do everything. This smart bacterium can’t handle oxygen, which tells scientists that it has been without oxygen for a really long time. I guess that the lengthy journey into the Earth has toughened it up to lots of harsh conditions. However, without oxygen exposure, there was no need for it to develop any mechanism to resist it. Still, it continues to survive and hints to us that there could be a lot more bugs and creatures out there that manage to get by just fine without oxygen and many of the basic things we associate with life. Now that’s adaptation!

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Be Careful With Confidence July 2, 2008

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Human Body, Psychology and Behavior, Think About It.
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We all know that confidence can feel amazing. It might give you that great energy where you believe you can accomplish anything at all. Confidence can encourage us to make certain decisions, meet people and take action. But what about overconfidence? Can that do more harm than good? Sometimes, it can. If a person is overconfident, they might miss some of the key details to watch out for when making a change. For example, being overconfident before a test might mean you don’t spend enough time studying. A business executive might assume an investment is a good idea without making an effort to really think the decision through.

Perhaps the important question involves how we would even go about measuring overconfidence. From a scientific standpoint, it’s not easy to assess overconfidence because this kind of study would rely on the participant to explain how they are overconfident. That’s really subjective and not a very reliable or accurate way to provide results.

Let’s Try Something New

But wait! According to Pascal Mamassian, a researcher at CNRS and Université Paris Descartes, France, overconfidence can indeed be accurately measured. Mamassian believes he has come up with a cool way to handle the problems associated with having participants assess their own overconfidence. How? With a very natural and objective visuo-motor task. If you want to get really geeky, you can check out the full version in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Bring On The Visuo-Motor Task

Computer Confidence Test

So, what did these participants in Mamassian’s study do? Well, they were asked to sit at a computer and press on a key in synchrony with a ‘blob’ that would pop up on the screen. If they pressed the key in synchrony, they were given points for their success. But if they pressed the key too early or late, they lost points. Mamassian decided to use a mathematical model to analyze the way participants manipulated a key tapping strategy, which would help participants gain the most points and reduce the points lost. Now, let’s see what Mamassian found out from the participants!

The Results Are In

Mamassian discovered that the participants regularly didn’t aim for the best time. Instead, they showed overconfidence in their actions. Mamassian explained:

They underestimated the magnitude of their uncertainty and the cost of their error. Overconfidence is not limited to the realm of subjective beliefs and cognitive judgments but appears instead to reflect a general characteristic of human decision making.

So, this means that overconfidence in their abilities led participants to be less careful in assessing their own uncertainty and the consequences of mistakes when completing the task. Because they were overconfident, they didn’t take the time to think of what they needed to do to ensure no mistakes were made. Since they were so confident, they perhaps figured they would just automatically do well. On top of that, they didn’t properly estimate the points they would lose from these mistakes because – well, their overconfidence might have meant that they didn’t expect to make mistakes in the first place!

Now, I think that a little – or sometimes even a lot – of confidence can go a long way in creating good feelings of self-esteem and accomplishment. At the same time, Mamassian’s experimental model is a new and interesting way to judge if someone is overconfident. For now though, it’s not exactly a practical reality for most of us, which means we can’t just access this test to check whether we’re overconfident. A more cautious approach might be to take those confident leaps, but look where you are going. Ultimately, be confident knowing that you can reach your goals, but don’t be overconfident so that you are blinded by all the challenges along the way!

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