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Get Smarter The Dirty Way October 5, 2010

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Brain Power, Human Body, Psychology and Behavior, Tough Stuff.
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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.”

Yay For Catnaps February 21, 2008

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Human Body, Psychology and Behavior, Think About It.
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Yawn. Maybe you were up too late playing X-box or perhaps you spent a little too much time chatting on the phone with your friend last night. Or maybe you got enough sleep but were thinking to just relax and take a little catnap anyways. But wait, could that catnap actually give you benefits beyond just feeling a bit refreshed from the sleep?

According to some scientists in Germany, even super short catnaps can be enough to boost your performance in memory tests. Led by Dr Olaf Lahl, researchers at the University of Dusseldorf gathered up a group of students. They showed the students a set of words and then over the next hour, some students got to sleep for six minutes while others had to stay awake. The results? The students who had the nap did the best in recalling the words.

Replacing Old Stuff

Learning and Memory One thing you might find confusing about science is how it’s always changing! You’re not alone. New ideas replace the old and can totally change how we look at a problem. In this case, previous theories about sleep suggested that it took deep sleep – 20 minutes or more after falling asleep for memories to be processed. Yet, this new study showed that a mere six minutes of sleep enhanced memory. Lahl thinks that the moment of falling asleep begins a process in the brain that actually keeps going after a person wakes up. Lahl explains:

To our knowledge, this demonstrates for the first time that an ultra-brief sleep episode provides an effective memory enhancement.

Still, other scientists say that we should be careful before assuming that six minutes is enough time to make a difference in memory. Instead, they say we need more research into the area of sleep and memory. For now though, I just think that catnaps feel so nice and if they help my memory, that’s a big bonus! Zzzzz.

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