A few weeks ago, I finished my summary of May’s science news by saying that this month’s post would probably include stories about weather forecasts, pentaquarks, and the Mona Lisa. So those are the stories that I’ll use to begin my science news summary for this past month. 

First, here’s the link to an article about the updates in weather forecasting. There’s some question among meteorologists as to whether it’s really ready; it hasn’t yet been as accurate as they’d like. But even if it isn’t quite right just yet, we may be getting close to seeing increased accuracy in weather forecasting. 

And here’s the article about the structure of pentaquarks. Admittedly, I don’t understand the significance of pentaquarks. Yes, I know that they’re subatomic particles consisting of five quarks, and this article further explains that pentaquarks come in two pieces, one of which is called a baryon and is made of three quarks, and the other is a meson consisting of a quark and an antiquark. But what kinds of atoms and molecules have pentaquarks, and what properties distinguish them from atoms and molecules without pentaquarks? I’m not sure, so if you know, please leave a comment below. Here’s another fun physics tidbit: Diamonds may be the key to developing the technology to detect dark matter. 

mona lisa This study about the Mona Lisa wasn’t so much of a scientific experiment as an analysis of the facial expression in the painting. As such, it’s nothing really groundbreaking; that painting has been around for over five hundred years. In fact, the researchers’ conclusions sound very familiar to me and I think that other people have said similar things in the past. But it’s still an interesting read. This article describes how a group of researchers led by a neurologist from the University of Cincinnati took a close look at Mona Lisa’s famous smile and said that it is probably a non-genuine smile, as evidenced by its asymmetry. Even if this was a new revelation, it wouldn’t be a big surprise because it’s normal for people to fake-smile for pictures. But some people are speculating that Da Vinci was intentional in depicting an insincere smile and that there may be “cryptic messages” to glean from it. The article suggests that perhaps this was a self-portrait or maybe it “referred to a man or a dead woman”, although it doesn’t explain why a fake smile would be evidence of those theories. 

Speaking of cryptic messages, this seems like a good segue into the fascinating topics of dreaming and sleep. This is scientific subfield that I find especially interesting, and I felt that way even before coming to the realization that my own sleep is abnormal. (Yes, I’ve been to sleep specialists, and yes, they’ve confirmed that I’m weird, and no, they don’t know why that is or what to do about it.) This study conducted in Finland had somewhat disappointing results in that researchers were not able to detect participants’ dreams by monitoring brainwaves. That certainly seemed like a realistic goal. Sleep and dreaming are neurological processes, and in fact, brainwave patterns are the difference between different sleep stages. We’ve known for a long time that most dreaming happens in REM sleep, which is characterized by brain activity similar to wakefulness even though the rest of the body is at its deepest level of sleep. (REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement, which is another thing that differentiates REM sleep from nREM, or non-REM sleep.) But it’s not a direct correlation. The brain doesn’t necessarily always dream in REM sleep, and some dreaming does occur in nREM sleep. There’s still more to learn about why it works that way. 

 

Why We Sleep book Matthew Walker

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker, 2017.

I happen to be in the middle of reading a book about sleep, and as it so happens, Matthew Walker, the author of that book, is one of the researchers who conducted this study on sleep and Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, the chapter that I just read was about observations that are backed up by this study. The basic gist is that changes in sleep patterns appear to be an early indicator of Alzheimer’s disease. This news article is very brief and I can’t access the full text of the journal article itself, but based upon the abstract and the chapter in the book, it would seem that there’s still room for debate about cause and effect. Thanks to relatively recent medical advances, we now know that Alzheimer’s disease is caused by the buildup of certain proteins in the brain, but is that buildup caused by poor sleep quality and insufficient amounts of sleep? Or is it those protein buildups that impair sleep? According to Walker, (at least as of the 2017 publication date of the book) both are probably true. It’s a vicious cycle in which the symptoms of the disease are also what drives the progression of the disease.

 

In other sleep-related news, another study suggested that leaving the light on while sleeping may increase the risk of obesity in women. (The study evidently did not evaluate whether this applies to men) The article isn’t very specific about possible explanations for this, except a line about “hormones and other biological processes”. Since it’s fairly well-established now that inadequate sleep is linked to weight gain, I’m speculating that sleep quality is the significant factor here. It makes sense that artificial light can have an impact on the sleeping person’s sleep cycle, perhaps by making it take a little bit longer to get all the way into deep sleep, or affecting the proportion of REM to nREM sleep.

I’ve come across some other weight-related science stories. While this one doesn’t directly discuss sleep, it continues the theme of brain activity. (If you’re tired of my fascination with the human brain, here’s a fun story about bees’ cognition) Young children’s brains use a very large proportion of their energy intake. At some points in children’s development, their brains are using more than half of their calories, which is pretty amazing even before you stop to think about the fact that those children’s physical bodies are also growing and developing quickly. The article goes on to say that this energy expenditure could mean that education at the preschool level can stave off obesity. But I think that another important takeaway here is that it’s important for young children to be well-nourished. 

CoffeeMeanwhile, for adults, coffee could help fight obesity because of its effect on BAT, (Brown Adipose Tissue) otherwise known as brown fat. The article goes on to describe how brown fat differs from regular white fat and its role in metabolism. As you might guess, caffeine is the reason that coffee has this effect. Although lots of people have long claimed that black coffee combats weight gain, it appears that this study is groundbreaking in demonstrating how this works. (The part about caffeine speeding up metabolism has been common knowledge for a while, but that’s much more vague than the new information about brown fat’s role in the process.) 

Yet again this month, there’s some new information about autism. This study identified a part of the brain in which a lower density of neurons corresponds to certain traits and mannerisms associated with autism, specifically those involving rigid thinking. In that case, this information doesn’t add anything to our limited understanding of what causes autism, but another study indicates that one factor might be Propionic Acid, a preservative often found in processed foods. This article focuses on the effect of Propionic Acid on a developing fetus. I can’t tell from the article whether this information is specific to a certain prenatal phase of development or if it also applies to children after birth. 

In other health-related news, progress is being made in diagnosing Lyme disease, and we may even be approaching a cure for the common cold. For the particularly health-conscious, here are some other things to take into consideration in your everyday life. Certain microbes in the gut may have a positive impact on athletic ability, it’s a good idea for everyone to spend two hours a week out in nature, and antioxidants are actually bad for you. Okay, that’s an unfair oversimplification. But the point is that scientists are coming to the conclusion that antioxidants are not the anti-cancer solution that we’ve thought; they actually could increase the risk of lung cancer because they don’t just protect healthy cells from those harmful free radicals we hear so much about. They also protect cancer cells. Of course, that doesn’t mean that you should avoid foods high in antioxidants. But it does mean that it’s not a good idea to take dietary supplements that give you several times the needed amount of certain nutrients. It’s just one more reason that it’s healthier to rely on food for your nutrition. Incidentally, one such antioxidant is Vitamin C, which has been praised as one of the few nutrients that isn’t bad for you if you consume too much. I guess that’s not true after all. 

BCIRather than ending on that bleak note, I’ll wrap this up by pointing out an impressive technological feat.  Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University have developed a brain-controlled robotic arm that’s headline-worthy as the least-invasive BCI yet. BCI stands for Brain Computer Interface, and it’s basically what it sounds like. The technology actually exists for computers to respond directly to the human brain. I have no idea how it works. Here’s the article, although you should probably ignore the stock image of a computer cursor. If you want a relevant visual, this brief youtube video includes a few seconds showing the actual robotic arm. Sure, it’s not exactly cyborg technology as depicted in movies, but it’s still pretty incredible. 

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