Category: Feature

MRI Brain Scans Show Signs of Consciousness in Some "Vegetative" Patients

By Smriti Rao | February 4, 2010 6:28 pm

brain-3A few months ago, Belgian man Rom Houben hit the headlines for a misdiagnosis that lasted 23 years. Houben was thought to have lost all brain function in a horrific car accident, and was believed to be in a persistent vegetative state. New evaluations helped determine that Houben actually had normal brain activity, and was yearning to communicate–although the “facilitated communication” his family used to allow Houben to tell his story quickly kicked up a kerfuffle over the validity of the whole tale.

Now, a new study published in The New England Journal of Medicine gives credence to the notion that some patients who have been classified as vegetative are actually conscious, and a rare few may be able to communicate.

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan patients’ brains, and to record any activity generated in the patients’ brains following verbal prompts and questions from the doctors. They found signs of awareness in four patients, one of whom was able to answer basic yes or no questions by activating different parts of his brain. Experts said Wednesday that the finding could alter the way some severe head injuries were diagnosed — and could raise troubling ethical questions about whether to consult severely disabled patients on their care [The New York Times].

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MORE ABOUT: brain, coma, neuroscience

Scientist Smackdown: Did a Nuclear Blast on Earth Create the Moon?

By Smriti Rao | February 4, 2010 9:38 am

moonHow on Earth did the moon come into being? If you subscribe to the latest theory, the moon was born out of a nuclear explosion on Earth that sent a chunk of mass flying from the planet’s core into orbit, where it finally became the moon. But cool as that sounds, some killjoy scientists are pooh-poohing the hypothesis, calling it “unnecessary,” “nonsensical,” and “not physically sensible.”

The standard theory of the moon’s origin holds that a giant space object, possibly an asteroid, banged into Earth and sent a large piece of the planet flying into space. That piece eventually became the moon. But the composition of the moon doesn’t seem to support this theory. Researchers say if an asteroid or some such object smashed away part of the Earth, the Moon ought to be composed of about 80 percent of that object’s constituent material and about 20 percent of the Earth’s. But the makeup of moon rock closely mirrors that of the Earth [Popular Science].

An alternate theory, known as the fission theory, suggests that the moon spun out of the rapidly spinning blob of molten rock that would later become Earth [Popular Science]. But no one has been able to explain what caused a huge chunk of earth to spin away and become the moon. Now, researchers Rob de Meijer and Wim van Westrenem have proposed in an online paper that centrifugal forces may have concentrated heavy, radioactive elements like uranium and thorium at the boundary between the Earth’s mantle and its core. Then, they propose, a massive nuclear explosion occurred at the edge of Earth’s core, flinging red-hot, liquid rock into space. The orbiting detritus gradually congealed into what is now our planet’s lone satellite [Discovery News].

Such “georeactors” have existed on Earth before, albeit on a smaller scale than these researchers propose. But de Meijer and van Westrenem have gotten little support for their hypothesis, and plenty of scorn.

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The Fracas Over the "Abstinence Education Works" Study

By Andrew Moseman | February 3, 2010 12:53 pm

sex edThere’s been lots of gloating, arguing, and tossing around of cliches like “game-changing” in the wake of a new study on abstinence education and its potential to reduce sexual activity in teens. But the study isn’t exactly what the political forces trumpeting its arrival would like you to believe.

The study appears in the journal Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. In its introduction, study leader John B. Jemmott III concludes that “Theory-based abstinence-only interventions may have an important role in preventing adolescent sexual involvement.”

So what’s actually in the study? Between 2001 and 2004, Jemmott’s team studied 662 African-American middle schoolers in the northeastern United States, who were each paid $20 a session to attend sex-education classes. The kids were randomly assigned to one of several different programs: One program emphasized only abstinence, one both safe sex and abstinence, one just safe sex, and the last was a control group that simply taught healthy living—eating well, exercise, and the like.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Feature, Health & Medicine

Obama's NASA Budget: So Long, Moon Missions; Hello, Private Spaceflight

By Andrew Moseman | February 1, 2010 11:13 am

Ares-I-X-test-flightThe Obama administration’s new budget may come in at a hulking $3.8 trillion, but one thing it doesn’t include is continued funding for the Constellation program. The program, which was intended to continue the work of the aging space shuttles, will get the ax if Congress approves the President’s plan. This also means that NASA would abandon its goal of returning to the moon by 2020.

