Ripped From the Journals: The Biggest Discoveries of the Week

By Eliza Strickland | October 16, 2009 3:49 pm

Nature-NeuroscienceNature Neuroscience, October
Going to clown college could pay off: A new study found that learning to juggle increases the amount of white matter in the brain. These areas of the brain consist of the axons that stretch away from the neuron cell bodies where computation takes place, and can be thought of as the brain’s wiring system. The researchers studied volunteers’ brains before and after a six week juggling course, and determined that the changes weren’t linked to skill level, because both dexterous and clumsy students showed the same brain changes. It was the process of learning and practicing a new skill that bulked up the brain, researchers declared.

Current Biology, October 13
In Central America and Mexico, entomologists have discovered the first known spider that passes on plump and meaty ants, and instead feasts on leafy greens. The spider maintains the hunting methods of its arachnid relations, the study explains, it just turns them on a different target–it stakes out a position on an Acacia tree, darts past the ants that protect the protein-rich leaf tips, and then makes off with its veggie delight.

JAMAJournal of the American Medical Association, October 14
A collection of studies examined who’s getting the sickest from the swine flu, and how their illnesses progress. The studies found that unlike seasonal flu which causes the most severe symptoms in the young, old, and infirm, the H1N1 swine flu virus is likely to cause serious illness in relatively healthy adolescents and young adults. Almost all of the patients who have gotten critically ill were sick for only a couple of days before they developed serious symptoms like acute respiratory failure that required treatment with breathing machines. The study also looked at mortality rates among those patients who became critically ill, and found that they ranged from 14 percent in Canada to 41 percent in Mexico. The authors stressed that these studies focused on the sickest of the sick, and noted that the overall mortality rate for swine flu is so far about equivalent to that of seasonal flu. Still their take home message was simple: Avoid trouble, and get the vaccine.

Nature 10-15Nature, October 15
Nature was packed with interesting developments this week. In one study, researchers described a new process that will allow them to measure the activity of individual neurons that deal with the understanding of location. Because a mouse running through a real maze would dislodge the delicate monitoring implant, the researchers created a type of treadmill with a fixed metal helmet. To get the mouse moving, they surrounded the treadmill with “a mini-IMAX theater,” on which they projected views of a twisting corridor drawn from the video game Quake. In another biology study, researchers examined how fruit flies decide who to mate with, and got a surprise. The scientists had assumed that some mix of pheromones signaled to potential mates, but instead they found that the total lack of pheromones was the most powerful aphrodiasic. A female that lacked all pheromones attracted males that weren’t even of her species, and a male without pheromones attracted other males. This suggests that pheromones don’t only say come-hither, they also broadcast a keep-away message.

ScienceScience, October 16
The far-out news this week comes from the Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX), a NASA probe that is tasked with mapping the border between our solar system and interstellar space. A new study, one of several that have emerged from a batch of new data, found a narrow “ribbon” of neutral atoms at the edge of the heliosphere, the bubble of space defined by the solar wind that is continuously blasted outward from the sun. The ribbon of atoms was completely unexpected, and researchers don’t yet know how to explain it. It’s possible that the magnetic field produced by the interstellar medium is exerting pressure on the particles, causing them to bunch together just inside the heliosphere.

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