jump to navigation

Get Smarter The Dirty Way October 5, 2010

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Brain Power, Human Body, Psychology and Behavior, Tough Stuff.
Tags: , , , ,
2 comments

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.

Can bacteria help learning? Some curious researchers decided to find out.

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.”

Whale Poo Is Good For You September 12, 2010

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Animals, Brain Power, Environment, Ocean, Tough Stuff.
Tags: , , , ,
10 comments

In fact, it’s good for all living things.  Australian researchers recently found that whale poo is battling one of the planet’s toughest battles ever – climate change.  The poor whales previously had a horrid reputation.  Since they breathe out a common greenhouse gas known as carbon dioxide (CO2), they were disliked for contributing to global warming.  Estimates are that they breathe out 200,000 tonnes of CO2 a year.  Eep!  It isn’t surprising people had a bad opinion of them!

But there’s way more to the story than this one fact.  Let’s start with the basics and see how something so gross can actually be good for us all.  Major science geeks can read the full study results in the Fish and Fisheries journal.

Benefits Of Whale Poo

A young sperm whale gracefully swims in the Southern Ocean. A trip up to the surface might mean a poopy feeding for the hungry phytoplankton, helping to fight global warming. Image credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

In the Southern Ocean, we’ve got an estimated 12,000 sperm whales.  They hunt down fish and squid for food.  Once digested, out comes all that poo.  Why should we care about whale feces?  Well, it contains loads of iron.  All of those whales poop out approximately 50 tonnes of iron each year.

What’s so special about the iron?  It’s a fabulously delicious food for phytoplankton, which are marine plants that exist up near the surface of the ocean.  These helpful plants like to take in CO2 from the atmosphere through a process called photosynthesis.

Better still is that the whales pop out their poop (even I chuckled as I wrote that) in a liquid form that’s close to the surface of the ocean, making it easier for the phytoplankton to access.  After, the whale dives down into the ocean, presumably feeling a little – or a lot – lighter!

Let’s Do The Math

First, we have to see how much CO2 gets sucked up by the plants, which is all thanks to the whale poo.  It’s 400,000 tonnes.  Now that’s twice as much as the 200,000 tonnes they breathe out through respiration each year.  The 200,000 tonnes is equivalent to emissions from 40,000 cars!

I got in touch with Steve Nicol of the Australian Antarctic Division to find out how the study all started.  He explained:

Our research was actually looking at baleen (krill eating) whales and the iron that they release.  The research was stimulated by some ideas raised by Victor Smetacek and we had the samples and the expertise here in Hobart to do the measurements necessary to test these ideas.

When I asked Steve what we can do to help, his answer was a simple one.  Simple but not necessarily easy to attain, especially given the attraction of whale hunting in many places around the world.  According to Steve:

Many populations of great whales are recovering fairly fast – some at about the maximum rate possible.  The best assistance we can give them is to avoid killing them – either accidentally or deliberately.

Don’t Judge Too Soon

I think an important lesson here is that we can’t judge too quickly and instead, should always look at the big picture.  When we first hear about all the CO2 the whales are putting out there, it’s easy to think badly of these massive sea creatures.  But with the Southern Ocean normally being a poor source of iron, the whales are making sure those phytoplankton are happily fed.  This way, the phytoplankton can do their job of taking out the nasty CO2.

Now, if only human poo had such fantastic capabilities.

Bartholomew Says Hello June 22, 2010

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Animals, Brain Power, Deep Sea, Easy As Pie, Environment, Evolution, Ocean.
Tags: , ,
6 comments

If this blobfish could talk, I think it would ask for us humans to give it some space. Maybe then it would have reason to smile. Credit: Greenpeace

Okay well, I made up the name Bartholomew and this interesting creature can’t really speak.  But if it could, I imagine it might say something like “Please leave me alone!”  So, just what is this odd, slimy thing and why would it want us to stay away?

Meet A Blobfish

With the formal name of Psychrolutes marcidus, the blobfish is definitely not the world’s prettiest fish.  It is, however, on the verge of extinction according to researchers at the University of York in England.  For blobfish, home is 800 meters into the ocean, just off the southeastern coast of Australia.

But unfortunately, excessive fishing with nets along the bottom of the ocean has jeopardized the well-being of the blobfish.  It starts with overfishing at less deep and murky depths.  After reducing populations up there, not much is left.

To compensate, we do something called bottom trawling, which takes us even deeper into the ocean.  Here, we are fishing along the sea floor.  It’s bad news for Bartholomew and all the other blobfish down there.  No wonder poor Bartholomew looks so sad.

These blobfish may look like your grumpy Great Aunt Martha but they're probably unhappy for another reason. Overfishing is threatening their livelihood. Credit: NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center.

A Day In The Life Of Bartholomew

Just humour me here and let’s keep the name.  So what’s life like for Bartholomew?  You won’t see it for yourself because Bartholomew lives deep in the ocean, far away from our eyes.

That peculiar body serves a purpose, letting Bartholomew sort of float above the sea floor.  Instead of using a bunch of energy to move, Bartholomew keeps movement easy and light.

How big is this body?  A blobfish usually grows to approximately 12 inches (30 centimeters).  In fact, I just picked up a comic book I will soon be reviewing here on the blog, and it’s about the same length as a blobfish.