Obama’s budget ends work on the shuttle follow-on vehicle, known as Orion, as well as a pair of rockets developed to fly astronauts to the space station, the moon and other destinations in the solar system. “We are proposing canceling the program, not delaying it,” Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget, told reporters [Reuters]. The announcement had been some time in coming: The Augustine panel that Obama convened last year to review human spaceflight concluded that Constellation couldn’t succeed without $3 billion in additional annual  funding, and rumors broke out last week that the President’s budget would kill the program for good.

In place of the Constellation program’s Ares rockets and Orion crew capsule, Obama’s plan calls for funneling money to private companies that are jockeying for NASA contracts. The Washington Post reports that the plan would funnel $6 billion to support private space companies developing a vehicle to ferry astronauts back and forth from the International Space Station. Companies expected to seek the new space taxi business include United Launch Alliance, a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin that launches rockets for theUnited States Air Force, and Space Exploration Technologies, a start-up company led by Elon Musk, who founded PayPal [ The New York Times]. The plan would also extend the life of the space station until 2020.

Commercial Spaceflight Federation president Bretton Alexander was understandably giddy at the prospect of private companies taking center stage. “At a time when job creation is the top priority for our nation, a commercial crew programme will create more jobs per dollar because it leverages millions in private investment and taps the potential of systems that serve both government and private customers,” he said [BBC News].

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Meet the "Puffin," NASA's One-Man Electric Plane

By Smriti Rao | January 20, 2010 6:13 pm

The one-man stealth plane of the future is on the horizon–and it’s named after a conspicuously cute bird. NASA scientists will officially unveil their design for a hover-capable, electric-powered aircraft, nicknamed “the Puffin,” on Wednesday at an American Helicopter Society meeting in San Francisco.

On the ground, the Puffin is designed to stand on its tail, which splits into four legs to help serve as landing gear. As it prepares to take off, flaps on the wings would tilt to deflect air from the 2.3-meter-wide propeller rotors upward, keeping the plane on the ground until it was ready to fly and preventing errant gusts from tipping it over. The Puffin would rise, hover and then lean over to fly horizontally, with the pilot lying prone as if in a [hang] glider [Scientific American].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Feature, Technology
MORE ABOUT: aviation, flight, NASA, Puffin

Generation iPod: Young'Uns Spend 53 Hours a Week Consuming Media

By Smriti Rao | January 20, 2010 5:29 pm

teen-on-computerWhen your kid isn’t in class, he/she is probably listening to an iPod, flipping TV channels, or switching between tabs on their computer, which means they may be juggling between Myspace, Facebook, and YouTube–in other words, kids today are staying hyperconnected and wired through their waking hours. That reality is confirmed by a new study done by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which reveals that if your kids are awake, they’re probably online [The New York Times].

In the third of a series of large-scale national surveys, the Kaiser Foundation study found that kids between the ages of 8-18 years now spend an average of 7 hours, 38 minutes per day using entertainment media. That adds up to more than 53 hours of entertainment consumption in a week. And this does not include the time kids spending texting or talking on their cell phones.

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GM Corn & Organ Failure: Lots of Sensationalism, Few Facts

By Andrew Moseman | January 15, 2010 1:04 pm

cornUPDATE: On Tuesday, Gilles-Eric Séralini responded by email to the criticisms in this post. Mostly, he says, the answers can be found in the study itself. But where he has addressed these criticisms in particular, we have included that below in italics. Séralini stresses that while the data he had available was limited, his findings show that you can’t say these GM corn varieties are safe enough to put on the market and authorize for human consumption right now.

On Wednesday, we covered the overreaction by a few important online sources to an International Journal of Biological Sciences article claiming to find “signs of toxicity” in three varieties of genetically modified (GM) corn produced by Monsanto. We posted some caveats that made us uneasy about the study, such as the funding sources, the unknown quality of the journal, and the fact that the toxicity claims rely on reinterpreting statistical data that Gilles-Eric Séralini and his coauthors themselves note is not as robust as it needs to be.

Karl Haro von Mogel, a University of Wisconsin Ph.D. student who works with Pamela Ronald (the GM expert we quoted in our last post), responded with some other problems he has on this study. He has a blog post of his own (in which he gets hopping mad at coverage that attributed organ damage, organ failure, or even cancer to the rats in the study). But here are the major issues he points out to DISCOVER:

1. Cherry-picking. “They were picking out about 20–30 significant measurements out of about 500 for one of the sets of data they analyzed,” Haro von Mogel tells DISCOVER. “At the 95% significance level, you would expect that 5% of the observations would show a significant difference due to chance alone, which is what happened.” In other words, one would expect to get some alarming results in approximately 25 out of the 500 of the measurements, which is indeed what they found. “Picking apart what seems to be normal background variability seems to me to be data dredging.”

Séralini: We have not  chosen the significant measurements, we have listed all the parameters  disturbed, all indicated by stars (see Tables joines), there are 20 on 60 for  NK603, 15/60 for MON 810 and 23/60 for MON 863 (other paper published in  2007). This is a lot, concentrating mostly on liver and kidneys, the major  organ reacting in case of chemical intoxication by food.

One must understand that there are the only  blood mammalian analyses allowing the commercialization of these GMOs in the  world, these tests lasting only three months and kept secret for the crude  data before our study.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Feature, Living World

Google to China: No More Internet Censorship, or We Leave

By Andrew Moseman | January 13, 2010 10:39 am

googlechinaAre the world’s most popular search engine and the world’s most populous country headed for a breakup? That’s the word reverberating around the Internet today after Google said it would no longer put up with the Chinese government’s demands to censor the Internet and the rampant hacking attempts against it, which could result in the company ending its Chinese operations.

The announcement came as a stunning reversal for Google, which had capitulated to the government’s wishes to gain access to China’s fast-growing population of Internet users. Since arriving in 2006 under an arrangement with the government that purged its Chinese search results of banned topics, Google has come under fire for abetting a system that increasingly restricts what can be read online [The New York Times].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Feature, Technology
MORE ABOUT: China, Google, hackers, internet

400 Years After Galileo Spotted Them, the Moons of Jupiter Are Looking Fly

By Eliza Strickland | January 7, 2010 11:24 am

1-all-moonsOn January 7, 1610, Galileo Galilei pointed his “spyglass” to the heavens and stared up at Jupiter, one of the brightest lights in the evening sky, and noted what he at first assumed to be three bright stars near the planet. But over the following nights, he realized that those three bright bodies weren’t fixed in the heavens like stars, but rather seemed to dance around Jupiter along with a fourth, smaller body.

Galileo triumphantly announced his discovery of four “planets” that revolved around Jupiter in his March treatise, Starry Messenger [pdf]. Thinking of his pocketbook, he dutifully proposed naming them the Medicean Stars in honor of his patron, Cosimo de Medici. But the name didn’t stick, and today we honor the scientist rather than the patron by calling Jupiter’s four largest satellites the Galilean moons.

The discovery dealt a death blow to the Ptolemaic understanding of the universe, in which all planets and stars were believed to orbit the Earth. For, as Galileo wrote in his treatise, “our own eyes show us four stars which wander around Jupiter as does the moon around the earth.”

In the 400 years that have passed since Galileo first laid eyes on them, we’ve learned a great deal about the moons Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto (all named after the mythological paramours of Jupiter). If all goes according to plan we’ll soon get to know them much more intimately–NASA and the European Space Agency are currently planning missions to closely observe three of the moons. Click though this gallery to view NASA’s most stunning photos of the four satellites, and to find out what we’ve discovered in the four centuries since Galileo began the work.

(For more on Galileo’s discovery and what it meant to science, check out this post from DISCOVER’s Phil Plait.)


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Feature, Photo Gallery, Space

Surprise! Study Suggests Cell Phone Use Could Actually Fight Alzheimer's

By Andrew Moseman | January 7, 2010 10:49 am

miceradiationBack and forth go the studies investigating whether cell phone uses increases the risk of brain cancer (the latest one to get major press, released last month, found nothing there). This week, though, new research has grabbed the headlines by declaring that our ubiquitous communication and time-wasting devices could actually provide a health benefit.

In a study set to come out today in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease (and funded in part by the National Institute on Aging), a group led by Gary Arendash argues that the radiation from cell phones that we’ve been worrying about could protect against Alzheimer’s Disease. But it’s far too soon to advise people to start medicating themselves by talking even longer on the phone.

Researchers at the Florida Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center arranged about 70 mouse cages in a circle around a central antenna that emitted electromagnetic waves typical of what would emanate from a phone pressed to a human head. They were exposed to the radiation for two hours a day over seven to nine months. About two dozen other mice served as controls [Los Angeles Times]. Arendash’s team used mice they had genetically engineered to develop the brain buildups and memory problems typical of Alzheimer’s when they got older. The team says that the memory problems of those mice exposed to the radiation began to disappear during the study. Not only that, but normal mice (that hadn’t been genetically engineered) also showed memory improvements after exposure.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Feature, Health & Medicine, Technology

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