Sunday, August 25, 2019

Discovery of New Pain Organ


Karolinska Institutet researchers have found a new pain organ that can help scientists to better understand the process of how pain is experienced and processed by our body. More specifically, this organ is particularly responsive to pain originating from pressure and pricks, otherwise referred to as mechanical pain. 

This organ, termed as the nociceptive glio-neural complex, is a sensory receptor organ that is comprised of a collection of glial cells. This organ rests in between the skin’s outer and inner layers. The glial cells themselves contain protrusions that stem into the outer layer of the skin. 

The functionality of this organ was tested in mice, and it was observed that deactivating the nociceptive glio-neural complex resulted in the mice experiencing less pain from pricks and pressure, suggesting that this organ in fact does play a major role in the processing of mechanical pain. 

Although this organ is yet to be discovered in humans, it may help scientists to further develop their understanding on how our body interprets pain stimuli. It was previously thought that mechanical pain originated exclusively from nociceptive fibres. However, from this new finding this type of pain may very well start from the glio-neural complex instead. 


Read more about the discovery on the Karolinska Institutet website:
National Geographic article:


Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Science of The Dancing Parrot



It was August of 2007 when a parrot named Snowball was left at a rescue centre in Dyer, Indiana. Soon after, the parrot became a YouTube sensation because of its amazing dancing skills, catching the attention of millions, including neuroscientists.The concept of dancing as seen in humans cannot be seen in most species, but parrots are the exception. In fact, parrots and humans are the only species that connect with music by showing a variety of spontaneous movements. These movements might be due to the fact that parrots are vocal learners with auditory-motor connections in their nervous system.


So far, research has shown the synchrony between the music beat and a parrot’s head and/or feet movement. Researchers wanted to see more of Snowball so they exposed him to new music once in a while such that now, he has 14 diverse dance movements like swinging his head, making half circles, doing headbangs, etc.


Parrots can acquire these  movements through various ways, such as imitation or copying humans. If dancing by imitation is the case, it is interesting to note that parrots might realize and distinguish the difference in body shapes between themselves and humans and still copy the motor movements of dance.
As well, dance movements might be a product of the parrots’ creativity. Animals other than humans usually show creativity upon a physical benefit like accessing food or mates. However, Snowball uses dancing to communicate with his human caregivers, without any food or mating opportunity present.


Read the full article by Atlantic here:
https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/07/what-snowball-dancing-parrot-tells-us-about-dance/593428/

Read the full research paper by Current Biology here:
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0960982219306049

Image Credit: Atlantic

Sunday, August 18, 2019

The Objective Truth About the Microwave



Microwaves are magic. They transform frozen blocks into mouth watering food. Meals that would otherwise take hours to cook can be nuked to desired temperatures in just minutes. A microwave, magic aside, is a simple device. It’s a box that shoots waves at a frequency of approximately 2.45 gigahertz which translates to a wavelength of approximately 12 cm. The waves at this specific frequency are absorbed by water, fats, and sugars to create heat so plates and bowls are not heated. That’s it.


This year marks the 52nd anniversary of the microwave oven. The first countertop microwave was sold in 1967 for $495. Expensive, yes, but it was the latest prototype of a device that once weighed 750 pounds and sold for $5,000 in 1946. By the mid 1980s, microwaves could be found in 25% of U.S. households, quickly rising to a whopping 90% in 1997. 


The original story is quite simple: the rising radar needs of WWII demanded for faster production of the magnetron (i.e. devices that generated radio waves) and so, engineer Percy Spencer redesigned the device so that its components could be punched out from sheet metal rather than each part needing to be individually machined which allowed mass production of magnetrons.
While working one day, he noticed that a candy bar in his pocket had started to melt and suspected that waves from the magnetron were causing this. So to verify his theory, he pointed the radar beam at a raw egg - the egg exploded from rapid heating. Another experiment with corn kernels showed that radio waves could quickly make popcorn. A patent soon followed and the Radarange was born.

This mysterious little box is practically in every household, let’s hope this article did justice in demystifying its history and workings.

Friday, August 16, 2019

TESS Discovers a New Class of Exoplanet

Credit: NASA

Although exoplanetary astronomy may be a relatively young scientific field, over 4 000 exoplanets are known today. From this vast set of data, scientists have been able to determine that there are general classes which almost every exoplanet falls into, such as Super-Earth, Mini-Neptune, and Hot Jupiter. However, recent observations by NASA’s TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) have identified a completely new class of exoplanet: the Ultrahot Neptune.

Astronomer James Jenkins reported the discovery of the planet in question, LTT 9779b, at the TESS Science Conference on July 29th. The planet was first identified as a candidate using TESS, and subsequent observations were conducted by HARPS (High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher). LTT 9779b orbits the star LTT 9779, a sun-like and high metallicity star situated around 260 light years from our solar system. Thanks to these observations, astronomers were able to determine that the planet orbits its host star in a mere 19 hours, which places it extremely close to the star. Further measurements determined that the planet has a radius of 4.6 Earth radii, and a mass of 29.3 Earth masses. This positions it firmly in the Neptune-like category of planets, but it is the first such Neptune-like planet to be discovered so close to its star.

Interestingly, it appears that hardly any planets with Neptune-like mass have orbits of four days or fewer around their star. Rather, the most commonly-found planets this close to their star are Super-Earths, or planets with masses greater than that of Jupiter. These results, plus the proximity of the planet causing it to have a temperature around 2000 kelvins, categorizes LTT 9779b as a planet in the Neptunian desert. This collection of traits has never been observed before, and thus, the Ultrahot Neptune class is born.

Studying LTT 9779b will provide crucial insights into the existence of the Neptunian desert, and the evolution of gas planets. Current theories seem to suggest that gas planets often form farther out from their star, then move closer in over time. As the planet migrates nearer to its star, its orbital period decreases, and its temperature greatly increases. Furthermore, the decreasing distance between the planet and the star results in an increase in the concentration of solar wind particles, and the star slowly strips the planet of its atmosphere. Scientists hypothesize that the Neptunian desert exists because Jupiter-like planets migrate extremely close to their stars, stripping off their atmospheres, and leaving behind only a rocky core. This suggests that the newly discovered Ultrahot Neptune is perhaps a transitionary phase from Hot Jupiter to Super-Earth.

The next steps for research are to determine the rate at which LTT 9779b is losing mass due to its star. If the rate at which it loses mass is fast on astronomical time scales, then perhaps this is the reason no other Ultrahot Neptunes have been discovered until now: they simply exist for too short a time.


Read the presentation abstract here: https://tsc.mit.edu/docs/Talk_Abstracts.pdf

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Light Found to Induce Hallucinations in Mouse Brains


Stanford University’s neuroscientist Karl Deissertoth and his team have observed a breakthrough phenomenon - how light can be used to fire specific neurons and stimulate certain images subsequently in the brains of mice. 

In the experiment, mice were shown visuals of vertical and horizontal lines separately. Furthermore, the scientists trained the mice so that when they were shown the vertical bars at any point, they consequently licked a tube of water. After analyzing records from the brains of the mice and the activity of the neurons, Deissertoth and his team noticed twenty or so neurons whose activity was linked to the image of vertical bars. 

The scientists then shone light on these twenty neurons and observed that the mice would start licking the water tubes, as they were trained to do so, in the absence of any image. This lead Deisseroth and his colleagues to believe that shining light on the specific neurons induced hallucinations of the vertical bars in the mice. When shining light on the neurons that were associated with the horizontal bars however, the mice did not lick the tube. 

This method of manipulating neurons with light is referred to as optogenetics, and scientists are utilizing this technology to understand the connections between the neurons associated with particular images and the areas of the brain that interpret those images. 

Read the full article by Nature Research:

Read the full article by Scientific American:

Image credits:
Dr. Chris Henstridge/Science Photo Library

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Physicians of Many Stem Cell Clinics Don’t Have Relevant Training


Stem cells seem to be a great addition to the packages of products that claim to be effective and organic. So far, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has only approved stem cell based products that are used in treating immune system disorders. However, there are numerous clinics in the US who claim to offer stem cell treatment for disorders such as Alzheimer’s and muscular dystrophy. In fact, a 2016 study recognized more than 500 clinics who were advertising unapproved and unproven stem cell products.

A new study published in JAMA journal analyzed 166 websites associated with different stem cell companies. It was then found that only 81 of such companies have employed physicians with medical training relevant to the claimed stem cell treatment. Surprisingly, there were nine companies who did not list any physicians on their website. Zubin Master, a bioethicist who led the study, warns patients about this matter and encourages patients to check the backgrounds of physicians when looking for stem cell treatments in different clinics.

In the US, the extraction and re-injection of stem cells that have been minimally manipulated do not require the approval of the FDA. This has always been a concern for bioethicists since they believe that stem-cell-based procedures should be classified in the category of drugs and biologics, which are eligible for FDA considerations. 

Read the full article by Nature here:
https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-01999-6

Read the full research paper by JAMA Journal here: 


Saturday, July 20, 2019

Reflections on Apollo 11



On July 16, 1969, three men left Earth inside the most powerful rocket ever created. After a four-day journey, 50 years ago today, two of those men set foot on the Moon. In terms of distance, bravery, and impact on our species, Apollo 11 is perhaps the greatest mission to ever have been undertaken. Its effects are still felt today, and will continue to be felt far into the future.


Apollo 11 served as a brief glimpse into what our future may be. It showed us that not only can we travel to space, but we can establish ourselves on other worlds; our future is in space and is driven by science. Apollo 11 inspired millions of scientific minds at the time, and will continue to inspire millions more.

More importantly, it showed us that we can set aside our differences and unite as a species. In the depths of the Cold War, with nuclear annihilation seemingly imminent, the world every so fleetingly united to see the first man to walk on the Moon. From space, borders do not exist; we are one people with the Earth as our nation.

Apollo 11 conveyed a message of hope and excitement to the world. This excitement set in motion an urge to continue exploring, to continue pushing our boundaries beyond Earth. Apollo 11 encouraged many to dream of setting foot on another world, and these dreams will be realized for some. The drive to return to the Moon will soon culminate in missions such as NASA’s Artemis mission, and plans SpaceX has for a Moon base. This time, we are going to the Moon to stay. The drive to continue advancing the frontier has led to monumental innovations and inventions, which will take us not only to the Moon again but beyond. This drive will take us to Mars, and to the outer solar system, and one day to other stars entirely. The Moon landing ignited a flame which will fuel our journeys for years to come.

Neil Armstrong’s small step was our first step as a species outside of our cradle, venturing into another world. This small step was our first step on our way to becoming a spacefaring species. The repercussions of this step will be felt far in the future, and the words accompanying this step will be etched in the memory of humanity for eternity. The first words spoken on the Moon will forever echo on Earth.

The 50th anniversary of the Moon landing allows us to reflect upon our past, and start working for the future. Since the Moon landing, we have made great strides in fields all across STEM, and the world is a better place for it. However, we have also come closer and closer to destroying ourselves and taking the Earth with us through climate change and our inability to stop fighting. Let this day remind us what we are capable of, and what our future can be. There is a bright future for humanity out among the stars, and it is our job to work for it.

Apollo was our first step into the beyond. It will not be our last.