A Floating Feeder

And boy oh boy, feeding is an interesting activity for the blobfish.  While you or I take an active role in eating – we open our mouths and put food inside – the blobfish does it another way.  When Bartholomew feeds, it means just drifting along, swallowing food particles that float in its mouth.

Ugliness Comes In Many Forms

Bartholomew is yet another example of the consequences from overfishing.  Without adequate regulations around deep sea trawling, our ‘hello’ to Bartholomew may soon be a ‘goodbye’ instead.  While his appearance may be ugly, some might say that the actions of humans are far uglier.

Too Young And Too Much June 19, 2010

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Alcohol and Illegal Drugs, Brain Power, Human Body, Nutrition and Health, Think About It.
Tags: , , ,
5 comments

One drink.  Two drinks.  Three drinks….seven drinks.  Does this sound like you each weekend?  It isn’t news that teens can be binge drinkers.  Even the wicked hangover the next day isn’t necessarily enough to stop teens – or adults – from going wild on booze.  But a new study suggests that binge drinking has some effects on teens that we won’t necessarily see in adults.  To understand what researchers discovered, we have to delve into the brain.  The monkey brain, that is.

Binge drinkers consume lots of alcohol in a short period of time with the aim of getting drunk. Does this sound like you or someone you know?

Lasting Brain Damage

To find out what binge drinking does to the brain, a group of researchers led by Chitra Mandyam of the Scripps Research Institute in California looked at how the drinking affected normal nerve cell development in the hippocampus, a part of the brain responsible for long-term memory.  They used monkeys, an animal with brain development that is very similar to humans.  Their work was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers gave four adolescent monkeys alcoholic drinks for an hour each day over nearly a year.  A couple of months later, the animals were put down so that researchers could compare their brains to monkeys that had not been given alcohol.  So, what did they learn?

The binge drinking monkeys had 50 to 90 percent fewer stem cells in their hippocampus compared to the other monkeys.  This could leave monkeys struggling with memory and spatial skills, plus loads of other important functions in the brain.

You’re Not Alone

Just how common is binge drinking?  In a European study last year, Britain came in as one of the worst offenders.  More than half of teens had been binge drinking in the last month.  For the United States, around 11 million teens drink and approximately 7 million are binge drinkers.  According to MADD, Canadian statistics are very similar.

Getting Support

Binge drinking is harmful at any age and can hurt adults too.  But this study suggests that its effects in teens can be especially dangerous because of teens’ brains being quite vulnerable during these years.  Fortunately, there are ways to get confidential help, whether it’s through a doctor, substance abuse centre or even a counsellor at school.  If you feel like your drinking is a problem or you’re worried about someone you know, talk to a trusted adult.

Humans Bite Harder Than Vampires April 21, 2010

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Book Reviews, Brain Power, Forensic Science, Human Body, Think About It.
Tags: , ,
2 comments

Tiko is wide-eyed with fright! What is scaring him? Could it be a vampire?

When National Geographic asked me to review their new book called Vampire Forensics, I had to ask myself if I had the guts to do it! As a self-proclaimed scaredy-cat, I wasn’t sure if learning about the origins of vampires would be something my timid self could take. Worse still was what happened when I attempted to grab Tiko for comfort. Once he heard me say “vampire,” he raced into the wardrobe and refused to emerge.

Like many people, I’m fascinated by popular vampire culture, from entertaining television shows to famous books such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The question that remains is – where did it all start and how did it become what it is today? And maybe the second question I had when I started reading Vampire Forensics was whether this book was a bite I could handle. Let’s find out!

Disease, Death And Burial

Researched and edited by Mark Jenkins, Vampire Forensics traces the history of vampire culture. Early on in the book, Jenkins writes about a mysterious, 16th century skull discovered in Venice that was thought to be the remains of a female vampire. The skull was buried with a brick jammed in its mouth, which people thought would stop the vampire from rising up to feed on others. In other areas of the book, diseases such as the plague or tuberculosis are linked to vampire myths, mostly due to signs of the disease such as paleness and the fact victims would waste away. Jenkins also goes on to merge ideas about burial and death with vampire culture.

While I expected a lot on forensics, this part of the book fell short. Instead, I read about all kinds of folklore that were scattered together without the structure a reader needs to make sense of it all. Where historical facts were relayed, these suggested a possible link to vampires, without the real forensic guts to strengthen the connection. It felt a bit like the writer was grasping at straws by choosing many random stories and trying to tie them in with vampire culture.

Poor Tiko is afraid of vampires. Perhaps if I read Vampire Forensics to him, he will learn they are not real. Now, I just have to figure out how to get him out of the wardrobe!

Still, there are heaps of fun tales and facts that kept the book interesting right to the end. I did shudder at some of the gory bits but in a sense, this is part of the appeal when it comes to vampires. People like to be afraid and they like the intrigue of the unknown.

Can You Handle It?

Who will like this book? Well, it’s not a book for my younger readers and even then, will probably only interest a select group of my teen readers. The graphic prose and macabre tales are gruesome at times. But for those who perhaps truly do fear vampires, this book brings that fear to a much less frightening reality. We learn how events that are most definitely of the human kind fueled the myths and fantasy that make up vampire culture today. While the book didn’t give much of a vampire bite, it left some strong human tooth marks. Ironically, I think readers may be left fearing humans far more than vampires.

%d bloggers like this: